After weeks of quarantine, normalcy is returning to Europe. COVID-19 has hit hard. Lives have been lost, businesses closed, and savings vanished. Many Europeans will carry familial and financial pains for years. However, the heaviest blow was delivered to the European psyche.
In 1914, Europe’s capabilities seemed endless. This was a Europe of empires; rich, expansive, and assured in its role as world leader. Three decades and two World Wars later, its capabilities were in tatters.
1945 marked the return of nation-states who had won, and then lost, their independence in the inter-war years. They were small and weak, so integration was pursued as a means of survival. The European Coal & Steel Community in 1951 was the first step towards an economic block finally realized in 1992 with the creation of the European Union.
The E.U. helped stabilize the continent after the fall of the Soviet Union. It promised peace and prosperity to anyone who joined. It spread south and east, welcoming members of the old Warsaw Pact. Investment poured in, factories and infrastructure were built, and trade boomed. Goods, finance, and people were on the move but. Ironically, the success of integration would sow the seeds of its own possible demise.
Emboldened by economic triumphs, some Europeans spoke of political and financial union. The Eurozone was created, and nations began ceding autonomy to Brussels. Concerns about the compatibility of north and south were hushed. If the Europe of nation-states was to succeed, integration had to continue.
However, this created a contradiction at the heart of the E.U. Nation-states needed the E.U. to maintain economic growth and stability. The E.U. wanted nations to surrender more power to Brussels. Members saw the union as a tool to preserve their interests but the E.U. viewed those interests as obstacles on the road to a new European future.
Ceding power to Brussels was easier when GDP and living standards were rising, but the E.U. failed to articulate its end game. It spoke of a common European identity and purpose, but never explained what they were. This vagueness made it possible for nations to smile, nod, and applaud the E.U. vision while simultaneously pursuing their own interests.
Then the economic crash of 2008 began the E.U.’s decline. The crisis revealed the risks of a monetary union that bound north and south. The 2015 refugee crisis showed there is no common values system when nations received migrants with starkly different attitudes. The Coronavirus shows that in a crisis national interests’ direct behaviour.
An E.U. collapse would put Europe in an uncomfortable position. It would signal a return to independent nation-states forced to cooperate and compete with each other as some nations are too weak to chart their own path. They’ll be forced to choose sides or risk being left behind. This may sound familiar – we’ve been here before.
Europe’s first experiment as a patchwork of independent nations was in the inter-war years. As the Germans and Soviets amassed strength, their neighbours looked on anxiously. Unable to stand alone, they had a choice: ally with the new totalitarian states, or the British and French democracies. The result was a disaster that inspired the push for integration after 1945.
The decline of the E.U. does not mean a repeat of the 20thC but does imply a return to competition. Nations will vie for markets, resources, technological development, and labour. As in the 20s and 30s, those who cannot go it alone will face difficult choices. The departure of integration will see the return of history to Europe. For many, it will be an unwelcome reunion.
On a recent podcast, two geopolitical thinkers discussed the post-COVID 19 world. One was American, the other Polish. The American spoke with tremendous confidence and faith in his land’s recuperative powers. His demeanour ran in stark contrast with his peer, who was anxious and pessimistic about Poland’s future.
The American suggested Poland should hold no fear because nothing could be worse than the horrors it experienced in the 20thC. He overlooked that Poland’s last experience of true independence, like many European nations, ended in Nazi then Soviet occupation. The memories of choices made, and the consequences they brought, are part of their histories. A return to a Europe of competing nation-states also means the return to Europe of history.
As the E.U. wanes, the strategic landscape shifts and Europe is no longer the centre of the world. It has fallen behind militarily, and technologically just as great power competition intensifies. These realizations have created a crisis of confidence and paralysis when dynamism and zeal are needed.
The Polish speaker’s demeanour reflects the anxieties of many Europeans. His tone conveyed fear for his country in the new, old Europe, and for his continent on the international stage. Europe is at a crossroads and is falling behind. If it’s unable to recover its energy and self-belief, it risks becoming the world’s museum: a collection of beautiful displays of relics of the past ill-suited to the demands of the present and future.
Rob Burger is a Canadian working in Ukraine.