A Divided Europe in a Divided World

The solution of the European problems has been well known for some time. It requires the creation of a full federal union a least of the eurozone, with the establishment of an elected presidency, a joint parliament responsible for a common debt, and a single army.

Seventy years ago, in 1944, the destruction of the European Centre was entering its final stage. It had begun with the lurch towards extreme nationalist politics in Germany under Adolf Hitler. It continued with the waging of aggressive war by the Nazis, and then their genocide against the Jews, which wiped out one of the populations, which had held central Europe together for hundreds of years. In 1944, the allied landings in Normandy on D-Day and the collapse of Army Group Centre in the east under the Soviet onslaught, heralded end of German military power. The subsequent expulsion of the Germans of Pomerania, East Prussia, Silesia and the Sudetenland, most of whom had lived there for generations, removed another element which, for good or ill, had welded the region together. Into this vacuum moved, benevolently, western democracy under Anglo-American tutelage, and—in the east—the malevolent force of Soviet communism. Even if the path to the division of Germany, and Europe more generally, was a twisted one, it was certainly completed by the construction of the Berlin Wall, which symbolized a divided city, within a divided Germany, with a divided Europe in a divided world.

The inhabitants of central and Eastern Europe, who experienced forty years or so of foreign domination and domestic repression drew decidedly the shorter straw. In 1989, with the fall of the wall and the rapid dissolution of the Soviet Empire, they and Europe generally, had the chance for fresh start. Yet there were some who wanted to keep Europe divided. The French President, François Mitterand, for example, played a murky game trying to keep the disintegrating German Democratic Republic alive. The British Minister Margaret Thatcher famously warned against German unification as well. There were also voices opposed to the enlargement of NATO, which senior figures in the western national security establishments feared would antagonize the Russians unnecessarily. Fortunately, the US administrations of the George H. Bush and Bill Clinton did not listen to them. The former steered the re-unification of Germany with remarkable aplomb, while the latter embraced the “democratic enlargement” of the continent. This chimed with the aspirations of most European leaders to both deepen and broaden the European Union, not least in order to contain the potential revival of German power.

The result was the famous “double-enlargement.” In 1999, NATO was expanded to include Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Five years later, in 2004, they were joined by Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. That same year, the European Union was enlarged by the accession of Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the Baltic states. Taken together, these two steps proved to be immensely beneficial for both eastern and western Europe. NATO, fresh from dealing with the Balkans, brought security to a region, which had been ploughed over by rival forces for longer than anyone could remember. Membership of the European Union raised living standards and political standards; in many cases, the application process itself led to improvements as states sought to show themselves worthy of joining. The European centre, contested for hundreds of years, and latterly the instigator and victim of almost unimaginable violence, had been reconstructed in the best possible way. It looked as if the gradual model of European unification was working.

Today, on the fifteenth and tenth anniversaries of the “double enlargement,” there are unfortunately grounds for grave concern. The process of European integration, so apparently unstoppable, has been challenged, perhaps terminally, by the European currency and debt crisis. Across much of the continent, electorates groan under austerity programs and feel disenfranchised, with varying degrees of justification, by German-controlled EU crisis management. All this makes further eastward expansion less likely, and certainly less affordable, through no fault of the regions concerned. The spirit of openness, which marked the initial borderless travel has evaporated as populations inveigh against “Polish plumbers” or Bulgarian and Romanian “benefit cheats.”

Most seriously of all, however, neither NATO nor the European Union has a grip on the situation on its eastern border. Brussels is talking the talk today over Ukraine—and rhetoric is important—but this cannot disguise the setbacks of the past six years or so. Thanks to French and German objections, the process of NATO enlargement into Ukraine and the Caucasus was allowed to peter out, and the Russian invasion of Georgia elicited little more than a slap on the wrists. Recently, the Ukrainian government, under Russian pressure, or at least under the influence of Russian inducements, threw the process of EU accession into reverse. In the past month or so, the struggle for the soul of that critical land has been on, without the EU showing any signs of intervening effectively. As for nearby Belarus, where an even worse pro-Russian regime still holds sway, the prospect of EU influence, much less the accession, is remote.

This is not really a problem of diagnosis. After sleeping on the job throughout the last decade, most European leaders have finally woken up to the importance of the eastern borderlands, and to the nature of the Putin regime. What is holding Europe back in the east is the fact that it does not speak with the weight that its collective population, economic power and military potential might imply. Mr. Putin and his Ukrainian friends know that unlike Mr. Obama, who could do something about Ukraine but won’t, the European Union fragments when faced with the prospect of applying hard power. It happened in the 1990s over Bosnia, in 2008 over Georgia, in 2011 over Libya and it is happening again in 2014 over Ukraine. Unlike the American Union, and despite the many attempts at a common foreign and security policy, when it comes down to it, there are so many European policies and so many European armies, as to make coordinated action impossible, and indeed to encourage the formation of coalitions within the Union. This is dictated not only by varying traditions, but also by geography. Spain, for example, is preoccupied by North Africa, and has little interest in the east. Germany for its part is surrounded only by friendly powers, and is in any case still culturally conditioned against the application or even threat of force. Imagine US foreign policy, if Mr. Obama had to persuade the New Englanders that Mexico mattered, or the Californians that Europe was important!

The solution has been well known for some time. It requires the creation of a full federal union a least of the eurozone, with the establishment of an elected presidency, a joint parliament responsible for a common debt, and a single army. This model was pioneered by the English and Scots in 1707, and perfected by the Americans after their constitutional convention of 1787–1788. It will enable the Union to focus, as Washington does today, on all the points on the horizon, of which the east is today the most pressing. It will also force Mr. Putin to back off and to allow the Ukrainians to choose their own destiny. More generally, full democratic political union will solve the euro currency and debt crisis, and finally embed Germany within common structures without depriving either the Germans or any other eurozone population of their right to participate in their own governance. An American style “House of Citizens”elected by head of population and a Senate representing the constituent states would reconcile the tensions between the smaller and larger elements while staying true to democratic principles.

Hitherto, the general assumption has been that European political union, whether it be of Anglo-American stripe or follows some other model, will be agreed by the national governments, as part of a gradual process of convergence. That is not an unreasonable belief, because these administrations are all democratically elected, and providing they secured the ratification of a new constitution by popular referendum, they would be in the best position to bring forward “the project.” The trouble is that despite promising noises, national leaders have so far shown no signs of pushing forward with full political union. There are many reasons for this, from the skepticism of the electorates, the preoccupation with the immediate crises to a fear of the redundancy of national elites within a new truly federal Europe.

This is a great shame, not only because Union is now more necessary than ever, but because European electorates (outside Britain and one or two other countries) are much more readier now to take the plunge than they have ever been. Voters in the “periphery” show no signs at all of wanting to return to the old ‘nationalist’ politics they abandoned for Europe all those years ago.

What they lack is a credible vision for a Europe in which their voices will count. The same is true for most of the central and eastern European brought in by enlargement, with the possible exception of the Czechs. There is a general willingness among the newcomers to exchange an increasingly illusionary sovereignty for a stake in a mighty union. It is striking for example, that Poland, long a stalwart of NATO, now looks to closer European integration to provide the weight it lacks against a resurgent Russia.

The problem today is not, therefore, that we lack the constituency for closer political union. That exists, and it is possible that through persuasion and the force of events, it may gain a majority in enough of the eurozone, or aspirant eurozone. The difficulty is rather, that we do not have the necessary organizational structures for the electoral expression of political Unionism. To be sure we have no shortage of European fora, societies, foundations, groups, councils and other bodies; we have too many of them, in fact, with the result that the momentum for union is dissipated and fragmented. There is, however, no existing organization dedicated to promoting a specific and viable form of political unity.

This is the vacuum which the Project for Democratic Union, established early last year by the author and a group of likeminded students, seeks to fill. It is a “start-up” think-tank, with a presence in Munich, London and Budapest, and other European cities to follow. The PDU does not offer “inside baseball” on which coalition is currently in the ascendant in Brussels. Nor does it simply add its voice to the amorphous clamor for “more“ Europe in response to the crisis. Instead, the PDU recommends the tried and trusted Anglo-American constitutional model for Europe as outlined above. Aware that the elites are unable and perhaps unwilling to implement full democratic political union, the organization seeks to work from the bottom-up to make the case. Already a great deal of progress has been made, and the response especially in central and Eastern Europe, has been very positive. The PDU is aware that the road will be a long and hard one, accompanied by the derision and hostility of the opposed and the skepticism even of the otherwise sympathetic. What sustains it is the belief that Europe is on course for either a long stagnation or a catastrophic collapse. When that happens, the established forces will be disoriented, and the danger of re-nationalization by default will be acute. Then we will be the only ones with a plan, and a cadre of committed men and women, mainly young but not exclusively so, who will be ready to act when the time comes.

The project of widening and deepening Europe, one of whose key anniversaries we celebrate this year, requires that we link geographical expansion to the restoration of democratic participation at the centre. This should enable all Europeans to ‘own’ the political process, to get grips with the common debt, and to develop a true ‘European interest’ based on the defense of democratic values at home and abroad. At the top of that agenda should be a more robust engagement with the Ukrainian crisis, with the whole weight of the continent behind it. Only then, will we have a Europe which is not united merely, but free also.

Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms is a Professor of the History of European International Relations at the University of Cambridge and President of the Project for Democratic Union, which advocates a full political union of the eurozone on Anglo-American constitutional principles. His research focuses on the history of European foreign policy. He has written a variety of books and articles on this subject.

Author of “Europe: The struggle for supremacy, 1453 to the present day” (Penguin Press, 2013) and “The longest afternoon: The 400 men who decided the battle of Waterloo” (Penguin Press, 2014), which is about the King’s German Legion as prototype for a future European army.

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Current issue - 01/2020

Heart of Europe on the Periphery

Illiberal backsliding is getting stronger in Visegrad countries recently. Central Europe suffers from a complex of inferiority, they say. Is it a legitimate feeling? Discover the heart of Europe and its pounding chambers on the periphery.

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