By Swapan Dasgupta
For me, one of the more astonishing moments of the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum last week was an exposition of the trans-Atlantic relationship by Poland’s President’s Bronislaw Komorowski. Speaking to an audience that was drawn mainly from the European Union countries and the United States, the Polish leader said he looked forward to the continental drift that would lead to Europe and the Americas becoming one land mass. However, rather than wait a millennium or two before the Atlantic gap disappears, he urged that the EU and US pre-empt geographical evolution and become one in his lifetime.
Nor was President Komorowski the only European leader to dream extravagantly. In her speech to the Brussels Forum, Germany’s Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen emphasised that the EU must have a big goals and march purposefully in that direction. For her, a worthwhile goal for the moment was the creation of a unified European army. Although she did not stretch the point, the logic of the proposal was only too apparent: to put an end to all residual nationalisms and, more important, posit Europe as a coherent power centre that would bolster the trans-Atlantic alliance.
Both the Polish President and the German Defence Minister were no doubt thinking big but they were also addressing their own national predicament. Poland, forever the frontier state that has moved traumatically in the past two centuries between fragile existence and obliteration from the map, the guarantee of national independence necessarily involved compromising sovereignty to ensure survival. This was the logic of its Warsaw Pact membership when it looked east to defend itself from the west; and it was the basis of its membership of NATO and EU when its protective cover derives from the west against a Russia that has dismantled the Soviet economic structures but left Stalin’s geopolitics broadly undisturbed.
Germany’s problems are less centred on security than on the vexed question of channelling national ambitions. The country’s economic dynamism and the depth of its creative talent were never in doubt but these were offset by an aggressive nationalism that inevitably invited a gang-up of forces against German hegemonic impulses. Since 1945, and particularly after re-unification, Germany has steadily come to assume the role of Europe’s dynamic epicentre. Whether it likes it or not, the future of the European project is perceived to be with Germany. Yet, because of its pre-1945 experiences, Berlin has been loath to assume a clear leadership role within the EU, preferring to keep its role deliberately understated. This, however, has not prevented the periodic eruption of anti-German sentiment in different parts of Europe, as is happening in Greece today. Guilt-tripping Germany, as many of Europe’s populist politicians have found, is potentially rewarding.
Such a situation cannot last indefinitely and certainly not in a situation where the quality of Washington’s global involvement is a source of concern in the capital cities of Europe. Throughout the Brussels summit, there was an attempt to show that the image of an US as a weakened force was horribly wrong. This was coupled by a parallel endeavour to argue that NATO’s response to the Russian challenge in Crimea and Ukraine has not been confused and dilatory. Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO, was clear in his mind that Russia had violated the post-Cold War consensus and forced NATO into the path of “adaptation” that would include confronting “hybrid warfare” (a phenomenon we in India call ‘proxy war’) and responding with a greater sense of urgency.
Yet, serious doubts linger. It is interesting that the Brussels Summit spent relatively little time debating the grave implications of the rise of political parties that seek to unravel the European project. The United Kingdom Independence Party, which seeks a referendum on the UK’s membership of EU, is expected to secure nearly 15 per cent of the popular vote in the May general election. In France, the National Front led by Marine Le Pen secured nearly 25 per cent of the vote in last Sunday’s local polls and is expected to outpoll the Socialist Party in the presidential election. In addition, Greece has put a big question over the fiscal integrity of the Eurozone with its determination to not accept a sharp reduction in government expenditure. Taken together, they suggest that the cohesiveness of Europe is still work in progress. A few decades of free trade and the free movement of peoples cannot entirely overcome centuries of national distinctiveness.
Yet, there is a lofty self-image of the EU that centres on common ‘values’ that have liberty, democracy, human rights and free trade at its core. To these have been added—courtesy the ambitions of President Vladimir Putin—the inviolability of national borders and the peaceful resolution of disputes. In the early years, these values were posited against the ‘evil empire’ in the East but following the end of the Cold War and the emergence of a pan-European cosmopolitanism, particularly among the young, the European ideal became enmeshed in bureaucratisation and a fierce sense of laid back entitlement. The missionary zeal that had marked the pioneers of the Common Market lost its sting. Membership of EU was an inescapable feature of life, as perhaps was the trans-Atlantic security umbrella, but it was viewed as the preoccupation of overpaid Eurocrats in Brussels.
That Putin has restored an extra dose of energy in the EU states and among NATO members is obvious. To put it bluntly, Russia is once again seen as a major threat. The debate is now over ranking in the hierarchy of dangers: does Russia rank above or below the parallel threat being posed by Islamist radicalism? The debate is still inconclusive, not least because Mosul is further away than Kiev, but, in the process, the biggest gainer is China.
In the Brussels summit, China invariably lurked as a shadow in all discussions, sometimes as China and more often than not as the central figure in Asia. The honeymoon with Japan that had been a feature of European deliberations on another world seems well and truly over. And India pops in and out of the consciousness, more as an add-on to China.
What makes the EU perception of China particularly interesting is that that its intentions aren’t suspect. There may be a Great Game being played out in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea and it is understood that China is deftly redrawing the power architecture of the world. However, this is viewed as an entirely legitimate extension of its growing economic clout. It is also an area where there is a discernible difference between how the US and Europe thinks. The untroubled ease with which EU member-states disobeyed the US on membership of the China-promoted Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is a clear indication that commonality of ‘values’ doesn’t always take precedence over cold material interests. It could be a precursor to European acquiescence in China’s march to translate economic might into political clout.
For India, the lessons are clear: its importance to the unsure trans-Atlantic community will depend quite substantially on its ability to build its own capacities. Maybe there is a lesson from Europe for India. Germany is slowly re-establishing its political power on the strength of its ability to build a non-threatening partnership with smaller European states. Individually, German leadership rekindles memories of a troubled past. But as the nucleus of a cluster bound together by a economic agenda and a common fear, it can even propose a common European army. India could profit from using its domestic expertise in alliance-building in foreign policy.
The Telegraph, March 27, 2015