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18th Oct 2019

Column

Habsburg lessons for Europe's foreign policy

This week, again, EU heads of state and government must decide to start accession talks with Northern Macedonia and Albania - or not.

Leaders of the EU's main institutions emphasised that the two countries "have done what we asked them to do".

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  • Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.

Last June a decision was postponed because of internal divisions. Some 14 central and eastern European countries pushed for the start of accession talks.

But France and the Netherlands refused, citing a lack of popular support. Will these two concede this time? Will others, who silently supported them in June?

Here we see the classical dynamics of an 'interstitial power' at work: a major power, squeezed between large rivals, constantly being challenged from all sides. The EU is such an interstitial power.

Eastern EU member states are worried about Russia and Turkey destabilising the Balkans. This happened many times before in history. It rarely ended well.

If the EU fails to offer the Balkans political perspective, these member states argue, the whole region would become unstable. This would weaken the EU.

'Far away'

For western EU countries, however, the Balkans are far away. They prefer to focus on the trade war with the US, Brexit, cyber attacks, Russian and Chinese military activities in the Arctic, or other challenges.

In his recent book The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire, the American historian A. Wess Mitchell writes that most interstitial powers in history didn't last long.

The main problem facing them was time: they were surrounded by enemies, but unable to fight them all at once. With the postwar Western alliance in trouble, the EU finds itself in a similar situation.

Brussels could take some lessons from the old Habsburgs.

The Habsburg Empire survived for centuries. In the glory days it stretched all the way from Spain and the Netherlands to Croatia and Galicia, in Ukraine.

Emperor Joseph I once complained: "[My allies] know how divided my military power is, scattered about every corner of Europe… how I stand in Hungary and Transylvania, how difficult it would be for me to raise a force to protect myself should a threat suddenly come from Sweden, which still must be reckoned with, how weak I am… in the Reich where as head I should certainly be the strongest."

Mitchell doesn't mention any parallels with the European Union. But they are obvious, and jump from every page.

How was it possible that a large, divided and complex state comprising German-speakers, Hungarians, Slavs, Italians and others, plagued by financial difficulties, managed to stay intact for so long while being challenged by rivals on all sides?

The answer is that the Habsburgs learned to make do with the limited tools at their disposal. "They played a 'long game' in geopolitics," Mitchell writes, "corralling friend and foe alike into voluntarily managing the empire's lengthy frontiers and extending a benign hegemony across the turbulent lands of middle Europe."

The Habsburgs' main goal was to gain time. Delaying conflicts, possibly avoiding them, was their main strategy. The Imperial army was weak. The emperor spent lots of money to keep all ethnic and language groups happy. But the army was underfunded, and the Habsburg territory was vast. Conflict avoidance was vital. "Muddling through" became a policy. Sounds familiar?

Apart from being small the Habsburg army was also defensive. Prussia, Russia, Turkey and France were often trying to play Habsburg groups against each other.

In response the emperor formed alliances with nations, large and small, beyond the borders. These allies formed a buffer zone.

If a conflict broke out, it was often fought in a buffer zone. This enabled the Emperor to keep his territory intact, avoiding social unrest or loyalty issues at home.

A key foreign policy goal for the Habsburgs was to invest in diplomacy and neighbouring relations. They also tried to be on good terms with several major powers, whom they could call on for help. This was an important security policy: most powers had stronger armies than the Habsburgs. As a result, the Empire lost many battles, but it rarely lost a war.

According to Mitchell, it all went downhill because Franz Joseph I (emperor from 1848 to 1916) abandoned this strategy in the mid-nineteenth century. He expanded the army, which became more assertive under his reign. He quarrelled with major powers. He neglected some allies in the 'buffer zone', giving them a pretext for disloyalty.

Parallels from history

The EU is facing similar challenges.

Like the Habsburgs, it must work out ways to navigate an increasingly messy geopolitical map and stand firm without the advantage of military predominance.

One lesson is to invest more in European diplomacy.

Another is to prevent Europe's buffer zone from becoming a fraying edge. North Macedonia and Albania need European perspective, so outside powers cannot use them to destabilise the EU.

The Balkans and the eastern EU borders will be "the main priorities of our foreign policy," incoming EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said during his hearing in the European Parliament.

This is the right choice. It was, after all, careless manoeuvring in the Balkans that proved fatal for the Habsburg Empire.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This article has been adapted from one of her columns in NRC.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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