Friday

1st Jul 2022

Opinion

Europe's empty fortress

  • The castle in Frydlant, the Czech Republic, believed to have been the inspiration for Franz Kafka's novel (Photo: Florin Draghici)

The first ideal image of a society was a fortress.

The Babylonian story of Gilgamesh praises cities for their sturdy walls. The Old Testament idealises societies with walls of bronze.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Paradise on the inside, walls on the outside, and a failed cosmos around: the appeal of isolationism has been present across the world and throughout history.

It particularly characterises societies on the decline. But here is another lesson from history: walls and isolationism do not work, at least not for long.

Walls and other barriers they try to fix a political situation that cannot be fixed.

A first consequence of a society that seeks to retreat behind walls, is that it vacates more of its neighbourhood to the negative influences it is afraid of.

It creates a power vacuum so that security threats advance right up to the walls and gates of the decaying society.

As long as the walls are manned by soldiers or challengers bought off to remain quiet, the city goes on to consume its prosperity. What's more, the walls and the soldiers create a false sense of security, immunity even.

While citizens think the world around insecure, or evil, they assume they can hide from it. The more they assume to be safe behind walls or borders, the less they are interested in investing in their defence, and consume their wealth in more pleasant ways.

This is what the ancient Greek poet Kallinos meant with "lazing in shabby peace", Roman historian Sallust with "Fortune turned savage", or the Chinese historian Liang Qichao with a nation "drugged" by the enjoyment of a false peace.

The fortress becomes empty. The walls still stand tall, but inside the society grows mellow. "Decadent", is the word most commonly used in historical works. In the end, the walls are overrun.

The Western world has reasons to be worried, Europe in particular.

There are countless examples of vicious cocktails of climatic change, mass migration, and growing hostility upending prosperous societies. One only has to look south towards the Middle East, Northern Africa, the Sahel.

I would not exclude, in the long run, this combination of poverty, disillusionment, and environmental stress to turn more desperate and violent.

Just consider what risks refugees already take to cross the seas.

Our response today is quite similar to how Ammianus Marcellinus described Rome's apathy towards the refugees of that time, the Goths.

Walls don't work

The tendency to hide behind the Mediterranean Sea and to build fences along the outer border imperils the security of the next generations of Europeans.

But it is too easy only to criticise the rightists and their fixation with barbed wire, Trump for his wall on the border with Mexico, Orban for his xenophobia.

The moderate politicians who have run European politics for decades have failed to implement an effective neighbourhood policy. And it is growing worse.

Europe pays billions to authoritarian leaders to keep refugees and terrorists away, but investment in jobs, entrepreneurship, and education neighbouring countries is stagnant.

Sometimes, we heard them promise a Marshall Plan, other times a strategic partnership. But these were slogans.

The moderate politicians, those who criticise the right for being protectionist, they might not like walls, but they themselves create smokescreens that are as harmful.

They hardly know what to do in response to the Syrian conundrum, the foreign fighters that are still there, to Libya's anarchy, the forces of anger and desperation that build up in Egypt, or the destabilisation of the Sahel.

At best, they send some special forces, supporting the French who are completely overstretched. These are fig leaf operations. A genuine strategy that combines security, with economics and politics remains absent.

History holds sobering lessons for Europe. Retreat is self-defeating.

What Europe now needs, is the leadership that explains citizens that we must continue to reach out, to expand European influence, to hold on to core values, through more equitable trade, investment, synergy with moderate forces, and entrepreneurs.

It needs to reconnect hard, economic, and soft power. Europe must rebuild a sphere of influence, not a sphere of exclusion, but an area in which it offers a convincing alternative to extremism and authoritarianism.

Either you help shape the future of your environment, or the environment shapes your future: that too is a recurrent them in the turbulent history of world politics.

Author bio

Jonathan Holslag is a professor of international politics at the Free University of Brussels and author of Peace and War.

Disclaimer

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

Fixing Europe's rhetoric

It is telling how often faraway dates feature in Europe's more successful projects: it creates momentum and focus for those that want to move forward. It also creates a sense of inevitability for those that need to move forward.

Nato's Madrid summit — key takeaways

For the most part Nato and its 30 leaders rose to the occasion — but it wasn't without room for improvement. The lesson remains that Nato still doesn't know how or want to hold allies accountable for disruptive behaviour.

Column

One rubicon after another

We realise that we are living in one of those key moments in history, with events unfolding exactly the way Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt describes them: a sudden crisis, rushing everything into overdrive.

Expect Czech EU presidency to downgrade V4 priorities

The Czech Republic is already in the throes of an extremely difficult period — several waves of Covid, high inflation, energy fears, an influx of Ukrainian refugees and a Prague corruption scandal. Now it has the EU presidency.

News in Brief

  1. EU Parliament 'photographs protesting interpreters'
  2. Poland still failing to meet EU judicial criteria
  3. Report: Polish president fishing for UN job
  4. Auditors raise alarm on EU Commission use of consultants
  5. Kaliningrad talks needed with Russia, says Polish PM
  6. Report: EU to curb state-backed foreign takeovers
  7. EU announces trade deal with New Zealand
  8. Russia threatens Norway over goods transit

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers write to EU about new food labelling
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersEmerging journalists from the Nordics and Canada report the facts of the climate crisis
  4. Council of the EUEU: new rules on corporate sustainability reporting
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers for culture: Protect Ukraine’s cultural heritage!
  6. Reuters InstituteDigital News Report 2022

Latest News

  1. Nato's Madrid summit — key takeaways
  2. Czech presidency to fortify EU embrace of Ukraine
  3. Covid-profiting super rich should fight hunger, says UN food chief
  4. EU pollution and cancer — it doesn't have to be this way
  5. Israel smeared Palestinian activists, EU admits
  6. MEPs boycott awards over controversial sponsorship
  7. If Russia collapses — which states will break away?
  8. EU Parliament interpreters stage strike

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us