Monday

1st Jun 2020

Column

Europe as a crush zone

In his book Geography and World Power, published in 1917, the British geographer and educator James Fairgrieve described parts of central and eastern Europe as a "crush zone".

The area was a buffer between two powerful states, Germany and Russia. When quarrels between those two erupted, Fairgrieve wrote, they often fought it out in the crush zone.

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  • On the world stage Europe – that is, the EU and its satellites - is becoming a crush zone

Today, this powerful image can help us to understand the situation Europe increasingly finds itself in. On the world stage Europe – that is, the EU and its satellites - is becoming a crush zone.

In the 19th century, European powers dominated the world. In the 20th, the United States became the dominant power. The 21st century is a multipolar world, with several centres of power.

The most important are the US, China and Europe. But there are also smaller, regional players, taking advantage of the fact that there is no longer a global policeman around: Russia, Turkey and Iran.

In this multipolar world everyone is connected to everyone. After a long phase of globalisation, countries have become highly-interdependent.

No one can afford to ignore this connectivity: no country can do without international financial flows or energy supply. This is what rivalry between the US and China, and also the rivalries between smaller powers, are focused on.

They use existing connections to one's advantage while trying to sabotage them for one's rivals.

This is a highly-sophisticated game: it has to be played in the system. It is fought on 'home ground', as it were: countries and non-state entities try to inflict damage on others within the same global system of which they themselves depend. No one, as the United Kingdom discovers now, can be sovereign on their own.

The US and China play this game really hard. Their power games permeate the entire international system.

Using the power of the dollar as a weapon, for instance, the US prevents Chinese and European companies from doing perfectly legal business with Iran.

And while the coronavirus outbreak in China is harmful for the country, in a way it also empowers China: by intensely cooperating with the World Health Organization in Geneva, Beijing also positions itself as the key to the eradication of the virus all over the world.

During previous outbreaks the world depended on American laboratories. Now, Chinese labs are taking the lead. With the US abandoning the multilateral system, China uses the Coronavirus catastrophe by trying to increase its influence in the system.

Russia manipulates public opinion abroad with lies and spin. It hacks ministries in foreign capitals and paralyses international law with absurd interpretations of existing multilateral agreements.

Others play stunts with aggressive tax rates, spy on foreign companies, or put politicians and journalists abroad on the payroll. Even refugees are deployed as a weapon nowadays.

When Turkey wants concessions from the EU, it uses the mere threat of opening the floodgates as leverage. African countries won't take back illegal migrants unless pecuniary and other demands are met. The trick is to weaken others from the inside, without harming yourself. And to make others more dependent of you while reducing your own dependency of them.

The countries mentioned above play this game extremely well.

When the soft get squeezed

Europe, however, is a bad player by definition. We are a soft, regulatory power, after all: the EU was set up as a peace project. It is about the rule of law, not about undermining it.

As a product of two world wars the EU was meant to manage internal conflicts, not to do foreign policy or even land grabbing. The idea was not to do harm, but to do good.

This is why the US, China, Russia or Turkey conduct modern 'connectivity wars' much more ferociously than we do. This is why Europe, to return to Fairgrieve's terminology, is fast becoming the crush zone in which other powers clash.

How is Europe to respond, when everyone bullies us and tries to force us to take sides?

As always, people readily predict Europe will not be able to withstand this, and will disintegrate. They could be right. European countries, after all, have different interests. What's good for one, can be bad for another.

Almost daily we are reminded of the fact that there is no single European policy on Huawei and 5G, on Russia, or on refugees. In Libya, two EU member states are even backing opposing military factions.

The EU, however, has been declared dead many times in recent years. Yet it has survived many crises, for one simple reason: European governments, who take decisions in Brussels, wanted to survive them.

They could have chosen not to, but each time they did - during the banking crisis, for example, during the euro crisis and even during the refugee crisis, when they decided to clinch the refugee deal with Turkey.

After the Brexit referendum in 2016 analysts predicted more exits would follow soon. The opposite has happened. Euro and EU approval rates have increased. Most eurosceptic populists no longer preach exits, but have stepped on the European political podium instead with promises of reform.

In his book Connectivity, which explores the hybrid conflicts we see nowadays, political analyst Parag Khanna argued that manoeuvring these conflicts requires a great deal of caution of Europe's leaders.

When everything is connected to everything but you don't 'do' disruption, keeping the balance becomes of utmost importance.

Today, tactics are needed that actually suit Europe - operating cautiously, taking small steps, playing for time, avoiding brusque decisions, and using smart diplomacy to keep as many channels open as possible. In short, Europe must muddle through.

That looks an awful lot like what we've been doing all these years, doesn't it?

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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