27th Mar 2023


One rubicon after another

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"Developments in the world suddenly gain a terrible momentum; developments that would otherwise take centuries seem to flash by like fleeting phantoms within months and weeks and then be completed."

These lines could have been written yesterday, or last week, about Russia's war against Ukraine and the rapid geopolitical changes this has unleashed.

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  • World War One had been in the making for years before the first shot was fired. That war, in turn, acted as a catalyst: afterwards, nothing was the same

In fact, it was the 19th century Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt, a professor at the University of Basel, who noted this in Reflections on History, first published in German in 1905.

Reading Burckardt, we realise that we are living in one of those key moments in history, with events unfolding exactly the way he describes them: a sudden crisis — the invasion of Ukraine — that brings a range of political, societal and cultural undercurrents to the surface, which reinforce each other, rushing everything into overdrive.

During the first Crusade masses of people started marching, in different places, simultaneously. The Boer War began when hundreds of farmers, far apart, had the same impulse. World War One (which Burckhardt did not live to see) had been in the making for years before the first shot was fired. That war, in turn, acted as a catalyst: afterwards, nothing was the same.

"When the time and content are right," Burckhardt (1818-1897) wrote, "people infect each other with electrical speed over distances of hundreds of kilometres, spread out over diverse populations that hardly know each other. The message spreads through the air, and when it comes to the one crucial point, on impact all suddenly understand each other, implicitly agreeing 'something must change'."

This is, on many levels, what is happening today.

With many things shifting, large powers make their geopolitical moves. Will there be a global divide — or a new 'cold war' — between democracies and authoritarian systems? Will China manage to play the US, Russia and Europe against each other, weakening them so China can prevail as the new global power of reference?

The war in Ukraine has driven Europeans and Americans back into each other's arms — but for how long? No one can answer these questions. We do know, however, that a new world order is in the making, shaped by decisions taken today. Wisdom, luck, coincidence and mistakes will all have huge impact.

The 24th February was Europe's wake-up call. Since then, one feels electro-shocks à la Burckhardt all over the continent.

Former World Trade Organization chief Pascal Lamy said we are "crossing one Rubicon after another towards European power". Whether he is right remains to be seen.

After a promising start, with the 27 member states introducing the strongest EU sanctions ever, the first cracks in European unity are appearing precisely because those sanctions start biting at home. This was to be expected: the more radical the decision, the more countries will be hesitant.

Nevertheless, it is fascinating to watch how almost everything currently happening in Europe is suddenly driven by the war. Defence expenditure is skyrocketing — even Germany doubled its defence budget and sends heavy weaponry to Ukraine.

Nato regained its geo-strategic leadership of Europe, boosting its forces on high readiness to over 300,000, as if the pivot to Asia and years of transatlantic strife never happened.

Sweden and Finland applied for Nato membership; Denmark began participating in EU defence.

Defence experts, however, warn that America cannot fight two wars at once and that Europe must take responsibility for its own defence. Since a 'European army' remains out of the question — even Nato is a collection of national armies — Europe must invest in its own defence industry.

Joint procurement of equipment will be vital: national defence systems should finally be able to assist and complement each other. National governments must boost their own funding and the efficiency of their capabilities.

The re-militarisation of Europe is one example of events accelerating. Poland's political emancipation is another.

The country, which refused to help Syrian refugees in 2015, now welcomes millions of Ukrainians. Its sudden centrality in the war effort puts the steady erosion of its political power in Brussels into reverse.

It was Poland's idea to offer Ukraine EU candidate status. Warsaw, which had boxed itself in a corner with serious rule of law violations in recent years, now tries to seize the moment to make some compromises so it can finally receive EU Covid funds that are currently blocked.

Whether this will work, no one knows. What is certain, however, is that with other central-European countries in its slipstream whose fear of Russia is finally recognised, Poland is no longer isolated in Europe.

Reality of Ukrainian membership

The third acceleration is that enlargement is back as a geopolitical necessity. This, in turn, triggers huge questions which go to the heart of European integration.

If, perhaps 15 years down the line, Ukraine becomes the largest recipient of agricultural and cohesion funds, how does the EU intend to finance this? Will member states allow the EU own resources to fund a ballooning budget? Will the EU, currently unfit to absorb new countries because it cannot even force its own members to toe the line, manage to reform its decision making? Can it help member states, heavily indebted after the pandemic, through common borrowing to shield citizens against rising food and energy prices?

These are momentous issues, which greatly worry governments because populists have already started to exploit them. Because of social turmoil, the room for manoeuvre for governments in Brussels may shrink at a time when common action and solidarity are most needed.

"We are on a high-speed train that cannot be stopped," one diplomat says, citing the rushed decision to offer Ukraine and Moldova candidate status. "There is too little time for proper reflection."

Unfortunately, Jacob Burckhardt offers little advice.

All he says is that crises and the fanaticisms often accompanying them "like a fever", are not just part of life, but also a sign that mankind cares about higher, non-material things. He quotes Ernest Renan, the French philosopher: "Philosophical thought is never more free than on great historical days".

Whilst we grapple with the fallout of the war, the best we can do is make sure this freedom is used for Europe's benefit.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a correspondent and columnist for NRC Handelsblad, Foreign Policy and De Standaard. This piece is adapted from a column in De Standaard.


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

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