Egmont Institute logo

The European Union confronted with the end of the end of history

Post thumbnail print


The end of history is over. The full weight of history bears now on all EU external borders from Finland to Gibraltar. There are crises everywhere. Moreover, they engender a corrosive cocktail of geopolitical, economic and energy threats. Meanwhile, EU heads of government go on mismanaging the very weak instruments of EU foreign policy. This is a story that could end badly.



The European Union Confronted with the end of the end of history
A deep arc of instability has arisen along the borders of the European Union. It begins at the Russian border with Finland, runs down to Ukraine, with its present undeclared war, encompasses Turkey as that country drifts into autocracy, covers Syria and Iraq, threated by a new Islamist power and civil war – without forgetting Iran – glides through Lebanon and the eternal confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians, and then ends with Egypt, Libya and Tunisia as they wrestle with the consequences of the vanished Arab Spring. Afghanistan is almost a distraction in this company.

Ironically, 25 years ago, some commentators declared that history had ended with the fall of the Iron Curtain. The West had won the war of all wars. It was the ultimate victory of democracy and market economy against the forces of darkness, the dawn of a new era. With hindsight, this announcement has proven a little premature. The Russian president makes endless references to the empire of the Czars, Isis to a caliphate of the Middle Ages, and the Israelis to biblical Galilee. It seems the end of history is a seductive theme for those who did not study it much. For everyone else, this period looks a lot like very old times, with the (not inconsiderable) addition of the internet and the nuclear bomb.

As far as the victory of democracy is concerned, maybe some people in China, Russia, Ukraine, and various Middle Eastern, African and Caucasian countries will beg to differ. And, since the never-ending financial crisis began, the triumph of the market does not appear to be as illuminating as it used to be. Since 2000, our economic success stories have been China and various autocracies that benefit from huge energy resources. The public debt in most advanced states borders on 100% of GNP. Inequalities are rising. Structural unemployment is at its highest.

The numerous threats generated by this arc of instability concern the European countries above all. Their borders are directly implicated (unlike those of the United States or Japan). Their economies are directly involved (again, much more than those of the United States or Japan). They suffer from new flows of refugees. There are multiple – and dangerous – interconnections between trouble spots. Indeed, these crises tend to reinforce one other (from Iran to Iraq, Iraq to Syria, and Syria to Jordan or Lebanon).

The collateral economic threats are also huge, and European countries are already in bad shape. Most have not yet recovered from the financial crisis. The eurozone’s GDP is still lower than in 2008. These countries are connected to their neighbours by huge trade currents, so, to take the most dramatic example, we may be about to see what happens in a situation where Russia – which imports 40% of its food – is hit by sanctions. Furthermore, European energy dependency is heavy, and growing. The Middle East and Russia are the main energy providers to the EU, and they possess the biggest oil and gas reserves in the world.

The end of the end of history, however, doesn’t trouble the minds of the “European” leaders – yet. While the dangers are rising, their competence seems to be diminishing. M. Hollande, for example, misunderstood completely the situation of France after his election, lost two years in empty speeches, degraded his office in farcical liaisons, and finally succeeded into splitting his own party. Regarding Ukraine, he spent months defending the sale to Russia of Mistral – a boat which would be most useful to M. Putin in the Black Sea. Mr Cameron shot himself in the foot by promising a European referendum with unsustainable conditions. He mismanaged completely the appointment of the next Commission’s president, creating a costly and useless psychodrama. He then carried on with empty sound bites about terrorism. His latest proposition is to create an informal military cooperation between the UK and different small states to deal with the Ukraine crisis. One fails to see how this will compensate for the general reduction of military budgets and the lack of compatibility between different nations’ armaments. Then comes Signor Renzi. At the moment when the EU had the greatest need of a common foreign policy, he supported a clearly inadequate candidate tirelessly. By so doing, he weakened the job of High Representative, the promotion of women, diminished his own country, and shot his European political party in the foot. When it comes to Ukraine, on the other hand, the only clear thing is Signor Renzi’s silence.

While everybody plays the usual local political games, Mr Putin is making his successive continental moves. With each new Russian incursion, the European countries appear at a loss, and try to adopt a response without any clear long-term focus. In a word, they are, like Mr Obama on Isis, ‘without a strategy’, but are in a much more dangerous position to waver. There is a general feeling that there has never been a clear evaluation of the options for each scenario, or of their long-term implications. What happens if Russia marches on to Kiev? What happens if she turns off the gas? What happens if she begins to care about the protection of ‘Russians’ in the Baltic States? One wishes that someone would present serious strategic analysis, but we are light years from that.

The European governments should all be more concerned about the enormous void in EU foreign policy. Even Dr Merkel, M. Hollande, or Mr Cameron, do not represent and certainly do not commit to the collectivity of the Member States. Everybody on the outside knows this. In the present context, this extreme weakness becomes, in turn, the weakness of each Member State. And this failure engenders growing collateral threats, due to the connection between the geopolitical crises, and also their mounting impact on the economic situation and energy distress of the Member States. Foreign policy and the economy are increasingly linked. Intelligently managed, this could maximize the added value of the European Union.

However, stupidly managed, it could also bring about its undoing.


Charles Secondat

The copyright of this commentary belongs to the Egmont Institute. It can be quoted or republished freely, as long as the original source is mentioned.?

(Photo credit: tiseb, Flickr)