Whether called “racial superiority” in the 18th century, the “Yellow Peril” in the 19th, or “Lebensraum” in the 20th, Europe has pursued straightforward expansionism, or fought tooth and nail against an ongoing, oversized, and wildly irrational fear of invasion (mostly originating from the East). Over time, this – as yet still legitimate – action performed in the name of self-defence turned into outright suppression of any attempt to tinker with Europe’s proverbial jewels, whether they are the unparalleled achievements of European civilisation, or some yet unclear aspect of its advanced culture.
A new axis in Europe?
The beginning of the 21st century is not giving us much by means of variety. The old Franco-Prussian defeatist protectionism has nowadays been replaced by the defensive divisionism of the British, and Kaiser Wilhelm’s “Yellow Peril” has been moved a little closer to home in the guise of the “Polish Plumber”. And while Britain is gnawing away at its own perceived perdition, and sucking its own lifeblood in a demented xenophobia that threatens to see rifts in its own overstretched social fabric, France and Germany (with a few other undecided ex-imperial powers thrown in the mix), finally in the process of reconciling their fears with reality, are delaying for as long as possible the foregone conclusion that the Europe of the good old nationalist (and isolationist) nation-state is gone forever.
In the meantime, bedridden not as much with debt as with a dire motivational and existential crisis, the United States is already on the losing end of an economic war with China and South-East Asia. Now that catching up is only a matter of time, the US, ever the flexible player on the scene of world politics (well, at least as long as this Democratic governance lasts) seems willing to re-adjust its once-unassailable status, and play from a more realistic position.
Europe on the other hand, still clinging to its long dead imperial sceptre (although “spectre” would be more appropriate) is by far the sore loser here. Like a snail sensing potential danger, antennae carefully drawing in, despite scattered voices urging the contrary, Europe decided to shift focus onto itself and sizzle in that confidence only the self-absorbed can sport in front of a bemused, if supporting external audience.
In the meantime, with capitalism an enviable commodity avidly pursued by the destitute of yesteryear, the East is beginning to reassert itself with a force to be reckoned with that is slowly reshaping the balance of power on a global scale. Eastern Europe, long the underdog of the pan-European power struggle – properly kicked and abused at that and unwilling to miss its moment – is finally dusting itself and preparing to enjoy its own day in the sun.
Never, some would argue. And maybe so. Eastern Europe, its demons and past practices still unburied, is maybe destined to forever wallow in its corrupt inaptitude and economic lassitude. Based on current trends such as negative population growth and political inefficiency, the region will most likely turn into a political and economic wasteland – something of a Western European backyard reduced to the role of a buffer zone, a notion still appealing (and indispensable) to the Western sustenance of its utopian splendid isolation.
However, how probable can that scenario be in face of the potential crumbling of the Western half of the Union in a flurry of indecision, bickering, lack of unified vision or outright discord (let alone debt)? There are plenty of arguments that the much talked about weakening of the union will occur. Britain’s paranoid anti-Eastern campaigning and precipitated stumbling towards the exit is the latest in a series of events that comes to prove it. The potential copycat examples that it may trigger on the continent are even more reason to fear it.
Holland’s and Sweden’s perpetual procrastination of eastward Schengen expansion, and the much-trumpeted argument that the Union is a forcefully-imposed ordeal on members of the “rich” nations is enough to believe the West will eventually tear its fragile unionist ties apart. And finally a prevailing (if not pathological) wave of Euro-skepticism among its population in the face of crisis may well deal the union its destructive blow. But does this necessarily spell doom for Europe?
The younger members of the Union to the East, while feeling, yet again let down by their condescending Western partners, have less to fear than it would actually seem. With two economic engines revving up in Turkey and Poland, and the widely known fact that nature (and politics) abhors a vacuum, it is hard to see a region harbouring 250 million (that is over half the population of Western Europe) simply puff up in political smoke and vanish from history.
To say nothing of the fact that, having lived with their sights set on the other side of the Berlin Wall for half a century, the ex-communist block countries are endowed with a motivation and determination to preserve the union, which should put the founding fathers to shame.
Eastern Europe as the raison d’être of an ailing union
It is no secret that the economies of Eastern Europe were the fastest growing ones in the entire union in the euphoric post-communist, pre-crisis environment. While countries like Lithuania and the Slovak Republic achieved a GDP growth rate of up to 10 per cent (which is higher than China) in 2003 and 2007 respectively, France has never, even during the boom years surpassed 3 per cent.
Romania, vilified and singled out (together with Bulgaria) as the cause for the impending armageddon of British immigration once the UK opens its labour market to the two countries in 2014, saw a steady growth rate reaching up to 9.43 per cent until 2008. And Poland surprised everyone by being the only country in the union which avoided recession entirely (even after the big crisis hit), to such a degree that, from a predominantly emigrant country, it became host to migrants from the East.
Now these numbers are of course nothing to write home about. Plenty of emergent economies are putting up similar performances. The only funny thing in this equation is that Eastern Europe (or most of it) is part of the European Union, and the rest of the world isn’t. How does this affect things?
For once, it may finally provide Europe the economic raison d’etre for its survival as infrastructure and public works still badly needed in the East will draw an increasingly higher number of businesses to invest, get involved, and transfer workers eastward. Secondly, in an environment lacking leadership and purpose, the Eastern countries, their commitment to integration stronger than that of any Western state could provide the necessary framework for the foundation of a stronger union.
Therefore, should the East seize this moment of Western indecision and throw in its own weight in the public arena, not only would it be able to blaze a much-needed path for itself, but it could revitalise the stuttering and ailing Western union as well.
Moreover, for reasons easy to discern but uncomfortable to discuss, fighting an enemy has always proven beneficial for the development of healthy economies and political systems. Considering that the Eastern countries are faced with an enemy at home rather than abroad – in the name of corruption, deficient practices, and bureaucracy – this makes their wars easier to win, as past examples of the swift development in Asian countries based on Western models clearly shows.
In need of appropriate models, Eastern Europe also went West to shop for policies that would secure its budding democracies, and the West was only too happy, if always a little apprehensive, to at least provide the framework to apply them. However, faced with problems at home, the West is showing increasing indignation to offer support, which will only force the East to finally stop looking elsewhere, and start forging its own policies. Which means it will probably also fight more seriously to implement them.
Thus, with the rift along East and West still negatively affecting attitudes on both sides of the defunct iron curtain, Eastern Europe has a unique chance to create its own political environment wrought out of its countries’ similar common past. Should Eastern countries understand this, they would be able to faster come out of the transition-induced procrastination, and, rather than compete for priority into a union they are not entirely able to relate to and integrate in, shake off their nationalist scars, put their differences behind them, and build an enduring economic alliance.
The market has already confirmed a direction that politicians are still struggling to see: the move toward a potential Eastern European Union. Just look on the back of most household and food products you buy at the supermarket everyday. The languages of a single Eastern market are clearly inscribed on the trivial products in your hands from toothpaste to salami. And these languages are not English or French. They range from Latvian to Serbian, and Turkish to Polish.
Or look at the tractor-trailers crisscrossing the Eastern European roads (still badly in need of repair at that). License plates are increasingly starting to show that the traditional Berlin-Paris axis is slowly being replaced in this region by a Warsaw-Ankara axis. In the Eastern European economic landscape, Western Europe is increasingly becoming a remote presence.
Finally, what is the EU founding treaty but the merger of the remnants of the Western European empires? Is it not surprising that this treaty was drafted around the time when all former empires, hard-pressed less by emerging nationalism than by the cost of maintaining unprofitable overseas colonies, announced with hypocritical aplomb the ceding of power, and the triumph of self-determination.
In one breath, shortly after letting go of their possessions, France, Germany, and the smaller powers at first, joined by the British heavyweight later, soon became the founding fathers of the fledgling European Union.
The (Eastern) empire strikes back?
But what about the East? In contrast to popular Western misconception, the Wild East was once the playground of empires at least as powerful as their Western counterparts. The only reason the unraveling Russian, Ottoman, and Habsburg Empires have not been able to forge an alliance between them was the simple fact that instead of being engaged in overseas competition, they waged territorial wars on each other, which, culminating with the disastrous experiment of imperialism in disguise, which was Russia’s Communism, left the region in the ruinous economic situation it was at the end of the 1990s.
However, with a power vacuum increasingly more acute in Eastern Europe and political manoeuvring being replaced by economic hegemony, the possible scenarios taking shape see either the reinstatement of economic monopoly or the advance of an alliance. Will these three former giants, like their Western counterparts one day succeed at creating a union that would dissolve their differences and stimulate growth? If they learned anything from their troubled past, they should understand that what Eastern Europe needs is a shift of focus from Western integration to domestic management, and a common search for effective local leadership.
Such a union, as ASEAN has proven in South-East Asia, has all the ingredients to make development possible provided that participating countries let go of nationalism and find common ground. While it is maybe imprudent to even consider the success for such a scenario in the East in the current economic and political context, the seedlings of an Eastern European Union have already been planted.
The lack of consensus as to the future of the Union in the West should only embolden Eastern leaders to seek common vision, and snatch this chance to forge an unprecedented, yet badly-needed and almost certainly mutually beneficent alliance. Should they succeed, this would positively influence Western policy toward the preservation of the European Union, and the affirmation of the East as something more than just a minor, inexperienced, and perpetually corrupt junior partner.
Lucian Tion is an independent journalist, film director and international teacher. He has worked in the US, Cameroon, Tajikistan, Bangladesh and Egypt. He writes for the weekly Revista 22 in Bucharest.