Europe has been home to some of the oldest civilisations, empires, kingdoms and democracies. It always held a fascination among rest of the world and seen as leaders in human yearnings. Europe has had a variety of empires, these empires required real estate to feed their expansion and maintain relevance. This was the fuel for humanly generated artificial conflicts which was unfortunately not confined just to Europe but quickly spread over to other parts of the World, especially to Asia and Africa. Europe has seen an unusual violent history and remained in the battlefield for an extended part of its existence. 19th century saw accelerated spread of imperialism and massive colonisation across the continents. Unlike the popular myth Europe was never a leading example of democracy; it consisted of large number of monarchies like Sweden, Denmark, Britain which totalled to 12 at the last count. It’s home to largest number of modern day Kings, Queens, Prince and Princes, while rest of the world has moved on to constitutional democracies. This fascination with past, is an attempt, to continue their romantic association with ‘glorious history’ of being imperial powers. Probably, to draw a sadists inspiration for their new generations who have been groomed under the glass ceilings of imperial glory without associated sense of pain. They continue to watch rest of the world through the prism of their colonial past. This is the imperial hangover which refuses to leave them from fascinating flashbacks.
Exploration to Exploitation
In post-World War 2 era when the capacity and size came to original self; Europe quickly sensed it is vulnerable, since in rest of the world it was perceived as an oppressor which reigned it’s colonies with great disdain. There was a strong fear that soon justice will be demanded and uncomfortable questions will follow. This was also the era when Europe was trying to recover and rebuild from the massive destruction of the world war and the industrial revolution was beginning to take shape. The period witnessed consolidation in rest of the world wherein large number of states threw the shackles of colonial slavery and became independent nations. European empires in brief can be described as exploration to exploitation while doing some trade in between. Though trade was a cursory excuse, it gave them enough foothold to transform into an occupational force. Though it must be granted to them that they had the foresight, the capability and the will. They still craved to dominate the world but the nature of domination had transformed from military masters to business leaders. That economic prosperity will become the new aged leadership was sensed and executed by the Europe. As ‘Lets Rebuild Europe’ initiative gained momentum with rolling out of US’s Marshall Plan efforts were also underway towards cobbling some sort of confederation of European nations as one big alliance. All this when Europe stood sharply divided between East and West, a division of the magnitude never witnessed before.
Europe carries severe historical scares of innumerable wars and extremely bloody ones at that, which has left the deep mark on its conscience. As Europe lost its glory post-World War 2, it also pushed them in deep psychological turmoil where the resources, supply and easy access to valuable wealth of its colonies weren’t there anymore. It has to start all over again and this time round all on its own. It led to the wave of nationalistic and hostile politics all across the continent. Serious differences emerged between Eastern and Western blocs hugely influenced by raging rivalries between cold war competitors. It also fashioned some tough leaders like Britain’s Clement Attlee, Soviet’s Leonid Brezhnev, French Jean Monnet and German Walter Hallstein who would promise their nation it’s ‘lost pride’. There was this natural desire to be strong and powerful again and let the world abide by their diktats as hitherto fore. However, intent sans capability doesn’t produce anything much less in real politik. The changed global reality which till now were dominated by some European masters created extraordinary vulnerabilities, it literally exposed their soft belly. Europe was short on food grains for large part it would have to look upto Asia a continent it ruled and exploited impudently till a few years back, it was short on minerals & metals which made it dependent on Africa, it was short on fuel and gas for which it had to look at Russia a communist giant and unreliable partner. While Europe fast paced itself to industrialisation it added critical dependencies across the globe. What came out worst was it had to depend upon it’s ‘poor’ colonies, it’s sworn enemies and unreliable friends. It all simultaneously added deep vulnerabilities to an awesome growth story that Europe was trying to showcase. Troubled issues can’t be hidden, unfortunately more it’s side-lined more it occupies the centre-stage.
European Union (EU) was formalised in 1993 with 27 member bloc taking shape. EU was hailed as a new beginning where Europe would be seen, heard and respected as a single entity. The experiment of colonisation has convinced them that size matters. Mutual disagreements can be managed but reflecting a joint front would give disproportionate dividend and shared prosperity to each of the member state or at least this was what promised to assuage concerns of participating members. EU was dreamt and sold as one big ticket move that would alter the course of entire Europe if not the World. The emergence of EU as an entity has not been without debatable interests though. EU comprised of more than half of European countries those left out were insignificant lot with only notable exceptions being Norway, Switzerland, Russia and Britain. While Russia has ideological issues; Britain exited the union in Feb 2020. It terminated 27 years of relationship in a rather bitter manner.
It again highlighted EU members struggle to keep up the balance of domestic responsibility with membership commitments. There has been major divergence among the member states prior to EU formation from territorial disputes, armed conflicts, outright war and trade disagreements. There existed ideological division between Eastern & Western Europe which were more aligned to Russia and US respectively. Even the Nordic Nations, a grouping of eight countries and autonomous regions has the challenge of preserving their unique social identity. Apart from what existed the new grouping created more challenges on security, political and economic front. The common currency threatened to destroy the national exchanges of many a smaller member. The economic burden of adherence to EU free trade dynamics started under cutting local industries from lesser developed members. The unrestricted movement created massive migration headache for more prosperous member states. The most recent war in Ukraine has laid bare serious difference also on political front when Europe could not even define the Russian action in one voice showing the varying geo political constraints countries and grouping faces.
Europe in the 21st century turned out to be more divided than ever. Be it security, global alliances, trade & commerce, key international issues or even bilateral relations. Europe is finding it increasingly difficult to present a united front. It’s serious dependence on US for all things which matters has rendered it status of younger sibling who in any case will follow the course. There are numerous instances where in Europe followed up with US whether in sanctions on North Korea, Iran, Syria and Russia; in wars in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Bosnia, Afghanistan; in rewarding or punishing regimes. Europe suffers with great psychological dilemma; it needs US, but how much, that it doesn’t know. It simply apes US, as if, to prove that – ‘look I too have the capability’. The shift in power has left it with only glorious legacy.
This has a grave fallout; Europe is No more a consultative partner of preference for larger world although it remains an attractive business and tourist destination. Europe No more is looked upon as a strong entity which can by itself sway the opinion or actions. The precise aim of Europe’s adoption of a union concept for projecting cumulative power as a single entity has unfortunately got defeated by its own actions. The recent events of Brexit, ineffective implementation of sanctions on North Korea or Iran, half-hearted interventions in Syria & Yemen, almost embarrassing withdrawal from Afghanistan post unilateral decision by US and immature handling of Ukraine crisis leading to massive destruction has considerably dented European creditability. Europe is faced with a demanding choice to either stand up and prevent future erosion of its depleting stature or continue to be mollycoddled and play junior partner to US. Only time will tell that, but historically speaking Europe isn’t really famous for taking tough choices!
–The writer has varied experience in security paradigm and is a keen follower of international geopolitics. He is also the author of popular blog site (geostrat.in) on geo-strategic affairs