The war in Ukraine is strengthening Europe’s internal constitutionalism. It redefines the East-West divide and replaces the conventional Cold War narrative with one of decolonization.
In 1995, American anthropologist Clifford Geertz lectured at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna (IWM) on the nature of the post-Cold War international order. His reflections surprised many in the audience. Contrary to the general consensus that convergence-that is, the adoption of Western models and the spread of Western values in the non-Western world-is the dominant force of the present, Geertz saw the future in increasing divergence and pluralism in both East and West.
Geertz envisioned an identity-obsessed world dominated by “a stream of opaque divisions and strange instabilities.” A world that would be less concerned with redrawing the boundaries between states and more concerned with renegotiating the invisible cultural, economic and political fractures within society. For Geertz, the end of the Cold War meant the end of the artificial cohesion created by the logic of ideological confrontation between the communist East and the liberal West.
The European Quadrilateral
To understand this new world, Geertz argued, it was important to understand “how people look at things, how they react to them, how they imagine them, how they judge them and how they deal with them.” It is about adapting to “ways of thinking that respond to particularities, singularities, discontinuities, contrasts and singularities”. Geertz proved to be correct in his prediction that the age of identity would be replaced by an age of ideologies. The institutional unification of Europe in the form of the enlargement of the European Union did not mean the demise of identity politics, but its revival.
In the last decade, the European Union has performed a dance very similar to the quadrille of the 19th century, in which the participants constantly change partners and roles. The EU floundered in the eurozone crisis of 2009-2010, was thrown off balance by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 (in the words of future German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel, it behaved like “a vegetarian invited to a cocktail of cannibals”), was deeply destabilised by the refugee crisis of 2015, and was shaken again by Brexit in 2016. In 2020, a coronavirus pandemic brought the Union to a temporary halt as borders between member states were partially closed. The perpetually frozen world seemed to be turning into an ominous reality.
“The EU’s ‘cannibals’ and ‘vegetarianism’
All these crises exposed the contradictions and cleavages in the EU, while reshaping the existing field of forces and allowing the emergence of new political constellations and alliances between Member States that were previously considered unthinkable. Overcoming the various disintegration crises has provided the EU with an opportunity to deepen integration.
While the eurozone crisis brought to light the North-South divide, the refugee crisis removed it and instead brought to light the East-West divide. However, it has become clear that the most important divisions in Europe are not between states, but within individual European societies, and in particular between urban centres such as Berlin, Budapest and Paris and what the French call ‘péripheries’ – rural or post-industrial areas whose inhabitants feel that they have lost out to globalisation and European integration. It is this kind of division within the UK that led to Brexit, which has been the most significant challenge for the EU to date.
The return of all crises
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks the return of all these crises. Europe now lives in fear of inflation and recession, the influx of refugees from Ukraine is twice as large as in 2015 – the ‘cannibals’ have forced Europeans to rethink their ‘vegetarianism’. However, we are experiencing all these crises very differently this time.
The war in Ukraine has, for now at least, united rather than divided Europe. It has also had a dramatic impact on the European political imagination. It has replaced the Cold War narrative that has shaped politics in recent decades with a narrative of decolonisation – the slow and painful death of the Soviet empire – while defining Europe’s borders by excluding Russia and narrowing Europe to the future borders of the EU. What was until yesterday a political border is now reinterpreted as a cultural border.
The East/West antagonism has always been central to European self-representation. Larry Wolff, in his classic Inventing Eastern Europe, showed that the Iron Curtain began to take shape long before Winston Churchill’s Fulton speech in 1946. At every historical moment since the Enlightenment, Europe has been defined by its relationship to the East.
For centuries, crossing the border between Prussia and Poland was tantamount to crossing from civilised Europe into barbaric Europe. In the philosophical geography of the West, Eastern Europe was both Europe and non-Europe. The contrast between liberal democracies and socialist – later post-socialist – societies has been the dominant political framework of this division since the end of the Second World War. The West was seen as a model for the East.
The war in Ukraine suddenly challenged the moral authority of the West. Poles, Czechs and Baltics loudly declare that they are right about Russia and the West is wrong. They claim that the West has failed to understand a world that is shaped far more by the legacy of empires than by the legacy of the Cold War.
Empires were constitutive of the European project. The most dangerous myth about Europe, according to the American historian Timothy Snyder, is that the EU was founded by small and medium-sized nation states. In reality, he says, “the European Union is the creation of failed or declining empires. At the beginning is Germany. The Germans were defeated in 1945 in the most decisive and catastrophic colonial war of all time. We remember it as World War II. Italy also lost a colonial war in Africa and the Balkans in 1945. Shortly afterwards, in 1949, the Netherlands lost the colonial war in the East Indies. Belgium lost the Congo in 1960. And France, defeated in both Indochina and Algeria, turned decisively to Europe in the early 1960s. These are the forces that launched the European project. None of them were nation states at the time. None of them was ever a nation state.”
It was only after the EU’s eastward expansion in 2004 that classical nation-states joined the integration project en masse. Having been the object of imperial desires in the past, they naturally have a very different sensibility from the former empires that initiated the European project.
Only since the 1990s has the EU tended to see itself as a unique postmodern empire surrounded by countries that want to join it. Like other empires before it, the EU has promoted law, peace and trade. European elites have been forced to understand that the most important thing is to acknowledge the contradictions and learn to live with them, not hope to overcome them. The EU celebrated cultural diversity and condemned nationalism.
By contrast, the Eastern European states that joined the EU in 2004 were much more obsessed with the idea of national sovereignty and ethnic homogeneity. Ethnic homogeneity was seen as a means to reduce tensions, increase security and strengthen democratic tendencies. Minorities were viewed with suspicion. Not only nationalists but also communists (calling themselves internationalists) believed in the central importance of ethnic homogeneity. In order to integrate successfully into the EU, they had to unlearn what for many is still the most important lesson of the 20th century: that ethnic and cultural diversity is a security threat.
The war in Ukraine is probably the latest manifestation of a political geography of Europe based on the East-West divide. In this case, Ukraine is the West and Russia is the East, which will never become Europe. Secondly, the war is changing the nature of the EU’s borders. The European project has always been characterised by an unwillingness or inability to define the final borders of Europe. The EU has been an empire defined by hard budgets and soft edges. This was closely linked to the idea that Europe does not end at the EU’s borders. Moving the EU’s borders has always been a question of transforming neighbouring countries.
However, the war in Ukraine does not ask how the EU can transform its neighbours, but how it can defend itself against hostile powers like Russia that are changing or destroying them. Suddenly, strong and protected borders are required, even if this means higher budget deficits. And Europe and the EU are growing ever closer.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for example, has allowed the EU to bridge the political gap between former empire and nation-state, and has forced Europeans to see the future of their political project differently. The Germans and the French, in order to defend the sovereignty and values of the EU, identify with the Ukrainian national liberation movement, and even Polish nationalists are turning their backs on the obsession with ethnic homogeneity and opening their borders to their eastern neighbours. “The ‘xenophobic Poles’, as it was written in 2015, have taken in more than three million refugees from Ukraine, and as recently as 2010, fiscally conservative Germans are now backing economically costly sanctions to stop the Russian war machine.
The war in Ukraine is allowing Europeans to recreate the EU as a postmodern empire that shares the sensibilities of previously colonized nations.
Ivan Krastev, Bulgarian political scientist, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna.
Text from “IWM.Post”, No. 129/2022.
This article was traslated from the version published at Přítomnost magazine.
published: 25. 7. 2022