Is there a European identity? No, there is no such thing. That would be a snappy answer, but it would not be completely true. It is instructive to analyze this question thoroughly: Why does a European identity not exist? Will there ever be one?
Despite the myriad of European models, common cultural traits and traditions, it is impossible to define Europe and ”Europeanness” with precision . Similarly, it is impossible to tell where the boundaries of Europe lie or will lie. Beyond common fundamental values and cultural traditions (which are more or less obvious to most Europeans), everyone has a subjective, rather vague idea of what Europe is. It is due to this vagueness that European identity resists definition.
Let me first of all underline that whatever European identity is, it is a concept broader than European Union identity. This was vividly demonstrated by the statement of eurosceptic Czech President Vaclav Klaus in May 2009, when he claimed that the EU defeated Europe when the Czech Senate ratified the Lisbon Treaty. Undoubtedly, European identity is the privilege of national elites that have been pressing ahead with European integration for half a century. European identity has not become part of the thoughts, feelings and lives of average Europeans. Values that we hold to be European — such as liberty, equality before the law or the rule of law — are in fact the result of centuries of social development and do not undermine national identities. There are no truly pan-European values or pan-European reflexes perceptible in daily life. The feeling of belonging to a nation remains much more important than that of being European. The European Union is a community of nations and not a nation comprised of federal territorial units (states, with some exaggeration) like the United States of America. It is dubious whether it will ever become one. Most probably not.
Like any identity, a European identity can benefit immensely from negative self-definition: defining what we Europeans are not. The most critical distinction is with America, the other bastion of Western culture. Of course, that alone would be a very weak foundation for an identity. A professor of Johns Hopkins University, who knows Europe very well, put his finger on it when he said: “There is no such thing as a European identity. I have never met anyone who said I am a European American. I have only met Greek Americans, Polish Americans, Italian Americans, Irish Americans, etc.”
Europe has been in search of a self-identity for a long time. The first natural self-definition was on the common basis of Christianity. European values, which set this continent and culture apart from others, began to take shape with the Enlightenment. In “The Spirit of the Laws”, Montesquieu analyses Europe as a unified community in detail, comparing it with Asia. He comes to the conclusion that the preconditions for liberty exist only in Europe but not in Asia. Bronislaw Geremek, an outstanding European humanist of the 20th century, believed that Europe was built on a dual identity. European identity is partly rooted in medieval Christianity as a unifying force. In the 13th century, a united European community formed around religion as the central organizing principle. It was created by Rome as the center of power. Universities mushroomed continent-wide, teaching the common culture in a common language (Latin) and thereby creating the first European elite. The Europe-wide network of churches and cathedrals shared a common architectural style, a uniform liturgy and a uniform calendar. Christianity was the first supranational, pan-European cross-border culture. Geremek suggests that the second European community — lasting from Erasmus of Rotterdam to the Enlightenment — was the Republic of Letters (Respublica literaria) bonded together by knowledge rather than by faith. As modern languages gained ground and Latin lost its importance, the religious nature of culture was weakened. Observation, analysis and a belief in reason and science pushed religious faith to the background. European academics maintained extensive and lively relations with each other. Montesquieu famously said that Europe is a nation composed of many nations. The evolution of the European identity, or should we call it a supranational culture, has its roots partly in Christianity and partly in science.
Modern, post-war European integration is a political undertaking which in its origins was motivated chiefly by a desire to secure a stable and pacific Germany and developed as an elite project. As a result, the “mental unification” of European citizens has never materialized; a spontaneous common identity has never formed. Europe as a concept has never found its place in people’s daily lives, or their choices of values. Modern Europe was created to put an end to the eternal enmity between France and Germany. It was clear that the only way to prevent war between these two powers was to make it economically unprofitable. But guaranteeing peace on the continent will not make people feel European. European identity will not evolve by itself; every tradition must start somewhere but traditions only survive if the common experiences, principles and myths originate from the people. And for traditions to turn into an identity, a bottom-up approach is needed. Naturally, political leaders still have a huge role to play in paving the way for the evolution of a European identity. There are common Franco-German history books, common university departments, common European holidays, but that is only the start of the beginning.
Europe is an immensely heterogeneous continent and is growing ever more diverse with successive enlargements. Europe’s history is one of bloody wars and hostilities. Europe does not have a common language; the modern lingua franca is English, the language of global culture and of the steamroller empire, the USA. The evolution of a European identity will be a long process; there can be no doubt about it. There have been many attempts to unify Europe, largely through conquest and subjugation, but none of them tried to create a common European identity; forcing a central ideology on the continent was the closest they came. De Gaulle’s vision of a Europe stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Urals was a political idea, which was essentially based on the 19th-century principles of cooperation between nation states. European peoples have been united temporarily within one empire, but sharp cultural borders never ceased to exist for a moment. Is there any way to change that?
A large-scale public opinion survey asked European citizens how their feeling of European citizenship could be reinforced some six years ago. Unsurprisingly, one third replied: by elevating the welfare state to the European level. A clear rift between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ member states is observable in this respect: in the poorer Eastern part of Europe (where accession to the Union is seen as justice having been served), more than half of the population considers European action in the area of social welfare essential, while in the richer west less than a third think so. About 27% of the survey’s respondents picked the European Constitution as their first choice and 16 ticked the box next to a directly elected European president. These latter two choices are conspicuously political and not related to people’s daily lives at all. Which only goes to show how distant Europe is from the man in the street; the EU is a political rather than a daily issue. Only one in twenty respondents thought it would be important to have a common European Olympic team.
Few Europeans are involved in “European activities”: only 43% maintain active links with citizens from another member state, although the differences are vast from one country to another. This ratio is three quarters in the Netherlands and one fifth in Hungary. Only every third European citizen traveled abroad in 2005, which may sound impossible, but by 2015 this figure increased primarily due to low-cost air tickets. More encouragingly, almost a quarter of respondents claimed to regularly read the press or books in a language other than their mother tongue. The Irish and the British were at the bottom of the list; English (or rather American) being the modern lingua franca as their native language means that they do not need to use a foreign language as much as non-English speakers. Young urban Internet-savvy graduates live the most European lives and are the most fervent supporters of European integration. The same enthusiasm for Europe is not present in society as a whole. While two thirds of citizens declare an interest in domestic politics, less than half are concerned about European politics and the level of knowledge about how the European Union functions is generally very low.
Symbols play a central role in building a European identity even though their impact is limited, except for the single currency. The European flag or anthem are not serious alternatives to and are unlikely to replace national symbols any time soon. It is a telling fact that the most tangible symbol of Europeanness — the euro — features unidentifiable bridges and buildings on the notes. Anywhere else in the world it would be unthinkable not to have a single famous building, monument, personality or typical animal on euro notes. It is easy to guess why it is so: Leonardo is considered Italian, Joyce Irish, Mozart Austrian and not European. Putting anyone famous on the back of a euro note would only lead to diplomatic wrangling between the member states, which is best avoided. Europe is not strong when it comes to symbols, maybe because it has too many: a dozen could be named for every one of its 27 member states. Politically motivated pan-European cultural projects such as the bilingual television channel ARTE do not really work. ARTE, the brainchild of Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterand, epitomizes the reality of European identity: cold, high quality, elitist programming, but not pan-European in nature, merely a mishmash of German and French programs.
Eurobarometer – a programme of opinion surveys taken on behalf of the European Commission – asked people to name the first adjective that came to their mind when they heard the words ”European Union”. Close to two thirds said democratic and modern, roughly half said protective, technocratic and inefficient. (Obviously one respondent could pick more than one adjective.) Polls reveal just how little people knew about the functioning of the European Union
A poll in 2008 showed that two fifths of the French felt they were truly European citizens. This figure has not changed for fifteen years. This poll of a thousand adults indicated that 54% of French people would feel more European if the President of the European Council (the European Council being constituted by the national heads of state and government) was elected directly, instead of being appointed by the heads of state and government behind closed doors. Attachment to the European idea has not changed in France since the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, when 37% of French people considered themselves European “often or very often”. Today this figure is 38%. Following the record low turnout in the elections to the European Parliament in 1999, when 53% of French voters stayed at home, the feeling of Europeanness was reinvigorated by the introduction of the euro and by the public debate preceding the referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005. The rejection of the Constitution did not change the French electorate’s feelings about belonging to Europe. To 54% of French people, the single currency is what best symbolizes Europe. Only 12% picked the European Parliament and 9% the European Commission as Europe’s best symbol. The French see the common European economy (39%) and democracy (35%) as key values holding the continent together. The poll made it abundantly clear that the French (too) have only a rudimentary knowledge of how the European Union and its institutions work. Even though Members of the European Parliament have been elected directly since 1979, 36% of respondents thought they could not vote in elections to the Parliament, and 48% were unaware that foreign European nationals could vote in municipal elections in the country of their residence. Since then, mainly due to the stubborn economic slowdown and crisis, Euroskepticism is on the rise all across member states, which is obviously against the reinforcement of the sense of a common European identity.
Clearly, we cannot yet talk about a defined and generally accepted European identity, or a European public or a European state. Still, with only virtual borders left inside much of the European Union, economic and social ties the closest they have ever been and the EU becoming active in new areas, European citizens are bound over time to develop a feeling of Europeanness and some kind of a European identity. The concept of a European identity is difficult to define and more difficult to measure than, say, public support for European integration. As John Lukacs wrote:
“Nation and state – they are two different things. States are losing power and significance fast. Nations retain their essence. That is one of the — many — shortcomings of the European Union. We have a long way to go before we can talk about a united Europe; we are only at the very beginning of this arduous journey. European self-identity, the European spirit is but a faint glimmer.”
Europe has become more than just an economic community, but is far from being a country. European citizens are not strongly attached to the EU and there aren’t any European myths, dreams, visions, customs or languages which could constitute the bedrock of a pan-European identity. Towards the twilight of his life Jean Monnet, one of the Founding Fathers of the European Union, said to be lamenting: “If I could start again I would start with culture and not the economy”.
There is no denying that Europe’s peoples, nations and increasingly cosmopolitan new generations are drawing closer and closer, even if Euroskepticism is rising. Old enmities are fading, the old wounds have healed, which is quite an achievement in itself. This should be reinforced by education, started already at elementary level: explaining and thereby reinforcing the advantages of our community to school kids across the continent. The new Erasmus generation may bring about the change. They may see and support a European Union team at the Olympics in 2024 at least in curling.
 Emanuel L. Paparella for one refers to five different aspects or models of European identity (Revisiting Europe’s Cultural Identity, Moderndiplomacy.eu): 1. Historical-cultural identity — This model of European identity refers to a perceived common European past with cultural roots and common values. 2. Political-legal identity — In order to bypass the ethnic dimension in European identity, politicians favour a republican reading which is based upon citizenship, representation and participation. 3. Social identity — it focuses on the popular basis of politics: often referred to as a ‘people’s Europe’. 4. International identity — In terms of social collectiveness, this is probably the weakest interpretation of European identity which is typified by governance or regime approaches. 5. Post-identity commonness — this model strives to avoid the identity-trap by applying post-modernist and postnationalist theories.
Belgrade and Pristina: Will a territorial exchange really happen?
The European Union is dialing up pressure on Serbia and Kosovo in an effort to convince Belgrade and Pristina to sign an agreement on normalizing bilateral relations. This would allow Brussels to seize the initiative in the Balkans from the United States, which has previously managed to get the two sides clinch a similar deal on trade and other economic issues. Moreover, the EU is even ready to break from its previous policy and give a nod to a territorial exchange between Serbs and Albanians, which was categorically rejected, above all by Germany. However, while the Serbian leadership largely welcomes the idea, the Kosovo Albanians’ radically-minded leaders rule out any territorial concessions to Belgrade, thus deepening the Kosovo impasse.
Albin Kurti, the leader of the radical Vetëvendosje (“Self-Determination”) movement, who has regained the Kosovo premiership, categorically rejected the idea of any territorial exchange with Serbia, proposed by the EU’s High Representative for International Affairs Josep Borrell.
“I do not think that we should give anything away.” … “This is pressure from Serbia. They want us to give in,” Kurti said.
That being said, the former Kosovo president, Hashim Thaci, actively lobbied the idea of a territorial exchange, even more than others. Back in August 2018, he and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic reached a preliminary agreement on this when meeting on the sidelines of the European Forum in Alpbach, Austria. Thaci and Vucic voiced their intention to double down on signing a comprehensive deal, and invited the EU to act as its mediator and guarantor.
“We have a small window of opportunity,” Hashim Thaci said at the time. The planned agreement was supposed to be inked in Brussels already in September 2018, with the participation of the EU leadership. However, the whole process immediately hit a snag due to disagreements over border delimitation and opposition protests in both Belgrade and Pristina.
According to the plan, devised by Hashim Thaci, the delimitation issues should be discussed as a “package” and provide for a complex exchange of territories, including both the Serbian-populated North Kosovo communities of Leposavic, Zvecan and Zubin Potok (roughly one-fifth of the territory of Kosovo), and the southern Serbian communities of Buyanovac, Presevo and, preferably, Medvedja, adjacent to Kosovo, populated mainly by ethnic Albanians. The Kosovar leader argued that a territorial exchange whereby regions with a majority Albanian population would end up in Kosovo, and those with a predominantly Serbian population – in Serbia, would help ease tensions between Belgrade and Pristina.
According to the latest census in Serbia, about 90,000 people live on the territory of the three southern Serbian communities: in Presevo, 89 percent are Albanians and 9 percent are Serbs; in Bujanovac, 55 percent are Albanians and 34 percent are Serbs; in Medvedja, 26 percent are Albanians and 67 percent are Serbs. Thus, Albanians already make up the majority of the population of Presevo and Bujanovac. In Medvedja, their share has also been steadily rising.
While President Aleksandar Vucic generally agrees to the partition of Kosovo with the return of control over the province’s northern regions to Belgrade, he is still against the idea of extending the “package” exchange to include the southern Serbian communities of the Presevo Valley.
There is no unity on this issue outside the Balkans too, with Germany and France initially rejecting the idea of territorial exchanges as such, arguing that this could fire up tensions in North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“The territorial integrity of the Western Balkan states is already a hard fact and cannot be changed,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
Austria has been foursquare behind the partition of Kosovo as a means of normalizing relations between Belgrade and Pristina.
“If Serbia and Kosovo agree on a border correction, the agreement will have our support,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said.
The EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Johannes Hahn equally favored the upcoming agreement. He urged his EU colleagues not to obstruct the deal between Pristina and Belgrade, even if it involves changing borders. Such an agreement, if it is reached, will be a one-off affair though and “should not be used as an example for solving other problems,” Hahn said at the end of August 2018.
The US administration backed the upcoming deal, with President Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton going on record saying that “Our policy, the US policy, is that if the two parties can work it out between themselves and reach agreement, we don’t exclude territorial adjustments.”
The agreement on the exchange of territories, drawn up in 2018 never came to fruition though. Responsibility for this failure lies with radical nationalist forces in both Belgrade and Pristina, not interested in any compromise solutions that won’t sit well with their own political intentions. While Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is still in power and has not changed his position, Vjos Osmani, who replaced Hashim Thaci as President of Kosovo, is less inclined to accept any compromises with Belgrade.
This situation adds to EU and US headaches with Barack Obama’s de facto foreign policy team, now back in power in Washington, being eager to strengthen the position of the United States in the Balkans through more active military and political activity and pressure (not trade and economic scenarios and proposals, as was the case under Donald Trump). The EU and the US now have two options to choose from – either to ramp up pressure on Serbia in order to force it to recognize Kosovo without any territorial exchanges (which is more to the Joe Biden administration’s liking), or to convince the Kosovar leaders to accept territorial compromises (more preferred by the EU).
And here we should not forget about the Bosnian factor, since any changes to the status and borders of Kosovo will inevitably reflect on the domestic political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and, in particular, on the position of the Bosnian Serbs. When briefing reporters a few days ago, the chairman of the Presidium of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, said that in any case he would insist on the implementation of the concept of “peaceful divergence,” that is, the disintegration of the country, which, according to him, is already happening. He stated that the integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot be maintained, and this is something that has increasingly been discussed by the international community.
“We are waiting for the moment when a peaceful gap becomes real,” Milorad Dodik noted, adding that he was not a warmonger and was only offering a way out of the current situation, which he described as unstable.
The EU too appears ready to “reformat” Bosnia and Herzegovina. When, during a visit to Sarajevo in early March of this year, Slovenian President Borut Pahor informally asked members of that country’s collective leadership whether a “peaceful divergence” was a possibility. Bosnian Muslim Shefik Jaferovic and Croat Zeljko Komšić responded that this was impossible, while Milorad Dodik, for his part, said that it was a likely scenario.
The current situation of “unstable equilibrium” around Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina is serious enough to prod all the disputing parties to more actively seek Russia’s mediation. Serbia and Republika Srpska maintain partner relations with Moscow. Meanwhile, the disagreements between the EU and the United States could make the other participants in the discussions more accommodating, including the Kosovar Albanians, who are interested in normalizing relations with Belgrade and implementing large-scale regional projects.
From our partner International Affairs
A leaderless ship: The Bulgaria’s political crisis and the storm to come
Internal and international tensions
Politics tends to develop in a complex conundrum in all Balkan countries. Thus, never can observers take their eyes off the ball, investors feel completely safe or international partners express enduring satisfaction. In effect, this is the case also for bits of the region that have joined the European Union in the last decade. Recently, Bulgaria has been the most interesting hearth of, popular outrage, institutional instability and international tensions amongst the latter countries.
Actually, the atmosphere began simmering back in Summer 2020, when thousands of people took to the streets for several weeks. Arguably, the combination of the umpteenth high-echelon corruption scandal involving andthe pandemic-induced recession was only the most immediate cause. Swiftly, dissatisfaction led to vigorous calls for the Prime Minister’s and the Attorney General’s resignation and early election. Even the President of the Republic, Rumen Radev, broke with his supposed non-partisanship and joined the protestors gathering vast support. However, the winter suppressed street protests and Boyko Borisov, the Prime Minister, exploited the pandemic to justify his indifference.
In the meantime, the cabinet embroiled Bulgaria in a dispute which the country had refrained from ever since 1991. The so-called ‘Macedonian question’predates the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s independence, but only then turned into a crisis. Indeed, the hardest-fought issue was that surrounding the use of the name ‘Macedonia’, which Greece opposed until the Prespa Agreement. But the newly named Republic of North Macedonia has failed to acknowledge the deep historical and cultural connection with Bulgaria. Eventually, the former’s lack of real cooperation led Sofia to veto the opening of negotiations on EU membership. Thence, scholars have criticised the country’s government while foreign politicians tried to persuade Borisov to lift his veto.
Against the background of such a delicate, multifaceted domestic and international circumstances Bulgaria celebrated regular election on April 4. The country needed everything but being left leaderless, but this is exactly what happened.
Election results: Who to form a cabinet?
The most recent elections speak volume about the difficulty in understanding Bulgarian politics and understanding what the popular sentiment is. For a start, GERB, Borisov’s party, lost about 300,000 votes falling from 33.65%in 2017, to 26.18% this year. Moreover, the nationalist collation United Patriots, GERB’s reliable allies, split up and failed to clear the 4% threshold. Thus, with his 75 MPs in the 240-seat Parliament Borisov had no more a majority and desperately needed a partner.
At the same time, the elections produced an unusually hostile environment for GERB. In fact, a number of new leaders and formations emerged — all of which declared GERB a “most toxic party”. Still, opposing Borisov’s “model”, as they use to say, was not enough to form a government. Neither the protest party There is such a people (ITN) nor the establishment Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) even tried. Therefore, the two smaller protest parties – Democratic Bulgaria (DB) and Stand Up! Bastards Out (ISMV) – and the Muslim Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) had to accept new elections in July.
In effect, once the elections results became clear, no one nurtured many hopes for a stable government. The BSP had offered it external, conditional support to an ITN cabinet as the DPS and even GERB did. Perhaps, members of DB and ISMV could have joined the project to ensure wider representation. But all attempts failed in front of ITN’s leader, the showman-turned-politician SlaviTrifonov, display of “political fearfulness”. The ultimate result of these developments was the shortest parliamentin Bulgaria’s two-century history.
What the parliament produced
Without a fully-functioning political government and with a lame-duck Parliament, Bulgaria is traversing a difficult period. The legislature has yet to approve the Recovery and sustainability plan towards which the EU has granted €6bln ($7.3bln). Without these funds, it will be harder for the country’s economy to rebound after the last recession. At the same time, no one is in charge of managing the ongoing feud with the Republic of North Macedonia. Hence, Sofia can neither substantiate its claims and pretences vis-à-vis Skopje nor backtrack and let membership negotiations start. Finally, in the last weeks tensions between Bulgaria and Russia have risen with mutual expulsion of several high-ranking diplomats. In fact, Czech authorities have found out about a “Bulgarian connection” in the incidents allegedly blamed on Russian security services.
On the offense: ITN, DB and ISMV against GERB
Yet, the parliament has found not time to address any of these really pressing issues. As it often happens after the elections, foreign policy has disappearedfrom the order of the day. There was no discussion of either the bilateral relations with Russia nor the North Macedonian issue.
Representative from ITN, DB and ISMV wrapped up the Recovery plan into their wider attempt to publicly discredit GERB. Thus, they refused to let the competent executive official introducing the bill and pretended Borisov himself did it.
Meanwhile, the three parties and the BSP also forced a vote on the cabinet’s resignation. Hence, the government is officially in charge only of managing current affairs: it cannot update the budget or adopt new economic measures. The opposition also blocked the automatic renewal of key concession for Sofia’s airport and some highways to Borisov’s closest allies.
So-called ‘Protest parties’ also formed a parliamentary commission to investigate Borisov governments’ misdeed. However, the legislature will soon dissolve, so nothing will come out of it besides some gossipy kompromat. The only real change is a new electoral law,remedying to some of the previous legal framework’s most evident fallacies. The hope is that it will curb the purchase of votes and other instances of fraud.
Wait-and-see: Borisov’s unkind defence
Borisov’s loyalists in the government, in the Parliament and, more importantly, in the media are repelling this frontal assault vehemently.
Figure 1 Acting Prime Minister Boyko Borissov called the Parliament “a show” in a video on his Facebook page.
Acting foreign minister Ekaterina Zakharieva has spoken out against the supposed attempt to make 850,000 GERB voters ‘disappear’. The chair of GERB’s parliamentary group, Desislava Atanasova, accused other parties of having “failed to fulfil society’s interests”. Borisov himself went out for the biggest prey: President Radev.On Facebook he declared
I hope that Radev is not proud [of the result of last year’s protests …]: This parliamentary show costs 19 million [leva, €9.5mln] a day. It is better that they closed it because we would have gone bankrupt.
The opposition motto offers no way forward behind the idea that “What GERB did must be cancelled”. Yet, GERB is not less destructive in its agenda. Currently, Borisov’s clique is challenging both the moratorium of concessionsand the electoral reformin front of the constitutional court. According to many experts, the justices could strike down or rescale at least one of these two measures. Hence, all hopes for a real democratic change will likely evaporate as long as GERB holds the levers of power.
Forecast: A leaderless ship in a stormy sea
Some have been talking about the rebirth of parliamentarism. But partisanship, anger and personal hatred currently dominate Bulgaria’s politics. Thus, a disenchanted observer could only see the dismaying polarisationand personalisation of the mainstream political discourse. At this time, Bulgaria is like a ship whose crew has mutinied, but whose captain refuses to jump off. Fortunately, the peaks of the economic and sanitary crisis seem over — for now. But the international setting conspires against the vessel. A storm is mounting from the East and the West. Winds of reprisal spire from Russia, whereas the EU is increasingly discontent with Bulgaria’s management of the North Macedonian issue. Assuming that the next elections will produce a working government, either the mutineers or the old captain will be just in time to manage the gale. But should this not happen, the country may soon regret the current lull.
Geopolitics of Europe and the Third Wave
With hospitals filling up across the continent, new variants of the virus proliferating and vaccine shortages biting back, Europe can be seen to be under the third wave of the COVID crisis. This wave has been a confused sea across Europe in which some national epidemics are worsening, some are reaching their peak and some are declining. Although lockdowns have eased as vaccine drives make headway, the end of state emergency does not undermine the inevitable long-term consequences of the crisis. COVID has brought to the forefront new geopolitical dynamics and created risks for the foreign policy of the European Union on several fronts. Beyond the epidemiological challenge of the impending health calamity, economic, political and geopolitical challenges are also plenty.
The crisis has held up a mirror to the Western countries as their effectiveness in managing the pandemic has been distorted and has brought about de-Westernisation of the world. As globalisation is under strain, the crisis is bound to redraw the borders between the state and the markets in democracies such as the Member States of the EU. Such an environment is likely to emphasise on national initiatives to the detriment of international cooperation. In a post-COVID world, the EU may have to deal with its geopolitical problems with less external credibility as well as internal solidarity among its member states.
The potential geopolitical consequences of the virus can be identified by extrapolating those trends that were taking place before the onset of the virus. Amidst evolving global scenarios, there has been a constant push from the EU to establish itself as a relevant geopolitical actor to realise its global power aspirations. In this context, it becomes important to note the two areas of concern raised by the crisis consist of questions on the internal cohesion of the EU and Europe’s ability to adapt to the increasing rivalry and competition among other global powers.
The EU as a player derives its identity from its supranationalism. However, with COVID wreaking havoc on the already unequal economy of the Northern and Southern Europe, the downslides of globalisation are being highlighted. This is likely to further embolden nationalist narratives, rather than European solutions. This will lead to the fragmentation of the region into its component member-states part, threatening the very identity if the Union. This has been a challenge to the EU as the Union recognizes solidarity as a fundamental principle as per Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union. With the EU is facing the increasingly centrifugal ‘member states first’ approach put forward by the European capitals, the European integration project is under threat.
Further, with the pre-existing tensions between US and China, the European Union has been facing heat from both the sides of the Pacific. While the EU has put forward its own Indo-Pacific Strategy in order to constructively engage with the region, it continues to be challenged by America’s confrontational foreign policies and also being apprehensive of China’s refusal to open up their markets at a time of dwindling global economies, China’s assault on Hong Kong’s independence as well as China’s growing support towards the populist parties of Europe. The EU has come to perceive China as a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance with this perception largely being shaped by China’s revisionist challenge and its alarming nationalist narrative.
It is important to understand that coronavirus is not here to kill geopolitics. However, the European Union will have to strengthen their efforts towards ensuring that the pandemic does not kill the EU as a geopolitical force. The European Commission must step up its efforts to broker the Multilateral Financial Framework (MFF) among member states which was long pending even before the pandemic struck the continent. It would enable the Union to act collectively in funding recovery efforts in a post-COVID reconstruction of the economies. Further, the EU should focus on shortening their supply chains pursuing a policy of strategic autonomy such that EU’s external dependencies are diversified. The need of the hour is to rebuild an economically sound healthcare Europe while at the same time working towards a more geopolitical Europe. This will require EU to continue investment as a full-spectrum power in military as well as other security capabilities along with assistance and aid to the neighboring countries to rebuild their resilience in a geopolitically volatile environment.
The EU needs to defend and promote the European model which is struggling to stand amidst the global battle of narratives along with maintaining its strategic autonomy in health, economic and other sectors. At the same time, the Union needs to bolster existing and forge new alliances in order to fill the gap on multilateralism. It needs to locate a strategic edge to resist the external pressures and protect its presence in the global scene and continue being relevant in the changing global order with its extraordinary transcontinental presence of soft power.
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