contributor perspectives

Jump-starting European History

Apr 24, 2007 | 19:04 GMT
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.
By Peter Zeihan In the 19 years since the Berlin Wall was pulled down, the post-Cold War chronicle of the former Soviet empire has become the stuff of history. But the winds of change that blew over governments from Prague to Dushanbe also have swept west of the former Iron Curtain. In 2007, the last of the post-Cold War generation of Western European leaders will move on, heralding a fundamentally new era for all of Europe. Against a backdrop of record turnout, the French electorate April 22 voted for a break with the past. Such a vote was not difficult to cast, as none of the 12 candidates could be accurately described as a preacher of continuity. Continuity is something that has been hard to find in Europe of late. The Big Three European powers — France, Germany and the United Kingdom — are all experiencing not only leadership transitions, but regime shifts that are altering their own political systems and those of Europe and Eurasia as a whole. These changes in turn are unplugging the historical deep freeze that has retarded events in Europe and the former Soviet world. Change, fast and furious, is returning to Europe. The leadership changes are furthest along in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel displaced Gerhard Schroeder in November 2005. And while imminent, they are yet to come in the United Kingdom, where Prime Minister Tony Blair is widely expected to step down within a few weeks in favor of Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. But first, the issue of the day: France. Voting out Gaullism The lack of interest among French presidential candidates in carrying on France's Gaullist legacy is a crushing defeat for outgoing President Jacques Chirac, Gaullism's flag bearer. Since coming to power as prime minister in 1973, Chirac almost dogmatically has pursued the Gaullist goals of an internationally vibrant and indispensable France that uses Europe as a platform from which to influence global affairs. Such a belief system often led Paris to stand apart from the West during the Cold War, and more directly in opposition to Washington since the Cold War's end. With these elections, that period of French exceptionalism draws to a close. The two finalists in the election drama are center-right Nicolas Sarkozy and socialist Segolene Royal. Barring a dramatic reversal of fortunes, Sarkozy is the man to beat. The first round combined vote for all leftist candidates was only about 37 percent — the lowest in the history of the Fifth Republic — while the 12 percent who voted for hard-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen are almost guaranteed to throw their support behind Sarkozy, who netted 31 percent. That leaves the main election tussle to come over the 18.6 percent of voters supporting Francois Bayrou, a centrist who is ideologically far closer to Sarkozy than Royal. Polls pitting Sarkozy against Royal have consistently highlighted a stable Sarkozy advantage for months. The final round will be held May 10. A France under Sarkozy will be a different place. Sarkozy is about as pro-American and pro-market as a Frenchman can be (which by the American political thermometer still puts him slightly left of center). His biggest challenge in the short term will be proving that he is actually master of his domain. While he is not a Gaullist himself, he is still the heir to the Gaullist legacy. His Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party is the same one that Chirac once led, and the Gaullism and statism that have defined the Fifth Republic remain very much alive within French institutions. Luckily for the next president (assuming it is Sarkozy), the UMP holds 357 of the National Assembly's 599 seats without any allies. Sarkozy has a very wide margin of error for his plans — which is a good thing for him, considering that his ideas about economic reform most certainly rub French nationalists the wrong way. In the longer term, his challenge is far greater. For the past 50 years, to be French was to be in charge of Europe. Sarkozy will be the first French leader to acknowledge that EU expansions into Northern and Central Europe have made that stance unrealistic. In fact, the trick will be to forge a new European balance of power that does not see France fall wholly under the shadow of a re-emerging Germany. That will be no small challenge. Germans outnumber Frenchmen by four to three and the German economy is larger by a similar proportion — and that is despite the last 18 years of largely substandard German economic growth. The Bigger Picture The three most powerful European leaders of today — Schroeder, Chirac and Blair, all of whom led their respective countries for the bulk of the post-Cold War period — are leaving office more or less at the same time. These men also stand out as arguably the three major European leaders most supportive of European integration (Blair was certainly the most pro-European leader ever to come out of London). Their collective departure heralds the demise of the integrationist impulse in Germany, and the re-emergence of more traditional balance-of-power politics. The Russians certainly are working to prepare themselves for such an evolution. During the post-Cold War era, the Kremlin saw the European Union (which in both Russian and French minds meant France with German backup) as a power center to be engaged independently of the United States. But the failure of the EU constitution in 2004, the departure of Schroeder in 2005 and now the imminent departure of Chirac have led Russian policymakers to the distasteful conclusion that, in terms of power politics, the European Union no longer exists — and certainly not as an anti-American bulwark. Consequently, Russia also is evolving — both politically and strategically. The Yeltsin-era experiment with democracy is just as finished as the Putin-era experiment with Westernization. Political and economic consolidation under the rubric of the state is the order of the day, and far from seeking ways to integrate with Europe, the Russians are now operationalizing means of expanding their options. Energy exports constitute the most substantial portion of this new worldview. A new energy network to Asia is (belatedly) under construction in an effort to mitigate Russia's current dependence on European markets. Infrastructure shifts in the west are designed to minimize Russian dependence on any transit states — particularly Ukraine, Poland and Belarus — by shipping crude out of Russian ports. Another new policy is to dangle energy supplies in front of individual powers in an effort to take advantage of the lack of a common front in Europe, so far with some success in Portugal, Hungary, Slovakia and Greece. (Incidentally, the Russian strategy of divide and conquer is remarkably similar to what the Americans have been doing in Eurasia for decades.) Such Russian insinuations are not passing unnoticed — and are triggering backlashes of their own. For example, the European Union fast-tracked Bulgarian and Romanian membership — made official Jan. 1 — in part to lock down the Balkans. Now any Russian influence into the Balkans will need to circumvent the union geographically as well as politically. In Central Europe, Polish reactions to all things Russian are the stuff of legend and have single-handedly stalled negotiations with Moscow on a range of issues from transport to law enforcement. And the Czech Republic, typically far more moderate and considerate of Russian concerns, has joined Poland in participating in the United States' nascent ballistic missile defense program. Even the neutrals are repositioning. Finland and Sweden, long seeking a solution that balances their security needs with their Russian exposure, announced April 15 that they would join NATO's rapid-reaction force, perhaps as a prelude to formal NATO membership. Their current security policies — like the EU structure — exist to serve a different geography. With Russia far weaker than it was during the Cold War, and in their mind also more aggressive, the time could be approaching to formally abandon neutral status. (In Sweden's case, the economic benefit of making its cash- and customer-poor indigenous defense industry part and parcel of the NATO supply chain is no small reason either.) But it really does all come back to the French elections. Gaullism has been Europe's de facto ruling force for half a century. The process of abandoning Gaullism has triggered a cascading series of fundamental realignments across Eurasia, realignments that the Cold War — and the American/Soviet occupation that accompanied it — delayed for more than 50 years. History is moving again in Europe.

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