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Feb 01, 2023

Europe: Crossing the East-West divide

German Leopard 2 tanks
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A new alignment challenges France and Germany as drivers of European politics – offering Britain a chance for influence.

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Something is afoot in Europe. Last week, a group of European states lost patience with Berlin as the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz strained transatlantic relations with his insistence that the United States match the German supply of tanks to Ukraine. If it coheres into a more formal alignment, this group could reshuffle European order – heralding the kind of setup that the UK envisaged before it left the European Union: faster moving, more focused on Europe’s security responsibilities, more intergovernmental and transactional.

The war in Ukraine has accelerated a 15-year trend in Europe that has pushed political authority away from a Franco-German core towards the fringes and the front-line states, away from the north-south axis of Paris and Berlin towards an east-west one now bracketed by the UK and Poland, and away from states that claim historical ownership of the EU and towards states that joined the bloc after 2004. Germany and France still monopolise the levers of power in Europe, but they have lost the authority to use them.

Until now, the European periphery, and in particular Central European states such as Poland, have not managed to marshal a constructive counterbalance to the Franco-German motor. During the 2010 sovereign debt crisis, they were side-lined. During the 2015 migration crisis they played a spoiler role. But they have slowly learned from these defeats, casting off their sense of deference to Germany and coming up with their own agenda for Europe.

On the weekend of 22nd January, France and Germany celebrated 60 years as the “motor of European integration” as if it were business as usual. It was not. Three days prior, Central European and Baltic states had met in Tallinn and pledged military support for Ukraine, shaming France and Germany for their grindingly slow action. They were joined by the UK, and by two states that had until recently been trying to befriend Germany and France – the Netherlands and Denmark.

All eyes may now be on Poland which played a particular role in bouncing Germany into supplying Leopard tanks to Ukraine, but Britain was a significant catalyst in this power shift. After the chaos of Brexit, Boris Johnson seized upon Russia’s war against Ukraine as a way to re-establish Britain’s international reputation, and to do so at the expense of France and Germany. When the EU struggled with sanctions or arms deliveries Johnson made a point of moving quicker. This inspired Central Europe.

If the countries that met in Tallinn do cohere into an east-west alignment, they will need Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands to firm up as a pivot. These states clung to the UK when it was still an EU member, and have had to undergo a painful reorientation since Brexit, reaching out to Germany and France. In Tallinn the Netherlands in particular seemed surprised to find itself lined up against Berlin. Dutch PM Mark Rutte speaking after the pledge was made was suddenly effusive in his praise for what Germany had done for Ukraine.

But the real swing state is probably Britain. The Franco-German motor was a prime reason for the UK leaving the European Union: Britain was unable to nudge the pair to change and modernise, but could find no way to compete with their tight relationship. After last week, the UK finally has a chance to establish a counterbalance which would potentially be positive for European order and permit non-EU states such as Britain, Norway and Ukraine to influence European order.

But its response, it seems, is to hedge. Johnson would likely have taken a punt, seeing a way to definitively rehabilitate Britain’s reputation at the expense of France and Germany. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, more cautious by nature, wants to see how things play out. But avoiding a choice is to make a choice: if Sunak does not help shore up this almost accidental alignment it will amount to nothing and Britain will find itself even more in the doghouse than before.

Why? Three reasons.

First, Poland is unable on its own to sustain a constructive counterbalance to Germany without the UK. Poland has been exemplary in the war, but – like Johnson – its motivation has often been to make Germany look bad. Johnson did this for tactical reasons, to re-establish British standing. Poland does this for reasons of identity. States like the Netherlands and Denmark treat Poland with suspicion.

Second, defence affairs will soon be eclipsed by economic issues as the constitutive forces in European order. The war has momentarily passed authority to those countries with military capabilities and a will to use them. But with anger at the US Inflation Reduction Act, and the domestic cost of sanctions apparent, the focus will return to the EU economy. The Netherlands and Nordics will return to the fold.

And last, this is not the first time Germany has stubbornly isolated itself from its neighbours. It has done so repeatedly in crises over the past 15 years. Rather than repairing relations through careful bilateral diplomacy, it does so via the EU, showing the benefits of clubbing together, for instance in allowing Europeans to push to the front of the global queue for vaccines. The UK will soon find itself a target of EU assertiveness as Germany tries to repair relations within its core partners.  

If the Sunak government does not wish to take a punt on this new alignment, therefore, there is only one smart option – turn its back on the Central European countries it has encouraged over the past five years, and join with France and Germany, shoring them up whilst they are momentarily down. It will be interesting to see what kind of European order emerges if the UK does now turn its back on Poland and align with Germany, in pursuit of a better accommodation for itself with the status quo.

Bibliographic data

This article was first published by The Lowy Institute on January 31st here.