It’s perishing cold...

The Russian attack in Ukraine, the war in Syria, the refugee crisis, a crumbling Libya, al-Sisi’s Egypt, a divided Europe. It’s a cold war in the making.

The fall of the Soviet Empire did not turn out to be the end of history, and it is becoming increasingly clear that it was not the end of geography either. Everywhere, but especially in Europe, where the effects of the fall of the Berlin Wall were most strongly felt, it had seemed that the paradigm had shifted.

The end of the Cold War appeared to have initiated a phase in which ‘hard power’ struggles were being replaced with the use of ‘soft power’. But the events of the last two years have shown that the EU actually faces a very different reality: power and strength are once again key features of geopolitics, and there is talk of a new cold war. The reassertion of policies founded on hard power will require new choices, new forms of analysis and new paradigms.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on the Ukraine and the consequent annexation of the Crimea were the first signs of the return of a more muscular approach to geopolitics in Europe. The war in Syria and the consequent refugee crisis is another (Moscow’s intervention can be seen there, too).

To the south, the decline of Libya is yet a third sign. And the situation in Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi further illustrates how much European governments must now balance their sense of justice and geopolitical interests within a new form of realism in foreign policy. The Italian government’s experience with the murder of PhD student Giulio Regeni in Egypt is a case in point. But perhaps the best example of this changing reality is German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approach to Turkey: until a few months ago, she was wholeheartedly opposed to Turkey joining the European Union; now the refugee crisis has forced the her to perform a U-turn and to reach an agreement with the authoritarian regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seemingly at any cost. This too is proof of a new, extreme realism in foreign policy. Geopolitical stakes have been raised in other regions of the world as well, in particular in South East Asia and around the South China Sea. But it is within Europe and around its borders that the changing season is most evident, dangerous and in need of new responses.

The challenges facing Europe require new policies on two levels. The first concerns, above all, the EU’s relationship with Russia, one that is delicate and risks dividing current European partners. The Cold War logic of creating more walls is a temptation in some countries in Eastern Europe. But if this mentality prevails, the political and economic costs could be higher than a mere loss of business opportunities. A new cold war would require shifting considerable resources from growth projects toward strategic plans aimed at freezing the balance of power. It would force the EU to change at least part of its policies in order to contest the Kremlin, and it would heighten internal divisions. Avoiding this fate will not be easy. It will depend on both European governments and, to a large degree, decisions that will be made by the Kremlin.

Putin appears to be set on fomenting divisions within Europe and interfering with the politics of certain countries, according to recent German intelligence reports. Nonetheless, the main aim of Merkel’s leadership over the last two years seems to have been to keep the EU united on the question of Russia. This task will become ever more complicated in the near future, not only because the Chancellor is politically weaker after the refugee crisis but also because of the new alliance between Brussels and Turkey, a country set on a collision course with Moscow. Relations among Russia, Germany and the rest of the Europeans are almost certain to become even more confrontational. The geopolitical development of relations with Russia will be the single most important test of a new phase for Europe, one that promises to be extremely difficult but fundamental in determining the future of the EU.

The other level of response required from the EU is of a more general character and relates to its position in the world. One common view is that during the Cold War, everything was fundamentally more clear and, in some senses, more comfortable. For many reasons, it is difficult to argue with this point of view. But a new cold war today would be completely different from that of the Soviet Era. The EU is larger, but also more divided, and some of its neighbours are completely unpredictable. Putin is less predictable than Brezhnev, for example. Moreover, unstable regimes have emerged following the Arab ‘revolutions’, and the insidious terrorists at war with the West are not governed by state powers. The United States, a political and military umbrella in the years of confrontation between the two superpowers, is now less committed to the European and Middle Eastern geopolitical chessboards. Within such a context, the current, unprecedented divisions between European partners would indicate that were the chill of a new cold war to set in, no matter who was responsible, the EU would risk falling apart. This is certainly an outcome worth avoiding. In a period in which the refugee crisis, stresses on the monetary union, bank instability, Brexit and geopolitical pressures are causing chaos within the Union, the question has become how such a fate can be avoided.

After years in which Europe thought it possible to take only a relative interest in what was occurring beyond its (undefended) borders, and that it was sufficient to concentrate on the crisis at home, the time has come for a broader outlook. In order to avoid a cold war stalemate with Russia and/or others, the EU, which during this important phase means the leading governments within the EU, needs a paradigm shift. Key to this will be an understanding that unity does not only depend on the completion of the monetary union but also on a shared stance in relation to the rest of the world. This would mean a foreign policy capable of holding together 28 countries while still dealing with a difficult and sometimes hostile world. Economic interests would no longer be the number one priority but, rather, the strategic interests of the Union. Establishing and recognising these interests would signal the return of geopolitics while relegating the concept of realism in foreign policy to the history books.

There is nothing easy about all of this. The twin crises currently taking place on the Old Continent leave the impression that the situation is too confused and, in some cases, has deteriorated too much to be governed moving forward. But if it is true that Europe evolves and grows during periods of crisis, now is the moment to learn how to confront Putin, Sisi, Erdogan, Islamic State and all of the other challenges of globalization. The EU must face the world. The alternative is not to seek the shelter of a cold but convenient war; it is to enter into a cold war that would destroy the European Union.

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