Europe’s Spheres of Influence
We therefore see Europe evolving into a set of regionalized groupings. These organizations may have different ideas about security and economic matters, one country may even belong to more than one grouping, but for the most part membership will largely be based on location on the Continent. This will not happen overnight. Germany, France and other core economies have a vested interest in preserving the eurozone in its current form for the short term — perhaps as long as another decade — since the economic contagion from Greece is an existential concern for the moment. In the long term, however, regional organizations of like-minded blocs is the path that seems to be evolving in Europe, especially if Germany decides that its relationship with core eurozone countries and Central Europe is more important than its relationship with the periphery.
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We can separate the blocs into four main fledgling groupings, which are not mutually exclusive, as a sort of model to depict the evolving relationships among countries in Europe:
1.The German sphere of influence (Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia, Switzerland, Slovenia, Slovakia and Finland): These core eurozone economies are not disadvantaged by Germany’s competitiveness, or they depend on German trade for economic benefit, and they are not inherently threatened by Germany’s evolving relationship with Russia. Due to its isolation from the rest of Europe and proximity to Russia, Finland is not thrilled about Russia’s resurgence, but occasionally it prefers Germany’s careful accommodative approach to the aggressive approach of neighboring Sweden or Poland. Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are the most concerned about the Russia-Germany relationship, but not to the extent that Poland and the Baltic states are, and they may decide to remain in the German sphere of influence for economic reasons.
2.The Nordic regional bloc (Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia): These mostly non-eurozone states generally see Russia’s resurgence in a negative light. The Baltic states are seen as part of the Nordic sphere of influence (especially Sweden’s), which leads to problems with Russia. Germany is an important trade partner, but it is also seen as overbearing and as a competitor. Finland straddles this group and the German sphere of influence, depending on the issue.
3.Visegrad-plus (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria): At the moment, the Visegrad Group members belong to different spheres of influence. The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary do not feel as exposed to Russia’s resurgence as Poland or Romania do. But they also are not completely satisfied with Germany’s attitude toward Russia. Poland is not strong enough to lead this group economically the way Sweden dominates the Nordic bloc. Other than security cooperation, the Visegrad countries have little to offer each other at the moment. Poland intends to change that by lobbying for more funding for new EU member states in the next six months of its EU presidency. That still does not constitute economic leadership.
4.Mediterranean Europe (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and Malta): These are Europe’s peripheral states. Their security concerns are unique due to their exposure to illegal immigration via routes through Turkey and North Africa. Geographically, these countries are isolated from the main trade routes and lack the capital-generating centers of northern Europe, save for Italy’s Po River Valley (which in many ways does not belong to this group but could be thought of as a separate entity that could be seen as part of the German sphere of influence). These economies therefore face similar problems of over-indebtedness and lack of competitiveness. The question is, who would lead?
And then there are France and the United Kingdom. These countries do not really belong to any bloc. This is London’s traditional posture with regard to continental Europe, although it has recently begun to establish a relationship with the Nordic-Baltic group. France, meanwhile, could be considered part of the German sphere of influence. Paris is attempting to hold onto its leadership role in the eurozone and is revamping its labor-market rules and social benefits to sustain its connection to the German-dominated currency bloc, a painful process. However, France traditionally is also a Mediterranean country and has considered Central European alliances in order to surround Germany. It also recently entered into a new bilateral military relationship with the United Kingdom, in part as a hedge against its close relationship with Germany. If France decides to exit its partnership with Germany, it could quickly gain control of its normal sphere of influence in the Mediterranean, probably with enthusiastic backing from a host of other powers such as the United States and the United Kingdom. In fact, its discussion of a Mediterranean Union was a political hedge, an insurance policy, for exactly such a future.
The Price of Regional Hegemony
The alternative to the regionalization of Europe is clear German leadership that underwrites — economically and politically — greater European integration. If Berlin can overcome the anti-euro populism that is feeding on bailout fatigue in the eurozone core, it could continue to support the periphery and prove its commitment to the eurozone and the European Union. Germany is also trying to show Central Europe that its relationship with Russia is a net positive by using its negotiations with Moscow over Moldova as an example of German political clout.
Central Europeans, however, are already putting Germany’s leadership and commitment to the test. Poland assumes the EU presidency July 1 and has made the union’s commitment to increase funding for new EU member states, as well as EU defense cooperation, its main initiatives. Both policies are a test for Germany and an offer for it to reverse the ongoing security regionalization. If Berlin says no to new money for the newer EU member states — at stake is the union’s cohesion-policy funding, which in the 2007-2013 budget period totaled 177 billion euros — and no to EU-wide security/defense arrangements, then Warsaw, Prague and other Central European capitals have their answer. The question is whether Germany is serious about being a leader of Europe and paying the price to be the hegemon of a united Europe, which would not only mean funding bailouts but also standing up to Russia. If it places its relationship with Russia over its alliance with Central Europe, then it will be difficult for Central Europeans to follow Berlin. This will mean that the regionalization of Europe’s security architecture — via the Visegrad Group and Nordic-Baltic battle groups — makes sense. It will also mean that Central Europeans will have to find new ways to draw the United States into the region for security.
Common security perception is about states understanding that they share the same fate. American states understood this at the end of the 18th century, which is why they gave up their independence, setting the United States on the path toward superpower status. Europeans — at least at present — do not see their situation (or the world) in the same light. Bailouts are enacted not because Greeks share the same fate as Germans but because German bankers share the same fate as German taxpayers. This is a sign that integration has progressed to a point where economic fate is shared, but this is an inadequate baseline on which to build a common political union.
Bailing out Greece is seen as an affront to the German taxpayer, even though that same German taxpayer has benefited disproportionally from the eurozone’s creation. The German government understands the benefits of preserving the eurozone — which is why it continues bailing out the peripheral countries — but there has been no national debate in Germany to explain this logic to the populace. Germany is still waiting to have an open conversation with itself about its role and its future, and especially what price it is willing to pay for regional hegemony and remaining relevant in a world fast becoming dominated by powers capable of harnessing the resources of entire continents.
Without a coherent understanding in Europe that its states all share the same fate, the Greek crisis has little chance of being Europe’s Shays’ Rebellion, triggering deeper unification. Instead of a United States of Europe, its fate will be ongoing regionalization.
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Read more: The Divided States of Europe | STRATFOR