Migration is turning Europe back into a medieval mess

A glance at a map of the Holy Roman Empire reveals the tensions bubbling just beneath the surface as the EU is crippled by harsh reality, writes Robert Kaplan


Look at any map of Europe from the Middle Ages or the early modern era, before the Industrial Revolution, and you will be overwhelmed by its dizzying incoherence — all those empires, kingdoms, confederations, minor states, “upper” this and “lower” that. It is a picture of a radically fractured world. Today Europe is, in effect, returning to such a map.

The decades of peace and prosperity, from the 1950s to 2009, when the European Union’s debt crisis began, made the political and economic contours of the continent look simple. There were two coherent blocs for the duration of the Cold War, and they were succeeded by the post-Cold War dream of a united Europe with its single currency. Now, as the EU suffers one blow after another from within and without, history is reversing its course — towards a debilitating complexity, as if the past half-century were just an interregnum in the fear and conflict.

Europe’s divisions have been visible for decades as the EU worked to expand its boundaries and practical reach. There were those countries inside the EU and those outside; those inside the Schengen area and those outside; those able to manage the financial rigours of the eurozone and those unable to do so.

What is less appreciated is the deep roots of these divisions in the continent’s history and geography. The sturdy core of modern Europe approximates in large measure to the Carolingian empire founded by Charlemagne in the 9th century. The first Holy Roman Emperor, he ruled lands stretching from the North Sea down through the Low Countries to beyond the Pyrenees and radiating eastwards to Frankfurt, Milan and so on. The weaker cousins of this Europe extend along the Mediterranean, from the Iberian peninsula to southern Italy and the historically less-developed Balkans, heirs to the Byzantine and Ottoman traditions.

During the decades following the Second World War, this divide was suppressed because of Europe’s relative isolation from its “near abroad” — that is, from the regions of north Africa and Eurasia that for centuries did so much to shape the distinctive character of the continent’s periphery. That wider geography can no longer be ignored, as Europe’s various regions adopt very different attitudes to the threats posed by Russia’s bullying under Vladimir Putin, the flood of refugees from the Middle East and terrorist outrages at home and abroad.

It has become clear that the centralisation imposed for decades by the EU and its distant, unrepresentative bureaucracy hasn’t created a unitary Europe. Indeed, it has created a powerful backlash across the continent, one that the EU can survive only by figuring out how better to establish its legitimacy among its diverse nations.

The geographical defences that shielded Europe during the postwar era no longer hold. When the great mid-20th-century French geographer Fernand Braudel wrote his classic work on the Mediterranean, he didn’t treat the sea itself as Europe’s southern border. That, he suggested, was the Sahara. Today, as if to prove him right, migrant caravans assemble across north Africa for the demographic invasion of Europe proper. The Balkans, too, have resumed their historic role as a corridor of mass migration towards Europe’s centre, the first stop for millions of refugees fleeing the collapsed regimes of Iraq and Syria.

Europe thus now finds itself facing an unhappy historical paradox: the decades in which it was able to develop its high ideals of universal human rights, including the right of the distressed to seek havens in Europe, was made possible, it is now clear, by the oppressive regimes that once held sway on its periphery. The Arab world was slammed shut for decades by prison states whose dictator-wardens kept their people in order. Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Assads in Syria, Muammar Gadaffi in Libya — they allowed Europe to have its idealistic cake and eat it too.

Worse for European unity, geography and history have conspired to make some regions of the continent more vulnerable to the flood of migrants and refugees than others. As Germany and parts of Scandinavia lay down a tentative welcome mat, central European countries such as Hungary and Slovenia erect new razor-wire fences. Another critical factor in the period of stability now coming to an end in Europe was the geopolitical role played by Russia, which is very much back as a strategic player in Europe. Putin’s consolidation of control inside Russia after the infirmity of the Boris Yeltsin era has created a deep divide between Paris and Warsaw, Berlin and Bucharest. If you were a Pole or a Romanian in the 1990s, Russia was conveniently weak and chaotic, and membership of Nato and the EU held out the prospect of lasting peace and prosperity. The strategic horizon is different now: the future of the European enterprise appears uncertain, and a revived Russia, having annexed Crimea and overrun eastern Ukraine, once again threatens your borders.

Here we may be witnessing the start of a remarkable reversal of Cold War alliances. Europe is again dividing in half, but this time it is eastern Europe that wants to draw closer to America because of the perceived threat from Russia. Meanwhile, the countries of western Europe, worried about the tide of refugees and terrorist attacks at home, seek to draw closer to Russia (the Ukraine crisis notwithstanding).

Putin still sees geography and raw power — both military and economic — as the starting point for asserting national interests. Europe’s elites take a different view. After centuries of bloodshed they have largely rejected traditional power politics.

To maintain peace, they have instead placed their hopes on a regulatory regime run by the supranational technocrats of Brussels. In their minds the continent’s divisions could be healed by the social-welfare state and a common currency. Distinctive national identities shaped by centuries of historical and cultural experience would have to give way to the European superstate, whatever the toll on the political legitimacy of the EU among the diverse nations of Europe.

In Britain and much of western Europe, there is now a backlash against the overreaching of Brussels, and it is finding powerful expression in domestic politics. Social-welfare policies once touted as a balm for the continent’s divisions have acted as a drag on national economies, and this stagnation has provided, in turn, the backdrop for nationalist (sometimes reactionary) politics and rising hostility to refugees.

Still another set of concerns is visible in central and eastern Europe. The region from the Baltic states and Poland, south to Romania and Bulgaria and then east to the Caucasus constitutes what I call the Greater Intermarium (Latin for “place between the seas” — in this case between the Baltic and Black). The Intermarium was a concept invented by Jozef Pilsudski, the Polish leader of the 1920s and 1930s, who hoped to see a belt of sturdy democracies between Germany and the Soviet Union to thwart the imperial tendencies of both.

The threat today, of course, is solely from Russia and not from Germany. Germany’s political dominance of Europe should flow naturally from its economic dominance, and that has happened to some degree, with power moving east from Brussels to Berlin. But German leadership remains awkward and hesitant. Of all the European elites, Germany’s in particular has, since the late 1940s, put its faith in European integration, in large part as a way to exorcise the demons of its past.

In the face of multiple crises, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has played a deft political hand, with only occasional setbacks such as the news of sexual assaults committed on New Year’s Eve by migrants in Cologne. Merkel is no Bismarck or Frederick the Great; nor would she want to be. The legacy of Nazism and the ambivalence of sitting between the West and Russia weigh heavily on German leadership.

As the EU continues to fragment, this power vacuum could create a 21st- century equivalent of the late Holy Roman Empire: a rambling, multi-ethnic configuration that was an empire in name but not in fact, until its final dissolution in 1806. This means there is still no alternative to American leadership in Europe. For America, a Europe that continues to fragment internally and to dissolve externally into the fluid geography of northern Africa and Asia would constitute the greatest foreign-policy disaster since the Second World War.

The decades when we thought of Europe as stable, predictable and dull are over. The continent’s map is becoming medieval again, if not yet in its boundaries then at least in its political attitudes and allegiances. The question today is whether the EU can still hope permanently to replace the multicultural Austro-Hungarian empire, which until 1918 sprawled across central and eastern Europe and sheltered its various minorities and interests.

The answer will depend not only on what Europe itself does but also on what America chooses to do. Geography is a challenge, not a fate.

what America chooses to do. Geography is a challenge, not a fate.

Robert D Kaplan is the author of In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond and a senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security

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