Will Europe be mastered by history in 2023?

One of the standard aphorisms in my political risk business — used to describe whether a country is rising or falling — is as brutal as it is profound. Either a country is mastering history, so the shorthand goes, or history is mastering it. There is little doubt that Europe, over the last sleepy generation, has been mastered by larger global political forces it was barely even aware of, as it lay basking in the sunny false dawn following the end of the Cold War.

One of the standard aphorisms in my political risk business — used to describe whether a country is rising or falling — is as brutal as it is profound. Either a country is mastering history, so the shorthand goes, or history is mastering it. There is little doubt that Europe, over the last sleepy generation, has been mastered by larger global political forces it was barely even aware of, as it lay basking in the sunny false dawn following the end of the Cold War.

But, with the coming of the Ukraine war and the stirrings of the Sino-American strategic competition for dominance in the Indo-Pacific, we have reached the end of the end of history. Suddenly, global geopolitics and great power competition are all the intellectual rage again, though in truth they never really departed from the scene. Instead, and nowhere more so than in Europe, their enduring importance was merely conveniently forgotten as the continent ruinously chose to take an intellectual holiday from history. But time waits for no man — nor for any decadent continent, either. The damage done by this willful ignorance of how the world really works is only now becoming apparent.

By every great power measure, Europe is a mess. The three basic pillars of power have remained the same since the time of the ancient Greeks. What is the state of a country’s army? What is the state of a country’s economy? How politically unified is a country to act both within and beyond its borders? By these exacting and unchanging political risk standards, Europe remains a busted flush as a great power, a political entity promising much and perpetually underdelivering.

First, the continent punches way below its weight in terms of its military. Germany, both Europe’s greatest power and the source of many of its ills, is a case in point. Berlin long has outsourced its military policy to America, its energy policy to Russia (ruinously), and its trade policy to China. Rather than serving as the engine of the European Union as a rising power, instead Germany has been an intellectual black hole over the past generation, where every good idea for Europe’s revival goes to die.

Defense spending estimates for 2022 make the case clearly for Europe being overrun by lotus-eaters. Whereas the U.S. will spend 3.5 percent of its GDP on defense, only France comes close to NATO’s required 2 percent of spending at 1.9 percent. In contrast, Italy will spend only 1.5 percent, Germany a laughable 1.4 percent, and Spain a risible 1 percent. This isn’t remotely intellectually serious even as the problem has festered for a generation. I remember telling the former head of the German armed forces that my high school football team could take the German army — and I wasn’t far off the mark.

The problem with having only carrots (economic tools) without any sticks (military tools) is that such a strategy works only in a world populated entirely by rabbits. And, say what you will of them, neither President Vladimir Putin of Russia nor President Xi Jinping of China are rabbits. Europe is simply not fit for purpose in a world where military force still matters, as it has every day since the dawn of time.

Economically, Europe is also so much less than meets the eye. While possessing a huge internal market roughly equal to that of the U.S., its sclerotic economic model means the continent falls ever further relatively behind rising great powers such as China and India, as well as the emerging developing world. Again, Germany — the continent’s undoubted economic powerhouse — best explains the problem. Here the Ukraine war has done more than point out Germany’s military follies; it also underlines the fact that its vaunted economic model is now irretrievably broken.

The German model was based on buying cheap Russian energy to make high-end products (machine tools, petrochemicals, luxury cars) that were, in turn, swallowed up by an economically ravenous China. Now, in our dawning age of insecurity, the Russian cheap energy inputs that the German model requires are definitively at an end, even as the outputs — assured access over time to China’s market, assuming it to continue booming and assuming geopolitical tensions with Beijing can be contained — is more up in the air than ever. The German model is definitively broken, and nothing has yet emerged to take its place.

At the same time, Europe has become a daycare center, chock full of a decadent population used to taking more out of the continent than they put in. For example, at the end of September, opinion polls in France showed that around 55 percent of its populace want the pension age to stay the same (62), or to drop back to 60, the demand of both the far left around Jean-Luc Melenchon, and the far right around Marine Le Pen, who between them can block the reformist urges of President Emmanuel Macron in the French parliament.

It is not that Macron has not identified the obvious, glaring problem. He has said, “The truth is that we have to work more and produce more in our country … if we are to keep the French social model.” But a continent in advanced-stage decadence finds this almost impossible to countenance emotionally and intellectually. The notion that people are living dramatically longer than when the safety net was first constructed, and that this requires all of us to work longer, is seen as almost a war crime even to mention. But economic reality exists, whether you choose to ignore it or not.

Finally, Europe is a Tower of Babel. How could it be otherwise? There are 27 countries in the European Union; I could not cajole 27 of my friends to agree on a common ice cream flavor, let alone something as complicated as reaching a genuine consensus over setting out a common foreign policy. As such, the EU’s policy outputs, even when generally on the money, will always amount to half-measures, compromises that do not genuinely “solve” any of its problems.

The common position on Ukraine is a case in point. Beneath a surface agreement about the war, deep fissures exist on the continent, with the Poles and the British downright hawkish, while the Germans, French and Italians (in terms of public opinion) are far more eager to end the war on almost any terms. As the war drags on into 2023, look for these hairline cracks to become canyons.

Militarily anemic, economically sclerotic, and politically divided — this is the reality of a Europe that has been mastered by history over the past generation. It must face up to these festering problems or be definitively swept into the second tier of powers. And there is simply no more time to waste.

This piece was originally published in The Hill.

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