EU Dream Unravels as Putin Jets Defy End of Berlin Wall

Europe’s post-Cold War order is fraying and there’s no consensus over how to stitch it back together.

Some blame the European debt crisis for exposing the folly of the drive for economic unification. Some point to Vladimir Putin for redrawing the map by force and sending his warplanes to buzz NATO borders. For others, the vision of a peaceful, post-national Europe died off with the World War II generation.

The makers of European memory will ponder those questions this weekend, marking on Sunday the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the ensuing euro-euphoria. The lessons of the intervening quarter-century are more sobering.

“The easy assumption was that the international liberal order was prevailing,” said Nick Witney, a former head of the European Defence Agency, who is now with the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. “The fact is that those who don’t share those values are coming back. We’re not somehow riding the wheel of history any more than communism was.”

A few of the original builders of the post-Cold War European Union and euro are still at it. The European Commission’s new president, Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, traces his career back past the 1991 negotiations in Maastricht, the Netherlands that paved the way to the single currency.

Juncker’s mission as the EU’s top civil servant is primarily defensive. The turn-of-the-century notion that Europe could export its economic model to places like China, India and Latin America has given way to renewed global power politics with Europe’s heft much diminished.

Stuttering Recovery

The EU’s stuttering recovery from the debt crisis underlines that weakness. The euro economy will muster 0.8 percent growth in 2014 after two years of contraction, the commission said this week. It last outperformed the U.S. in 2008 at the start of the financial crisis.

The economic malaise coincides with Putin’s seizure of Crimea and what the U.S. and EU say is Russia’s backing of the rebellion in eastern Ukraine -- something the Kremlin denies. In the long run, the European reaction, including sanctions on Russia, aid for Ukraine and the stiffening of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s eastern defenses, may point to a more cohesive Europe.

NATO says its jets have intercepted Russian aircraft 100 times this year, three times last year’s total. NATO tracked Russian military planes including fighters, long-range bombers and tankers over the Baltic region, the North Sea, the Black Sea and the Atlantic Ocean for three days in late October.

Europe Fragmenting

“Europe has a number of forces that are fragmenting it right now,” said Christopher Chivvis, a European security analyst at the Rand Corp. in Washington. “To a certain degree, Putin increases the fragmentation. But I think that on the whole, especially as people in Europe absorb the reality of what’s happened in Ukraine, it’s going to tend to create a more unified European response.”

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who led negotiations on behalf of West Germany for the 1990 reunification, joked at Berlin panel discussion on Nov. 3: “Who knows, maybe one day President Putin will get the Charlemagne Prize for work done in the service of European unity.”

For now, however, Putinism isn’t without its apologists. Some architects of the new Europe have turned against their creation. The most notable is Viktor Orban, a leader of the anti-Soviet student movement in 1989 who, as prime minister of Hungary, now preaches the downfall of the liberal model he helped usher in.

‘Illiberal State’

Building what he calls an “illiberal state,” Orban has spoken admiringly of Putin and cut energy-supply deals with Russia in defiance of the EU. Orban’s party has rammed through a new constitution, curtailed the powers of the judiciary, clamped down on media and academic freedoms, and won another term this year in an election criticized by international observers.

“Orban started his career as a freedom fighter, as one of the most liberal and anti-Russian politicians in central Europe,” said Andras Racz, a Hungarian who is a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki. “He has since conducted a 180-degree ideological shift.”

EU leaders, bound by treaty to uphold Bill of Rights-style liberties, are unsure what to do about Orban. Partly they are distracted by the EU’s economic woes and turmoil on its eastern and southern flanks. Partly they are loathe to repeat a loosely organized boycott of Austria in 2000 after a nationalist party joined the government there.

Lost Identity

In any case, there’s more than enough nationalism to go around in the European heartland. Parties with grievances against immigration, the euro, the EU and a sense of lost identity have made electoral inroads in Britain, France, Greece, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, Austria -- and even Germany, long seen as immune to bouts of populism.

As a result, the map is in flux. While Scotland voted to stay part of the U.K. in a September referendum, all British citizens will have the opportunity to vote themselves out of the EU in 2017 if Prime Minister David Cameron is re-elected next year. Spain is nagged by a separatist movement in Catalonia, its largest regional economy.

“This is the worst possible time for geopolitical risk to be hitting the European continent,” Ian Bremmer, head of Eurasia Group, a New York-based risk consultancy, said this week on “Bloomberg Surveillance.” “On the one hand, you have an external environment that is much worse for the Europeans than anyone else. On the other hand, you have internal populism that’s going to make the Europeans grow farther apart.”

History Lessons

In Europe this year, history is in. Or rather, rival histories, with multiple lessons. EU leaders met near the battlefields of Ypres, Belgium, in June to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I and pledged to seize the “moment of political renewal.”

June also saw the 70th anniversary of D-Day, with Putin and Ukraine’s leader invited to the Normandy ceremonies in the hope of reaching a Russia-Ukraine settlement. September featured the 75th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland -- and, commemorated more quietly, of the Soviet invasion 16 days later.

The opening of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, is a day laden with German historical baggage. On that date in 1918 the Kaiser abdicated, sealing Germany’s loss in World War I; Adolf Hitler’s Munich Beer Hall Putsch was defeated in 1923; and the Nazi persecution of German Jews escalated on that date in 1938 with the Kristallnacht smashing of synagogues and Jewish shops.

Germany’s leader on the day the Wall fell, Helmut Kohl, is credited for much that went right since then and blamed for much that went wrong. Now 84 and ailing, Kohl -- the EU’s only living “honorary citizen” -- made a rare public appearance this week in Frankfurt with a vague, nostalgia-tinged appeal for Europe to live up to its ideals.

“It’s not yet too late for Europe,” Kohl said.

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