THE NEW EASTERN BLOC
Remember the Eastern Bloc, that swathe of countries wedged between western Europe and Russia?
For many years, the very notion of an Eastern Bloc has been analytically meaningless as the region shed its Cold War legacies and integrated itself into Western structures such as the EU and NATO. Well now, an Eastern Bloc is back, and this time it’s no longer a passive object of Great Power politics but is instead taking control of its destiny - and shaping Europe’s future in the process.
To understand what’s going on, we need to recognise three main points about eastern Europe. The first is the incredible distance it has travelled since 1989. After decades of enforced communisation, the countries that emerged from behind the Iron Curtain were in a decrepit state. Their economies were moribund; their institutions captured by communist parties; their civil society embryonic, if existent at all; and the international environment chronically insecure.
The solution they chose was to throw in their lot with western Europe, which had flourished on the other side of the continent’s divide. By joining its various institutions, Europe’s east saw a chance to modernise its economy and rediscover its European identity, while enjoying the security guarantee offered by the United States.
Three decades on, the result is a region transformed – stronger, worldlier and more assured. The most powerful state to arise is Poland, a country of forty million, with the largest regional economy, solid fundamentals, an energetic diaspora and a growing sphere of influence to its east.
Others are also on the move. After a slow start, Romania has emerged as the powerhouse of the Balkans, capitalising on its EU membership to become Europe’s fastest-growing economy. And Hungary has established itself as the region’s intellectual leader – albeit, not without controversy – due to its strong government and willingness to defend what it sees as the ‘true Europe’ of family, church and nation against new external threats.
This brings us to the second key point about the region which is that it sits at the epicentre of geopolitical turbulence unprecedented in recent times. This begins to the south, in the Islamic world, where state failure and the outbreak of conflict has generated huge flows of people towards Europe whose entry point to the continent is the east.
Then there is growing disenchantment with a western-dominated European Union which is now seen by many in the east as a threat as much as an opportunity. Initially the grievance was economic. Eastern Europe was hit hard by the financial crisis at the end of last decade, undermining faith in the virtues of the neoliberal economic model it had imported from the West – even more so when the remedy was a punishing EU-imposed austerity that only prolonged the agony.
Then came the EU’s attempts to export to the east what was seen as a self-inflicted immigration problem in the form of redistribution quotas and, with it, an unwanted multiculturalism. And now, to compound its earlier follies, powerful voices in Paris, Berlin and Brussels are calling for a new round of integration, threatening the very sovereignty which countries in the east joined the EU to uphold.
But their woes do not end here because there is also problem of Russia, which has taken very badly to the EU’s attempts to integrate Ukraine, Russia’s traditional buffer against attack from the west.
Although the country is still the key battleground, Russia has taken the so-called ‘New Cold War’ deep into eastern Europe. Not only has it has surrounded the region militarily, in the Black and Baltic Seas, in Transnistria in Moldova, and in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave bordering Poland and Lithuania. But it has subverted the politics of the region using a mixture of threats, rewards, sanctions, cyber-attack, propaganda and targeted financing of NGOs and political parties – in totality, hybrid warfare.
Which brings us to the third key point about eastern Europe today, namely that the US is back in a big way, at the behest of the region, with the goal of containing Russian influence and preserving its gains from the end of the Cold War.
Since 2014, it has deployed heavy weapons and troops across eastern Europe, including a permanent battalion in Poland; rearmed its NATO allies; established a missile defence shield in Romania; provided weaponry to Ukraine; held near-continuous military exercises, both on land and sea; and tightened co-ordination between the six NATO members closest to Russia’s frontier.
But the US is not the region’s only external sponsor. In recent years, China too has arrived in what it sees as the gateway to the all-important western European market and a crucial link in its Belt and Road Initiative.
Significantly, Beijing conceptualises Europe’s east as a single economic zone, not least because its myriad of investment and infrastructure projects cut across national borders. To this end, it has formed the so-called ‘16+1’, a pan-regional talking shop which meets periodically to plan how China spends its vast reserves of money – so far, everything from motorways and railways lines to power plants, hotels, banks, real estate and football clubs.
The effect of all this has been the emergence (or, to be more precise, the re-emergence) of a distinct geopolitical zone in Europe’s east with a specific set of politics that distinguishes it from Europe’s west. Not only is it motivated by a different set of hopes and fears – above all a desire to protect its sovereignty, culture and identity in the face of new threats. But it is harnessing its growing strength and confidence, and the support provided by its new external sponsors, to stand up for its collective interests.
In the last couple of years, countries as diverse as Estonia and Albania have been meeting, talking, co-ordinating positions, supporting each other’s goals and forming new coalitions in a manner unprecedented in recent times.
The most significant of these is the Visegrad Four comprising Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, a grouping founded in the early nineties to support each other’s westward integration but which has gained new life in their belated attempts to resist it.
The Visegrad Four has led resistance to the EU’s policy of migration quotas and, more broadly, the EU’s perceived attack on the pillars of traditional society. And its three non-Eurozone members have been prominent in opposing the federalisation of the EU and any federalisation of the euro zone which leaves them on the periphery. (Slovakia, which uses the euro, is genuinely conflicted on this issue.)
In matters of security, the key grouping consists of those countries on the frontline of Russian revanchism - Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic States – as well as Ukraine, all of which are now backed by the US. In the Balkans, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia (a non-EU state) have recently formed their own ‘Orthodox’ quadrangle to coordinate positions on issues on common concern.
And alongside these, new ad hoc forums are springing up to deal with the issues of the moment. The Visegrad Four now meets regularly with the six states of the western Balkans to push for their integration into the union. And earlier this month, the so-called Visegrad Four + 4 (Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovenia) met to lobby for an increase in the EU budget after Britain stops contributing.
In short, what has emerged is a series of overlapping circles of states based on shared interests and concerns, that now encompass the entire region. The common denominator in most of these is Poland, reflecting its pre-eminent position as the region’s core state and the heaviest diplomatic hitter. And where Poland is absent, Romania, the core state in its own neighbourhood, is invariably present.
None of this is to suggest that the East is journeying towards some unified regional entity with institutions and defined policy goals – far from it. Amidst a set of common external challenges, variable coalitions have found sufficient common cause to stand together and fight for their collective interests.
But even when they agree on the problem, the region is not always united in its approach. While powerful states such as Poland are happy to smite the EU’s face, smaller countries such as the Baltic States prefer to opt for more passive resistance. Similarly, those countries close to Russia’s border feel compelled to confront it while others, like Hungary and Slovakia which are sheltered behind the Carpathian Mountains, advocate a pragmatic approach.
And when it comes to their own affairs, the region is notoriously fractious, divided by history, geography and identity. Even as they work to promote their common external interests, Slovenia and Croatia are at loggerheads over their maritime border, and Hungary with Romania over the Magyar minority in Transylvania. Moreover, creating a new club would defeat the whole point of their collaboration which is to preserve their national sovereignty, not to have to follow someone else’s rules all over again.
However, there is now a forum which brings the region together and is gaining legs, namely the Three Seas Initiative, launched two years ago by Poland, Romania and Croatia (representing the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas respectively) and comprising every one of the EU’s eastern members.
Formally, the Initiative is focused on the development of ‘north-south’ infrastructure with the aim of promoting intra-regional supply lines after decades in which Russia and Germany have built roads, railways and energy pipelines that run only from east to west. But the objective behind this policy goal is inescapably political since the establishment of vertical infrastructure is intended to enhance the region’s independence, especially from Russia.
Around the edges, the Three Seas members have also engaged in discussions about overtly political topics such as migration, terrorism and the war in Ukraine, with the aim of promoting a common response at the EU level. Put another way, one half the continent is caucusing against the other half.
What’s more, the Three Seas Initiative is explicit in its goal of creating a platform for Chinese and American influence in eastern Europe. Two years ago, China sent its Ministerial Assistant for Foreign Affairs to address the first Three Seas summit in Zagreb. Why? Because the initiative fits with Beijing’s idea of an integrated economic space in eastern Europe, and China no doubt sees a big role for its contractors in building the proposed infrastructure.
But the Initiative also ticks the White House’s boxes, including the chance to expand sales of American LNG, to consolidate an anti-Russian front in eastern Europe and to develop new friendships on the continent as relations with Germany sour. In a hugely symbolic gesture, Donald Trump turned up for the second summit in Warsaw last year where he gave a rousing talk about the defence of the West.
Unsurprisingly, Moscow is hostile to the emergence of a new Eastern Bloc which threatens to destroy Russia’s historic monopoly on the supply of energy to eastern Europe and provides a new opening for the US, close to Russia’s borders. But its emergence is also causing consternation among the EU’s western establishment.
Germany is particularly hostile to attempts to ‘easternise’ the EU by recasting it as union of sovereign nation states, since this runs utterly contrary to its own idea of Europe – cohesive, centralised and impeccably transnational. Berlin is also alarmed at Trump’s attempt to insert himself into the politics of the East, complicating relations with Russia and promoting the trend for ‘illiberal’ democracy which has now taken hold in much of the region. Nor does Germany much like China’s financial sponsorship of eastern Europe, with its associated threats to security and the rule of law.
The inevitable result is that attempts by the east to put pressure on the west have been met with opposite attempts to put pressure on the east, using the institutions of the EU. And the countries most firmly in their sights are those which pose the most serious challenge to the European establishment’s hold on power – Poland, Hungary and Romania.
In the last few weeks, the Commission has triggered the EU’s ‘Article 7’ which threatens Poland with suspension from the Council for its alleged subjugation of the courts. It has floated plans to link EU investment funds to upholding the rule of law, starting with Romania where the EU is exercised by recent judicial reforms. Meanwhile, the European Court of Justice has infracted Hungary for its crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs and the Central European University, owned by the government’s nemesis, George Soros.
All this has implications for Britain. Its decision to leave the EU means it’s out of this dispute. But Britain’s not out of the EU yet and faces the short-term prospect of punishment by the very same forces trying to put down the rebellion in the east. To nobody’s surprise, the EU has decided to play a Machiavellian game of divide-and-rule in Britain in a bid to weaken its negotiating position. If London should ever feel minded to deploy the same tactics against Europe and turn the politics to its own advantage, it knows where to begin.
But Britain should tread carefully because forces have been unleashed which could be hard to contain. A group of countries in the Europe’s east, which traditionally end up losing when the geopolitics turn bad, has learned the lesson of history and decided for once to pre-empt its fate. In doing so, its attempts to stand up to Germany and Russia by drawing in the US and China have sharply raised the stakes. The situation is unprecedented and the outcome unpredictable.