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23 November 2022

The Ukraine war is shifting Europe’s balance of power from west to east

For the first time since 1989, central and eastern states are spearheading the continent’s response to a major crisis.

By Jeremy Cliffe

In the decades since the fall of the Iron Curtain, to live in central and eastern Europe has often been to experience marginalisation. The reunited continent’s core remained Carolingian: Germany, France and the Low Countries, the nucleus of its leading political (EU) and military (Nato) institutions and the site of its economic heartlands. New members of the EU as well as membership applicants and aspirants beyond were condemned, as Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes argue in their 2020 book The Light That Failed, to imitate Europe’s west and play catch-up with its socio-economic standards.

Many in the continent’s core looked down on those outside it. In 2003, just months before the EU admitted eight former Soviet-bloc states, France’s then president, Jacques Chirac, chided them for “missing a good opportunity to shut up” in debates over the Iraq War. Once inside the EU, they often found themselves in the background of major events: the eurozone crisis largely played out in the south; during the migration crisis they were dismissed as authoritarian intransigents; Europe’s responses both to Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2014 and to the Covid-19 pandemic were spearheaded by France and Germany. No one born east of the Elbe has yet occupied either the post of Nato secretary-general or that of European Commission president.

[See also: Why this crisis could be the international left’s big moment]

Early this year, as Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine loomed, the major EU and Nato powers did not deem Kyiv capable of prolonged resistance and expected to be dealing with a victorious Vladimir Putin soon enough. In the words of Eerik-Niiles Kross, Estonia’s former intelligence chief and now an MP: “Biden, Scholz and Macron were all ironing their shirts in preparation for the negotiations.” Yet the war has forced many to revise their estimations of Ukraine. And more than that: it has shifted Europe’s entire centre of gravity eastwards.

No city today has a better claim to be the spiritual capital of European ideals than Kyiv. Russia’s first attack on Ukraine in 2014 was a response to the pro-EU Maidan movement. That the country is now repelling Putin’s invasion in order to, in part, maintain the freedom to choose a European path is surely the biggest vote of confidence in the history of the project – and why EU leaders granted Ukraine formal accession candidate status in June. With each new battlefield victory, Kyiv has gained more leverage in terms of everything from visits by foreign leaders to military and financial support.

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Elsewhere, reports Tara Varma of the European Council on Foreign Relations from Paris, “Topics that were not so high on the French agenda are really high up it now, like the western Balkans, the Caucasus and how France supports Moldova.” This was apparent in Prague in October when Emmanuel Macron, along with the Czech government, convened the first summit of the European Political Community (EPC), a new forum for political and strategic discussion encompassing the EU but also the Caucasus, the Balkan states and Ukraine. The second EPC summit is planned for Moldova in the spring.

In a speech in September, Olaf Scholz explicitly acknowledged that “the centre of Europe is moving eastwards”, envisaged a future EU expanded from 27 to “30 or 36” members and discussed the reforms needed to make such a union work, such as ending the requirement for unanimity on decisions about foreign policy and tax.

For the first time since 1989, central and eastern states in the EU and Nato are not just at the heart of a major crisis but are also leading the continent’s response. They have welcomed the bulk of the roughly eight million Ukrainian refugees who have fled the war; pioneered and championed sending aid to Kyiv; and agitated successfully for bolder measures from Brussels on European defence and energy security. “The Balts are punching above their weight,” observes Milan Nič of the German Council on Foreign Relations. “The Czechs are having a good presidency [of the EU Council]. The Romanians have been strong on defence issues.” Vocal leaders such as Estonia’s Kaja Kallas and Finland’s Sanna Marin are wielding outsized influence (the latter illustrating how Europe’s centre is tilting not just east but somewhat north, too).

[See more: Europe’s new Iron Lady: Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas]

The most important example is Poland, which is emerging as the main bulwark on Europe’s eastern flank. Nato is pouring new resources into the country, the US is building a new permanent base there, and Warsaw is investing in its army to make it the largest in the EU, with 300,000 troops. That it has the resources to do so points to another development altering Europe’s balance: new member states are converging economically with the old ones. Czechia is now wealthier per head than Spain, and Poland could overtake the UK by 2030.

Poland, however, also presents the biggest caveat to this trend. It is increasingly prosperous, a bridge to Ukraine and an emergent European superpower, but – like Viktor Orbán’s Hungary – it is also politically at odds with Brussels in a way that limits its influence. The populist Polish government’s abuses of the rule of law have prevented the emergence of the Paris-Berlin-Warsaw axis that should be running this new Europe. Yet that might be about to change. Poland’s more liberal opposition will be competitive in next year’s parliamentary election. The outcome of that election will be pivotal for the future of the entirety of Europe – east and west.

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This article appears in the 23 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russian Roulette