Muhammad Ali said you never get knocked out by a punch you see coming. But despite being telegraphed for months, the Russian invasion of Ukraine had that effect on both Germany and France – and they are still wobbling.
The contours of a new landscape are becoming clear: the restoration of the nation-state as a primary actor, and the renewed importance of the working class and “left behind” places in democratic elections. This is connected to the disintegration of globalisation and the emergence of distinct alliances that take ideological as well as regional forms. The dominant factor is that the two main underwriters of globalisation, the United States and China, are no longer aligned. This is leading to a change in the balance of power within Europe.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine was the event that shattered the old consensus. There were two supranational political institutions in Europe. One was the European Union. The other was the Russian Federation, which includes Kaliningrad, Chechnya and, since 2014, Crimea; Georgia, Armenia and Belarus remain closely aligned, politically, economically and militarily as well. There was no disputing the primacy of Moscow within this alliance. The religion was Orthodox and the language was Russian.
The European Union had a shared leadership between France and Germany, with France taking the predominant military and diplomatic role and Germany the economic one. The legal framework was based upon the primacy of EU law within member states. This led to significant tensions in both the east and west of Europe. The UK voted to leave the EU in 2016 and succeeded in doing so by the start of 2020. Poland and Hungary dissented strongly over social issues but remained within the bloc over economic policy. Germany was given priority in relation to policy towards the east. It assumed responsibility for integrating the Visegrád countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – within the single market and was the leading investor within the EU.
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The status quo was based on an understanding over the export of gas (as well as oil and coal) from Russia to Germany, most obviously through the Nord Stream pipeline. Berlin and Moscow held the fate of central Europe in their hands once more. German economic interests were predominant, partly because the EU did not develop a unified military strategy of its own.
This is what made the status of Ukraine so explosive. Its integration into either the EU or Nato was not in German interests. It would undermine its economic interests, as the only serious industrial economy within the EU, which were predicated upon cheap energy imports from Russia.
The invasion of Ukraine moved the focus from the economic to the military sphere, in which Germany was both weaker and more reluctant. France shared this antipathy. A military confrontation with Russia would shift power and resources to Nato, which would lead to a resurgence of US (and British) power within Europe. The incorporation of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into Nato in 1999, followed by the Baltic states, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004, changed the military balance of power in significant ways that are now playing out.
It was widely assumed within academic and elite political discourse that Brexit would lead to the marginalisation of Britain within Europe, and to the consolidation of the Franco-German axis within the EU. The opposite has been the case.
Following the invasion of Ukraine, Britain took an unambiguous position of military and political support for the beleaguered Ukrainian state. While the US was offering President Volodymyr Zelensky asylum, Britain immediately transferred weapons and led the western European political response with an unprecedented array of economic sanctions against Russia. It seemed as if Brexit had strengthened its freedom of action at a time of war. In parallel to this, Poland led the eastern European response. It opened its borders to refugees and transferred weapons. The alliance between Poland and Britain was transformative of Nato and the EU.
It revealed a new coalition between east and west, and isolated Germany in northern Europe. The Baltic states immediately gravitated towards the Anglo-Polish position, as did the Scandinavian countries. Sweden and Finland abandoned 70 years of neutrality when they applied to join Nato. The US began to provide more powerful weaponry to Ukraine as well as to share intelligence. In the first nine months of the war, President Emmanuel Macron engaged in telephone conversations with Vladimir Putin while Germany was reluctant to provide anything more than helmets.
The Polish government was publicly critical of Germany, even going so far as to claim reparations for economic damages from the Second World War. The Visegrád alliance crumbled as Hungary allied more closely with both Germany and Russia.
The emergence of Ukraine as a military actor was crucial in this. It was assumed Russia would crush it in a matter of days – but it did not. This opened the space for the British initiative and its alliance with Poland. Such acts were not spontaneous. A bilateral dialogue between Poland and the UK was well-established and Britain had been deepening its military alliance with Ukraine since the Russian conquest of Crimea. What was remarkable was the intensification of these partnerships in a real-time military and political coalition, which created geopolitical space for the Scandinavian and Baltic states.
Machiavelli wrote that political leadership is the ability to “act in time”. Britain and Poland both did this, France and Germany could not. Their interests and analysis impeded their ability to understand and act. This opened the space within Nato for the US to take a more active role and for northern European states to join the strengthened military alliance. Nato founder members such as Italy became irrelevant; France and Germany lost trust and confidence.
Lenin once observed that “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”. The invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation was one of those moments. France and Germany lost their ascendancy, Poland and Britain came to the fore, the Baltic and Scandinavian countries joined the new coalition, leaving Germany isolated within northern Europe. The Netherlands also actively supported the British-Polish alliance. The balance of power in Europe shifted east and west against the middle. And this process has only just begun.
The Labour leadership, which yearns for the UK to return to the EU, struggles to understand the changes that have gone on within its lost homeland. It still places France and Germany at the centre of European power – but this reality no longer exists.
Northern and eastern Europe are acutely alert to the violence of Russia’s intent. Ancestral memories were stirred by the horrific scenes in Ukraine, at Bucha, Mariupol and Bakhmut, and the response was immediate: conscription and intensified military alliances.
Labour has indicated it would not depart from the government’s position on Ukraine. This will necessitate intense engagement with eastern Europe and its rightwards turn. But the party still seems to be yearning for the alliances and framework of a world that is no more – Germany and France are not leading the construction of a new era.
[See also: The delusion of a new European empire]