Peter Szopo of Erste Asset Management -
In his new book “Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe”, George Friedman writes about Europe – its rise since the 15th century, its downfall in the 31 years between 1914 and 1945, and its subsequent resurrection. The latter is closely linked to the creation, expansion and deepening of the European Union, which the historian Cristopher M. Clark (of “Sleepwalkers} fame) in a recent speech called euphorically “one of the biggest achievements in the history of mankind” (my own translation from German). Friedman is more sceptical. While he acknowledges that the EU has achieved its main goal of pacifying France and Germany, he does not seem convinced that after centuries of fragmentation and after the horrifying wars in the 20th century the potential of renewed conflict has been erased. He concludes, “that Europe’s history of conflict is far from over” (p.251) – which also summarizes the book’s main thesis. The supposedly frozen conflict in Ukraine and Jean-Claude Juncker’s recent call for the creation of a European army in order to show Russia “that we are serious about defending European values” are signs that Friedman’s fears are not unfounded.
The technical term for what Friedman delivers, I guess, is a “tour de force”. He covers some 600 years of European history, elaborates on Luther’s and Bacon’s contribution to the Enlightenment, and has something to say about places as far apart as Cabo di São Vicente, the most Western part of Portugal, and Ani, an ancient city in the Turkish-Armenian borderland – all in little more than 250 pages. Friedman’s writing, to paraphrase Roger Daltry from The Who, is not always good, but when it is good, it is very good. Some parts of the books were seemingly written in haste and are probably based on some of the shorter pieces the author wrote in his capacity as an expert for Stratfor, the think-tank he founded. Many sections of the book, however, are exceptionally well argued and full of original and quotable insights.
Europe – a continent full of flashpoints?
The key theme, which also gave the book its title, is the author’s search for flashpoints – places that in the past were focal points of repeated and often severe conflict between nations or religions. Unsurprisingly, one finds them in borderlands, of which there are many in Europe, given the continent’s ethnic and religious fragmentation as well as the long history of expanding and shrinking empires. Some of the most contested places in the past are seemingly quiet now – the Alsace, for example, or the Channel – but other places with a bellicose history, are again or still sources of instability. Prime examples are the Mediterranean Sea plus neighbourhood, the Turkish-Kurdish borderlands and, of course, Ukraine.
As a geopolitical observer, Friedman is a realist. His arguments are mostly based on geography, access to resources, national interests and international trade. In his attempts to understand and explain the relations and confrontations between nations and religions, he rarely refers to ideology, to the role and intentions of individual political leaders, or to international law. While many commentators framed the conflict in Ukraine as the attack on ‘European values’ by an aggressive, humiliated Russian leader with traits of madness, Friedman prefers to point to the fact that extending Nato membership to Ukraine would result in the Western alliance’s getting almost as close to Volgograd (formerly known as Stalingrad) as Hitler had in World War II. Even if Europe and the US had “only the most benign intentions… [t]he Russians know from their history how quickly intentions and even capabilities change.” (p.253).
Friedman claims that “Russia is looking to secure itself, not expand” (p.179), although he develops a scenario where even a defensive Russia could be drawn into or seek a war in the Baltics, resulting in Russia’s occupying any of its three neighbours. The fear in the region of a war with the Russia is certainly real.
Friedman worries that the EU will lose its pacifying force that it has played in recent decades, simply because he is sceptical that the bloc will be able to recover from its current crisis. The EU’s problems, as the author sees them, are “structural and will lead to failure” (p.148). Many conflicts have been buried under a veil of wishful thinking without really going away, according to the author, who believes that the EU’s institutions are too complex and inefficient to deal with issues such as the growing North-South divide or the challenges related to the growing share of Muslim immigrants.
The critique of European institutions is nothing new. In the aftermath of the European debt crisis, it focuses on the EU’s inability to pursue an appropriate macroeconomic policy, reflecting the lack of political union and ultimately triggering the euro’s downfall. Alternatively, EU-sceptics emphasize the lack of democratic legitimacy (see eg. the excellent account of the late Peter Mair), allowing a bureaucracy to “stealthily impose Europe-wide solutions without even a vote” (p.111). Friedman mentions those issues, but he does not add any fresh insights and they are not key to his argument. His Euro-scepticism rests more on the fragmentation within the EU that keeps old conflicts alive and prevents the adoption of policies requiring member states’ further surrendering of sovereignty. Friedman sees in fact four unions – Germany and Austria, the rest of Northern Europe, the Mediterranean states, and the states in the borderlands, with France, in economic terms, quickly drifting from the Northern to the Mediterranean bloc. “Each region experiences reality in a different way, and the differences are irreconcilable” (p.257).
Whether one agrees with Friedman’s pessimism or not, anybody interested in the future of Europe and the EU should read this book. And yes, dear editors, an index would have proved useful.
* George Friedman, “Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe”, Doubleday, New York, 2015
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