The EU’s East Was Right About Russia. Can It Lead Europe? : Business


Addressing the Bundestag the other day, Olaf Scholz shot an underhanded gibe at a partner country that went unnamed but was easy enough to identify. The German chancellor was announcing that he’d allow battle tanks made in his country to be sent to Ukraine. This step followed months of pressure from NATO allies — and from Poland in particular.

“Hic Rhodus, hic salta,” Scholz said with one his trademark “Smurf grins.” The phrase comes from the Latin version of an Aesop fable. In that story, an athlete returns home and boasts about his exploits, claiming that while visiting Rhodes he jumped farther than any man alive ever had or could. Alright, said a skeptic, if that’s true, then “Rhodes is here, jump here.”

Scholz’s intended audience was of course in Warsaw. The Polish government, only a week earlier, had said it would give Ukraine some of its own German-made Leopard 2 tanks, even if Berlin refused to approve the delivery. 

That maneuver was part of a more general Polish campaign narrative. In the run-up to parliamentary elections this fall, the populist government in Warsaw wants to energize its base by sounding in equal measures anti-German and anti-Russian. As part of its tirades against Berlin, for example, Warsaw is demanding 1.3 trillion euros ($1.4 trillion) in reparations for World War II. As part of its resistance to the Kremlin, it’s become one of the world’s most stalwart supporters of Kyiv.

Alright then, Scholz was saying in the Bundestag: If you Poles are having so much fun posing as leaders of the West in the struggle against the Kremlin, then jump here, jump now. Send your own Leopard 2 tanks, then send even more weapons. And show us how to end this war while you’re at it. 

Aesopian barbs aside, there’s a genuine debate these days about where to locate the European Union’s political center of gravity. It appears to have shifted eastward over the past year. In relative terms, clout resides less in what former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld memorably called “Old Europe,” and more in the “New Europe” that joined the EU and NATO after the Cold War. 

But that could lead to two conclusions. One is that Poland and its neighbors in the Baltic are leading the continent’s response to Putin. Another is that they’re apprenticing to lead the bloc more generally. 

There’s no doubt that “New Europe” has over the past year been vindicated in its hawkish stance toward Moscow, and has gained kudos for it from Brussels to Washington. Moreover, just as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and others in the region were proven right about Putin, Germany and France were revealed to have been disastrously wrong.

For years, Berlin and Paris — which thought of themselves as a Franco-German “tandem” propelling the EU forward — coddled Putin and denied the threat from his imperialist worldview. Germany even built not one but two pipelines to carry natural gas directly from Russia to Germany, circumventing not only Ukraine’s gas links but Poland’s as well. 

That amity triggered historical nightmares in Poland and the Baltic countries. They’ve been suffering from German-Russian deals at their expense at least since Hohenzollerns, Habsburgs and Romanovs partitioned the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth out of existence in the 18th century. Their worst trauma was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, in which Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union carved up Poland and the Baltic countries between them.

When these nations later joined the EU and NATO, it was therefore in large part to get away from Moscow. During Putin’s two decades in power, they’ve progressively stepped up their warnings. But Brussels, Berlin, Paris and other capitals ignored them — with “dismissive arrogance,” as Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a former Estonian president, recalls.

These days, by contrast, Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius and Warsaw have the ears of the whole EU, and the transatlantic West. They can claim to lead in another way too. Relative to economic size, Estonia has been the world’s greatest supporter of Ukraine, followed by Latvia, Poland and Lithuania. Germany ranks 14th, France 21st. 

But this credibility doesn’t exactly translate into other kinds of influence. There’s no longer an “eastern” bloc they could lead within the EU, as there used to be when the “Visegrad Four” — Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic — pooled their clout in Brussels. These days, they’ve all gone their separate ways. The Czechs just elected Petr Pavel, a former general who spent time at NATO, as their new president; he’ll also help rally the West against Moscow. But Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban remains a Putin apologist, and Croatian President Zoran Milanovic also tends to wander off the political reservation.

Moreover, Warsaw, like Budapest, spends much of its political energy railing against Brussels and the EU, while undermining the rule of law and other democratic institutions at home. The EU in turn has sanctioned Poland and Hungary, and is withholding a combined €138 billion ($148 billion) of financing from them. That hurts, because Poland remains by far the largest net recipient of EU money, followed by Greece and Hungary. Germany and France, meanwhile, are still the biggest net contributors.

No government or country can claim to lead a confederation even as it simultaneously undermines that league’s common values, milks its finances and obstructs its governance. 

If it seems that power has shifted eastward in the EU, therefore, the reasons lie elsewhere. The main one is that all other potential leaders have in effect taken themselves out of the running. The Brits have left the club altogether. The Italians replaced Mario Draghi, a leader with bona fide gravitas, with Georgia Meloni, a post-Fascist populist. And as for that old Franco-German tandem, French President Emmanuel Macron and Scholz can barely mount — never mind pedal — the thing.

This is the depressing sequitur of Scholz’s Aesop quip. The truth is that the wider West only has one leader, the United States, while Europe has none at all. Its friends and foes alike may well flip Scholz’s gibe around and point it at Berlin, Paris, Brussels and the whole EU: Hic Rhodus, hic salta.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

Forget ‘ Autonomy’: Europe Needs the US as Much as Ever: Andreas Kluth

• Ukraine Desperately Needed Tanks. Now It Needs Planes: James Stavridis

In Ukraine, Now It’s a Matter of Who Attacks First: Leonid Bershidsky

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”

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