1 October 2018
The transatlantic security system that has provided stability to Central Europe and the EU overall collapses. Hollowed out by a U.S. retreat from Europe, weakened by Europe’s reluctance to invest in the continent’s political cohesion and collective security and challenged by a Russian military build-up and hybrid warfare, NATO and the EU eventually fail on their commitments to collectively defend their members. The entire eastern flank of the bloc is thrown into acute insecurity. Central Europe becomes further alienated from its western European partners and seeks to bolster its security through bilateral arrangements with various external powers. Its domestic political and social life becomes securitised and intra-regional conflicts propagate.
The transatlantic and collective security umbrella – which has allowed European nations, including those of Central Europe, to build sustainable democracies at home and increased cooperation across much of the continent – is under serious assault from several sides.
NATO’s new sense of purpose and determination that followed the Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014 turns out to be short-lived; toward the end of the 2010s, the transatlantic rift, inner-European tensions and Russian geopolitical ambitions resurface more strongly than ever before.
On the transatlantic level, the ongoing and difficult-to-mitigate trade disputes have embittered the U.S. domestic opinion of Europe. This coupled with many EU countries still failing to meet the NATO defence spending requirements, and the once quiet voices in Washington calling for a more isolationist security policy start to gain traction. Exacerbating the situation further, the U.S. re-engagement with Russia is accelerating. This rapprochement revolves around a new “Grand Bargain” that limits U.S. security commitments to Europe and foresees NATO’s restraint on its Eastern flank in exchange for Russian co-operation elsewhere in the world. In the end, the U.S. practically ceases to be an actor in European security by 2021.
Within Europe, similar transformations are gathering speed. The illiberal course taken by Central European governments prompts punitive action by the EU and, even more importantly, discredits the historic eastward enlargement of the EU and NATO. Individual EU governments, from Austria to France and from Germany to Italy re-engage with Russia bilaterally.
The first victim of deteriorating cohesion in Europe are EU sanctions against Russia whose extension fails in 2019. In the following year, a NATO summit fails after several Western European nations led by France and Germany demand an amendment to the North Atlantic Treaty that conditions NATO membership to a clear commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. And in 2021, the U.S., the U.K. and several EU nations including France, Germany and Italy end, for different reasons, their participation in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence. This series of political implosions effectively dismantles the European security system.
Russia, the geopolitical winner from this dynamic, doubles down its efforts to widen political divisions among Europeans and across the Atlantic through a variety of means.
The biggest losers of this decline in European security will be the countries of Central Europe. As they observe the waning of guarantees and support by Western partners, they develop a range of coping strategies, some more country-specific, others region-wide.
Poland initially pursues a dual strategy, followed by a third. Bilaterally, it seeks to maximise the U.S. military presence on its territory while, regionally, it co-sponsors initiatives including meetings with member states of NATO’s Eastern flank and the Three Seas Initiative.
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When neither strategy yields serious results and as Poland is increasingly isolated in the EU, Warsaw sets its eyes on Beijing. It proactively opens up the country to Chinese investment in infrastructure, agriculture, energy and technology, hoping that this new cooperation will give it a strong ally against Russia. In effect, Poland hopes for China to step in where NATO is paralysed.
Hungary, in contrast, takes the opposite direction. Budapest seeks to capitalise on the ideological proximity that has long emerged between the Orbán and Putin regimes, and it willingly offers itself to Moscow as a political Trojan Horse in the EU and NATO.
In exchange, Hungary demands preferential energy deals, the inflow of Russian capital, privileged access to the Russian and Eurasian Economic Union markets, and political support in dealing with neighbouring countries where large Hungarian minorities reside.
Czechia and, eventually, Slovakia respond to the diminishing European security situation in yet another way: retreat. Neither country has ever been overly enthusiastic about NATO membership, and this sentiment is first seized upon in the Czech political arena. When yet another government crisis can only be resolved with the help of the communist party, the latter demands a referendum on NATO membership. Coinciding with the parliamentary election in 2021, the vote narrowly supports an exit from the Alliance. This decision by its erstwhile federation partner prompts a similar initiative in Slovakia, and a 2022 referendum results in an even clearer backing for leaving NATO.
Yet these shifts away from reliance on Western partners for security elsewhere are only one aspect of Central European coping strategies.
The volatility of European and regional situations prompts a far-reaching securitisation of politics and societies.
Regional governments impress upon their societies the ever-growing threats facing their countries, which, they argue, requires both the strong hand of the state and a patriotic sense of duty among all citizens. One result is the systematic tightening of government control over political processes and state administration, media and business, education and civil society; another is that the societies sink into a siege mentality. This political and social securitisation effectively reinforces the illiberal and authoritarian tendencies already at work.
Finally, the relationships between Western Europe and the Central European countries are strained to the point of alienation.
The region’s sense of betrayal by the West, its turn to a multi-vector foreign and security policy and further damage to democracy and the rule of law at home only deepens the marginalisation of Central Europe.
The end result of this overall dynamic is not unlike the Central Europe between the two World Wars. One hundred years on, an old-new Zwischeneuropa emerges; one that is marked by weak multilateral institutions, failing Western assurances for the region, a dependency on external powers, resurgent authoritarianism and intra-regional conflict.