The five different ‘crisis tribes’ dividing European politics

Germans worry about immigration, Poles about Ukraine, Danish and French about climate change, and the British about Covid

Interpreting central and eastern Europe to western Europeans is a necessary but difficult or even thankless task during Russia’s imperial assertiveness in the Ukraine war.

The war has brought sovereign borders, strategic enlargement of the European Union and military/security issues back to its politics. That has resurrected Cold War divides in which the Soviet Union’s central and eastern European satellites were seen as in-between, liminal places.

The Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev is one of the best-known writers on these matters. During a recent visit to Dublin, he spoke about them in the context of the Ukraine war, European and US elections. In a lecture for the 50th anniversary of the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, based in Dublin, he described how five crises are preoccupying the EU – the global economic turmoil since 2009-2012, mass immigration since the Syrian crisis of 2015, the Covid-19 pandemic, the Ukraine war and climate change.

Research he is conducting with the European Council on Foreign Relations shows how the responses to these crises vary in 11 states surveyed – nine EU members plus Britain and Switzerland. Germans worry most about immigration, Italians and Portuguese about the economy, Poles about Ukraine, the Danes and French about climate change.

These five major “crisis tribes” of policy concerns will animate European and national elections this year. They complicate traditional left-right polarities, including by bringing older divisions between western and eastern Europeans back because of Ukraine.

Alongside the European voting looms the US presidential election. Krastev says the precise outcome of the likely rightward swing in the European voting away from centrist currents will be swayed by whether Trump or Biden wins. A key player to watch is Giorgia Meloni in Italy, whose Brothers of Italy party is a member of the hard-right European Conservatives and Reformists Party. Their looming links with the Christian Democrat European Progressive Democrats will help determine the forthcoming shape of EU political leadership if Trump wins.

Central and eastern European states know how rapidly things can change. From borders to security and defence, the Ukraine war has shifted the boundaries of European political understanding. The change is highlighted by Emmanuel Macron’s recent Sorbonne speech in which he warned the EU is mortal and may die if it does not respond to these new realities with greater sovereignty over its political, economic and military futures. His speech expressed traditional French concerns about US dominance, but his support for EU enlargement, including to Ukraine and the Balkans, is new. If that goes ahead, Krastev believes several realities about Europe’s new centres of gravity between its western and eastern regions must be better understood.

Europe’s imperial pasts must be built into this new equation. He quotes the historian Timothy Snyder who argued that the EU was not founded by smaller and medium sized states, but by failed or failing European empires. None of them had ever been nation-states properly defined by classical preoccupations with sovereignty and cultural homogeneity.

These were joined by the first such post-imperial-colonial entities when Ireland joined the EEC in 1973, followed by Greece in 1981, Finland (an imperial subject of Russia, unlike Sweden and Denmark) in 1995 and only later in the large 2004 enlargement which brought in Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007 and Croatia in 2013.

Previously subjects of Russian, Habsburg, British or Ottoman empires, these states have reacted variously to the Ukraine war; in all of them it resurrects fears of imperial dominance and occupation together with newer border and identity politics surrounding cultural homogeneity and diversity. These characteristics differ from most western European states – though less so in Ireland because of our colonial past. The war has also resurrected older tropes of Russia’s non-European status on the continent.

Attitudes to future EU enlargements – towards Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Serbia and Turkey – are affected by the war. It catapults security and border issues over the traditional long-term economic convergence processes.

Krastev argues the negotiation process needs to change in a new global setting where candidate states can hedge with China, Russia – or the US. The Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s policies of selective sovereignty towards Brussels can also appeal. Krastev is known for his pessimism about the EU’s capacity to handle these challenges, though he acknowledges its ability to manage the five crises. A new round of Euro-scepticism looms if these elections swing to the right.

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