Managing a Multipolar Europe

LONDON – People used to think that the most important decisions affecting Europe were made in Paris, Berlin, or Brussels. But in recent months, as the European Union has confronted the refugee crisis, and the Syrian conflict that is fueling it, Moscow and Ankara have come to the fore. And the EU is divided on how to deal with its two disgruntled neighbors, Russia and Turkey, both of which feel increasingly snubbed by the West.

The EU-Russia relationship has long exposed EU member states’ varying historic, geographic, and economic interests. While all EU countries agreed on sanctions against Russia after it annexed Crimea in March 2014, this temporary unity belies member states’ fundamentally different views about the kind of relationship they want for the long term.

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Europe’s new cold warriors, such as Estonia, Poland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, have stood up to Russian aggression; but Austria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Slovakia, and other countries only signed on to sanctions reluctantly, and are more open to engagement with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government.

Turkey is in a different category, because it is a NATO member and a candidate (at least in principle) for EU membership. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been no less a source of division in Europe than Putin has. In the past, Turkey was seen as a potential EU member state and a model for Islamic liberal democracy; today, it is mainly seen as a geopolitical buffer zone.

For countries such as Germany and Greece, Turkey absorbs Middle Eastern refugees, as well as the spillover violence from which they are fleeing; in other EU countries such as Austria and France, however, mainstream political leaders tend to criticize Erdoğan to attract voters from the political right. This will make it more difficult to implement the deal – brokered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier this year – that gives Turkey financial support, and its citizens visa-free travel to the EU, in exchange for its cooperation on containing refugee flows.

The coming weeks will test Europe’s resolve on both sanctions against Russian and the deal with Turkey, especially now that Merkel’s authority is waning. A breakdown in these arrangements would cause a major crisis for the EU, which is already divided between north and south by the chronic euro crisis.

Both Putin and Erdoğan are leaders who have been shaped by their domestic insecurity and the need to project strength. Europeans, however, have trouble maintaining relationships that pit their geopolitical interests against their desire to defend human rights and uphold international law. In fact, the EU seems to have no conceptual framework for accommodating neighboring countries that aren’t actively importing its norms and regulations.

But the EU’s problem with both Turkey and Russia is about more than difficult personalities or inadequate policies; it is rooted in the European order itself. When the Cold War ended, the EU and NATO were at the center of an expanding unipolar order that, it was assumed, would establish the conditions for European security. In fact, this was far from guaranteed.

Six years ago, Ivan Krastev and I wrote a paper for the European Council on Foreign Relations warning of the specter of a multipolar Europe, wherein the rules and institutions affecting European countries would not all be decided by the EU. That specter has become a living reality.

Today, the EU is just one of several European projects. Russia is now as hostile to the EU as it is to NATO, and has created a Eurasian Economic Union to serve as an alternative regional unification effort. Russia is also doing its best to hollow out from within European institutions such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe.

Turkey, for its part, no longer considers its regional aspirations satisfied by its role as a NATO member or its EU accession candidacy. Its own regional policy has changed significantly, from “zero problems with neighbors” to “zero neighbors without problems.” But Turkey is now a critical player, because its geopolitical reach covers regions where the EU and Russia are both actively engaged – from the Balkans and Central Asia to the Middle East.

With Turkey’s accession process stalled and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine still raging, the EU is beholden to countries with which it has increasingly complex political relations. There is much handwringing in Europe over the possibility that Turkey and Russia could form an alliance against the EU.

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That worry may be premature. The Turkish-Russian relationship has warmed recently, but not by much. The two countries are still divided on many issues, from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s future to Black Sea security and the annexation of Crimea.

Still, the EU needs to develop fresh thinking so that member states can agree on how best to manage these relationships. If it does not, it could find itself increasingly isolated and alone in a neighborhood where new powers have moved in. From Eastern Europe and the Balkans to Central Asia and Syria, Europe’s periphery could shake its core.