Joschka, Save Us! (5)

Joschka Fischer Photo: Scanpix
7/20/2011 10:43 AM
Category: Opinion

Tallinn University researcher Jeroen Bult gives consideration to Lennart Meri’s warnings about the gray zone and combatting pessimism in post-modern Europe.

The speeches of and interviews with President Lennart Meri (1992-2006) are still worth reading. Not only because they render creative, slightly provocative opinions and contain wise lessons for the reluctant, post-modern Western Europeans, but also because they are most illustrative of Meri’s great ideal: Estonia’s return to (an integrated) Europe, after five decades of suffocating totalitarian foreign occupation. 

One of Meri’s favorite expressions was “the gray zone” (halli tsooni); if Estonia would not quickly join the European Union and NATO and would be left to its own fate, Russia, the Eternal Evil Empire, would not hesitate to drag the small, vulnerable country into its sphere of influence again. Westbindung was the only remedy to avert this potential doom scenario. One could indeed argue that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania managed to slip through the window of opportunity just in the nick of time. It is highly doubtful that Germany and France would have agreed to Baltic NATO accession if Russia would have displayed the same strength and machismo as it did in 2008.  

Nowadays, Estonia is a proud member of the EU and NATO. It has, not unusual for a smaller member state, even focused on its own niches: assistance to Georgia and Moldova, and cyber warfare. Does that mean that Meri’s warnings about a gray zone looming up are merely fodder for historians? Unfortunately, it is still too early to draw such a reassuring conclusion. Estonia has indeed managed to anchor itself in the West, yet the soil on which it let down the anchor has become quite porous. 

First of all, it is totally unclear what the future holds for the euro. The finance ministers might reach a compromise on the involvement of (private) banks in solving the Greek debt crisis soon, but in the longer term, the ever-growing hostile sentiments among the public in the northern half of the Eurozone could pose a far more serious problem. Visionary, inspiring leaders, who are able to explain the necessity of a single currency and of European integration in a calm and convincing manner, are a rare species these days. Where is a Joschka Fischer when you need one? Right-wing populists will gleefully make use of the accumulating discontent and “mingle” it with their well-known tirades against “money-wasting Brussels,” “the europhile political and cultural elites,” and immigration. This will make it even more difficult to rectify the mistake of Maastricht (1991): creating an economic-monetary union without first creating a political union in which the EMU should have been embedded. In case the euro collapses, a “neuro,” a currency centred around Germany/the Bundesbank could rise out of its ruins, but such a breakdown will mean a massive blow to the credibility of the EU. China and other emerging global players might offer Greece and its partners in misfortune a helping hand, thus enhancing their influence in (southern) Europe.

Secondly, that other “pillar” of the Maastricht Treaty, the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), remains a source of anxiety. In spite of the fact that some progress has been booked (various peace-keeping operations, the policy vis-à-vis Belarus), the EU has hardly been visible during the “Arab Spring,” the chain of revolts in northern Africa and the Middle East. Member states are deciding for themselves whether they will recognize the Benghazi rebels as the legitimate government of Libya. As was the case with the recognition of the independence of Kosovo in 2008, there has been a remarkable lack of coordination. Lady Ashton, the EU’s High Representative, has often been blamed for this painful absence, yet she can only operate within the margins granted to her by the European Council and Council of (Foreign) Ministers. Maybe it is no coincidence that, back in 2009, no heavyweight - that same Joschka Fischer - was appointed to this post? 

The Russia and energy dimensions of the CFSP are critically important to Estonia and most other “new” EU member states. Although it must have come as a pleasant surprise to Tallinn that the European institutions offered unequivocal support during the Bronze Soldier eruption in 2007, and that the European Commission has launched several initiatives, providing for a (vigorous) common energy policy, the overall tendency is that the greater players on the European stage are still inclined to conduct business with Moscow on a bilateral scale, both politically and economically. 

The latest example is the memorandum of understanding concluded by German electricity and gas supplier RWE and Russian gas giant Gazprom, aimed at the construction of power plants in Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Like E.ON and Wintershall, who are currently participating in the Nord Stream project, the gas pipeline across the bed of the Baltic Sea, RWE is a private legal person, but German authorities will never dissuade companies from embarking on such tempting, lucrative deals - on the contrary.

For the same reason, Berlin, Paris and Rome will be reticent to criticize Moscow, as could clearly be seen during the Russo-Georgian War and its aftermath in 2008, and will be reluctant to make one of Estonia’s greatest wishes come true: Ukrainian and Georgian membership of the EU (and NATO).

When Estonia was nominated for EU accession, the world seemed to be heading for Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace. Anno 2011, that optimistic mood - in which the euro was born, as well - has evaporated. The Union has no clear answer to the speedy rise of the new great powers (the so-called BRICs), who are feeling more inspired by Thomas Hobbes’ cynicism than by Kant’s idealism. It is paralyzed by a lack of economic and political cohesion and thriving euroskepticism. Combating this pessimistic mood will not be an easy task, maybe it will even be utterly hopeless, yet there is no other option – otherwise the whole of Europe will become a “gray zone.” Joschka, save us!

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