Any literature search will show that the “future of Europe” topic has become very recurrent, especially since 1945. After two devastating world wars, there were plenty of reasons to question the future of Europe. The Europe of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, a Europe beset by continuous rivalry between the warring national States, had been replaced by a Europe of rival blocs – the Western and the Soviet bloc – under the umbrella of the USA and USSR, the powers whose global dominance was thereby being asserted. Driven by the memory of the devastation brought about by the war, the debate over the future of Europe – which at the time was synonymous with Western Europe – revolved around two themes: an inter-European organization from which (West) Germany was not to be excluded, lest it continue putting other countries in danger; European autonomy vis-à-vis the US, at a time when there was already a feeling in Europe that these were post-imperial times.
The first topic had to do with organizational models, its central issue being the sharing and free movement of natural resources. That was the reason for the 1951 Treaty of Paris, which set up the European Coal and Steel Community. The decision was also made to divide Germany, to prevent it from having access to nuclear weapons, and to occupy West Germany with US military forces. The second theme revolved around two opposing positions. On the one hand there was France, whose leader, Charles de Gaulle, believed that Europe could aspire to remain a global power as long as it maintained its autonomy from the US. This notion was to be further developed by Servan-Schreiber in his 1967 book Le Défi American (The American Challenge, 1968). On the other hand, there was the position of the US according to which Europe, now reduced to Western Europe, would have to side with the US in creating the Atlantic Community. This argument was made in 1944 in an influential book by Walter Lippman (U.S. War Aims).
Since that time, the debate over the future of Europe has been punctuated by five very intense moments: the end of the Soviet bloc/end of the cold war, the “balkanization” of Yugoslavia, Brexit, the pandemic, and the war in Ukraine. The intriguing thing about this debate is that it has always been about the future of Europe, never about its past. In the case of the Europe that remained Socialist and Soviet until 1991, the past being debated after that time was the past of Soviet annexation, and the debate is far from over. It suffices to mention the issue of Mitteleuropa, a concept that means both Central Europe (which in fact became Eastern Europe, post-1945) and Europe with a strong German influence. As Milan Kundera once wrote, the problem with Mitteleuropa was that it was situated geographically in the center, culturally in the West and politically in the East.
The debate concerning the past should be particularly relevant for Western Europe, given that the latter comprises all the countries that were once involved in European colonial expansion, from its pioneers (Portugal and Spain) to the latecomers (Belgium, Germany and Italy). Moreover, it would be relevant for Europe as a whole, especially if one bears in mind that modern, post-15th century colonialism was deeply rooted in the type of colonialism that existed within Europe in the previous centuries. In fact, if what we mean by colonialism is a markedly unjust and violent political economy that is imposed on peoples/races/ethnicities considered to be ontologically inferior, then Europe's internal colonialism has a very long history indeed, and any speculation about the future of Europe needs to pay more attention to that history than one might imagine.
Throughout history, Slavs have been viewed by their enemies as lower races. The words “slave” and “Slav” share the same etymology (Latin sclavus). Slavs, all the way from Russia to the Balkans, are Europeans who, throughout the Middle Ages, were often subjected to slavery. That was the case, for example, of the enslaved Slavs who, from the 13th century onwards, worked on the sugar plantations of Cyprus owned by Venetian merchants. Slavophobia reached new heights under Nazism and was used to justify Germany’s eastward expansion, from Poland to Ukraine to Russia. At the same time, all of Southern Europe, from Portugal and Spain in the west to the Balkans and Greece in the east, has for centuries been considered by central Europe as being inhabited not only by lower races (“dark whites”) but, in the case of the Balkans (the South Slavs), by lower or inferior religions as well (Islam).
The reasons behind ignorance
Historically, ignorance of this history has always worked to the advantage of those countries and classes that have dominated Europe to this day. The reasons for such willful ignorance are manifold.
First, when talking about lower races stopped being legitimate, other arguments were mobilized to criticize and punish the behavior of previously racialized peoples. Harsh and even vicious, the arguments hardly concealed the persistence of racist prejudice, as has recently been made clear by Germany’s rhetoric and behavior with regard to the 2011financial crisis in Greece, Portugal and Spain.
The second reason for the convenient ignoring of history is the credibility bestowed upon what post-1945 has been conventionally termed “European values”, i.e., Christianity and the Enlightenment. It is thereby forgotten that the Islamic religion was present in Europe for eight centuries (El-Andalus) and continues to be present today in a variety of European communities, whether made up of immigrants or citizens. Second, one tends to forget that to trace the values of the Enlightenment back to ancient Greece and to the countries that inherited them (the Italian Renaissance) amounts to concealing the role played by slavery and colonialism in building the societies (including Greece itself) that were to claim Enlightenment values.
Third, ignorance is a convenient means of hiding the ethnocultural, historical and social diversity that has always characterized the peoples of Europe. Nowadays this diversity is only acknowledged to highlight the contrast between the (supposedly homogeneous) Europeans on the one hand and, on the other, the immigrant populations and the descendants of the countries that were once colonized by Europe.
This acknowledgment of diversity has no other aim than to justify the superiority of the homogeneity (of European peoples) to which diversity stands in contrast. Finally, history is willfully ignored to play down the difficulties and recurrent frustrations involved in building a so-called European identity. There is no question that much has been achieved over the last fifty years to promote this identity (the Erasmus program is now in the hearts of many thousands of young Europeans), but the national identities that were dominant in the 19th century and much of the 20th will not take a back seat to any notion of supranational identity advanced by the self-proclaimed cosmopolitan elites of the EU and the European Parliament. No one today would be willing to give his or her life for Europe, but there are many who would give their lives for their country, as is currently the case in Ukraine. The political forces of the far right have proved more skillful than any other in exploiting this identity tension, which will only get worse if the European elites keep invoking the European identity to support policies that make Europeans poorer (by perpetuating wars) or, even worse, to turn the European identity into a subspecies of US identity, as is the case at present.
If the European past were known with even a little objectivity, the future of Europe would not be what we seem to be headed into, and which does not bode well for Europeans. In order to understand this, we need to go back a few decades. In 1997, Zbigniew Brzezinski – President Carter’s national security adviser and one of the most erudite and conservative analysts of post-war international relations – wrote (in The Grand Chessboard) that “Europe” was “a vision, a concept, and a goal, but it is not yet reality.”. He expressed doubts that Europe would ever become a political entity, and went on to argue that Western Europe, and increasingly also Central Europe, were American protectorates, their allied states reminiscent of old imperial vassals and tributaries. Any political project on which Europe embarked would have to take place under the umbrella of US geostrategic security, which meant that European expansion would have to move in tandem with NATO expansion.
Everything that has happened since then is a confirmation of this prediction. If a Europe divided (and all the more so when Germany, its economic engine, was itself divided) was incapable of competing with the USA in the global economy or global politics, as was the case during the Cold War, the same could not be said of a united Europe. From the US point of view, the only way to control the uncertainty caused by the unification of Europe was by prolonging US political and military guardianship through NATO. Any solution that involved the end of NATO was viewed by the US as unacceptable. As the end of the Cold War had rendered NATO obsolete, it was necessary to renew its mandate, either by inventing or cultivating new enemies or by recycling old ones. That is why Russia’s efforts to join NATO, both under Gorbachev and then under Putin (when he rose to power), were immediately turned down. Also turned down was the alternative offered by Russia, precluding the countries closest to its border, notably Ukraine, from joining NATO. On the contrary, new enemies were to be invented or cultivated. The first was Yugoslavia, in the 1990s; the second came with Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Europe is now a US protectorate to a degree that exceeds what was envisaged (or wished) by Brzezinski. When we analyze the speeches and actions of most European political leaders, regardless of their political ideology, they sound like the speeches and actions of vassal States. Ernest Mandel argued that one of the features of late capitalism is that it relies heavily on armaments capitalism. Which is what we are faced with. And yet, it looks like military supremacy was not enough. The sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines served US geostrategic interests because it was a direct hit against Germany, Europe’s economic engine, depriving it of access to cheap energy and making it dependent on US-produced or US-controlled energy, at least for the time being.
Were Europe to study the history of the injustices it committed in the past (and continues to commit), both in the continent and in its colonies or former colonies, it would undoubtedly conclude that its future must be devoted to the settling of that historical debt. Such a resolve should heed the following guidelines. First of all, Europe has to stand up for the people of Ukraine, by seeking peace at all costs and refraining from fueling the war. Second, it must acknowledge the reasonable security claims of Russia vis a vis a hostile NATO presence in Ukraine. Third, it must not cut itself off from Russia, which is part of European history and culture. Fourth, it must bear in mind that the US war against Russia aims to destroy the Eurasian Sino-Russian bloc, which, according to Brzezinski, ought to be taken down. The ultimate aim of this war is to confine China to Asia and make sure that it does not retaliate against the US, blocking American access to Asia. The countries that were once colonized by Europe have refrained from siding unconditionally with either one or the other.
That should also be Europe's position, the only one consistent with its historical responsibility: refusing to side unconditionally either with declining US imperialism or with rising Chinese imperialism. A Europe that has shed its imperialist nostalgia and cannot even be used as a reliable crutch by the US – see the recent episode of the nuclear submarines to be bought by Australia – that is the position that best serves world peace.