Re-Imagining Europe – Analysis


India needs to keep its eyes and ears to the ground in Europe over the coming decades.

By N. Sathiya Moorthy

Socio-economic and politico-electoral developments across Europe over the past years should make nations like India sit up and take notice more than already. The steady improvement in India’s ties with European nations and the EU over the years, as evidenced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits to European powers like Germany and Russia — and those that are bound to follow — should be a beginning, not an end in itself.

Post-Cold War, Europe is still re-imagining and rediscovering itself. India too is still going through the process. For India, Russia’s re-emergence as a European power first — though not as a global power, as yet — and its perceived proximity to Pakistan and China have all added a new urgency to the European developments.

A few recent developments have sought to rewrite contemporary European history faster than European nations may have been prepared for. Brexit has changed the British links to the present-day economy centric Europe. After having talked about Europe’s union since the conclusion of the Second World War, the UK has been an ‘island’ among European nations to stall and slow down unity.

The UK might not have won Europe all the time for the US, but it did slow down and/or blunt European and/or EU decisions that did not go in favour of the US or American decisions.

Post-Cold War transition

Europe has been struggling for an identity independent of the US for long. It could not do so for a variety of reasons, many of them its own creation. Yet, there were issues and concerns of the American kind, which meant that they had to slow down their political initiatives that had economic and military consequences, the latter especially during the Cold War era.

In this context, autocratic or not, despite the big jolt of Soviet collapse, Russia has made the post-Cold War domestic transition relatively smoother than Western Europe. Likewise, unenviable or not, Russia under Putin — whether as President or Prime Minister — has been having the most stable of all European governments for nearly two decades now. This means a lot in terms of foreign policy and geostrategy security, centred especially on Europe now.

The Russian intervention in Crimea was the first major external ‘initiative’ of Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unlike the Soviet era, Putin’s Russia also tried its hands at ‘economic blockade’ of (Western) ‘Europe’ earlier by threatening to choke oil supplies. At the same time, Russia also faced economic sanctions but has not collapsed.

Compared with Russia, Western Europe is also bogged down by internal economic re-adjustments like ‘Euro crisis’, fiscal meltdowns and Brexit, one after the other. Their economic partners like India also stand to suffer the unintended consequences of such transitions, as they did after the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union.

If nothing else, the Trump presidency also does not seem to make things easy for European allies, given the visible and continuing uncertainties of American policies the world over, starting with America itself.

After her first meeting with President Trump end-May, Angela Merkel said that Europe could not count on others any more. Since assuming office, Trump has also been targeting Germany, especially on trade surplus vice America. From the Indian perspective, Trump also targeted Germany the day Prime Minister Modi was arriving in Berlin in May.

Announcing American withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, Trump attacked India and China. It is unclear if by not discussing the climate issue, Modi and Trump in their first meeting recently in Washington were seeking to forget the latter’s snipe at India, or were keeping it alive for a later-day clarification or confrontation.

One thing is becoming clearer. Trump may have been brash and harsh – or, temperamental and/or transparent, as one chose to describe him — but he has only been giving expression to what many American Presidents before him have left unsaid. This applies as much to India as to Europe, despite the post-Cold War bonhomie between New Delhi and Washington, whoever has ruled from wherever.

Balancing force

On his maiden visit as US President to Brussels recently, Donald Trump asked European Union not to expect the American tax-payer to continue underwriting their NATO expenses. He was not only reminding them of new possibilities but also of their new responsibilities, of keeping NATO alive and well-funded – for the US to preside over, still.

It does not stop there.

Their governments do not have the kind of ‘imaginative’ answers that the US had post-9/11. Instead, their credibility stands to suffer in the eyes of their people and possibly shake their stability, too.

By hindsight, it would now seem that the Cold War and Independence-centric aspirations of Europe’s colonies have also proved coterminus. Did it also mean that one required the other to sustain, just as one was being used to liquidate the other? Did it also mean that the ‘clash of civilisations’ came faster than China, possibly, was (being) prepared to shoulder ‘balancing force’ responsibilities?

New world order

The US decision to withdraw from the ‘Paris Accord’ on climate change is only the latest, not the last one of the kind where it has gone back on global commitments. If it was not the ‘unpredictable’ Trump, more predictable US Presidents in his place have behaved the same way, on unilateral wars in Asia, climate change, UN reforms and funding, non-proliferation, et al, over the past many decades.

One unthinkable possibility could be for the ‘wise’ Chinese, probably with some help from the Russians among others, to challenge the US on Bretton Woods-facilitated dollar-hegemony, rather than on land or sea — and at a time and venue of their choosing. Autocracies can handle domestic fallouts of the kind, but not necessarily western democracies.

In the interim, like China, European nations would want to be seen as looking at trade, economic and investment opportunities and cooperation the world over. Yet, like China and the US before it, they too cannot be unaware of the impossibility of eternally keeping geostrategic concerns and aspirations delinked from the other.

If not Europe as a whole, individual nations may want to rethink their own future roles in an ever changing world, already. Germany and France are among the existing/possible candidates. The UK remains unsure, hence unpredictable. Some Scandinavian nations have the resources to make others sit up and take notice.

Strategic independence

Despite proclaiming ‘strategic independence’ off and on as if to re-assure itself, post-Cold War India allowed itself to be identified more with the US-led Western camp in terms of strategic choices and options. Yet, there have been compelling reasons for India to constantly revisit the recent past as well, for lessons into the future.

For India, Trump’s America has to prove to be as steady and reliable as Bush-Obama’s America. For India, again, Putin’s Russia is also not the Russia of Boris Yeltsin, which, for instance, wilted under American pressure and denied cryogenic engines for India’s space programme. India is also not the same nation that Russia had left under Yeltsin.

If all of the existing and emerging scenarios were to revive talks on the ‘global currency’ front, though only in the unpredictable future, then India too should be prepared with its answers. It could be for or against the dollar, but it could also be for or against ‘regional currencies’. Euro may be revived. Not very long ago, neighbours like Sri Lanka and Maldives also sought global trading in Indian Rupees.

With all this and more, India needs to keep its eyes and ears to the ground in Europe over the coming decades. It’s as much as India continuing to tune itself to the US and Russia, China and Pakistan, Indian Ocean and South China Sea — not necessarily in that order.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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