“Europe is gripped by history”. So said Emmanuel Macron a couple of months ago after receiving the Charlemagne prize for his work towards “European Unification”.
The French president is surely right.
Echoes of the past reverberate through Europe’s corridors of power. In his State of the Union speech last week European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker reminded his audience that in 1913 the mood was “sunny, calm and optimistic”.
Angela Merkel has encouraged her colleagues to read Christopher Clarke’s Sleepwalkers, which examines the run up to the First World War. This renewed interest in European history is even more remarkable when the great geopolitical story of our time is the rise of China.
Juncker also argued that Europe needs a ““Weltpolitikfähigkeit” – the capacity to play a role on the international stage. Whether it can do so at a time when internal divisions are so pronounced is another matter.
Macron has cast himself as the leader of the opposition to the far-right anti-immigrant demagoguery represented by Hungary’s prime minister, Victor Orbán, and Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini. In response to a developing alliance between these two figures, Macron has warned: “If they wanted to see me as their main opponent, they were right to do so”.
Orbán, too, is “gripped by history”. His version of Europe’s past is one of the struggle for Christian culture, with Hungary a frontier nation against the invading hordes.
In a speech he gave recently in memory of former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, he inveighed against the dangers of Muslim infiltration into Europe.
“Everyone should be wary of the idea of Islam being part of any European country”, Orbán declared. He ominously referenced Hungary’s antagonism with the Ottoman empire as an example of Europe’s “historical experience” with the Muslim world.
Macron may view himself as the leader of an open Europe, at odds with Orbán’s populism, but his view of European history is equally narrow. The French president reaches back to the “dream” of Charlemagne to support European unity – essentially a strengthening of Franco-German relations.
The insular nature of Macron’s vision was compounded by his assertion that the “treasure” of the European enterprise has been seventy years of peace on the continent. That will have come as a surprise to people in the Balkans or Ukraine.
The emerging fault line in European politics is less about the open/closed paradigms than about historical narratives that support or challenge the notion of Fortress Europe.
Last week, the European parliament voted to trigger article 7 of the European treaty, launching proceedings against Hungary for posing a “systematic threat” to democracy and the rule of law. Now, the leader of the centre-right bloc and candidate to be the next European Commission president, Manfred Weber, has called on leaders to sanction Orbán at this week’s European Council meeting.
For all this wrangling, it remains likely that Europe’s future will come to be determined by what happens outside its borders. A potentially more significant meeting will come at the end of the month when Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, makes a state visit to Germany. Europe’s approach to Turkey may come to determine whether the Fortress Europe narrative prevails.
Turkey is pivotal to divisions in Europe due to its geographic position as the gateway for refugees from the Syrian civil war. The surge of refugees crossing in to Europe in the summer of 2015 catalysed deepening rifts among EU members. From 60,000 annual arrivals in 2010, to over 1 million by 2015.
Although even this huge increase still represented a tiny fraction of the EU’s 508 million people, the crisis sharpened grievances about the balance of power in Europe.
Countries on the periphery were disproportionately affected and political leaders such as Orbán were able to weaponise the issue to attack the imposition of Brussels diktats. In elections earlier this year Orbán’s Fidesz party largely ignored economic issues.
According to a paper by Péter Krekó and Zsolt Enyedi in the Journal of Democracy, Orbán constructed a platform on the claim that “Brussels and Soros were scheming to flood Europe with Muslim migrants, and that a Fidesz loss would mean the doom of white, Christian Hungary”.
Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to refugees fed the notion that bigger EU member states did not have to play by the same rules as smaller countries. This dynamic explains how the refugee crisis was able to take centre stage in in this year’s presidential election in the Czech Republic, despite the country hosting virtually no refugees.
The EU-Turkey deal that emerged from negotiations in 2016 started returning refugees to Turkey and supported the country with three billion euros. This has helped curb the flow of refugees, with the number of arrivals falling to 70,000 this year. There has been criticism from human rights groups over the legality of transferring refugees back from Europe, yet for some Turkey has proved a more welcoming destination than western Europe – Turkey provides greater freedom to work and a refuge that is closer to home.
Turkey’s economic travails, exacerbated by a bust-up with President Trump over the detention of an American pastor and Erdogan’s profligacy, should also be a major concern for Europe.
A prolonged economic crisis will bring great hardship to the country’s three and a half million Syrian refugees. Then there is a risk that it pushes Turkey’s authoritarian government into the arms of Russia and China. Erdogan is extremely reluctant to accept support from the IMF and is looking for new allies.
The deal struck between Russia and Turkey to create a “de-militarized zone” around Idlib has at least postponed a humanitarian disaster that would likely spill over into Turkey. The arrangement also demonstrates the further side-lining of Western powers from negotiating a settlement to the conflict.
Mustafa Ellebad, an expert on Turkey, argued that Russia was more interested in pulling the country away from the West than achieving Assad’s total control over Syria.
Amid this, Europe’s approach to Turkey has been confrontational. Macron has said that talk of accession to the EU must end and that it should be seen as a strategic partner alongside Russia.
By attempting to downgrade Europe’s relationship with Turkey, the French president will likely embolden Erdogan’s vision of a New Turkey – one of Islamic nationalism and a reinvigoration of the Ottoman empire. Calls to reject Turkey’s EU membership bid after last year’s coup attempt only resulted in boosting Erdogan in the country’s subsequent referendum.
Nevertheless, the very serious challenges confronting Erdogan present Europe with a great deal of leverage. Pro-government media have described the conflict with the US as an opportunity to engage Europe. And while Turkey took the unprecedented step of being the first NATO member to buy missiles from Russia and has created a precarious stalemate in Idlib, the two countries remain at odds when it comes to the Syrian conflict.
Viktor Orbán also plays a careful balancing act between East and West. Drawing Turkey toward Europe would go some way to undermining this geopolitical manoeuvring.
By excluding Turkey from a common European history, Macron aligns himself with the antagonistic agendas of Europe’s far right.
What unites Orbán’s vision of a Christian Europe and Erdogan’s New Turkey is a need for external enemies. By engaging Turkey, Europe may be able to alleviate the refugee crisis that is threatening to tear it apart. It could also repudiate those seeking to shrink the continent and diminish its history.