The Observer view on the year ahead for Europe | Observer editorial
The recent barrage of threats from Vladimir Putin is no longer solely to do with Ukraine. Russia’s president has steadily broadened the scope of his demands to encompass defence and security arrangements in Europe as a whole. Even if current tensions on Ukraine’s borders do not ultimately result in open conflict, this deliberate escalation bodes ill for 2022.
What Putin wants, in effect, is to turn the clock back to the 1990s, before former Warsaw Pact countries such as Poland and ex-Soviet republics such as Estonia joined Nato. If he had his way, he would probably reconstitute the Soviet Union, whose demise he mourns. This bitter old KGB spy never accepted cold war defeat.
The western alliance must make clear that such dangerous revisionism is unacceptable. Russia cannot have a veto on Ukraine’s (or Georgia’s) future Nato membership. Nor may Putin revive the old Soviet “near abroad”, resurrect spheres of influence or dictate where western forces are stationed. Talks on confidence-building measures to ease Russia’s concerns would be a more sensible way forward.
Yet by deploying an estimated 100,000 troops to Ukraine’s frontiers and maintaining a verbal bombardment, Putin has made clear he will not quickly relax the pressure on Europe’s leaders. For Washington, this is a geopolitical puzzle. For Europeans, a hostile, angry Russia is an immediate, menacing danger lurking on their doorstep.
Sensing US weakness, eastern European countries in particular are alarmed by President Joe Biden’s statement that the US is ready to address “Russia’s concerns relative to Nato” – and by Putin’s aggressive demand last week for “immediate” concessions. The broader worry for 2022 is that, following the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal, US security guarantees cannot be trusted.
Despite assurances at last summer’s G7 summit in Cornwall that “America is back”, Biden is focused primarily on his domestic agenda and on containing China. Neither policy is going well. Covid is surging again, while the president’s signature spending bills, aimed at sparking a post-pandemic recovery, have been watered down or blocked by wayward Democrats in Congress. Biden will be preoccupied by a difficult campaign for November’s midterm elections.
Thus for Europe, and the EU in particular, the new year looks set to begin on a disconcertingly uncertain, lonely note. It’s squeezed between a malignant Moscow and an ambivalent America. And to make matters worse, postwar Europe’s foundational relationship – that between France and Germany – may be about to come under fresh strain. Olaf Scholz, Germany’s new chancellor, wasted no time in opening a dialogue with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, travelling to Paris two days after taking office. On paper, the centre-left, three-party coalition led by Scholz backs deeper EU integration and enhanced European sovereignty, ideas promoted by Macron and diluted by Angela Merkel, Scholz’s predecessor.
But in practice, French-German convergence may be hard to achieve. There are sharp differences on EU energy policy, the “green transition” and French efforts to classify nuclear energy as a “sustainable” fuel at a time of fast-rising gas prices. Macron wants Germany to support more pan-European spending, funded by shared debt along the precedent-setting lines of the EU’s €800bn (£679bn) Covid recovery fund. This is unpopular in Berlin.
Macron argues passionately that, in a world of fierce predators and unreliable friends, Europe must strive for greater autonomy in defence, security and foreign policy. Yet he has opposed calls for a tougher line towards Russia and China from, for example, Annalena Baerbock, co-leader of the German Greens, who is Scholz’s new foreign minister and a keen human rights advocate. It will be hard to square this circle.
Europe’s ability to deal with a host of other pressing problems – the row between Brussels, Poland and Hungary over constitutional issues, separatist tensions in the Balkans, friction with Turkey, Islamist terrorism in the Sahel, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and unresolved Brexit arguments – will not be helped by France’s assumption of the six-month EU presidency in January.
Although he denies it, Macron is certain to be distracted by his bid for a second term in April’s elections. This epic battle unites three central issues that will dominate Europe’s agenda in 2022: rightwing populism, migration and the pandemic. Some surveys indicate that since the German election, the populist tide has been receding. But in France, strong support for the xenophobic racists, Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, suggests such conclusions are premature.
Having followed Biden in abandoning Afghanistan, European Nato members can hardly complain if, as aid agencies predict, they face a big new wave of Afghan refugees this winter. This would again highlight the EU’s collective failure to agree a comprehensive, humane migration policy – and will be exploited by the French far right.
Another failure, the extraordinary absence of a coordinated European response to the Omicron variant as countries impose different, contradictory and often deeply unpopular, draconian restrictions, could help tip how France votes. As with Boris Johnson, the Covid bug, not the machinations of Russia, China and the US, may yet be Macron’s and Europe’s undoing.