Europe faces new year of political instability and war

Published in (Wellington), 29 November 2022

There are years in which little happens. Then there are years in which everything seems to happen at once.

2022 was one of the latter years for Europe. It was turbulent, historic, and frankly difficult to bear.

As this column on Europe will be taking a break until February, now is a good time to take stock. Let us look at what has happened and where the continent stands at the end of this extraordinary year.

The quote of the year comes from Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor. At the end of February, a few days after the start of the Ukraine war, Scholz said in the Bundestag: “We are experiencing a turning point. And that means: the world after is no longer the same as the world before.”

Scholz’ statement is true. But it is also misleading.

There is no doubt Putin’s war has changed Europe in many ways this year.

However, seen from a different angle, it is only the continuation of a development that started decades earlier. It has not created an entirely new situation, but rather amplified and accelerated existing trends.

We will thus begin with the most obvious aspect of 2022: Europe’s security settings.

Before 2022, most Europeans had been lulled into believing war was inconceivable in 21st century Europe. On February 24, they awoke to realise this was an illusion.

I remember watching a live crossing to a TV correspondent in Kyiv the morning of that first day of war. Clearly bewildered by the events taking place, the correspondent helplessly smiled into the camera as if trying to awaken from a nightmare. She seemed not to believe what she was seeing.

I sympathised with her. An attack on a European capital by missiles fired from a neighbouring country was something out of history books. It was not meant to happen ever again.

That perspective was understandable in one sense. Europe had enjoyed its longest period of peace since World War II. Except for the Balkan wars of the 1990s and some civil wars, that is. But certainly no war on the scale of Putin’s Ukraine war.

In another sense, however, Europe’s peace had long been fragile. Since Putin became Russia’s President in 2000, he has repeatedly displayed his aggressive side. But Chechnya, Georgia and the North Caucasus appear far away viewed from London, Paris or Berlin. Never mind that Putin’s troops were every bit as brutal there and then as they are now in Ukraine.

In 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea and occupied the Donbas, the Europeans should finally have realised who they were dealing with. Even so, Europe still believed Putin could somehow be accommodated through appeasement.

So February 24 was not a turning point. It was a continuation. The only difference was the West finally understood a grim and dark reality it had hitherto ignored.

We might also see in Europe’s military situation not just a turning point but also a continuation.

On the morning of Putin’s invasion, the chief of the German army wrote on LinkedIn: “You wake up in the morning and realise: there is a war going on in Europe.” General Alfons Mais continued: “The army I have the privilege of leading is more or less bare. The options we can offer the politicians to support the alliance are extremely limited.”

The lack of military preparedness Mais described is not confined to Germany. For years, most members of Nato have struggled to keep to their pledges of defence spending. Military capacity had been run down. ‘Hard power’ was thought to be a concept of the past.

The Ukraine war supposedly changed all that, and politicians were quick to promise new investments in defence. But even with political will, such programmes take time. In Germany’s case, for example, the backlog in ammunition spending is estimated to be somewhere above €20 billion. Or, put differently, if Germany ever had to defend itself, it would run out of ammo after about a day.

The events of 2022 brought a need for a strong, reliable defence alliance to the fore. But the same forces that prevented Europe from living up to its Nato commitments are now slowing down the necessary reorientation and rearmament.

Politically, too, 2022 brought much turmoil – and in doing so, it continued yet another trend of past years.

Britain has seen three prime ministers this year. The first, Boris Johnson, began the year mortally wounded and survived longer than most observers (myself included) expected. The second, Liz Truss, will become an item of trivia for future pub quizzes. And the third and current, Rishi Sunak, still has to deal with the same fundamental economic imbalances in the British economy all his predecessors since Tony Blair have had to grapple with.

France re-elected Emmanuel Macron, but only because the alternative, Marine Le Pen, was so unpalatable. Italy elected Giorgia Meloni because Italians are by now used to unpalatable choices.

Meanwhile, Europe’s economy remains a disaster. That is despite Greece being allowed to leave the corset of financial monitoring behind after more than a decade.

All the other problems of the eurozone are still there. The European Central Bank remains hopelessly behind the curve on fighting inflation. France and Italy, two eurozone heavyweights, are still unable to generate economic growth.

And to make matters truly desperate, Germany has now joined the club of misery. In weaning itself off cheap Russian energy imports, Germany is heading towards a future of deindustrialisation. Germany previously solved euro crises with its economic power. Its economic decline could now become the centre of the next euro crisis.

As a columnist, I have been writing about European affairs for over a decade. As a European, I have been following them all my life. Yet I cannot recall a situation as depressing as our current one.

Europe finishes the year facing a war in its east, grappling with political instability in many countries, and plagued by high inflation throughout. It has been a year many Europeans would, no doubt, prefer to forget.

Unfortunately, many of the events we watched play out over 2022 were not one-offs. They were culminations and continuations of existing trends – trends that will continue into 2023 and beyond.

I will continue to cover these trends when I resume this column in February next year. In the meantime, thank you for following European affairs with me. I wish us all a better 2023.

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