Europe on the Edges


If Russia’s war in Ukraine ends in triumph for the West, could Ukraine, with all of its manifold problems—vast devastation of infrastructure, corruption, weak institutions—eventually join NATO and the European Union? Given Europe’s history over two millennia, that course would be unsurprising.

Europe has always been defined and influenced by its periphery, and it has shifted its position on the map accordingly. NATO’s very move eastward after the Cold War, incorporating the countries of the former Warsaw Pact—however controversial that decision remains—has a deep echo in Europe’s past. So does the construction of Russian natural gas lines extending throughout Central and Eastern Europe. The American historian Henry Adams famously wrote more than a century ago that the fundamental challenge of Europe was and would remain how to integrate Russia’s various lands into what he called the “Atlantic combine.”

Expansion, writes Tony Judt, the late historian of postwar Europe, is part of the “foundation myth” of the European Union. From the start, the EU was a highly ambitious enterprise, gradually encompassing former Carolingian, Prussian, Habsburg, Byzantine, and Ottoman domains, each with its own separate history and development pattern. In other words, Europe must always find a way to be larger than itself, to be forward-deployed, so to speak: to be continually ambitious. For if Europe’s influence is not strongly felt in its frontier zones, adversaries like Russia will constantly threaten.

If Russia’s war in Ukraine ends in triumph for the West, could Ukraine, with all of its manifold problems—vast devastation of infrastructure, corruption, weak institutions—eventually join NATO and the European Union? Given Europe’s history over two millennia, that course would be unsurprising.

Europe has always been defined and influenced by its periphery, and it has shifted its position on the map accordingly. NATO’s very move eastward after the Cold War, incorporating the countries of the former Warsaw Pact—however controversial that decision remains—has a deep echo in Europe’s past. So does the construction of Russian natural gas lines extending throughout Central and Eastern Europe. The American historian Henry Adams famously wrote more than a century ago that the fundamental challenge of Europe was and would remain how to integrate Russia’s various lands into what he called the “Atlantic combine.”

Expansion, writes Tony Judt, the late historian of postwar Europe, is part of the “foundation myth” of the European Union. From the start, the EU was a highly ambitious enterprise, gradually encompassing former Carolingian, Prussian, Habsburg, Byzantine, and Ottoman domains, each with its own separate history and development pattern. In other words, Europe must always find a way to be larger than itself, to be forward-deployed, so to speak: to be continually ambitious. For if Europe’s influence is not strongly felt in its frontier zones, adversaries like Russia will constantly threaten.

When Greece and Turkey joined NATO in 1952, it was a bold move, given the two countries’ lack of development and mutual hostility. When Spain and Portugal joined what was then the European Community in 1986, the relative poverty and recent history of dictatorship in Iberia made extending Europe beyond the Pyrenees equally bold. Now those developments appear natural and organic to the greater European project. Turkey remains the only outlier, on account of its neutral position vis-à-vis Europe, Russia, and radical forces in the Middle East. Yet Turkey may gravitate back toward the West after the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is increasingly embattled and is disastrously mismanaging his economy.

The periphery just keeps encroaching on Europe: in the form of Russian military aggression, anarchy in the adjacent Middle East, and neighboring states seeking to join the EU. Ukraine is only one example of a nearby country yearning for freedom inside Europe’s institutions and cosmopolitan umbrella.

Indeed, traveling a few years ago in Albania, I came upon the Citadel of Berat not far from the Adriatic Sea. There, I saw Byzantine Orthodox churches and the remnants of Ottoman mosques practically touch each other, with each roadway a former trade route connecting the central Mediterranean with Istanbul. In one church in Berat, I encountered an 18th-century icon in which the Virgin Mary’s hands were outstretched in benediction, with mosques depicted on either side of her. Orthodoxy, Islam, and Catholicism all coexist in Albania, a NATO member that aspires to join the EU, notwithstanding its weak institutions and rampant organized crime. Not only Albania, but Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia are all fragile states inside the Eastern Orthodox and Islamic worlds that are geographically part of Europe and seeking membership in the EU, despite the role of Russia and Turkey in their economies.

The East has, in fact, laid the basis for much of today’s Europe. The Slav migration from inner Asia into Europe from the 5th through 7th centuries created the human bedrock for states from Poland south to the Balkans. The Magyar migration from the Urals in the 9th century created Hungary. Later came the impinging forces of Ottoman Turks and Russian tsars, with the Ottomans under military leader Kara Mustafa reaching the gates of Vienna in the late 17th century and Russia under Peter the Great conquering the Baltic Sea region in the same period. Europe has often changed based on eruptions from its periphery.

Actually, the greatest and most dramatic upheaval to the map of Europe occurred in late antiquity, and it also came from the East. The Persian empire of the Sassanids, by clashing with the Byzantine Empire—and thus weakening them both—allowed for the Arab conquest of not just the Middle East, but the entire southern shore of the Mediterranean. Once Arabs arrived in North Africa, Europe gradually moved north and away from the Mediterranean, and took on a colder, Franco-Germanic face, culminating in medieval Christendom, as Germanic peoples including the Goths and Lombards created the demographic and cultural building-blocks of the West.

It was by no means assured that this would happen. Consider that throughout antiquity until the 7th century, long after the collapse of Rome, Latin was still North Africa’s lingua franca. The old Roman map oriented around the Mediterranean Basin for hundreds of years was suddenly gone, and Europe as we now know it began to take shape in the so-called Dark Ages.

Fernand Braudel, the great French geographer of the mid-20th century, even hinted that the Mediterranean was not actually Europe’s southern border. Europe, in his view, ended only where the Sahara Desert began. That is, the great cities and coastal populations of Arab North Africa and the Levant were intrinsically part of Europe. The Mediterranean was a connector, not a divider. Once this history is understood, the implications for the 21st century are enormous. For even a Ukraine integrated into Europe may not be the greatest influencer on the continent’s destiny in the coming decades.

For example, Middle Eastern prison-states like Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya and Baathist Syria, which once sealed off human migration into Southern and Southeastern Europe, have collapsed. By 2050, Africa’s population will double to 2.5 billion, and, by 2100, it could reach 4.5 billion, according to the United Nations. At the turn of the 21st century, Europe and Africa had roughly the same population; at the end of this century, there could be seven Africans for every European.

Population growth and the reduction of extreme poverty worldwide means people will be on the move later in the 21st century to an even greater extent than now. Although most Africans who choose to migrate will still stay within their own continent’s borders, the growing middle classes in a number of African countries may only intensify cross-Saharan migration to Mediterranean ports—more Africans will have the means to move abroad as demographic upheavals of rising expectations take hold. This is in addition to ongoing migration caused by failing and semi-failed states across the Sahel just to the south of the Sahara, such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The African migrants from south and east of the Sahara who began landing in Italy and Greece in 2015 are a sign not only of the Mediterranean as a connector but of the Sahara Desert no longer being—contrary to Braudel’s assessment—a divider.

Yet the spirit of Braudel’s broader argument—that the formation of Europe is determined by events in its periphery and far beyond—has returned with a vengeance in this hyper-global age. In fact, populist nationalism, promoted for years by President Vladimir Putin’s Russia and seen in several European countries such as Hungary and Poland, may be but an epiphenomenon before there is more gnawing away at national histories and cultures, as globalization and its attendant cosmopolitanism prove to be an unstoppable force, however gradual and at different speeds they operate. And European societies could change from within as a consequence. Obviously, this is for reasons that go far beyond the collapse of Putin’s own reputation because of the war in Ukraine. Europe, a subcontinent of Eurasia and close to Africa and the Middle East, will likely be continually pounded by such trends as migration becomes a dominant phenomenon in the 21st century.

Geography constitutes more than fatalism. It can also proclaim a moral message. The message of both the Mediterranean Basin and the adjoining Black Sea that borders Ukraine is universalism: seas that unite different civilizations. The original idea of the EU runs parallel to this: emphasizing the sanctity of the individual over that of the group and of legal states rather than of ethnic nations; in other words, the constitutional safeguarding of individual rights in a cosmopolitan universe. Until the EU’s decadelong economic crisis, its mission was to expand both east and south. For if the lands just beyond the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean, as well as the Black Sea, are in chaos, in the long term there will ultimately be no protection for a northern European fortress in a global world.

Europe, as it has always done in the past, must adapt to these changing conditions. The shrinkage of geography through technology and migration is relentless, as will be the aftershocks of the greatest military conflict in Europe since World War II. Indeed, great wars put history on fast-forward. And the decisions of individuals, Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, are poised perhaps to radically alter the map of Europe once again.

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