The border between Poland and Belarus has become a battleground. Credit: WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/Getty

November 10, 2021   5 mins

Europe is a continent, but also an ideal. The trouble is that the first Europe is too big for the second.  

When British Remainers claim to “believe in Europe” — most of them literally don’t know what they’re talking about. As one travels eastward from the pointy western end of the continent, Europe just keeps widening out. It contains entire nations and peoples that most of us haven’t even heard of. How about Kalmykia — Europe’s only Buddhist state? Or the ginger-headed Udmurts? Or the Alans of South Ossetia? 

Faraway countries of which we know little? Evidently. But Europe beyond the borders of the EU is still out there — and it is currently reminding us of its existence.  

Most urgently, there is the crisis on the border between Poland and Belarus. The Belarusian government has discovered that migration from the Middle East and elsewhere can be used as a weapon against the EU. Migrants are being flown to Belarus, bused to the Polish border and then pushed across the frontier. The Polish authorities are pushing back, trapping thousands of people in the no-man’s-land between the two states. As temperatures drop, we’re coming closer to a full-blown humanitarian crisis — and perhaps to armed conflict. A regime capable of using people as weapons is also capable of giving weapons to people. 

Meanwhile, a thousand kilometres to the south another crisis is brewing. The Dayton Agreement that brought peace to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 is breaking down. This fragile state is divided into two main parts — Republika Srpska (predominantly populated by ethnic Serbs) and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in which ethnic Bosniaks and Croats are the biggest groups. 

It was never the most robust of arrangements, but now the Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, is making moves towards independence for Republika Srpska. Most ominously, he wants to divvy up the Bosnian armed forces. What could possibly go wrong?

Unlike in the Nineties, this is happening right on the EU’s border. Bosnia is roughly triangular in shape and is surrounded on two of its three sides by Croatia, which is now an EU member. If the Bosnian state collapses, then that could bring the EU into conflict with Serbia and Russia — both of which support the Bosnian Serbs. And if that wasn’t enough, Turkey could be dragged in too — as the patron of the predominantly Muslim Bosniaks. 

Turkey is itself a potential source of instability for Europe. President Erdogan has long been a thorn in the EU’s side, but at least he was willing to do a deal on curbing the flow of illegal migrants from the Middle East (in return for money). However, he’s reported to be in poor health — and his party’s grip on power is slipping. Polls show that the opposition is in with a chance of winning the next general election. Whether they’ll be allowed to win is anyone’s guess. But one way or another, disruption is coming — and that could mean an end to the immigration deal. 

Could the European Union cope with multiple crises on its borders? No, because it just doesn’t have the capacity. You only have to look at Ursula von der Leyen’s statement on the Belarus border crisis. She condemns the actions of the Belarusian authorities — describing them as a “hybrid attack”; but she only offers unspecified “support” to the Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian governments. Significantly, there’s no mention of the only EU agency capable of acting in this matter — which is Frontex — the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. Even though Frontex is headquartered in Warsaw, the Polish government has declined the agency’s help. Clearly, the Poles have little confidence in the EU’s approach to border control.

In Bosnia, it’s the US keeping a lid on the situation. The EU has been of scant use — it couldn’t even stop the circulation of a diplomatic note that proposed a three-way partition of Bosnia (between Serbia, Croatia and a rump state for the Bosniaks). The Americans have rejected this dangerous idea, but what happens if they lose patience with policing Europe and tell the Europeans to sort themselves out? 

As for Turkey, any agreement with the EU depends on the ongoing cooperation of the Turks — or, when that’s not enough, turning a blind-eye to the alleged strong-arm tactics of the Greek and Bulgarian authorities.

What all of these crises reveal is the essential powerlessness of the European Union. We’ve been told ad nauseam that the EU is the producer of peace in Europe. The truth, however, is that the EU is the product of it. 

A political entity that lacks an army, a police force or the legitimacy conferred by national sovereignty, cannot survive without an international order created by others. If this order is compromised — even to a limited extent — then things start falling apart. Just look at the refugee crisis of 2014 and 2015, which contributed to Brexit, the election of a populist government in Italy and the tightening grip of the Hungarian leader, Viktor Orbán.

What would a deeper, longer crisis do to the EU? A number of possibilities present themselves, none of them good. The least worst option is that America, through NATO, rides to the rescue; in which case the western pecking order is settled for years to come. Alternatively, Brussels does a deal with Moscow — and essentially pays Danegeld to the Russians from hereon out. 

Or maybe the EU could start manning-up — either by creating an actual European Army or expanding Frontex into a de facto military. However, that creates a problem of democratic accountability. Von der Leyen as Commander-in-Chief? I hardly think so. A more likely scenario is more of what we’re seeing already — which is the EU relying on its eastern member states to hold the line. That means allowing them (indeed, paying them) to do things their way — which won’t be pretty. As Aris Roussinos argues, expect to see more barbed wire, more walls, more tear gas and worse.

We should certainly expect Belarus — with Russia in the background — to keep up the pressure. If the line breaks, then illegal migrants will pour into Europe fuelling a renewed populist backlash. Don’t forget there’s a Presidential election in France next year and that candidates of the far Right are in second and third place. 

Of course, the line may hold. But what would be the price of that? I’m reminded of the fate of the Roman Empire. Long before the western half of the empire fell and Rome was sacked, the institutions that had defined the state were reduced to hollow shells. That’s because all the real power had leaked away to the legions on the troubled frontier. 

The decisions that actually mattered weren’t made in the Senate or anywhere else in Rome, but in the forts and watch towers along the Danube and the Rhine. In the Crisis of the Third Century, marked by multiple invasions and rebellions, the Roman establishment was usurped by a series of “barracks emperors” — leaders of men who owed their position to soldiery not aristocracy. 

Obviously, the EU is not the Roman Empire — but it is an empire of sorts. And like all empires it has to choose a frontier and defend it. 

The stability of the EU currently depends on the sort of politician who can agree a budget proposal in a committee meeting or strike a backroom deal over dinner in a Brussels restaurant. It’s a dull, bureaucratic and sometimes corrupt culture of government. If, however, the EU comes to depend on the sort of person who can repel a column of cold and hungry migrants, then we’ll look back on the present era with fondness.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.