Welcome to Europe’s Painful New Normal

By Jan Techau

In case you haven’t noticed, the great European crisis is the biggest political game changer in postwar history.


Although declaratory history (“These are outstanding times,” “Historians will look back on these momentous days”) is always a bit silly, it is not silly at all to say that the foundations for the new, postcrisis Europe have already been laid, and that no matter how the crisis unfolds, a return to the status quo ante will be impossible. There is no going back to “normal” because “normal” for Europe is not what it used to be.


Welcome to the new normal: a hugely inconvenient state of affairs for this lovely continent.


Europe’s new normal is a state of affairs in which the postwar integrationist zeal and sense of togetherness is gone. The institutions that were built on that enthusiasm, most notably EU and NATO, are entering a phase of tedious small-scale internal haggling with no hope of a great leap forward. They will survive, as they are both still needed, but their internal workings will be endlessly more difficult than in the past and their output much harder fought for.


Europe has become a continent in which the temptation of nationalism is back, in both its mild and its more robust forms. The long, almost idyllic postwar period in which Europe was largely immune to this standard feature of political discourse is over. And again, it is the EU institutions that will suffer, as they require a modicum of postnational thinking to fulfill their core functions.


The return of nationalist tendencies clashes with another aspect of the new normal. European integration is now progressing at stellar speed—at least in the eurozone—with bailouts, stability mechanisms, and fiscal and banking unions creating a new and practically irreversible form of integrated economic governance in Europe. This new system will require new sources of legitimacy, which no one is inclined to create. Europe will henceforth be characterized by the conflict between the search for this rare political commodity and the old ghosts of nationalism, who stand firmly opposed.


The new normal also means that the presence of Europe’s great external postwar balancer, the United States, will be less strongly felt in Europe’s politics. But Europeans still yearn for the great subsidizer. Eastern Europeans long for protection, Southern Europeans for support for their Keynesian ideas, the UK for a special partner, France for a friendly foe, Denmark for a call to arms, and Germany for a redeemer to make its postmodern dreams come true.


In addition, all Europeans share the hope that America will continue to keep the world at bay so they can benefit from stability and open sea lanes. But they all hope in vain. Because Europe’s new state of affairs also means that European countries will have to become normal nations in foreign policy. After two generations of lavish subsidies, they will finally be forced to foot a larger part of the bill. This will likely be the most painful element of the new normal.


What’s more, Europe’s three traditional outliers—the UK, Russia, and Turkey—are now less drawn to the center and instead prefer to stay on the margins of the political continent. Russia has already made that decision. Turkey is deeply torn over the issue. Britain clings to an idea of geopolitical eminence that no longer exists. The centrifugalists might even prevail in driving Mother England away from the continent; some say they have already done so.


For Europe, that is very bad news. The new normal means the EU’s geopolitical attraction is too weak not only to lure distant partners like the United States, but also for key players in Europe’s immediate neighborhood.


In the new Europe, Germany has returned to its naturally dominant role, which it derives from its sheer size and location. But normal in the German case is never quite normal. Today, it means a country that is at once a grown-up democracy and a deeply afflicted society with lingering self-doubts and a refusal to define its role in the world. Germany, which is not an instinctively Western nation, will have to fight harder than ever to be integrated into the West, and its partners will have to remind it more firmly of its need to do so.


Berlin’s natural tendency is not to succumb to some Eastern (read Russian) temptation, as some strategic forecasters keep claiming, but to feel it can manage on its own. Nothing would be more dangerous for peace and stability in Europe than a Germany outside the family of Western nations. There will be an increased struggle to prevent this from happening.


The new normal need not be a horror scenario. Like no other continent in the world, Europe is used to confronting its ghosts and its temptations. It is a generally hardworking, innovative, tolerant, and well-educated place. But during its sixty-year sabbatical from history, it has adopted a few practices it will find hard to unlearn.


The new normal will be brutal in its judgment. Either Europe discards its bad habits quickly and finds new ones fast, or the next decades will be a period of turmoil and decline. History is back for Europe. And that is the most normal thing in the world.


Carnegie Europe