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Europe’s east gets its day

Jérémie Gallon is managing director at McLarty Associates, an adjunct professor at Sciences Po and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. His latest book is “Henry Kissinger, l’Européen.” 

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, it has often been said that the European Union’s center of gravity has been shifting to the east. 

And it’s true — the time when Paris and Berlin alone could decide the Continent’s future is over. In this newly emerging phase, it is the countries of Eastern and Central Europe that will have growing influence.   

What is less often noted, however, is that this shift doesn’t actually mark a break with the past but is rather an acceleration of broad trends that have been evident for some time. 

First among these is the growing economic weight of Eastern Europe. Even though 2022 won’t be a good year for the region’s economies, the overwhelming national-level macroeconomic trend in 21st century Europe is convergence. And emblematic of the region is Poland, with its highly-qualified youth, strengthened industrial base — including in cutting-edge sectors like fintech and biotechnologies — and ability to attract foreign investors. 

There’s also a political “coming of age” taking place within the EU. It’s almost 20 years since the accession of eight Eastern and Central European countries in 2004, which means that these countries now fully understand how to navigate the EU’s complex institutions, and that their first generation of EU functionaries has attained key positions.  

This is accompanied by a sense that, unlike some of the founding members of the European project, these newer members are choosing to send their best people to Brussels. These leaders — including European Prosecutor General Laura Codruta Kövesi from Romania and Executive Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of Trade Valdis Dombrovskis from Latvia — are making their presence felt within the bloc.

Finally, less tangible, but arguably even more important, is that this new generation of national leaders from Eastern Europe is showing itself to possess qualities their Western European cohort often lacks. The Eastern Europeans possess a sense of the tragedy of history, which has given them an outlook that looks today almost like geopolitical clairvoyance. For example, this farsightedness, embodied by Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, led many of these countries to preemptively work toward reducing their energy dependence on Russia in recent years. 

It must also be noted that these leaders exhibit unusual courage in the face of aggression or intimidation. We have seen this in the actions of Gabrielius Landsbergis, the Lithuanian foreign minister, when he strengthened Lithuania’s ties with Taiwan in the face of Chinese economic threats. And it must have taken considerable nerve, too, for new Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov to support European sanctions against Moscow, despite the strong historical and economic ties between Russia and his country. 

But perhaps the chief distinguishing feature of these young Eastern European leaders is their thirst to shape the world of tomorrow. While the west has been sated by decades of peace and prosperity, they — with their more recent memories of occupation, deprivation and hardship — are determined to be architects of their own destiny. 

This correction of Europe’s historic western tilt is both healthy and necessary. It’s also vital, however, that the ascendant east doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to build its moral and political leadership in opposition to Western Europe. 

The war in Ukraine has tested the mettle of these countries in the face of Russia, and it’s reminded them of the importance of the transatlantic relationship to which they are so attached. Though it has also illustrated Europe’s continued strategic reliance on the United States, even at a time when that country’s violent domestic political fractures cast real doubt on its reliability as a partner under a future administration. 

More than ever, the EU needs to be geopolitically stronger, more sovereign and more strategically autonomous. This is the vision that leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi are relentlessly pursuing. And it’s not against France and the other founders of the European project that Eastern Europe can make history. It is with them. 

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