The inability of Angela Merkel and her putative partners to form a government has given rise to persistent calls, including from the chancellor herself, that what Europe needs now is a strong Germany. In fact, it is Germany’s unquestioned strength and willingness to throw its weight around that are to blame for much of Eastern Europe’s unhappiness with the EU at the moment. A case in point is the growing rift between Berlin and its eastern EU neighbors on some of the issues discussed by Merkel and her potential government partners.
Take for instance Merkel’s position claiming that the Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline is simply a commercial project. To most of her eastern neighbors this is nothing if not crass German hypocrisy designed to further German business, while facilitating the monopolistic endeavors of Putin and Gazprom at the expense of Eastern Europe. Or the willingness of the Free Democrats to give Russia a pass on Crimean annexation, which suspiciously sounded like an apologia of the old “might is right” axiom. Or the asinine suggestion of the Greens to settle entire Syrian villages in Eastern Europe to make the migrants feel more comfortable and the locals less so.
Beyond these specific disagreements, there are fundamental, perhaps irreconcilable, differences between Eastern Europe and Germany on at least two issues – defense policy and migration. Regarding the former, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany, Berlin seems to have decided that there would never be another war in Europe and stopped spending money on defense. As a result, in a short time the German military was transformed from being the second most powerful in NATO to a weakling spending barely 1.2% of GDP on defense instead of the 2% agreed minimum. Its personnel collapsed nearly four-fold (600,000 to 177,000) and it has glaring equipment shortfalls that make its functioning as an integral force very doubtful.
According to Jane’s, more than half of its Leopard 2 tanks (95 of 244) are not combat ready, and neither are 28 of 75 Tornado combat aircraft, 41 of 79 its Eurofighters and four out of ten Patriot air-defense systems.
More troublesome than these capability issues is Germany’s unwillingness to determine where the threat to Europe may be coming from. Unlike Eastern Europe, which invariably sees Russia as a clear and present danger, Berlin appears not to be sure. During the recent election campaign, Merkel’s socialist coalition partners called for disarmament and the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from Germany, in the face of blatant Russian aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere. This fundamental divergence in threat perceptions also results in stark differences in attitudes toward defense spending, the United States and NATO priorities. There is a palpable and growing fault line between East and West Europe on defense matters that does not bode well for NATO.
There is further a huge gulf in attitudes toward migration. Western Europeans cite the easterners’ refusal to take any migrants as a sign of lack of solidarity, populist prejudice and perhaps racism. The easterners respond that nobody asked their views on opening the borders and point out the failure of western societies to integrate the migrants as a reason to not rush into this experiment. They point out that Muslims that have lived for decades in Europe nonetheless voted for the Islamist dictator Erdogan in much greater numbers than their fellow-Turks at home, as well as the spiking crime numbers of migrant crime and sexual assaults.
Polish winged hussars mount a charge
There is another powerful reason for Eastern Europe’s reluctance to accept Muslim refugees that is seldom discussed, though it is important and it has to do with the region’s historical experience with Muslims. Very few in Western Europe are aware of it, but every child in Poland knows that Jan Sobieski saved Europe and Christendom from the Ottomans at Vienna in 1683. They also know that much of Eastern Europe, including the Balkans, Hungary, Podolia in Poland, Wallachia and Moldavia were for centuries under the Ottomans and subject to infidel taxes, rapacious military levies, the boy tribute, and the depredations of the slave raiders. It was not a happy experience and many historians trace the backwardness of Eastern Europe compared to the rest of it to its unfortunate experience with Muslim obscurantism. Not an experience that is easily forgotten.
Alex Alexiev is an expert on security affairs who writes at Bulgaria Analytica.