The Decline Of Europe Becomes Increasingly Evident – OpEd

February 24 this year marks the second anniversary of the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war. In the past century, after experiencing two world wars and boasting significant advancements in civilization, human society has once again witnessed a large-scale war persisting for two years since the beginning of the 21st century. According to the war reports from Russia and Ukraine, the casualties on both sides may exceed 800,000 to date. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, the conflict between Hamas and Israel has been ongoing for nearly five months, with the death toll on both sides exceeding 30,000 people, with nearly 29,000 deaths in the Gaza Strip.

The simultaneous occurrence of these two wars has torn the world apart, compounded by anti-globalization and geopolitical competition, which greatly alter the global political and economic landscape. On February 17, Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen warned at the 60th Munich Security Conference (MSC) that wars have broken out successively in Europe and the Middle East. The world cannot afford to have three unstable war zones simultaneously, and every effort must be made to prevent conflicts in Asia. He also cautioned, “if indeed there is a conflict for whatever reason between US and China, I think we will have blighted our futures for the next, well, 10, 20, 30 years.”

Observers noted that at the recently concluded MSC, a strong sense of pessimism dominated Europe. Last year, Western countries had high hopes for Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russia. The U.S. and Europe faced little difficulty in providing weapons and funds to Ukraine, and most Western countries strongly opposed Russia. However, this year, the situation has changed significantly. Ukraine has fallen into difficulties in the war and has shifted to a comprehensive defensive stance after failed counterattacks. During this session of the MSC, the Russian military captured the key town of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine. The difficulties faced by Western countries in supporting the Ukrainian military have become apparent; the U.S. Congress has shelved a bill to provide billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine, and Europe is unable to produce the ammunition needed by the Ukrainian military. What is even more troublesome for Western governments is that Donald Trump, who is gaining momentum in the election process, is skeptical of NATO and opposes spending money on Ukraine. If Trump returns to the White House, Ukraine may face the risk of a cutoff in military aid.

Ironically, six decades ago Germany established the MSC to discuss with the U.S. on countering the Soviet Union. Today, 60 years later, Europeans, including Germans, are once again discussing with Americans how to thwart Russia. History seems to be repeating itself, but the mindset and motives of the key actors are no longer the same.

Take Germany as an example. Over 60 years ago, the Soviet Union at that time was stronger than today’s Russia, the sense of threat in the Cold War was heavily felt. Germany at that time was not unified, but divided into West Germany and East Germany. Nevertheless, West Germany at that time still proposed the idea of “change through rapprochement” – a concept that later became an important theoretical basis for Germany’s “Neue Ostpolitik”, or “new eastern policy”. German politicians like Willy Brandt showed historical initiative and confidence, adopting the Neue Ostpolitik to improve relations with the Soviet Union and to secure more peace and development space for Germany and Europe. Of course, it cannot be denied that after World War II, the greatest security guarantee in Europe still came from the U.S., which not only promoted the revitalization of Western European countries through the Marshall Plan but also ensured the collective national security of Western European allies through the NATO organization.

Compared to 60 years ago, Germany seems to lack the autonomy and confidence it once had. It is not just Germany, but other countries in old Europe also appear to be aging. Although there is the existence of the NATO military alliance and the European Union, European countries now seem more weakened and divided, with only a few “New Europe” countries showing more ambition and confidence.

From the performance of European countries at the MSC, it is evident that the fear of Russia has once again become a deep concern for European countries. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius warned that in the coming decades, the European continent will live in a division: “Free and democratic Europe on one side, authoritarian and warmongering Russia on the other.”. He called on NATO partners to increase military spending and emphasized that “effective deterrence is our life insurance”. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen stated, “Russia does not want peace with us. They are destabilizing the Western world from many different angles — in the Arctic region, the Balkans, and Africa – with disinformation, cyberattacks, hybrid war, and obviously in Ukraine”. She boldly announced that Danish authorities have decided to transfer artilleries to Ukraine and called on allies to do the same.

We believe that although European countries have expressed a unified hostility towards Russia, it does not demonstrate their actual unity. Considering the current context, it actually exposes the decline and division of European countries. Old European countries such as France, Spain, and Italy have a certain attitude towards Russia and the war, while “New Europe” countries such as Poland and the Baltic states have quite different views. Moreover, certain individual countries like Hungary firmly lean towards Russia. With the EU already struggling to make comparatively efficient and cohesive counteractions, the massive and cumbersome EU will likely face a more divided and declining future.

Similar to the two World Wars before, the Russia-Ukraine war has once again occurred on European soil. It not only undermines the security situation in Europe but also continuously burdens the European economy. Meanwhile, the concurrent conflict in the Middle East—the Hamas-Israel war—also directly impacts the European economy. The trade routes from Asia to Europe and the Americas have effectively been blocked by the Red Sea crisis. In Germany, the largest economy in Europe, according to an analysis by the Deutsche Bundesbank, following a 0.3% economic contraction in the fourth quarter of 2023, the German economy may experience a slight decline again in the first quarter of 2024, leading to a technical recession, defined as consecutive quarters of GDP decline. The German economy faces numerous challenges, including weak external demand, sluggish consumer spending, and restrained domestic investment.

The intensification of decline and division may make Europe less easy to deal with in international politics and economic cooperation. In China’s perspective, this change is not a good sign for China. The EU is still China’s second-largest trading partner, but under geopolitical tensions, the EU has developed a general sense of wariness towards China in various aspects such as bilateral trade, investment cooperation, and technology transfer. The “pro-American faction” within the EU has even proposed a geopolitical thought of “de-risking” in relation to China.

After attending the MSC, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi wasted no time and visited old European countries such as Spain and France. China’s intention is to strive for relatively friendly relations with Europe and to obtain geopolitical and geoeconomic space through peaceful communication. However, facing a Europe that is more declining and has more disagreements, cooperation between China and European countries in the future may not be as smooth as it used to be.

Final analysis conclusion:
A sense of pessimism has permeated the 60th Munich Security Conference, and this may be a turning point in the history of international geopolitics. Hindered by the war, European countries are showing increasingly evident decline both politically and economically, while their differences are also growing. The world needs to be prepared for a Europe that is gradually declining.

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