LJUBLJANA, Slovenia — Elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany this year have brought much drama to the old Carolingian core, where Charlemagne founded his empire in the ninth century. This has always been the richest and most strongly institutionalized part of Europe. But should the European Union continue to weaken, the most profound repercussions will be felt farther east and south.
There, along the fault line of the Austrian Hapsburg and Ottoman Turkish empires, former Communist countries lack the sturdy middle-class base of core Europe, and in many cases are still distracted by ethnic and territorial disputes 25 years after the siege of Sarajevo. They depend on pro-European Union governments as never before.
Here in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, a country squeezed between Central Europe and the Balkans, officials and experts talk about a so-called phantom frontier that still exercises people’s imagination. This is the “Antemurale Christianitatis,” the “Bulwark of Christianity,” proclaimed in 1519 by Pope Leo X, in a reference to the Roman Catholic Slavs considered the front line against the Ottoman Empire. Croatia was the first line of defense against the Muslim Sultanate, and Slovenia the second. “When Yugoslavia collapsed, it was assumed that none of this earlier history was important,” one official said to me recently. “But a quarter-century after the disintegration of Tito’s Yugoslavia, we find that we are back to late-medieval and early-modern history.”
The Slovenes, governed for hundreds of years by the Austrian Hapsburgs, had in 2016 a per-capita income of $32,000. The Croats, with their mixed history of being heirs in part to the Austro-Hungarian tradition and in part to Ottoman and Venetian traditions, had a per-capita income of $22,400. But then comes the rest of the former Yugoslavia, which fell almost completely within the Ottoman Empire. Here we have Montenegro with a per-capita income of $17,000, Serbia with $14,000 and Macedonia, Kosovo and the former Ottoman parts of Bosnia with similarly low numbers. The economic and social distinctions from older, imperial divisions remain.Continue reading the main story
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This is not ethnic or racial determinism, since the Slavs of southeastern Europe have been shaped politically and economically more by the agency of foreign imperialism than by their own blood and language. The former Byzantine and Ottoman part of Europe — the part closest to the Middle East — is still the poorest, least stable and most in need of support and guidance from the European Union. Whether Europe remains a secure and prosperous continent, or fractures along traditional east-west fault lines — with authoritarians in Russia and Turkey carving out zones of interest — will play out most vividly in the Balkans. Thus, political developments in Paris, Berlin and Brussels have repercussions far afield.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has been active throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and particularly in the Balkans, using various forms of subversion, from running organized crime rings to financing nationalist-populist movements to influencing local news media. Montenegro may be close to joining NATO, but it is often viewed as a veritable colony of Russian oligarchs and crime groups, where by some accounts Russia tried to stage a coup last year. Serbia and Bulgaria are seen as beachheads of Russian regional influence, even as neo-authoritarian governments farther north in Hungary and Poland increasingly bear similarities to the Russian regime. The effort by the Hungarian government to end the freedom of Central European University, founded in Budapest by the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros after the fall of the Berlin Wall, has to be seen in this geopolitical context.
As for Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a referendum granting him near-dictatorial powers last month. The next day, he visited the tomb not of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s founder, but the tomb of Mehmed II, known as the Conqueror, the 15th-century Ottoman sultan whose imperial armies marched westward from Constantinople as far as Bosnia. Whether it is in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kosovo or elsewhere in the region, Mr. Erdogan is determined to fill the void opened by a declining European Union. Lawlessness in Macedonia, including violence in the Parliament itself over a contested government transition, demonstrates the political fragility of southeastern Europe.
Yet it is only the European Union that can stabilize the Balkans. Only if Serbia, Albania and Kosovo all become members of the union can the ethnic dispute between Serbs and Albanians truly be solved. Within the European Union, Albania and Kosovo will have no need of unifying on their own. But if they were to attempt unification, it could become a casus belli for the Serbs. A similar dynamic holds for the continuing contest between Croatia and Serbia for influence in Bosnia-Herzegovina. There is peace for everyone in the former Yugoslavia within the framework of the European Union. There is only protracted conflict without it. Indeed, the European Union offers a world of legal states instead of ethnic nations, governed by impersonal laws rather than fiat, where individuals are protected over the group.
The European Union, in other words, is the necessary empire.
I use the word “empire” advisedly. The European Union has been such an ambitious enterprise mainly because it has sought a union over the former Carolingian, Prussian, Hapsburg, Byzantine and Ottoman domains, all with starkly different histories and economic development patterns. To accomplish that, the European Union has had, in effect, to replace the functionality of those former empires. Even inside the open borders of the Schengen Area, within which European Union citizens are guaranteed free movement, the union represents a sprawling territory, governed to a significant degree by a remote and only partially democratic bureaucracy, with many of its people demanding more direct representation. Isn’t this a form of late and declining empire?
Yet, it must be saved — and improved. Jan Zielonka of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, writes optimistically of a vibrant “neo-medievalism” in Europe: a dynamic overlapping of identities and sovereignties — supranational, national and local — as cities and regions vie with a revitalized European Union for a claim on people’s loyalties. Unless there is a credible European Union, none of the other layers of identity are possible without conflict.
I recently visited the Croatian port city of Rijeka, close to the Slovenian and Italian borders, when the two-headed eagle was put back atop the bell tower. “It is a Hapsburg emblem, not a Croat, Hungarian or Italian one,” a local ethnic-Italian writer, Giacomo Scotti, explained to me. “It was taken down by the Fascists and symbolizes the local freedom and autonomy that this city enjoyed under the Hapsburgs.” Mainly because Croatia is a sovereign state within the European Union, and working toward entry into the Schengen and euro zones, do the circumstances exist for such a nonthreatening display of local pride.
Here it is wise to consider what Yugoslavia was ultimately about. The great Italian scholar of Central Europe, Claudio Magris, refers to Tito in his epic travel book, “Danube,” as the last of the Hapsburg emperors, resembling Franz Joseph “because of his awareness of inheriting a supranational, Danubian legacy.” Like Franz Joseph, Tito held Yugoslavia together through a mixture of repression and, compared with other Communist states, benevolence. Now the states that were once part of Yugoslavia will find peace and security only through a new, far more benign imperial system: the European Union. So what happens next in the core of Europe — whether, for instance, France joins Britain in seeking to exit the European Union — is crucial to the rest of the continent.