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Analysis | The East of the EU was right about Russia. Can it lead Europe?

Remark

Addressing the Bundestag recently, Olaf Scholz fired an underhand mockery at a partner country that remained nameless but was easy enough to identify. The German chancellor announced that he would allow battle tanks made in his country to be sent to Ukraine. The move followed months of pressure from NATO allies – and Poland in particular.

“Hic Rhodus, hic salta,” Scholz said with one of his signature “Smurf grins.” The phrase comes from the Latin version of an Aesop fable. In that story, an athlete returns home and brags about his exploits, claiming that while visiting Rhodes he jumped further than any living man ever had or could. Okay, said one skeptic, if that’s true, then “Rhodes is here, jump here.”

Scholz’s intended audience was, of course, in Warsaw. The Polish government had said just a week earlier that it would give Ukraine some of its own German-made Leopard 2 tanks, even if Berlin refused to approve the delivery.

That maneuver was part of a more general Polish campaign story. Ahead of this autumn’s parliamentary elections, the populist government in Warsaw wants to bolster its base by sounding equally anti-German and anti-Russian. For example, as part of its tirades against Berlin, Warsaw is demanding 1.3 trillion euros ($1.4 trillion) in World War II reparations. As part of its resistance to the Kremlin, it has become one of the world’s most staunch supporters of Kiev.

Well then, Scholz said in the Bundestag: if you Poles like so much to pose as leaders of the West in the fight against the Kremlin, jump here, jump now. Send your own Leopard 2 tanks and then send even more weapons. And show us how to end this war while you’re at it.

Aesopian barbs aside, there is a real debate these days about where to place the European Union’s political center of gravity. It seems to have shifted east over the past year. In relative terms, the influence lies less in what former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld memorably called “Old Europe” and more in the “New Europe” that joined the EU and NATO after the Cold War.

But that could lead to two conclusions. One is that Poland and its Baltic neighbors are leading the continent’s response to Putin. Another is that they are apprenticed to run the block more generally.

There is no doubt that “New Europe” has been vindicated in its aggressive stance on Moscow over the past year, drawing praise for it from Brussels to Washington. Furthermore, just as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and others in the region were proven right about Putin, it was revealed that Germany and France were disastrously wrong.

For years, Berlin and Paris – who saw themselves as a Franco-German “tandem” propelling the EU – have coddled Putin and denied the threat posed by his imperialist worldview. In fact, Germany built not one but two pipelines to transport natural gas directly from Russia to Germany, bypassing not only Ukraine’s gas connections, but Poland’s as well.

That friendship sparked historical nightmares in Poland and the Baltic States. They suffer at the expense of German-Russian deals, at least since Hohenzollerns, Habsburgs and Romanovs dissolved the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century. Their worst trauma was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, in which Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland and the Baltic states between them.

When these countries later joined the EU and NATO, it was therefore in large part to get away from Moscow. During Putin’s two decades in power, they have gradually tightened their warnings. But Brussels, Berlin, Paris and other capitals ignored them – with “contemptuous arrogance”, as Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a former Estonian president, recalls.

Today, Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius and Warsaw, on the other hand, have the ears of the entire EU and the transatlantic West. They may also claim to lead in a different way. Relative to economic size, Estonia has been the world’s largest supporter of Ukraine, followed by Latvia, Poland and Lithuania. Germany ranks 14th, France 21st.

But this credibility doesn’t exactly translate into other kinds of influence. There is no longer an “Eastern Bloc” they could run within the EU, as there used to be when the “Visegrad Four” – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – pooled their influence in Brussels. Today they have all gone their separate ways. The Czechs have just elected Petr Pavel, a former general who spent time with NATO, as their new president; he will also help rally the West against Moscow. But Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban remains an apologist for Putin, and Croatian President Zoran Milanovic often strays from the political reserve.

Moreover, like Budapest, Warsaw spends much of its political energy berating Brussels and the EU, while undermining the rule of law and other democratic institutions at home. The EU, in turn, has imposed sanctions on Poland and Hungary, withholding a combined €138 billion ($148 billion) in funding from them. That hurts, because Poland remains by far the largest net recipient of EU money, followed by Greece and Hungary. Germany and France, meanwhile, are still the largest net contributors.

No government or country can claim to lead a confederation, even if it simultaneously undermines the common values ​​of that union, milks its finances and hinders its governance.

If it seems that power in the EU has shifted to the east, the reason therefore lies elsewhere. The main one is that all other potential leaders have effectively taken themselves out of the running. The British have completely left the club. The Italians replaced Mario Draghi, a leader with bona fide gravitas, with Georgia Meloni, a post-fascist populist. And as for that old Franco-German tandem, French President Emmanuel Macron and Scholz can barely climb the thing – let alone stairs.

This is the depressing sequitur of Scholz’s Aesopian quip. The truth is that the wider West has only one leader, the United States, while Europe has none at all. His friends and foes alike could turn Scholz’s mockery around and direct it at Berlin, Paris, Brussels and the entire EU: Hic Rhodus, hic salta.

More from Bloomberg’s opinion:

Forget ‘autonomy’: Europe needs the US as much as ever: Andreas Kluth

• Ukraine urgently needed tanks. Now it needs planes: James Stavridis

In Ukraine it is now a matter of who attacks first: Leonid Bershidsky

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. He is a former editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist. He is the author of ‘Hannibal and Me’.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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