Thirty years ago, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down — and with it vanished the dividing line that had separated Germany and Europe for several decades. The process of reunification that ensued was astonishingly peaceful. For many, this amounted to a miracle. Yet, as soon as October 3, 1990, during the Berlin unification celebrations, Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker drew attention to a large project that was still awaiting completion – the pan-European one. Weizsäcker warned of the risk that the dividing line Europe had just overcome would simply move east: “The Western border of the Soviet Union must not become the Eastern border of Europe.”
Thirty years later, we have to admit: We were not able to prevent a new division. On a European level, we were unable to mirror what came true in Germany — unity. The objective of “a Europe whole, free and at peace” as formulated by U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton has still not come to fruition.
Sure, a lot has been achieved since 1989: The European Union and NATO integrated many Eastern European states, thereby contributing to their efforts to consolidate peace and democracy and promote prosperity. Germany, suddenly surrounded only by friends, benefitted disproportionately. Yet this did not give rise to a pan-European security architecture, a durable order of peace in Europe. Russia and other Eastern European states have not found their place in this order — despite all efforts made in the framework of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The uncertainty has taken its toll on these countries: Ukraine is embroiled in the fifth year of war. Georgia is not the only country suffering from a frozen conflict. And in the Western Balkans, many crises remain unsolved. In short: Europe’s neighborhood is highly unstable — it constitutes a “ring of fire” rather than the “ring of well-governed states“ that the EU wished for in 2003.
Against this background, the EU’s recent decision not to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania is a disaster. The political costs of this decision are already evident: North Macedonia faces a political crisis and — not inconceivably —long-term destabilization. Other Western Balkan states will conclude: You cannot rely on the EU, and even if we engage in difficult reforms, we will remain second-class Europeans. The void the EU has torn open will not remain unfilled: Others — Russia, China, and Turkey in particular — will be eager to fill it. It is highly unlikely that this will serve the greater goal of democracy, peace and stability in the EU’s immediate neighborhood.
Germany has a special responsibility, arising from its history, to promote a strong and capable Europe.
This touches upon the greatest stumbling block on the path towards a durable Euro-Atlantic security order: the dismal state of relations with Russia. It is a pity that the vision of a “Common European Home,’” as expressed by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, never materialized — a home to all including Russia. Quite the contrary: With Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Eastern Ukraine, this prospect has dimmed even further. A relationship based on trust has been replaced by Western sanctions and Russian military aggression.
Yet we must not resign ourselves to this dire state of relations. We should also be acutely aware that things could get worse: With the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty terminated, questions of nuclear armament (rather than disarmament) are again on the agenda — a real threat to peace in Europe.
In our relations with Russia, the strategy outlined by Pierre Harmel in 1967 still provides guidance today: “As much dialogue as possible, as much deterrence as necessary.” This strategy also served as the basis for Germany’s Ostpolitik. In line with recent efforts of outreach by French President Emmanuel Macron, we should strive to ensure that we always keep a door open for Russia. Were Moscow willing to improve relations with the West, it would see that Europeans want to (and can) be reliable partners. But is Russia really interested in that sort of partnership? If so, trust has to be rebuilt first — trust that is able to replace the fear about Russian aggression that currently prevails among our Eastern European partners. For that very reason, some of our European partners will only be willing to offer Moscow more dialogue and cooperation if this offer is backed by a sufficiently strong European capability to defend and deter. In this regard, much remains to be done: not only to live up to NATO’s 2 percent spending goal, but to be able to defend our own vital interest in peace and security across Europe.
Germany has a special responsibility, arising from its history, to promote a strong and capable Europe. In this sense, our commemoration of German reunification comes with a legacy: What began in 1989 in Germany remains incomplete, namely the end of confrontation within Europe. We have to continue to work towards this goal. After all, peace and unity in Germany will only last if embedded in a pan-European architecture of peace, accepted by all.
Wolfgang Ischinger is chairman of the Munich Security Conference. He served in a variety of senior positions in the German Foreign Office, including as ambassador to the United States and ambassador to the United Kingdom.
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