How Europe’s changing borders define the region

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If Russia’s war in Ukraine ends in triumph for the West, could Ukraine, with all its many problems – vast devastation of infrastructure, corruption, weak institutions – possibly join NATO and the ‘European Union ? Given the history of Europe over two millennia, this course would not be surprising.

Europe has always been defined and influenced by its periphery, and it has changed its position on the map accordingly. NATO’s very move eastward after the Cold War, incorporating the countries of the former Warsaw Pact – even if this decision remains controversial – has a deep echo in Europe’s past. The same goes for the construction of Russian natural gas pipelines stretching throughout Central and Eastern Europe. American historian Henry Adams wrote more than a century ago that Europe’s fundamental challenge was and would remain how to integrate Russia’s various lands into what he called the “Atlantic Combinate”.

Expansion, writes Tony Judt, the late historian of postwar Europe, is part of the “founding myth” of the European Union. From the start, the EU was a very ambitious undertaking, gradually encompassing the former Carolingian, Prussian, Habsburg, Byzantine and Ottoman domains, each with its own history and development pattern. In other words, Europe must always find a way to be bigger than itself, to push itself forward, so to speak: to be continuously ambitious. Because if the influence of Europe is not strongly felt in its border areas, adversaries like Russia will constantly threaten.

If Russia’s war in Ukraine ends in triumph for the West, could Ukraine, with all its many problems – vast devastation of infrastructure, corruption, weak institutions – possibly join NATO and the ‘European Union ? Given the history of Europe over two millennia, this course would not be surprising.

Europe has always been defined and influenced by its periphery, and it has changed its position on the map accordingly. NATO’s very move eastward after the Cold War, incorporating the countries of the former Warsaw Pact – even if this decision remains controversial – has a deep echo in Europe’s past. The same goes for the construction of Russian natural gas pipelines stretching throughout Central and Eastern Europe. American historian Henry Adams wrote more than a century ago that Europe’s fundamental challenge was and would remain how to integrate Russia’s various lands into what he called the “Atlantic Combinate”.

Expansion, writes Tony Judt, the late historian of postwar Europe, is part of the “founding myth” of the European Union. From the start, the EU was a very ambitious undertaking, gradually encompassing the former Carolingian, Prussian, Habsburg, Byzantine and Ottoman domains, each with its own history and development pattern. In other words, Europe must always find a way to be bigger than itself, to push itself forward, so to speak: to be continuously ambitious. Because if the influence of Europe is not strongly felt in its border areas, adversaries like Russia will constantly threaten.

When Greece and Turkey joined NATO in 1952, it was a bold move, given the two countries’ lack of development and mutual hostility. When Spain and Portugal joined what was then the European Community in 1986, the relative poverty and recent history of dictatorship in the Iberian Peninsula made extending Europe beyond the Pyrenees just as bold. Today, these developments seem natural and organic to the larger European project. Turkey remains the only exception, due to its neutral position vis-à-vis Europe, Russia and radical forces in the Middle East. Yet Turkey could return to the West after the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is increasingly besieged and disastrously managing his economy.

The periphery keeps encroaching on Europe: in the form of Russian military aggression, anarchy in the adjacent Middle East, and neighboring states seeking to join the EU. Ukraine is just one example of a neighboring country yearning for freedom within the institutions and cosmopolitan umbrella of Europe.

Indeed, during a trip a few years ago to Albania, I came across the Citadel of Berat not far from the Adriatic Sea. There I saw Byzantine Orthodox churches and the remains of Ottoman mosques practically touching, each road being an ancient trade route from the central Mediterranean to Istanbul. In a church in Berat, I came across an 18th century icon in which the hands of the Virgin Mary were stretched out in blessing, with mosques depicted on either side of her. Orthodoxy, Islam and Catholicism all coexist in Albania, a NATO member that aspires to join the EU, despite its weak institutions and rampant organized crime. Not only Albania, but Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia are all fragile states within the Eastern Orthodox and Islamic worlds that are geographically part of Europe and seek to join to the EU, despite the role of Russia and Turkey in their economies.

The East actually laid the foundations for much of today’s Europe. Slavic migration from Inner Asia to Europe in the 5th–7th century created the human bedrock for states from Poland to the southern Balkans. The Magyar migration from the Urals in the 9th century created Hungary. Later came the forces of the Ottoman Turks and Russian Tsars, with the Ottomans under the military leader Kara Mustafa reaching the gates of Vienna in the late 17th century and Russia under Peter the Great conquering the Baltic Sea region in the same period. . Europe has often changed according to the eruptions of its periphery.

In fact, the greatest and most dramatic upheaval in the map of Europe occurred in late antiquity, and it also came from the East. The Persian empire of the Sassanids, by clashing with the Byzantine empire – and therefore weakening them both – enabled the Arab conquest not only of the Middle East, but of the entire southern shore of the Mediterranean. Once the Arabs arrived in North Africa, Europe gradually moved north and away from the Mediterranean, and took on a colder Franco-Germanic face, culminating in medieval Christianity, as the Germanic peoples, including the Goths and Lombards, created the demographic and cultural elements of the West.

He was by no means assured that this would happen. Consider that throughout antiquity until the 7th century, long after the collapse of Rome, Latin was still the lingua franca of North Africa. The ancient Roman map oriented around the Mediterranean basin for hundreds of years suddenly disappeared, and Europe as we know it now began to take shape during what is known as the Dark Ages.

Fernand Braudel, the great French geographer of the middle of the 20th century, even hinted that the Mediterranean was not really the southern border of Europe. Europe, according to him, only ended where the Sahara Desert began. In other words, the major cities and coastal populations of Arab North Africa and the Levant were intrinsically part of Europe. The Mediterranean was a connector, not a divider. Once this history is understood, the implications for the 21st century are enormous. For even a Ukraine integrated into Europe may not be the greatest factor influencing the continent’s fate in the decades to come.

For example, Middle Eastern prison states like Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya and Baathist Syria, which once blocked human migration to southern and southeastern Europe, have collapsed. By 2050, Africa’s population will double to 2.5 billion, and by 2100 it could reach 4.5 billion, according to the United Nations. At the turn of the 21st century, Europe and Africa had roughly the same population; at the end of this century, there could be seven Africans for every European.

Population growth and the reduction of extreme poverty around the world mean that people will move around later in the 21st century to an even greater extent than today. Although most Africans who choose to migrate will always remain within the borders of their own continent, the growing middle classes in a number of African countries can only intensify trans-Saharan migration to Mediterranean ports – more Africans will have the means to go abroad as demographic changes and growing expectations take hold. This is in addition to ongoing migration caused by failed and semi-failed states across the Sahel just south of the Sahara, such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The African migrants from south and east of the Sahara who began landing in Italy and Greece in 2015 are a sign not only that the Mediterranean is a connector, but that the Sahara desert is no longer, unlike the Braudel’s evaluation, a divider.

Yet the spirit of Braudel’s larger argument – ​​that the formation of Europe is determined by events in its periphery and far beyond – has returned with a vengeance in this hyper-global age. In fact, populist nationalism, promoted for years by President Vladimir Putin’s Russia and observed in several European countries such as Hungary and Poland, may be only an epiphenomenon before we eat more national histories and cultures, as evidenced by globalization and the cosmopolitanism that accompanies it. to be an unstoppable force, however gradual and at different speeds it operates. And European societies could change from within as a result. Of course, this is for reasons that go far beyond the collapse of Putin’s own reputation over the war in Ukraine. Europe, a subcontinent of Eurasia and close to Africa and the Middle East, is likely to be continuously rocked by such trends as migration becomes a dominant phenomenon in the 21st century.

Geography is more than fatalism. It can also proclaim a moral message. The message of the Mediterranean Basin and the adjacent Black Sea bordering Ukraine is universalism: seas that unite different civilizations. The brainchild of the EU parallels this: emphasizing the sanctity of the individual over that of group and legal states rather than ethnic nations; in other words, the constitutional safeguard of individual rights in a cosmopolitan universe. Until the decade-long economic crisis, the EU’s mission was to expand both east and south. For if the lands just beyond the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean, as well as the Black Sea, are in chaos, in the long run there will ultimately be no protection for a northern European fortress in a global world. .

Europe, as it has always done in the past, must adapt to these changing conditions. The shrinking of geography by technology and migration is relentless, as will be the aftershocks of Europe’s greatest military conflict since World War II. Indeed, the great wars accelerated history. And the decisions of individuals, Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, may be about to dramatically change the map of Europe once again.

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