JS: Hello everyone, I’m Jacob Shapiro, I’m the director of analysis for Geopolitical Futures. I’m joined today by our senior Europe analyst, Antonia Colibasanu. We’re coming to you from the Hotel Bristol in Genoa, Italy. Both Antonia and I have been on panels here presenting at a conference organized by Limes, which is a well-known geopolitical magazine here in Italy. So Antonia, thank you for taking the time out of the busy weekend to join us.
AC: Thank you for having me.
JS: So Antonia, I know that you were speaking on a panel that was about the future of Europe. Can you tell me a little bit about what your panel was about specifically and what some of the speakers on your panel were talking about?
AC: Sure. So, the panel was about the challenges that Europe currently faces as we see multiple crises arising in the EU, one of them being the euro crisis, the other one being related to Russia and the third one being related to the refugee crisis. The three panelists that were there – one from Germany, the other one from France, and myself, representing Geopolitical Futures as well as the Romanian view – were talking about the different perspectives on the European future that we are seeing from our own chairs.
JS: And tell us a little bit more about the chair that you’re sitting in.
AC: Well, basically, it was all about Eastern Europe and how we see challenges in Eastern Europe and how that affects the future of Europe. Basically I was saying that considering the current divides in Europe, Eastern Europe is seeing Russia to be the main threat and is looking at that as the main security problem that it faces. The secondary threat that it sees is related to the economics of the EU and the fragmentation of the union. However, my colleagues from France and Germany were looking at the refugee crisis to be more important for them on a security level than anything related to Russia. Or, let’s say, Russia was secondary to them.
JS: I think – I was sitting in and listening to your panel and I thought one of the interesting threads that connected a lot of the events here this weekend that we’ve been going to is really the strategic ambiguity around Germany and what Germany’s foreign policy posture is. Our readers of course know that we follow Germany very closely and in particular we’re following the German economy very closely, but I think that people are perhaps less familiar with the general unsuredness of some European countries about Germany’s direction. Did you feel like that came out during the panel? Do you think that that fits in terms of Geopolitical Futures’ model?
AC: I did certainly see that was coming from the panel. First of all, that ambiguity is coming from the fact that Germany is taking the leadership of Europe and everyone in Europe is expecting that to happen. However, Germany is not necessarily sure on how it wants to lead Europe. On one hand, it has the economic problems of a fragmenting EU, which means less market for its own exports. On the other, it has Russia and the refugee crisis to deal with – Russia being both a partner and a competitor in the East and the refugee crisis being an internal political problem. This is why everyone is having a question to ask Germany and Germany finds it difficult to answer.
JS: What does that mean for the future of the European Union and the future of NATO and the future of Europe generally?
AC: Well basically, the future of the European Union means more divides than union in itself because you have an undecided Germany, you have the division between the West and the East, but you also have the division between the North and the South. Therefore, it is difficult to see how all states are going to come together and share their same vision and discuss the same policies on how to tackle all the multiple crises they are going through. Particularly because their electorate are just not on the very same page.
A German does not have problems as a Romanian has, and therefore it is difficult for a German politician to get along with a Romanian politician or a Polish politician, because they do not share the same concerns.
On the NATO issue, that is another big challenge that people in the East look more worried about than the ones in the West. The West sees a possibility for countries to come together and actually form a European security because they see the Western Europeans being concerned about the refugee crisis and with that challenge they think that they can cope – they have a common goal.
The East, however, sees Russia as the primary threat and they do not see the West sharing that. Therefore, they see a NATO that no longer has a common goal. They see the U.S. being also interested in having more into the eastern front, having more from the Europeans themselves because basically the U.S. is asking for the Europeans to come on board to spend for their own security, which is not happening, particularly in the Western countries.
This is why we are going to see a trend that we’ve talked about at Geopolitical Futures. The Eastern countries are going to secure their position through the partnership with the U.S., through bilateral partnerships in the region and through cooperation even within NATO, with the countries that share the same goal. This may happen in Western Europe as well. And this poses the question of how united NATO will be in the future.
JS: That’s interesting, and just following up on that, sitting through some of these conferences I’ve noticed that, of course, there is a lot of attention given to President Donald Trump and the new U.S. administration – I feel like that’s almost a horse that has been beat to death, it’s the thing that everybody can’t stop talking about but nobody really wants to talk about anymore – but I thought that one of the other topics that came up continually throughout the course of this weekend was the role of China in Europe. So could you maybe speak a little bit about the role of China in Europe and whether there’s any Western and Eastern divide on that?
AC: Sure, so China is seen as an opportunity for Europe. Everyone believes that China is going to invest a lot of money in Europe and create a lot of jobs through infrastructure investment. That may be true if China would actually have the money to spend in Europe and would have less problems at home. However, one of the issues that it is important to notice is the fact that China regards, and wants to see a leadership coming up from the European perspective. So I believe that China is also wondering what is going on with the European Union.
One thing that caught my attention was the fact that the only Chinese participant in the conference was speaking in German during the conference. That says a lot about the perception of China towards Europe. Basically it says that China sees Germany as a leader and it ultimately comes to how Germany and China will get along.
JS: That’s interesting, but do you think that that’s possible? Do you think the things that people believe are actually possible with China or do you think that’s sort of a road to nowhere?
AC: Well, I believe that it’s not possible in the short term. It may be possible if China would indeed grow and would indeed have the promise of economic development that everyone in Europe hopes to have. However, we’ve been saying at Geopolitical Futures a lot about the problems that China is facing, and therefore Europe can only hope that things are going to get better. But at the same time, they will see that it is ultimately up to how the global economy is coming together – whether China is going to actually be able to do what it promises to do, or what it wants to do. And at the same time, we also see competition within Europe for China’s investment, even if the investment is not there. That says a lot about European problems currently. It all comes down to how well the economy is doing.
JS: One thing that I also noticed was that there was a lot of time spent talking about the United States, a lot of time spent talking about Russia, about China, also a lot of time spent talking about the internal divisions within Europe – but one country’s name that really didn’t come up at all was the United Kingdom. At this time last year everybody was talking about Brexit and the possibility of Brexit, and right after Brexit everyone was talking about what a big deal it was. Were you surprised there was really no discussion of the U.K.? And where does the U.K. fit in with the future of Europe that you described, being so divided?
AC: I think the Europeans got used to the idea that the U.K. is going to be exiting the European Union. However, I do not believe that the Europeans understand what that means, because we do not have a plan for that to happen. At the same time, I believe that the discussions that we had here touched upon the Brexit idea because one of the most important divisions that Europe currently faces is that between the elite and the electorate. That is actually driving the others.
So, in a way, the discussion was about Brexit and considering that the vote was against the elite. The vote came after there was clearly no prosperity promise from the EU. Therefore, there was a lot of talk about Brexit without Brexit being mentioned. It’s also the fear that talking about Brexit may bring something like Brexit in the core of the European Union, considering the euro prices, considering the divide between the north and the south, the problems that Greece and Italy are facing, the divisions and the different views on how the euro crisis should be managed – that Italy, France and Germany have. That is an important question that does not come to the table, just because there is a lot of fear related to that and how the European Union is going to go forward. But that certainly came during the discussions in the hallways.
JS: And I’m glad you brought the discussion a little bit back to Italy, because it allows us perhaps to step away from the conference itself and talk a little bit about Italy, which I don’t think is mentioned enough for how important it is within the European Union. Readers of Geopolitical Futures know that we keep a very close watch on Italy’s economy, especially with the problem of non-performing loans in the system. Like a number of other countries, Italy also a lot of domestic political instability – the Renzi government lost a referendum vote at the end of last year and left and there’s some instability here so, what do you think Italy’s strategic interests are right now? How do you – we’re here in Genoa, which is a beautiful port city on the Mediterranean – what do you see as Italy’s strategic interest?
AC: Well, Italy sees the Mediterranean to be its priority. It looks at the refugee crisis with a great worry – worrying look. It looks at the European Union and the way that that is being handled by the Europeans with priority. At the same time, it also looks toward Germany and tries to understand how Germany is going to lead the European Union because being part of the eurozone means that you are part of the core countries – Italy is a big economy in the European Union – and therefore it is one of their concerns – the eurozone.
The problem that they are currently facing – the non-performing loans and how the banking sector is doing related to that – is actually related to how the German economy is doing and how European stability is going to move forward. It’s both economic and security, again. A secondary issue that Italy is being concerned with is the Balkans, which is less mentioned in the mainstream media but certainly it is worrying for Italy considering that they’re bordering that region where everyone has an interest. Where Russia and Germany and Turkey are all coming together and trying to influence things. Therefore, Italy is in an interesting position moving forward, even if we are only seeing its economic problem, it is more than that.
JS: That’s great. And the last thing I would just close off by asking you about is – obviously people who read Geopolitical Futures know our forecasts and know our model well – is there anything you heard here or anything that you experienced here that made you think that there’s something in Geopolitical Futures’ forecast that needs to be challenged or anything that you found particularly surprising? Or were most of the things that you heard things that confirm the way you thought Europe was going? And do you think that the presentations here were more or less in line with what Geopolitical Futures is seeing?
AC: Well this was a very interesting weekend, first of all, and the discussions have confirmed our model. I believe that it is a challenging time for the European Union and this has been confirmed through all the debates and the roundtables we sat at. And therefore it is certainly a topic up for further discussion.
JS: And I think for me, listening to some of the things that have been said, was that, it seems to me that if you were going to have a discussion about geopolitics in the United States today, you would probably get a fair number of people who would talk about – oh well the U.S. role in the world is declining, the U.S. isn’t sure of what it’s doing, the Trump administration is transmitting all kinds of different messages – I found it striking here that we’re in Europe and at this conference, it was the Europeans who were being self-critical. They were talking about the United States and Russia and China as the major powers and Europe really having no agency. I figure that perhaps that if you were in Russia and China you might get a similarly self-critical view too. There’s something about where you are, both defining your perspective, but also you’re more self-critical about where you are at the particular moment.
AC: Well it is certainly true that we’ve seen a map of how the U.S. is the empire of the world in the 21st century, so that clearly confirms the fact that the Europeans do not see themselves in a positive light nowadays. For a good reason, I would say, because I’m also European and therefore I’m very self-critical about that. But, at the same time, it also confirms one of our views that the 21st century is actually a century of the U.S.
JS: Thank you so much for taking some time to join me Antonia, and thank you to all our listeners. We’ll be back next week with another podcast. Until then, take care and visit us at geopoliticalfutures.com for more analysis.