The last word: Europe’s new centre of gravity

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is another example of how emerging Europe countries have shown agency and leadership.

I have been involved in Aspen Institute Romania’s Bucharest Forums since 2017. The organisation is a champion of creativity, thought-provoking and innovative ideas, thought leadership, and more importantly — commitment to the future of, not only Romania, South-East Europe but the entire emerging Europe region. 

Last year, the Bucharest Forum and the report — A World in Flux Towards a New European Architecture — that followed discussed the concept of a New European Architecture. This was the answer to the war in Ukraine and the multiple crises that Europe has been struggling with – economic pressures, illiberal tendencies, the good and the bad faces of technological advances, institutional adaptation to the changing environment, and, not the least important, military and cyber threats.  

Aspen Institute Romania’s programme has not only offered a platform for opinions and discussions on various aspects of a ‘New Europe’. It also highlights the importance and potential of Central and Eastern Europe and the role it needs to play.  

Rising Europe 

The countries of Central and Eastern Europe have been on an ascending economic trend for the past few years. Not only have their economies grown, but they have discovered and successfully exploited their comparative advantages — be it in IT, logistics, or the use of their skilled labour force.  

And now the war in Ukraine has pushed Central Europe to the forefront of security and energy, and the upcoming reconstruction effort will make use of, and hopefully further develop, their infrastructure, connectivity, and overall economy. For the past year Central Europe has been the focus of Europe, a trend that will likely continue, to the region’s advantage. 

The New European Architecture is based on foresight, resilience and strategic autonomy. It needs to be built on the firm belief in the rule of law, on partnership, rather than the law of the strongest. 

That New European Architecture cannot be constructed only by the so-called old-EU members, and the 11 countries in the region that joined the European Union between 2004 and 2013. The contribution of those who are already associated with the European Union, who are EU candidates or have Euro-Atlantic aspirations is also very relevant. As Europe’s centre of gravity shifts east, we must not disregard them. On the contrary, with the open-door policy, we must jointly grasp the opportunities, challenges and responsibilities coming our way.  

In that light, later this month (May 25-26), Aspen Institute Romania is organising a roundtable conference discussing Rising Europe – A New Centre of Gravity: A Fresh Outlook on Southeastern, Central and Eastern Europe. 

It is clear that for the “foreseeable future, the world will cross turbulent times, marked by economic uncertainty and security threats. The post-war equilibrium has been broken, and a broader rearrangement has to emerge, that will, ideally, build a stronger Europe with strong transatlantic links. It is not only the trans-Atlantic space that is transforming, but indeed the entire world is in need, and search, of a new realignment. For Europe to maintain and even grow its strength, based on commonly shared values and principles, a conversation about its new architecture needs to start now.” 

Challenges that need addressing 

There are several global geopolitical issues that Europe needs to respond to. In a recent column, following my participation in the KEY Platform conference in Seoul, I argued that on the future view of China and Russia, leadership would come from Central and Eastern Europe.  

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is another example of how emerging Europe countries have shown agency and leadership. For example, Poland has become a much more influential player in European defence than it ever was, not only by being a frontline country, alongside the Baltic states, taking massive numbers of refugees but also being a land route to supply Ukraine with weapons and humanitarian aid. 

More broadly, the war in Ukraine revealed security vulnerabilities in countries on the Eastern flank, and indeed in Europe. At the same time, intensified rearmament of the countries in the Western Balkans raise concerns about a new conflict in the region. Both the Eastern flank and the Western Balkans need to be part of a European security arrangement that increases each country’s defence capabilities while minimising, or best avoiding, the risk of a new war.  

Now, despite strong leadership on the front line, Poland, together with for example Hungary, shows that populist movements are gaining momentum in many European countries. These movements often promote nationalist and anti-EU sentiments. A discussion about the future of Europe can help address these issues and prevent further fragmentation. 

I still remember the words of Professor Günter Verheugen, the former European commissioner for enlargement, vice-president of the European Commission and the patron of one of Emerging Europe’s awards, which he expressed in 2018 at the initial Future of Emerging Europe Summit and Awards: “The European Union is not Europe. Any European nation that wants to be part of the process of European integration has the right to do so. That right cannot be denied.”  

I agree with him that that there is no reason why, for instance, Ireland, Germany or Portugal can be part of an integrated Europe, but Ukraine, Georgia or Serbia cannot. Moldova and Ukraine were granted candidate status in 2022 but what about the Balkan countries? 

Last year Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama, who hosted the EU-Western Balkans Summit in December 2022, said that “things are changing”. Brussels is showing serious interest in the region for geopolitical, strategic reasons “for the first time”. But concrete progress on actually joining the EU remain elusive. In April 2023, finally, the EU allowed visa-free travel for Kosovar passport holders starting on January 1, 2024 at the latest.  

And there is the regional connectivity issue in three areas: railway and roading infrastructure, digital, and energy infrastructure. The much needed reconstruction of Ukraine will benefit from improved regional infrastructure that will allow for increased flow of goods to and from the country. Improved digitalisation within each of the countries in the region, as well as better digital connections between them has become an important milestone in their economic advancement.  

With its excellent talent and creativity, the emerging Europe region is becoming the world’s digital heartbeat. Not only is there a growing number of innovative start-ups but also existing businesses and their leaders — nearly 45 per cent of CEOs in the region, in fact a larger group than globally, think their organisations will not be economically viable in a decade if they continue on their current path. They understand that they need to innovate and use technology for their benefit. 

But technology can be a challenge for Europe’s future too. Earlier this week, the AI Act regulating Artificial Intelligence was jointly adopted by the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties and Internal Market committees. It includes restrictions related to biometric categorisation, predictive policing, and scrapping facial images for building databases. Emotion recognition software is forbidden in law enforcement, border management, workplace and education. Will that suffice and how will China, which is considered the AI development leader, perceive that? 

Potential scenarios 

The number of issues and challenges seems to be growing and I believe there are still more questions than answers. 

This is why I am really looking forward to the scenarios that the Aspen Institute Romania will produce within the event framework. I trust the group of strategists, officials, business, and academia from the region and I believe they will develop scenarios that will also reveal other topics that define the emerging Europe region’s new role. 

For now, I hear the echo of the words I heard in Seoul. 

“Europe to me in the old days was London, Paris, Rome and Bonn rather than Berlin. Now it’s London, perhaps Berlin with a question mark and Warsaw. Paris and Rome don’t matter that significantly,” Dr Edwin Feulner, the founder of the Heritage Foundation, said. 

“Imagine a Central and Eastern Europe as it continues to grow, to build upon what it has done over the last 30 years, the rebirth of Europe is going to come from there,” Declan Ganley, the chairman and CEO of Rivada Networks, added.

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