Polish finance minister Jan Vincent-Rostowski recently said “after all these political shocks, economic shocks, it is very [unlikely] indeed that in the next 10 years we could avoid a war.” This warning, given to assembled European delegates, has starkly illustrated just how far influential experts are considering the “worst case” scenario in the current Euro-Crisis.
But is he right? By raising the possibility of mass urban protests, internal unrests and radical politics emerging from the current crisis, the minister has highlighted valid concerns. However, his prediction would require a far greater break-down of European unity then is currently imaginable. Without such deterioration, the cost-benefit calculations of war make no sense for Europe.
For context, Vincent-Rostowski’s remarks were not groundless political scare-mongering. They were a calculated assessment of a recent UBS report, the crux of which is simple: that historically, extreme financial crisis’ and the resultant political break-downs lead to radical political movements, militarism, and conflict. One probably does not need to look beyond the Great Depression in Europe to realize which case study the Polish Minister is drawing upon.
Neither this report nor Vincent-Rostowski are wrong about what lies in store for “Austerity Europe.” Many are now convinced that — even with a new bail-out plan — the euro zone will face a steep rise in unemployment and taxation. Such conditions have been noted to increase the likelihood of social unrest and rioting, as seen in Greece and Britain this summer.
Moreover, worsening social conditions and mass unemployment are key variables in the rise of extreme politics — either through promises of social redistribution, the rhetoric of “restoring former glory” or scapegoating ethnic minority communities. Internal stability, long taken for granted in Europe, could be called into question if such trends continue.
However, does this presage war — open armed conflict between political entities? Here the linkages seem more tenuous.
For a start, the political and economic unity of the European Union is the strongest pan-Continental pact ever seen. These linkages are multi-layered; from open-borders to fiscal union, to shared foreign policy goals. For this to break down to the point of military hostilities would require current relationships to unravel unimaginably far.
As all EU member states are both democracies and “rule of law” governments, they lack the ideological conflicts that could induce war. Many social scientists doubt that democracies can even go to war with each other, seen in the “Democratic Peace Theory.”
And, even if, say, one nation ceased to be a democracy due to a militarist coup, EU member states are also active UN members, and likely to turn to multilateral solutions rather than war.
All of this stacks the cost-benefit equation in Europe in favor of peace, not war. The underlying strategic logic that sees a state try to gain a tangible political objective through armed confrontation simply does not apply to a continent whose political unity, democratic governance, and multilateralist outlook would mean they have more to lose than gain by fighting.
So I think the Vincent-Rostowski is wrong in detail – but he is right in general. The unprecedented experiment in cooperative governance that is modern Europe has achieved an incredible level of peace and prosperity. In historical terms, there is no reason to presume this is invincible.
The Pax Europa, like the Pax Romana before it, is designed around human endeavor. What Vincent-Rostowski is really saying is: if you do not want to see war in the next 10 years, we need to get to work and save our European Union from fiscal meltdown.
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