The risk of an European Civil War in the distant future

The choice of scenarios for conventional high-end defensive wars doesn't seem to be great for European thinkers on military affairs.

The bad, bad Russians in the East who didn't recognize the Baltic states yet, the bad, bad Russians in the East who might sometime use military force in the Ukraine and finally the bad, bad Arabs. Actually, neither Arabs nor Russians are really in a position to cause much trouble in the short run, so most attention is being diverted to stupid expeditions that have marginal relevance to European security. Their "bad, bad" factor is also quite unimpressive to date. This continent has experienced much worse.

There's another, very serious scenario, though. The recent events have made it a bit easier to write about this seemingly devious scenario; a European Civil War.

(c) see below

There was no really sustainable multi-national state or empire in history - at least none without frequent internal conflict up to civil war and genocide levels.
The Austrian-Hungarian empire, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union were large examples that crumbled shortly after the iron fist of a party or dynasty lost control. That iron fist seems to be necessary to conserve multi-national empires that were built by rulers.

The USA represents an exception to the rule because no immigrant nationality can claim a halfway coherent area of it as a result of the immigration. That's different in Europe. A unified Europe would leave most nationalities with easy-to-define borders of their homelands, and they could easily claim them for an independent state.

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We're not at the point of real unification yet, but it's certainly a powerful movement - and in large part a top-down movement - in favour of further unification.

I think there lies the primary risk of conventional future warfare for Europeans. A bottom-up unification with real national consent may prove to be very stable, but a top-down unification could happen before the conditions are right. Politicians in several European countries have avoided plebiscites about European unification treaties because they feared a "No"; a disagreement of the majority. That's neither a way to go for a honest democracy nor for the European unification ideology.

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The common currency € (Euro) was such a case of top-down, mostly plebiscite-free, unification. Plebiscites were more seen as obstacles for the €, not as sources of legitimacy during the late 90's.

There were economic theories pro and contra the common currency. The pro arguments were mostly about easily visible, easily understood and reliable symptoms (such as no need for changing money on vacation).
One of the contra arguments was a doom scenario. That doom scenario focused on the lack of flexible exchange rates and their loss as an important balancing factor. The theory supported the view that the Euro area was too dissimilar and the production factor work not mobile enough due to language barriers.
The predicted results were trade balance deficits and huge economic troubles in the South (especially Portugal, but also Greece, Spain & Italy) and a need for transfers from the richer nations.

The pro-EUnification ideology hammered down such worries, and the result fits well to the economic theory predictions; Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal are increasingly in trouble. The currency is a major, albeit not the only, reason for the troubles.

Spain would have devalued its Peseta without the €, and that would have increased its exports, reduced its imports and generally would have helped to balance its economy.
It didn't have the Peseta; it had the € together with a country like Germany for which the € is apparently not valuable enough. The result was that Spanish goods and services were relatively expensive and thus not competitive enough. They had much economic growth, but much of that was a construction sector bubble.
Their annual trade balance deficit is 2% of GDP, or almost 950 € per working person and year.
Spain was actually one of the less serious examples; especially Portugal is about four times worse off.

There are first discussions about whether Portugal and Greece need to leave the € zone to fix their problems (instead of just fighting the symptoms) - or whether they need to be kicked out by pressure. The case is especially strong for Greece, which can be considered to have violated the relevant treaty. Portugal on the other hand was known to not have been ready for the €, its inclusion was a quite obvious mistake from day one.

This example shows how a quite ideology-driven top-down unification can risk a collapse of the unification if it advances without waiting for the right conditions being set.

A European Civil War would have a tremendous destructive potential; the Yugoslav Wars would look like a tiny anecdote by comparison.

The security and peace policy of European countries should therefore include a careful, thorough process of European unification and a hasty, top-down unification process should be avoided due to the great risks involved. Rational policy should win over ideology.


(c) photo of burning government building in the centre of Sarajevo '92: Mikhail Evstafiev



  1. I don't think Europe would be allowed to have a civil war by the rest of the world's civilized countries. Our economies are two intertwined, you'd take the rest of us down with you.

    Sven, sometime in the future could you do a post on economic warfare? I know you like to stick to land warfare nuts-and-bolts, but if anyone has the expertise to comment on economic warfare, I think it would be you.

  2. The problem with "kicking out" member states is the aftermath. What do they do next? If Greece were to be kicked out, they would be left with no currency. I think that the real issue with EUnification (good show if you coined that term, by the way) is the different political cultures in every state that ultimately affect the economic policies. Greece is very much into the "social-welfare" state idea, and incurs huge deficits and debt as a result (already old news, of course, but still relevant). Even further economic interdependence can't really change the political climate in separate countries, and I don't think that Europe is ready for a political union yet (although it seems that that has been the dream since the fall of the Roman Empire). I don't really buy the civil war argument though, unless someone REALLY screws up I don't think states within the Eurozone will go to war with each other over these types of matters, even in the distant future.

  3. @barcalounger:
    I don't buy into the "intertwined" argument. The trade relations have been important and the many nation's basis for wealth before the world wars as well. Japan was hugely connected before 1941, being dependent on many imports, for example.

    Greece's problem is that the political elite simply sucks. The Greeks know the problem. It doesn't matter what kind of policy they pursue - there will always be poor results with terrible politicians.

  4. I'm not happy with the current incarnation of the EU . Except for one thing . I just have this ridiculous , irrational feeling that one day there could be a flashpoint US versus EU . Perhaps provoked by US taking the war on terror/drugs a bit too far , or the ownership and application of hard assets.

  5. Actually, also US had a quite frightening civil war, even if it was a long time ago! Civil wars are the product of clash of separate interests inside the same political body, ethnicity is just a very easy way to drive people's will -- but not the only one, as US case shows.

    Somehow US succeded to keep the opportuinties of being a US citizen more interesting than the downsides (US successfully changed the aim of the old motto "divide et impera", inventing a central power different from imperial ones), and so should do the EU.
    They are doing it quite fine with the mobility of sudents and workers, not so well with economic or foreign affairs matters. Is this enough to secure our future from civil war? I can just hope so...

  6. sorry, but i dont see much resemblance of any thinkable national/ethnic conflict. Today such a conflict would simply be a problem of internal policy. If the people are fed up enought with the EU they'd fix or replace their elites and simply proclaim they're leaving. If the nation-state somehow gets lost in the EU-Integration and european population some day reincarnates the idea vis-a-vis a european "empire", i dont see much ethnic violence either. After 100 years of fixed borders (in the west) and a mid-term major population shift (in the east) the ethnic map of europe is pretty clear-cut. Theres simply no need for ethnic violence or cleansing.

    What could be after say another 50 years of EU-integration and the final dissolution of the nation-states in relation to the reestablishment of nation states? First a conflict between national elites (the perpetuation and cooperation of national elites is imo one premise of the unification process in contrast to all attempts up to 45) and a population that somehow (i dont see that) appeals to national ideologies and not the states(EU) resources. Maybe the EU would provide a short, even violent support for those elites. But after that fails, they'd simply proclaim independence, reform the administration, equip it with sovereignty and a representative mechanism to their liking.
    There isnt even as much potential for violence as when the Ussr colapsed, as there is no imperial(EU) people, like the russians were in the former ussr, that could cause primary (im not talking about the secondary conflicts due to state failure in the new established states of the former ussr, that are pretty unlikely in the EU-countries) ethnic problems.

    I see much potential for social unrest though, but those conflicts tend to appeal to those institutions with the most redistributive power (by then propably the EU), or, if revolutionary, to populations easily organized (regional or even lokal) with an overarching revolutionary elite that should be by then (as it is mostly by now imo) thoroughly europeanized.

    in regard to currency problem, but an at least unorthodox tour de force through the last 500 years of capitalism and the next 50 to come, this might be interesting:

  7. Civil Wars and wars of secession aren't so much about ethnic cleansing as about power.
    It's quite simple; one bloc is bigger than the other one and gets its way politically all the time.
    That's not too bad if it's about left and right, but blocs defined by nationality can lead to the idea of secession.
    A central state rarely likes the idea of secession - especially if a poor majority rules over a rich minority (example Congo and Nigeria in the 60's).
    That in turn can lead to a civil war.

  8. You refered especially to yugoslawia and what made this war so messy was its ethnic conflicts, so i put some more effort in putting some doubt on this. You also refered to russia, but were is the russianized central repression apparatus? I dont think it will ever exist in the EU because, as i mentioned, the unification process builds on the premise of the national elites staying in place. This includes institutions of repression for a simple reason, even in 100 years a spanish, french, greek citizen wont accept a german, italian, belgian policeman.

    So if somewhere a national anti-EU movement gains enough power, they would simply bail out and near nothing for the rest to do about it. It might not even bother the EU-loyal elites of the other nations that much, as the renegade nation would have to keep most of its (economic) relations to the EU (interdependence) and even if the virus spreads they could simply turn the coat and bail out of EU (in its more integrated form) on their own. As you can see, i dont impute an ideology like that of the nation state (strict sovereignty, monopoly of force) to the EU and its elites. Imo it's simply a matter of where certain policy decisions can be made most efficently (for certain groups that is). If the factors change, so does the outcome and the EU might even fluctuate between more and less integrated conditions over time.

    Derived from the attempts to establish a european empire from Charles V to Hitler: Some clashes with the police, maybe. Civil war, not in a 100 years. As long as nationalism is a viable ideology in europe national elites will be necessary to suppress and govern their nation and no EU-intervention can help them. If nationalism fades (it will imo) how could it be rejuvenated, given that the resources by then would be concentrated with the EU. (I take for granted, that nationalism isnt something natural, but a form of social contract about redistribution and loyality. Just like its more up to date culturalist grandchild, that imo has more violent potential in the next 100 years than nationalism).

    All of this isnt nearly as smooth as i depicted, but it takes more than the ancient notion of the cyclic fail of empires to instil the fear of european civil war, at least in the "distant future" that can sensibly be interpolated.

    On the other hand, i see, that to your mind nationalist conflicts prima facie tend to be more plausible than social unrest. :)

  9. Europe is so well integrated through politics and economics that a European civil war is very unlikely. A majority of the nations in the EU have little to no history of aggressive military behavior. When was the last time Denmark invaded anyone? the mid-12th century. There will be a civil war in the US long before Europe ever comes to blows.