George Friedman: The EU is increasingly unreliable and unpredictable

George Friedman [Georgi Gotev]

The United States has a partnership with Europe, but it can no longer think of NATO as the mechanism by which it is related to Europe, George Friedman told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

George Friedman is an American political scientist and author. A former chief intelligence officer, he is the founder of Stratfor and was its financial overseer and CEO. He recently sold his shares in Stratfor and started Geopolitical Futures, a new global analysis company.

Friedman spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor, Georgi Gotev.

How does Europe look from across the Atlantic?

Firstly, the US looks at Europe in the much broader context of Eurasia. So now we have a crisis that stretches from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The Chinese are in crisis, Russia is in crisis, the Middle East is in terrific crisis, and now Europe is in crisis as well. So we are looking at a situation where an area with a population of 5 billion is transforming in ways we cannot anticipate.

An American looks at this not just as Europe, but as a range of problems in general. There are many American views of Europe, but my view is that the EU has failed, but there is no clear alternative. And we see the failure in the immigration issue, which we do not regard as a major issue because it is less than 0.5% of population shift, but Europe cannot make a decision on how to handle it.

This is not an unmanageable problem. You can decide not to let anyone in, and then you take measures to prevent that, or you decide to integrate them and you do certain things to make that happen. It is Europe’s inability to make a decision that is, from the American point of view, the most problematic.

It is problematic because the United States has a partnership with Europe. As important as the EU, and very much missing from this conversation, is NATO: the stresses that exist between the countries in the European Union also become present in NATO. So for example, we have one relationship with the French, one relationship with the British, a very different relationship with the Germans and a completely different relationship with the Poles. We can no longer think of NATO as the mechanism by which we are related to Europe.

This is not a catastrophic situation for the United States, but it poses challenges to us in the Middle East, and it poses challenges with Russia, and we are looking at the Europeans as increasingly unreliable and increasingly unpredictable.

You mentioned Russia. I read in Geopolitical Futures that you foresee an agreement on Ukraine in the course of 2016. Can you elaborate?

I foresee an agreement of sorts over Ukraine in 2016. The fundamental reason for this is that neither the Russians nor the Americans are ready to engage each other in Ukraine.

The Russians have gone into Syria to do the Americans a favour because the Americans can’t get rid of Assad and don’t want to get rid of Assad, and the Russians protecting him means that the IS can’t get to Damascus.

From this, the Russians think that they will get favours and agreements with the United Sates, and they will.

Both sides at the moment want a frozen conflict. But for the Russians, Ukraine remains a fundamental national security issue, and that can’t be avoided.

Russia must have its buffers. It has lost the Baltics altogether for the time being, and who knows what will happen with Belarus. But Ukraine is where they crushed the Wehrmacht; they can’t let go. They are busy building and modernising their military force, but they are using oil at $30 per barrel to finance this.

Russia is now in the same position as the Soviet Union was in in the 1980s: a massive defence programme forced on them by the United States and the collapse of oil prices. So we see this as a very dangerous moment, because when Russia is presses very hard, before it collapses, or anything of that sort happens, it will try to recoup.

So we foresee a year or two of relatively frozen relationships. Then in two years, we think the Russians will be ready to make a claim in Ukraine. And of course the Americans are building up constantly in Romania and Poland, and the Baltics, so we think there will be a settlement. It will not be a permanent settlement, but things become more dangerous as the Russians become more desperate.

How about Turkey? It is an instrumental country in dealing with the migrant crisis, and at the same time it is a country full of tensions. How do you see the future of Turkey?

When we speak about Turkey, we have to remember that Turkey is the centre of the storm that is raging in Eurasia. It intersects the Balkans, Southern Russia (historically), and deep into the Middle East. And all of the regions are in chaos.

Turkey, at the moment, has no fixed relationships. Its relationships with the Russians have collapsed. Its relationships with the Middle East, with Syria and Iraq, are ambiguous.

As Europe becomes more self-absorbed to the north, the Balkans become an area in which no one is really exercising oversight. This is Turkey’s opportunity.

Because Turkey faces such an enormous historic opportunity, it inevitably has internal crises. When you transform yourself from an insular nation of very little consequence to a regional power, it places tremendous stress on the internal political system. That stress manifests itself as you would expect: as tension between the historic secularism of Turkey, and Islam.

In a region where Islam is the major dynamic force, obviously this will apply to Turkey, and in a country that is deeply connected to Europe, other forces will obviously play a role. Atatürk was fascinated by Lenin, not because he was a Marxist, but because of the way he created the state, and there is something of the Soviet state here.

What was the past in Turkey is now the future: Islam. What was the future is now the past: Europe. There is a relationship to Russia that is very complex and difficult. If Turkey were not evolving into a major power, you would not have these crises. It is because it is evolving that it is institutionally trying to adjust itself to the reality that it exists in.

But when you look at a map, when you look at the crisis in the Middle East, in Europe, in Russia, there is one country that is always present. I don’t regard the European immigration situation as a crisis: Europe has a crisis in decision-making. There is no crisis of immigrants. The United States manages this sort of immigration all the time. The crisis is one of Europe itself, but Europe has to deal with Turkey. When the Americans deal with the Middle East they have to deal with Turkey, and even the Russians, when they want to deal with the Black Sea and Syria, they have to deal with Turkey. This is the important factor.

What is the situation regarding a possible future state of Kurdistan, which would probably include some territories of Turkey? Regarding the possible reunification of Cyprus, how likely do you think it is that it will fail, and the north of Cyprus will go to Turkey? And what do you think of the idea of restoring the Ottoman Empire, which is so dear to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu?

The Ottoman Empire existed for 500 years. For a little less than 100 years now, we have had Turkey by itself. But during this time there, has always been either the British or the Americans defining the Middle East and containing the Turks. The Cold War froze the Turks into position, so they had no room for manoeuvre. Now there is no Cold War, now everything is fluid around it, so when you see this fluidity, several things come out: there are no borders that are sacred – Iraq no longer exists, Syria no longer exists, other countries that were created by British imperialism will not exist. The question of Cyprus is not fixed, the question of the Kurds is not fixed because the question of Iraq is not fixed.

And whether or not the state of Kurdistan exists, the Kurds will not all be obliged to live in Kurdistan. Most Azerbaijanis live in Iran, not Azerbaijan. The Ottoman Empire existed because everything around the Anatolian peninsula was in chaos, and they couldn’t live with this, so they were drawn in to stabilise it. It was not an expansion of the Ottoman Empire because it wanted to impose itself, it was a defensive operation. Turkey does not want to be drawn in to this situation. It is trying desperately not to be drawn in, but it will be. Will it be the Ottoman Empire? No. But geopolitically, it will be a similar structure, because everything in this region is coming loose, and the Turks are the only ones to stay firm.

Will the European Union survive as a single entity, or will it change shape into a loose confederation of states with perhaps a small core? How do you see the future of the European Union?

The future of the EU is interesting, because it cannot make any significant decisions now, and it cannot decide to dissolve. What will happen is what is happening now: less and less does Europe make decisions, and when it does, European states pay less and less attention to them.

They have now decided that investors in Italian banks are actually the depositors, and that if you deposit money into a bank, you have a risk. They make these decisions without considering the consequences, so what is happening is what is happening now, whereby those who don’t like the rules ignore them, and there are no consequences.

Buildings in Brussels continue to issue edicts, and everybody else will continue to do what they do. You have to remember that there used to be the European Free Trade Association back in the 1950s and ’60s. It still exists! There is still an office of the EFTA in Switzerland. In Europe, institutions are like museums: you can still visit them and they still function. So I don’t see the collapse of the EU, I see its growing irrelevance to any of the issues that are at stake.

And as this rule goes, that if you are a depositor in a bank you are an investor, it is a prime example of how they make decisions without understanding the consequences. A simple person takes money and puts it in the bank to be safe. He has no idea that he is investing money. Given the interest rates that banks give you now, it is more rational to put your money under your mattress than to put it in a European bank.

You put your money in the bank to avoid risk, and now you discover that you have risk. Now here is this Italian banking system, with almost 20% non-performing loans, and any Italian that has any sense at all would pull his money out of the bank because he now discovers he is an investor, and he doesn’t want to be.

It is these sorts of decisions being made by the European bureaucracy that create a situation whereby firstly the ruling is irrelevant to the problem and secondly, the consequences are that everyone either has to flee or ignore it. I don’t see Europe collapsing. I don’t think there is a will to vote it out of existence. I don’t think there is a will to change it. There is a will to ignore it.

A perfect case now is the supposed discovery that Poland and Hungary are fascist states. I have seen fascist states, and there is a long way to go before these are fascist states! Germany, under these circumstances, has chosen this as the issue, with everything else that is happening around it. The Polish decision to change the make-up of the board of their media and to change their judiciary, this is what Merkel and the EU have time for. So what does Poland do? The same thing Hungary did: it ignores it, because it doesn’t matter. The EU will exist, and will happily sink into irrelevance. 

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