ISTANBUL — Maybe history does repeat itself: the first time as tragedy, the second as a European Commission proposal.
They carry different names now, but raiders from the East are once again back at the gates of Europe. Once again, fear is rippling across the Continent. And, once again, the answer is to stop cowering in our corner and to venture out into the world.
From the 5th to the 15th century, Europe was continuously exposed to a succession of invaders coming from the recesses of Asia, riding through the open spaces of southern Russia and entering through the Hungarian plains.
That’s when Attila the Hun earned his nickname “the scourge of God” and the Mongols were called Tatars in a reference to Tartarus, the Latin name for hell.
The Age of Discovery is best seen as Europe’s attempt to break free from its precarious position, caged between the western seas and the eastern steppes, and to conquer the unknown abyss from which chaos had always emerged.
Today’s raiders are far less violent, but no less frightening to those living west of the Urals.
Think of today’s corporate raiders from China, plotting to acquire the best and brightest of European companies in order to appropriate the latest key technologies in robotics and artificial intelligence.
The German government just announced it will block for the first time the sale of a German company, Leifeld Metal Spinning, to a Chinese suitor on security grounds.
All over Europe, new investment screening mechanisms are quickly being developed and approved to endow governments with more powerful tools to stop Chinese investment.
Then, there’s Russia, whose new warriors excel at raiding. They move in swiftly and unannounced, less with the aim of controlling territory than to confuse and disrupt the opponent.
Meddling in democratic elections is a good example. Just as the Mongols thrived on reputation as much as actual deeds, Russian measures capture the airwaves and dominate perceptions even if the operation itself had limited sway.
Cyber operations are the best example of modern day raiding: A way to penetrate the enemy’s camp undetected in order to pillage resources or sow chaos.
While European elites continue to believe in an international system of markets, trade and free movement of people, more and more voters see only the work of blind forces and competing states in an increasingly chaotic world.
Factories are being closed because of competition from China and elsewhere, and the message communicated to workers is that their country is no longer able to compete. Growing numbers of immigrants have a measurable impact on neighborhoods and the provision of public services, predominantly affecting the poor.
Finally, terrorists are seen to be capable of striking at will from their bases abroad and cells in European capitals.
In Europe, you now define yourself politically depending on which raiders look most threatening. Socialists are worried about competition from China and its destructive impact on the welfare state. Liberals fear Russia with its aggressive form of authoritarianism and disinformation campaigns.
The conservative right is rallying against Islam, which it sees as inspiring a new wave of nomadic invaders, stateless terrorists and refugees plotting to take over Europe. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán seemingly wakes up every day thinking he is Janos Hunyadi, the hero of the wars against the Turks in the 15th century.
Politicians from across the political spectrum are calling for new walls, physical or legal. Populists are placing their hopes in a return to traditional European culture, promising that fate will be on our side if we repent our ways.
They’ve got things backward. The real solution to Europe’s troubles is exactly what it was five centuries ago: to leave our corner at the edge of ocean and head out into the world.
Forget Orbán’s hero Hunyadi. What we need is a contemporary version of those Spanish and Portuguese navigators who took Europe to the ends of the earth.
The way to fight Chinese economic influence is to boost investment outside Europe’s borders, particularly in the critical infrastructure and economic hubs of the future, most of them in Central and Southeast Asia.
The way to counter Russian disinformation campaigns is to take the fight to Russia itself and break the hold of the Russian state over its own citizens’ minds. And finally, the way to assuage common fears about terrorism and immigration is to develop a new, aggressive foreign policy capable of dealing decisively with the Libyan and Syrian civil wars.
Crises and challenges unaddressed by an active foreign policy make themselves felt later in the domestic context. That’s how so many Commission proposals come to be: on relocating refugees, on blocking Chinese investment, on countering Russian fake news.
If the European Union turned in recent years from an exporter of stability to an importer of instability that is because it did not take its former role seriously enough.