Piłsudski’s ghost: how Eastern Europe is challenging Franco-German hegemony in the EU5 min read
The war in Ukraine is changing the power dynamic in Europe. Going back to Józef Piłsudski’s Intermarium concept might make it possible for countries like Poland to challenge the current Franco-German hegemony within the EU.
Following World War I and the collapse of the Russian Empire, Poland’s chief of state Józef Piłsudski envisioned a new geopolitical bloc between Germany and Russia, called Intermarium. It would consist of the newly independent countries between the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas that had previously been under either German or Russian dominance. Since Ukraine was subjugated by the Soviet Union, Poland’s neighbors viewed the idea with suspicion, and Western powers were not supportive of it, Piłsudski’s Intermarium never became a reality.
However, the past decade has been marked by increased cooperation on the EU’s eastern flank, particularly in infrastructure and energy. The Three Seas Initiative, which is clearly inspired by Piłsudski’s Intermarium project, had its first summit in 2016 and its Warsaw summit the following year was attended by US President Donald Trump, who lauded the initiative. Other regional formats, such as the Bucharest Nine, which consists of nation-states on NATO’s eastern flank, were launched around the same time. The most recent example of this type of regional cooperation was launched just two years ago, namely the Lublin triangle of Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine.
Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine has altered the course of European history in ways we still might not anticipate. Milestones such as this, whether it be 1917, 1945 or 1991 have always resulted in a shift of power within Europe. The reactions of different European states to this war could lead to French and German dominance in the EU being challenged, with Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, the Baltic states, and the EU’s Balkan members approaching each other even more and becoming a counterweight to that dominance, similar to Józef Piłsudski’s Intermarium dream.
With the exception of Hungary, the members of the Three Seas Initiative have put up a united front in their reaction to the war. They have been the most eager to support Ukraine with arms and have taken on an enormous humanitarian responsibility. This is an understandable natural reaction since an immediate neighbor that shares a common legacy has been attacked. However, the attitude of the EU’s motor, the Franco-German alliance, has also helped push the Baltics, Poland, Romania, and other post-communist EU members towards taking a leading role in supporting Ukraine. Germany, with one hand tied behind its back and a legacy of politicians cooperating closely with Russia, has lost all of its credibility as a leading power in Europe. This was on stark display as its President was snubbed by Volodymyr Zelenskyy on April 12, who instead received the Prime Ministers of Poland and the Baltic states.
In France, Emmanuel Macron just won reelection, although by a smaller margin than last time. His opponent, Marine Le Pen, had no problem with receiving funds from Russian banks and she has promised to continue the fight in this summer’s legislative elections. Both of these factors have contributed to the display of unity that the EU’s post-communist members have shown, and which could become the foundation for a new European order when Franco-German leadership is no longer obvious. The EU’s eastern flank not only shares the legacy of Russian oppression and a common interest in the current situation, but it also makes up over 100 million Europeans and almost 20 percent of the Union’s GDP.
They have also made enormous progress since 1991, with Estonia being a world leader in IT, Poland boasting impressive military capabilities, and Romania playing a crucial role in European energy policy. All of these countries are also enthusiastic supporters of the Transatlantic security system and not so much about French ideas of European strategic autonomy.
In contrast to France and Germany, the UK has had an unapologetic stance against Russia as it is pursuing an independent foreign policy post-Brexit. Boris Johnson has been quite visible in his support for Ukraine, making a surprise visit to Kyiv recently and vocally supporting arms shipments and other forms of aid. At the same time, German arms support has been preceded by reluctance. And Macron has been eager to continue dialogue with Putin, with no progress. At this point, the Anglo-American axis seems to be Ukraine’s most reliable allies, along with their friends in Eastern Europe.
At the time of its conception, Piłsudski’s Intermarium project was viewed by both Lithuanians and Ukrainians as a symptom of Polish imperial ambitions. This does not seem to be a major issue today. Poland and Lithuania have overcome their troubled past, instead of having their common history as a source for friendship and as key allies. If Ukraine emerges from this war with their sovereignty and freedom to choose partnerships intact, it could eventually become a regional power and, alongside Poland, the foundation for a new partnership in the EU’s east. A partnership like this would by no means become the dominant actor in the EU, but rather a balance to the Franco-German bloc which has dominated the Union throughout its existence. The partnership would also include NATO’s most committed members and amass a significant part of the Union’s population and economy.
Piłsudski’s ghost seems to be very much alive. The war in Ukraine has vitalized the efforts for a partnership in the EU’s east, consisting of partners with truly common experiences and interests and who have Anglo-American backing. I believe that the war will lead to increased regional cooperation in the EU’s east, mirroring Intermarium. It could become a political and economic force to be reckoned with, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black sea and becoming the backbone of European security cooperation. This could also lead to having French and German political leadership in the EU being challenged.