As the EU falters a new “empire” could rise in eastern Europe

New thinking about old ideas, refashioned for the modern era, could promote an interesting revival offering benefits to everybody

The Union of Lublin in 1569
Przemek Skwirczynski
On 7 September 2012 11:11

The European Union is undergoing a period of extreme transformation if not collapse, but far from it all being doom and gloom new avenues for international cooperation are opening up.

One pact which seemed firmly consigned to the history books as recently as five years ago suddenly looks like a good idea again. I am referring to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, originally created over six hundred years ago to counter the threat of a rogue "crusader" state of Teutonic Knights based on the Southern Baltic coast.

For the better part of its 400 year history it constituted one of the largest polities in Europe and encompassed all of today's Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia, as well as the majority of Poland, Ukraine, Estonia and even a small part of Russia.

The Commonwealth occupied the plain to the north and east of the Carpathian Mountains with further natural borders on the Baltic and Black Seas. The main weakness was posed by the lack of natural/defendable borders with Russia to the east and Prussia to the west and north, which eventually led to it being overrun by three military superpowers of the late 18th century: Russia, Prussia and Austria.

Following World War I, an extended version of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was proposed by Poland and the term “Intermarum” was coined -- the proposal was rejected, which arguably helped the Nazis and Soviets pick the region apart less than two decades later. 

At the moment, Poland is housing ever more factories and back offices which produce for or service Western EU countries: mainly Germany where a quarter of all Polish exports end up; whereas the biggest exporters to Poland are Germany and Russia.

It is therefore paramount for Poland that whatever happens to the EU off the back of the Euro disaster, it remains in a trading union with Germany to ensure its exports stay competitive. However, due to the recent outward migrations since Poland's EU accession and the aging of its society, there will soon be a shortage of labour to meet the demands of its economic expansion of recent years. Poland will need to import workers.

One way of tackling this shortfall would be to persuade the Poles who currently live in the former Soviet republics to settle in Poland. Another way would be to open up to Ukraine and Belarus, in order to mimic the way Germany used to suck in workers from Eastern and Southern Europe in the second half of the last century.

Ukraine also happens to have a similarly strong trade relationship with Germany and Russia, and has observer status within the Eurasian Economic Community (a Russian-led organization which strives to be an ex-USSR equivalent to the European Union in terms of providing a common market).

Belarus is a big question mark, akin to North Korea, but a fully-fledged member of the Eurasian Economic Community and certainly a great provider of labour. Definitely, all of these Central Eastern European countries would benefit from being in common markets of the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Community: due to their geographical location, they form a natural bridge between East and West.

However, what also unites Poland and Ukraine is their dependence on Russian gas and the fact that both (especially the latter) have at times been held hostage by Russia turning the gas taps off. It may therefore be something of a twist of fate that these two countries recently learned about the abundance of shale gas on their territories.

It is then no coincidence that they have progressed their shale gas exploration a lot faster than other European countries - in both cases handing out contracts to major players, usually American companies which have already tested their technologies back home in recent years.

Given that, with the exception of Nord Stream (laid on the bed of the Baltic directly from Russia to Germany), all Russian gas pipelines are laid on either Polish or Ukrainian territory a tighter relationship between Poland and Ukraine would strengthen both these countries' bargaining power.

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