It is now over a hundred years since the British geographer, Harold Mackinder, defined Europe’s eastern boundaries as the “heartland”, the pivot on which order in the international system rested.
While Mackinder may have simplified both history and international relations and the Cold War may have put to the side the balance of power questions on the EU’s eastern borders, developments such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), instability in the Ukraine, the lingering questions in the Balkans, and the increasing disengagement of the United States from Europe have all brought into relief the EU’s relationship with actors to the east.
The transatlantic relationship allowed the EU to develop into a rules-based, normative international actor.
The pivot to the east is forcing the EU to deal with actors that may put power politics and geopolitics at the centre of how they construct order in the international system. In the words of the former German Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, the EU “is a vegetarian in a world of meat-eaters”.
That the international order in which the EU must work is changing is witnessed by the declaration of the recently installed European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen calling her executive a “geopolitical” Commission.
The aim of the proposed Centre, building on past work and on emerging partnerships, will be two-fold:
- First it wants to push forward a teaching and research agenda centred on how geopolitics is changing the nature of international order and is redefining the Greater Eurasian space. This will focus on whether and how the EU can be an important actor in a world increasingly characterised by fear and uncertainty; and whether relations with states such as Russia, China, Turkey and Iran will lead it to play the “great game”.
- Second, it wants to make the new Centre an intellectual hub for a network of junior and senior scholars, as well as civil servants, across the greater Eurasian space. The University of Trento has a long-established record of EU studies, but the focus has almost always been on the EU or its role in the transatlantic alliance. Shifting the gaze eastwards will give the Centre a prominent place in some of the debates about the changing balance of power in the international order and the EU’s place within it. Moreover, it will also help shape the debate in some of the states in the region, not just the EU, and build a lasting network of academic institutions.