In the summer of 2040, the EU has finally turned into a functioning regional power. It took Russia attacking the Baltics, another euro crisis, and a migrant boom to get there.
It all began with the lights going out in the Baltics. In the autumn of 2021, as it was getting cool in northern Europe, but not yet properly cold, the Kremlin decided to venture a small experiment. For years, Moscow had been working to restructure the old, Soviet-era electrical network in Europe’s northeast so that it would be possible to disconnect Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania without cutting off Kaliningrad in the process. In order to achieve its full effect, the operation had to go ahead before 2025, the target date for the former Soviet republics’ independence from Russian nuclear power and its supply network.
And so, in early October 2021, the power went out from Narva in Estonia’s East to Lithuania’s border with Poland in the West—and didn’t go on again for a full three weeks. Computer systems, Internet, monetary transfers, traffic control, industrial production, sewage and cooling systems, heating and telecommunications: all of society’s vital functions were brought to their knees. Emergency services were able to supply a few nooks and crannies with power, but that couldn’t prevent catastrophe.
Driven to desperation, the Baltic governments called on NATO to invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, the mutual defense clause, yet the alliance had become sluggish. It took a full two weeks to reach agreement, and several western European NATO members didn’t cover themselves in glory with regard to their duty of solidarity. Of course, Russia had not dared to launch a military attack on the helplessly vulnerable Baltics, but it had demonstrated its power, divided the alliance, and laid bare the weak points of the Western alliance in terms of both political unity and its preparedness to deploy and fight. The Kremlin eventually decided, on the 21st day of the blackout, to let the three countries back into the network. The act that had cost a few thousand people their lives and caused devastating economic damage was generally described as a wonderful success by Moscow strategists.
What Moscow hadn’t counted on was the long-term impact the operation would have. If it had known which processes the operation was going to trigger, and how these would change the strategic situation, the Kremlin would presumably have kept its finger off the trigger.
The Migrant Boom
Today, in the summer of 2040, the European Union is a fully developed regional power with a small but impossible-to-ignore capability to project power globally. The catchword “Common Foreign and Security Policy” no longer leads to giggles and eye-rolling on the international stage, but is rather a factor that Washington, Beijing, Ankara, Moscow, Tehran, and Delhi have learned to take seriously.
This development became possible thanks to multiple parallel, mutually reinforcing developments. The shock of the “Baltic Blackout” unleashed unforeseen powers in the member states. Not only did defense spending race upwards, but the streamlining of military structures in the five decisive member-states—Germany, France, Italy, Poland, and Spain—and the adjustment of the outdated procurement system provided for an unexpected increase in capabilities. An agreement was reached with NATO on so-called European Redundant Battle Structures (EBRS), which made the command structures of both organizations fully compatible, limited duplication of weapon systems, and pragmatically spelled out reciprocal coordination.
It was helpful that in 2024, the recession finally came to an end and the so-called Migrant Boom began, a phase of high economic growth triggered by the extensive integration of the young, hungry people that had entered Europe in high numbers since 2015. The boom also drew power from the fact that the Chinese economy had picked up since 2025, and from the completion of the Transatlantic-Pacific Integrated Markets Program (T-PIMP) between China, ten countries in the Pacific region, the EU, and the US. Donald Trump’s successor in the White House had rapidly taken up the dormant global free trade negotiations, and fear of a major global recession had brought together a wide, previously unimaginable global coalition.
This liberal renaissance even rubbed off on the Middle East. After the peaceful revolution in Iran in 2022 and Turkish President Erdogan’s departure for exile in Sochi, Russia—where a floor in the brand new Trump MAGA hotels was specially decorated for him in neo-Ottoman style—the path was clear for an extensive integration of the region’s markets. Iran and Turkey joined the Arab Regional Mercantile Pact for Investment and Trade (ARMPIT), which had been founded by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf States. This federation then joined a customs union with the EU’s now-complete internal market.
Russia’s Decline, Europe’s Opportunity
For the EU, these favorable economic conditions were like a fountain of youth. Comprehensive social programs eroded part of the basis for the populists’ criticism of elites and globalization, and Europe was able to strengthen its diplomatic, military, and development instruments without any toxic, polarizing battles.
But the decisive factor was the durable political consensus that the newly aspiring Europe had achieved after the crisis in the Baltics: it had become clear to even the most boorish de-integrationists that the self-destruction of the continent couldn’t be allowed to continue. The price was simply too high.
Moscow’s creeping departure from the biggest international stage gave Europe’s reawakened ambitions another boost. Just two years after the electricity war in the Baltics, Russia had slipped into the massive recession that economists had long predicted, which eventually led to the departure of Putin’s inner circle from power in 2024 (destination: MAGA Hotel in Sochi).
Russia had been pulled so deep into China’s tributary orbit that it was to some extent neutralized. It simply didn’t have the resources needed to continue its wastefully massive military presence on its own western border, the border that had in any case been its most secure and predictable since 1990. Chief Ideologist Dugin moved into a basement apartment in the MAGA Hotel and sulked. As China’s junior partner, the country was allowed to perform auxiliary services in Central Asia; in return China guaranteed Russia’s territorial integrity.
A New Deal With Washington
Europe’s core foreign policy actors had, then, more than just the leeway to do their own homework. In the wake of Europe’s realignment, Europe’s core also found a new way to divide up tasks in the European neighborhood between itself and the US. Washington still had no interest in Europe rising to become a true world power, let alone a nuclear one, but on that point the Americans and Europeans largely agreed. So the US stepped up its engagement in Europe in ways agreed with Brussels down to the smallest detail. The nuclear umbrella, as well as a solid presence of US troops on European soil, stayed put. Fort Trump in Poland was renamed Fort Brzezinski in 2023, which on the one hand had the advantage of making it almost impossible to pronounce, but on the other replaced the truly unspeakable with the name of one of Poland’s greatest sons.
The EU and the US also agreed on burden-sharing in Europe’s geopolitically tricky neighborhood. America took on the role of a shaping power in the Arctic, in Eastern Europe, and in the Levant, while the Europeans dedicated themselves to the Baltic Sea, the Balkans, and North Africa. NATO’s standing maritime groups in the Baltic Sea and Mediterranean could now be replaced by European operational fleets.
This doctrine (named SMURF for Stability and Mutual Reassurance for Freedom), which the EU and NATO had gotten off the ground together, had the advantage of freeing up important American forces for the actual geopolitical hotspots in Asia. For China, despite its accommodating posture in the framework of T-PIMP, had by no means given up its aggressive hegemonic claims in its backyard.
Victory Over Populism
Europe supported the new division of labor through a significantly expanded presence on the seven seas, in order to secure international trade routes and choke points and be able to react locally at any time to conflict flare-ups. One participant in these naval operations was the small German task force around the brand-new Amphibische Kampf- und Konsularschiff (AKK) “Johannes Kahrs,” the German aircraft carrier, named after a former budget politician who had once represented the pretty port city of Hamburg in the German Bundestag.
But how could Europe’s new foreign policy role be secured at home? After the “Baltic Electric Shock” (Bild, October 5, 2021), there was sufficient political capital for more than just an enhanced foreign and security policy. And the brutal, long-lasting recession that Brexit had triggered in the UK helped concentrate minds in the remaining member states. Even more important was the small euro crisis of 2022, which fueled the point of view that Europe had to put the common currency on a new foundation. With this new crisis, the new European thinking came full circle. While the crisis in the Baltics had demonstrated to the European left that one gets nowhere with breezy pacifism and “understanding” for Russia, the latest euro scare convinced European conservatives to give up their fundamental opposition to political union and a transfer union in the eurozone.
Indeed, it took until 2030, but within that decade the “inclusive turnaround” (Janning, 2026) took place. It was a movement against euroskepticism, renationalization, populism, and authoritarian temptations.
A Single Phone Number
The European republic that was meant to replace the nation states remained an illusion, as expected. But Europe’s foreign policy core, which had emerged after the crisis in the Baltics, also developed a domestic policy power center that reformed the EU’s political system in two steps. First, the single market was completed, which had a significant positive effect on growth in the EU. Apart from the European asylum compromise of 2023, it was above all this boom that raised Europe’s credibility and thereby expanded the room for maneuver of pro-European elites. The result was step two: a truly Europe-wide direct election of the president of the European Commission in 2029.
In the course of this revision of Europe, Brussels was able to abolish the European External Action Service and transform it into the European Security Council, in which the heads of state and government met monthly under the chairmanship of the directly elected Commission president and brought the foreign policy of the member states into a common whole. This did not completely prevent nations from going it alone, nor did they magically come to complete agreement on all issues. But since Europe had linked the weight of each member state’s voting rights to its voting behavior on foreign policy questions, the incentive to undermine the common foreign policy was quite low. Observers agreed that this state of affairs was the closest thing to the EU “speaking with one voice,” a goal that had been evoked for so long.
This new institutional constellation earned legitimacy when it, in a series of crisis situations, including in the Middle East and in the relationship to China, formulated a strong European position and asserted European interests in a previously unthinkable way. Not least because of this new foreign policy strength, Great Britain applied in 2038 to rejoin the EU. The outcome, though, was up in the air until 2040 because of disagreements about the recognition of British agricultural products ( “Ceci n’est pas un fromage,” Le Figaro, July 23, 2039).
“Learning through suffering,” the most cynical of all the maxims about progress, allowed the EU, within 20 years, to transform from a quarreling, internally shaky structure fearful of the changing world order into a guarantor of regional and global stability. Given the multiplicity of forks in the road where it could have taken a wrong turn, one can—without diminishing the achievement of political leaders—sigh and admit: we got lucky.
Jan Techau is Senior Fellow and Director of the European Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin.
The text first appeared on 29th April, 2019 in the Berlin Policy Journal.