Europe, Power in the Making
During the night of 24 February 2022, 160 missiles were fired from Russia towards Ukraine. In Europe, we awoke to a different world.
This is certainly not the first time that Vladimir Putin has chosen violence and aggression: Georgia underwent an invasion in 2008 and Ukraine was invaded in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the intervention in Donbass. A sort of nostalgia for empire, combined with a revenge mindset and absolute lies led to the instigation of an illegal war of invasion against a sovereign and independent state. This violation of international law and the United Nations charter is even more worrisome due to the fact that Russia is a member of the UN Security Council. A bit more than a month later we count thousands of dead, millions of internally displaced people, millions of refugees, cities in ruins — such as Mariupol, which has essentially been wiped off the map —, war crimes … all less than 2,000 kilometers from Paris.
Faced with these crimes, one cannot help but wonder. Why did Vladimir Putin choose to invade Ukraine? It seems clear that he does not want to accept that in “his zone of influence”, in “his historic territories”, that people live, develop, and choose to orient themselves towards the free and democratic world. This was the courageous choice of the Ukrainian people who gathered at Maidan in 2014. The hope of European values peace, prosperity, democracy, liberty. That is the true reason for the war in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin sees democracy as a pandemic, and war as the vaccine.
The European response to Russian aggression
We are therefore directly concerned — even though we are not at war against Russia, since we wish to remain a power that resists a return to a world where “man is wolf to man” and in which international relations are guided by anarchic battles for land or resources, with war as an instrument for domination.
Faced with this new trend we knew how to react. Today, strategic autonomy — the agenda of sovereignty at the continental level — is no longer just a nice idea held by dreamers. Faced with and thanks to successive crises — Covid and today the war in Ukraine — we are experiencing a European awakening.
We have understood an important fact: supporting Ukrainians is supporting ourselves. Supporting their rights and their liberties is also defending our fundamental interests: peace, an international order based on rules, rule of law, and democracy. This is the reason for first the reaction, and then the action, of the European Union: united, strong and fast. Unprecedented.
Our action is divided into three categories: assistance to Ukraine, sanctions against Russia, and international action.
— Assistance to Ukraine
We have activated massive financial support to Ukraine. And above all, for the first time in our history, we are financing the delivery of arms. We made this decision on the third day of the war, immediately after President Zelensky asked me directly.
We are also committed to providing humanitarian support and welcoming refugees with dignity.
We have imposed unprecedented sanctions that aim for the economic and financial heart of the regime. They are painful. The Russian Central Banks, the financial system, oligarchs, state-owned companies. All are affected. The ruble has crashed. We are prepared for other measures if necessary. The goal is to block the regime’s cash-machine which is financing the war.
— International action
On the international level, our actions were intensively and meticulously coordinated with our allies and with our partners. In our multilateral forums, within the G7 as well as in the UN and NATO, it is a matter of showing that there is no confrontation between Russia on the one hand and the transatlantic West on the other. It is to show that there is a large anti-war coalition which defends international law. This is the reason why diplomatic efforts are indispensable in Africa, Latin America, and the Indo-pacific. I will come back to this.
To understand our power, we must understand why we took Putin by surprise
In reality, more than a month after ordering the wat, Vladimir Putin is getting the opposite of what he had hoped. He thought he could militarily defeat Ukraine within a few days — he was mistaken. He thought he could dissolve Volodymyr Zelensky’s government and replace it with a puppet government — he was mistaken. He thought he could divide Europeans and reap the fruit of the seeds of discord that he had sewn — he was mistaken. He thought he could rattle the transatlantic alliance — it is more solid than ever. Once again, he was mistaken.
In reality, by pressing the button labeled “war”, he has perhaps triggered the starting point for the self-destruction of his regime. This observation should not prevent us from being vigilant: this headlong rush may be long-lasting, and it may also make him even more dangerous. But I hold this conviction: we took him by surprise.
He was not anticipating having to face the level of our support — including in military equipment — for Ukraine, or the strength of our financial and economic sanctions. And there is no doubt that we ourselves did not think that we were capable. This crisis shows yet again that it is in adversity that Europe shows its strength.
To understand our strength, we must understand that the Union is a project in perpetual movement. It is, above all, a project of transformation.
In an unstable and ever-changing world, confronted with global challenges, with climate change at the forefront, we decided in 2019 to make the dual transition — ecological and digital — our transformation strategy. And to strengthen our capacity for action and influence on a global scale.
This last point is the direction that President Macron proposed at the Sorbonne, in 2017, and that he developed in the doctrinal interview published in these pages: to build true European sovereignty, in order to ensure our ability to defend our values and interests, and to protect our citizens, their security, their freedoms and their living environment.
This strategic autonomy is our generation’s challenge. At the end of 2019, we made a first strategic decision: with the 27, we committed to reaching climate neutrality in 2050. In doing so, we have set a timeline and created the political space for the development of the European Green Pact. Decarbonizing our societies and economies means gradually abandoning fossil fuels and dependence on them – Russian gas and oil, for example. Today, in light of events, this seems obvious. Yet it was not obvious in 2019, just over two years ago.
But the Union has shown the way. Other countries throughout the world have followed suit with the goal of climate neutrality. Today, caught in the matrix of an “ecology of war”, geostrategic imperatives have come to bolster climate concerns.
Our strategic autonomy rests on three pillars. First and foremost, we must draw on universal values: human dignity and freedom, solidarity and the rule of law. The second pillar is prosperity. This now requires an urgent transformation of our development model, based on the dual digital and green transition. Finally, strengthening our capacity to act together on strategic issues is the third building block.
For Europe the challenge is simple: it cannot become the playground for the ambitions of others. To have influence in the world, it must be an actor that respects — and is respected.
Europe after the end of History: we can shape the politics of the coming decade
As Europe undergoes another difficult moment, I remember the exhilarating period of the 1990s. It was a time of hope: the Berlin Wall had just fallen, the Soviet Union had disintegrated, the European project was gaining steam. A period of optimism and confidence in the future was dawning, Francis Fukuyama was developing his interpretation of the “end of history” and the inevitable victory of liberal democracies and the market economy. Today we know that this vision has, at a minimum, lost some steam. The development of new forms of autocracy all over the world is just one example of the numerous developments that have invalidated these predictions which were not only premature, but also overly optimistic.
There is no straight road. Humanity’s history is not a line of progress towards an ideal future. The shortest path from point A to point B is not always a straight line. Nothing is a given, especially not liberty and democracy — even in Europe.
Nevertheless, in the wake of the nebulous period that began in the 1990s, the European project stands out. It lies within the curve of human progress. It aims to guarantee our most precious goods: peace, democracy and prosperity. The debris and ashes of two consecutive world wars have been, paradoxically, the fertile ground for European construction.
A peaceful, united, and ever stronger Europe. A Europe where the law and rules protect the rights and interests of all. A free and solidarity-based Europe. An innovative political project, without historical precedent, based on dialogue, respect, and tolerance.
Of course, the Union has not erased political or historical differences, nor the different interests between our member states, but it has radically changed the way in which we approach them: we have gone from a model of confrontation to a model of cooperation and negotiation. It is the community method. We have created common rules which link countries to different institutions — but common rules based on shared values and principals. At the European Council table we form, with the Twenty-seven, a family.
We do have differences — sometimes disagreements. We spend hours, sometimes days and nights, discussing, debating, arguing to find common ground. And we always succeed, or at least often do; in the end, it is the essential that matters most.
The success of the European Union is certainly due to words – those of the Treaties – but only insofar as they are materialized in facts, in unprecedented achievements: we are the largest democratic space in the world, and we are an economic and commercial power of 450 million consumers. We are also — as too few are aware — the most significant promoter of peace and development in the world.
In the sequence of uncertainty that began with the onset of the pandemic, and in a world that is being reconfigured by the upheaval following Russia’s war of invasion in the Ukraine, there are three points of reference that should help us to chart a course.
— Do not cover up the scars of history
In liberal democracies we naturally see human rights and liberties as universal values — they are enshrined in the United Nations Charter. But our discourse on human rights is often perceived, in third-party countries, as an instrument of Western domination. In the midst of a war of aggression, Putin is the first to skillfully exploit this phenomenon through propaganda. Striving to understand History and histories, to measure the collective traumas of peoples around the world, leads to a better understanding of contemporary political postures. Every people, every country has its wounds. They are sometimes healed, but not always. Our discourse, which underlies a new European narrative, must therefore not ignore this part of our past, which is often overlooked.
It is difficult for our countries to escape the veil of suspicion in countries that were subject to colonialism. Our discourse on values and democracy is therefore often perceived or presented as moralizing, preachy, and paternalistic. It is the horror of two world wars and the Holocaust which has anchored so firmly in Europe the responsibility to promote the respect for democracy and human dignity. In the same manner, the knowledge and recognition of History must lead us, as Europeans, to better know and understand each other. Just as this approach must not exclude the contribution of non-Europe to Europe, it must not exclude the heritage of Europe within non-Europe and our interactions with the rest of the world, beyond the Union’s border. This is the key to mutual respect, intelligence, and collective action.
— Combine power with trust in our democracies
Democracies are devoted to human dignity. Autocrats do not have this preoccupation and can therefore cynically deploy their hard power in theaters of operation more quickly and more easily. We see it in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Africa, whether through regular armies or even through a sort of privatization of war: mercenaries from Wagner or Syrian mercenaries are striking examples.
In a democracy, the support of citizens through their representatives in parliaments must legitimize our decisions. Is this a weakness? I do not think so. In fact, it is quite the contrary. Trust is the most enduring basis for freedom and peace.
— Develop partnerships around the world
In order to finally be a power, Europe must develop partnerships, build bridges with the entire world. This must be done without complex and with respect, but also with the firmness of our beliefs and the awareness of our economic strength. This is as true for our relations with the Indo-Pacific region as it is for our relations with China, Latin America and Africa.
We must not look the other way when it comes to our core values and priority interests. We must seek common ground to meet global objectives, such as climate or security. We must exercise strategic patience when necessary. We must utilize circumstances and accelerate when appropriate.
In the difficulty of this moment, as we experience turmoil and great transformations, clarity and composure are more essential than ever. Let us not be overcome by fear. Rather, let us be proud to keep the European promise alive: peace, freedom and prosperity, rather than war and decline.
Charles Michel, Europe, Power in the Making, Apr 2022,
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