“Enlargement Is An Investment In Peace,” A Conversation With Charles Michel
War is extending. The Union seems to be trapped in a passive, purely reactive attitude. What should its position be in the Sukkot war?
The European Union is playing an active and very constructive role.
We have long had the clarity to remain mobilized for a true peace process, seeking to bring about lasting solutions. This was the case even when many players around the world seemed to have resigned themselves to the fact that the Palestinian cause had finally ceased to be a priority and that it was time to move on. When the United States, under Donald Trump, launched the Abraham Accords, plans for normalizing relations between Israel and Arab countries, or when it decided to move the embassy to Jerusalem, it was the Union that maintained a firm stance, continuing to defend the principle of a two-state solution. We can see the extent to which this position remains extremely important today.
Is that enough?
No, it is not. I believe that the Union, with its position based both on its considerable proximity to Israel — a democratic country with which we have very strong economic ties — and on the fact that we are Palestine’s leading development partner, should play a more active, much more central role. This is what many countries in the region are asking us to do.
Since Saturday, you have spoken with most of the key players in the region: what has come from these conversations? What do they expect of the Union?
The risk of escalation and major unrest that would lead to even greater insecurity and instability is viewed with concern by all. I believe that our role must be to remain in very close contact with the region’s countries and follow in real time how events are unfolding in order to decide how best to act, while remaining lucid and seeking to create the conditions for stability. I will give an example to show why these conversations are useful and necessary. The region’s leaders have justifiably drawn my attention to the importance of not making rash decisions in connection with aid to Palestine, development aid or humanitarian aid. The King of Jordan, the President of Egypt and the Prime Minister of Palestine have all been clear: it is very important not to fall into the trap set by Hamas and feed its ability to weaponize hastily made decisions, which would deepen radicalism among moderate Palestinians who remain committed to the peace process. As for the European Union, we must also make our multilateral voice heard, in favor of respect for international law — everywhere.
How do you explain this cacophony in Europe, with its powerful symbols and measures announced and then retracted, particularly concerning aid to Palestine?
I won’t speculate on the reasons. The most important thing is that the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, has clarified the European Union’s position.
I accept my share of responsibility, however: the European Council must make sure that member states are consulted on a subject that directly concerns them. We have strategic guidelines, and we cannot accept a de facto sanction — because announcing that we are cutting development aid is in fact a sanction — being unilaterally imposed by the Commission. Member states must be consulted. The important thing is that this matter was quickly rectified, and the ministers took up the debate.
The analysis of international reactions to the Sukkot war that we have been mapping since Saturday seems to show a widening rift between an increasingly united West and the rest of the world which is divided between calls for de-escalation and support (for a smaller group) for Hamas: how do you interpret these fractures of an expanding war, which seem to be superimposed on the map of support for Ukraine?
The crises we are facing and which keep coming one after the other — climate crisis, digital transformation, the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s war against Ukraine, the Middle East conflict — are all factors that point to a serious risk of global fragmentation and bipolarization. War is upon us. We have entered a dangerous situation, in which the European Union, with its history marked by the tragedies of the 20th century, followed by the creation of a shared legal, economic and now security space, has a particular responsibility.
What we are seeing today is the emergence of a narrative, developed mainly by Russia in the context of the war against Ukraine and supported by others, which targets a number of countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia. It’s up to us to be very careful, with our G7 partners, with our transatlantic partners, with Japan and basically with all partners who share the same political models and the same fundamental values, to not enable this narrative. In Africa, as in Latin America, we need to be intelligent, skillful.
At the continental level, I’ve long been convinced, along with a number of others, that we need to forge a sincere relationship with the rest of the world.
In what way?
We sometimes have an overly unilateral approach: we believe we can convince the rest of the world because we ourselves are convinced that we are right and can use authoritative arguments. We have to change this. We must have the strength to take a different approach and accept that their view of the world is not the same as ours, and that we have a different history and understanding on a number of issues. True dialogue requires patience and courage.
What does this mean for the Union in concrete terms?
The method of decades past has become irrelevant.
It played out in a world where the G7 exerted near absolute economic and ideological domination. That world no longer exists. This is a fact: the G7 is going to have to accept sharing power. We have to recognize that when the Bretton Woods institutions were created, dozens of countries simply didn’t exist because they were under colonial rule. If we do not have the courage to open these discussions with our partners in Africa, Latin America and Asia, then we will be giving a gift to the powers that do not want a world based on the rules of dignity, human rights and the strength of the United Nations. I’m referring specifically to Russia, which, as we know, is the main source of hostility on these matters.
Is this the reason for developing a Euro-African axis?
Yes, we must work towards a forward-looking partnership, which is sincere and equal, without ambiguity and based on mutual interests. These interests are obvious. In the fight against climate change, for example, we need to support the idea that African countries don’t have to choose between reducing poverty and curbing global warming.
Do you think the accusation of “double standards” should be entertained? What should the response be?
We have a unique institutional political model. Foreign policy is shared between member states and European institutions. It’s a process that is gradually converging, but it won’t happen overnight and will take time.
Amid this new outbreak of violence in the Middle East, the European Union must remain constant and, above all, cohesive. If we are to defend international law, we must defend it everywhere in the same way. Because we are united by a set of values, and it is our values that inspire our actions, we must show ourselves to be consistent. It goes without saying that we condemn this terrorist attack against Israel and the Israeli people in the strongest possible terms. It also goes without saying, but it must be said all the same, that we recognize the right of the Israeli people and of Israel to defend themselves, in strict accordance with international law and international humanitarian law.
The past few months have seen profound destabilization in the Sahel. Does Europe still have a role to play in Africa?
In some West African countries, we’ve seen the development of a new hybrid threat against Africa. It targets Africans first, and subsequently Europe. It is the Wagner model, and Russia’s: seizing economic and natural resources in exchange for securing fragile regimes and policies. Russia uses this presence both to destabilize the relationship between Africa and Europe, and to try and spread its fraudulent narrative that calls into question our democratic principles and multilateralism.
Let me cite a first example, in the area of security. At the request of the Africans, we have worked in good faith on both the African and European sides in the Sahel. We have put in place a number of mechanisms with the G5 Sahel, which are quite cumbersome from an institutional point of view. It was a courageous move. A slightly different example is Mozambique. There, we saw an African determination, expressed by SADC and Rwanda, to mobilize African security resources to fight terrorists. The Europeans made material, financial and military resources available to them. This process seems to be bearing fruit, and we have also begun to incorporate an economic program to ensure that as terrorism recedes, the region’s territories also develop.
The migration issue is also regaining prominence. You recently criticized the way in which the agreement with Tunisia was reached. Why is that?
I strongly support a policy of engagement with countries of origin and transit, and the building of global partnerships. In fact, I was very active in encouraging the European Council to support the principle of such negotiations.
In the case of Tunisia, I was primarily critical of the form which, it’s true, is perhaps not the central element. I think that in order to make the European Union work, we need to ensure that procedures are respected, quite simply because they are there to guarantee unity. On a subject as crucial as migration, the Commission cannot reach such a decision on its own. Member States must be consulted and must approve. This ensures that there is harmony in the way we develop our strategies. We cannot ignore this reality. Now the agreement is in place, and we clearly have to do everything we can to make it work.
What do you believe would be the right approach?
We need to be precise. When it comes to concluding this type of agreement, we need to look first and foremost at the relationship countries have with other states in terms of visa regimes. We must then look at the link between European macro-financial aid and the reforms requested by the IMF. This is a rather delicate and technical question that I am seeking to formulate very cautiously. In practice, the European Union mobilizes macro-financial resources in coordination with the IMF, taking into account the fact that the Fund has agreements with the countries concerned. I think we should go a step further: if the IMF demands reforms that pose major problems for governments because there is a risk of social tensions, we should look in detail at what is being asked and try to build solutions. If we want a truly geopolitical Union, we should stop automatically outsourcing the matter to the IMF. It’s an extremely complicated debate because the IMF guarantees rigorous reforms.
I also believe that we are not doing enough to dismantle trafficking networks. We cannot allow criminal networks to decide who can and cannot enter Europe. When Islamist terrorism struck Europe, in Paris and Brussels, it was a wake-up call in terms of cooperation between the police and judicial authorities. We must be much more proactive to really prevent and dismantle these terrorist groups. I believe that the situation we face with cross-border criminal groups — who are present on the other side of the Mediterranean and in third party countries, but who also have centers of operations in our countries — is similar. Member States need to dial up their political will. The European Union doesn’t have many intelligence or direct-action resources; we can coordinate and encourage them, but it’s up to member states to act.
We also need to raise the issue of legal migration. Finally, there’s the question of returns and re-entries. Today, the average return rate is 20%: for traffickers, it’s great marketing.
Another war is raging at the Union’s borders: the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan…
It’s very important that the European Union be involved in the South Caucasus. We have been absent for far too long, allowing others to develop their cynical game. We don’t hide our agenda in the region: we want peace and prosperity, because it’s in our structural interest to have a stable, prosperous South Caucasus neighborhood in which we can reduce tension and the risk of war. Our red line is the rights and security of the Armenians of Karabakh, for which the Union, along with other international players, has a role to play.
What is the status of the mediation you’re carrying out on this subject?
Several criteria are on the table. First of all, we need to achieve normalized relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, based on mutual recognition of territorial integrity and sovereignty — without any ambiguity. We must then ensure that the means of connectivity — the land communication routes between the different regions — respect the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and jurisdiction. This is the primary focus of our work. Then there are a number of more humanitarian aspects that touch on the pain of the past. There is also the whole issue of prisoner exchanges. There are prisoners from previous wars. There are missing persons. There are parts of the territory that have been landmined…
The last time we spoke, it was the day after the shock of the American withdrawal from Kabul and the Taliban takeover. Today, the war in Israel threatens to spread. In these two geopolitical crises, which profoundly affect our relationship with the rest of the world — from the Mediterranean to the Middle East and Central Asia — why does the Union seem to play a purely reactive role?
Since the withdrawal from Kabul, the Union has made progress on the international stage. We are strengthening our engagement with the rest of the world, but this is an ongoing process. In Kabul, we are mobilized to identify how to meet the needs of the Afghan population in terms of humanitarian aid, and to support initiatives aimed at guaranteeing greater stability and security in the region.
At that time, I told Le Grand Continent that, for us, the most important thing was to ensure that Afghanistan did not once again become a sanctuary for international terrorism; that it was essential that we did not take a step backwards in terms of the rights of women and girls, and in terms of education for young girls. Today, we can see that the situation is even worse than what was described at the time. All of my counterparts in Central Asia have expressed their concerns about Afghanistan, which was also hit by an extremely deadly earthquake a few days ago. We must remain mobilized.
Last week in Granada, you initiated discussions between European leaders on the next strategic agenda for the 2024-2029 period. What is its objective?
We are clearly experiencing a turning point. Let’s look at the last five years: an accelerating climate crisis that confronts us with our dependence on fossil fuels; a Covid-19 pandemic that exposes our dependence on basic products; a war launched against Ukraine and now the upheaval in the Middle East, which threaten the continent’s stability and security. Our generation essentially finds itself in a situation similar to that of the founding fathers. The 20th century was fractured by war. Today, war is raging on European soil. This is the starting point for our thinking: our generation has a duty to not delude itself. The decisions we make now are a bet on the future.
Is EU enlargement part of this thinking?
Enlargement is an investment in peace, prosperity and security. Consider the opposite scenario. Can we imagine what the situation would be like today, in the event of war against Ukraine, if we were just the founding members of Europe? Can we imagine what the level of insecurity, instability and danger would be? This would probably mean that the countries now in the European Union would have been left in a kind of gray zone, between danger and uncertainty. It’s a rather provocative argument, but it’s undeniable.
This enlargement is a necessity — but that doesn’t mean it will be easy.
What does this process entail in concrete terms?
We need to create the conditions to make enlargement a reality. I see two key elements. We have to be very clear and transparent with the states that want to join us: if they have to undertake reforms, we also have to fulfill our duties. We cannot make excuses every time. It’s essential to learn from the past, and in particular from the disappointment of the Western Balkans, which probably made it easier for those who wanted to destabilize the region to do so. Our lack of clarity and consistency facilitated Russia’s narrative, perhaps even China’s.
We all have to live in the same political space, in the sense of legal and economic values: the internal market with common legal rules, the rule of law based on treaties and standards. In order for this to work, candidate countries must have an independent judiciary, guarantee respect for the rule of law, and take measures to combat corruption. Secondly, we do not want to import more conflicts into the Union. Issues pertaining to minorities must be addressed. If there are disputes, they must be resolved.
Then, if we wish to be sincere, we must also recognize that this famous absorption capacity, as the technocratic jargon calls it, is not at all theoretical. We need to look each other in the eye, all twenty-seven of us, if we’re sincere about enlargement and the decisions we’ve recently made, to prepare ourselves together.
There is increasing talk of gradual integration of candidate countries: do you support this approach?
We don’t have to wait until the end of the process to work more closely with the countries that want to join us. We support gradual integration. It is crucial that, as reforms progress, these countries are able to benefit from certain policies and participate in certain elements of the internal market. This is the important conversation that began in Granada.
Do you think that an enlarged Union of 35 members can function without institutional changes?
We need to ask ourselves three questions — perhaps the same questions the founding fathers asked themselves after the Second World War. What do we want to do together? What means will we use to finance and implement what we decide together? How do we decide together?
The Union of more than thirty countries will be very different. It’s always very difficult: as soon as we talk about money, debates become tense; emotions sometimes win out over politics. So, how do we finance our policies? Through national contributions? By other means of financing the European project? And if we want to be able to continue to act and react when necessary, we may well have to think about adapting our decision-making processes. These are difficult, complex questions, but we can no longer afford the luxury of avoiding them.
I am delighted to see that Europe’s decision-makers are motivated to tackle this subject and enter fully into the debate. Several member states are making contributions, and some are commissioning experts to prepare reports and weigh the pros and cons. The strength of the democratic debate on this subject is a necessary step if we are to reach a common position. We know better than anyone: to be united, we first need a process in which we can discuss, reason, and sometimes disagree. This began in Granada, with a truly sincere commitment at the highest level. It was important, because our credibility was at stake: we are now there.
You were the first to suggest 2030 as a reasonable target date for enlargement. Can you explain your thinking, how did you arrive at this?
This date of 2030 is extremely important. It was the first time that a European official in an institutional capacity had put such a deadline on the table.
For me, it is a way of saying that we are serious and that we understand that we can’t waste any more time. Above all, it’s a date that places a dual responsibility on our horizon: the countries that will join us must, of course, get their affairs in order and carry out their reforms. But we also have a moral obligation to ourselves. With no time frame, there would have been a risk of continuing to stall, procrastinate and postpone difficult decisions.
What, in your opinion, are the stumbling blocks that would make a Europe of 35 or more dysfunctional?
Cohesion policies, agricultural policies, and matters such as the ratio between net contributors and net beneficiaries of the European project are all issues that will impact a Union of more than thirty members. Some of today’s net beneficiaries will become net contributors in the coming years.
All this has to be painstakingly prepared. Some are worried about the fact that Ukraine is a large country, and that in terms of cohesion and agriculture, it could upset the balance. But Ukraine is a special case: the country will have to be reconstructed. In any event, we will have to find ways of financing — not just the Europeans, but also our American partners, the G7 and the UK — to help the Ukrainians to reconstruct their country. Will we do this better with Ukraine inside or outside our market? I think the answer is quite obvious.
On all these issues, the overriding priority is not to fall into binary thinking, but to incorporate nuance in all areas to produce a high-quality debate.
What do you believe should be the European Union’s main strategic priorities for the next cycle?
I see four key points for the future of Europe.
The first is to strengthen our economic and technological base. The deepening of our internal market and the finalization of the capital markets union should be a powerful lever for fluid financing of our autonomy. We must be a land of innovation, a land of development. We must therefore address our vulnerabilities and harness our strengths.
The second element is the energy transition. History is giving us an interesting perspective: the European project began with the question of raw materials, in the form of steel, and energy, in the form of coal. It is quite striking to see that in 2023, coal and steel are still at the heart of our discussions. How do we intend to develop the European Union’s energy sovereignty? There is danger lurking; either we engage in intra-European competition, or, on the contrary, we view the Union as an economic entity, a world power, a large internal market. We have clarified some of the issues and are making progress on renewable energies and energy efficiency, but we’re going to have to go beyond that.
The third element is security and defense. Long before the war in Ukraine, I was one of the people convinced that we had to make progress on European defense and security, in conjunction with NATO. We cannot outsource security. We are delivering arms to Ukraine, and we are developing instruments such as the Peace Facility. We now need to develop a defense and security industrial base with our partners, who also have an interest in seeing us grow stronger. We would be the best partners, and our alliances would be stronger and more robust, if we were more committed to this issue.
The fourth element is engagement with the rest of the world. The European project is not simply that of a large economic market, nor simply that of an area where we share fundamental values based on human dignity and democracy. We must also strive to defend our interests and promote our model.
These four points combine to form European sovereignty: this strategic autonomy, which we have been raising throughout this term of office. This is no longer a taboo subject. We need more sovereignty, more control over our future, over our destiny. In some ways, this is what the founding fathers did after the Second World War, when they set out to work together for peace and prosperity. We do not want to suffer our destiny.
How do you intend to convert these four elements into a mobilizing discourse amid the accelerating political whirlwind of the coming months?
This is a fundamental point. For my grandparents’ and even my parents’ generations, the European project was a given. These generations had experienced war in Europe and they could see that the project would bring peace, development, and prosperity. For my generation and that of my children, the perception of the European project was already different, perhaps less automatic. The war in Ukraine and, before that, the pandemic, changed everything. They showed that Europe protects. Many citizens, whether they are very interested or less interested in the European project, feel intuitively, instinctively what Europe has done in the face of these two crises. They see that dialogue, coordination, the will to act together, is much more beneficial to their daily lives than the alternative, which would have been fragmentation, with twenty-seven different reactions.
The mobilizing narrative, then, is Europe. Europe offers a cohesive vision for our shared future. Europe protects. It has a positive impact on living conditions, and respects dignity and freedom. It can mobilize us.
Ramona Bloj, “Enlargement Is An Investment In Peace,” A Conversation With Charles Michel, Oct 2023,
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