Europe between two wars
arrowVoir tous les articles

Europe between two wars

Two deadly wars are unfolding on our borders and dominating the European agenda: the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine and the war that has recently flared up again in the Middle East. I will focus here on the consequences of these wars for Europe and, as such, will not address other major issues for our foreign policy, such as our relations with China, the impact of climate change or the tensions in the Sahel.   

In 2019, at the beginning of my mandate, I already sensed that Europe’s security would become an increasingly important issue. That is the reason why we set about developing the Strategic Compass, a new strategy for our common security and defence. When I presented it in November 2021, I said that “Europe is in danger”. 

Europe is in danger

At the time, many people thought I was exaggerating. They perceived it as just a marketing ploy to ‘sell’ the Strategic Compass. Back then, most observers still believed that Russia’s deployment of troops along the borders of Ukraine was merely to put pressure on the West and obtain further concessions. A similar sentiment prevailed regarding the Middle East. For instance, Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s security adviser, said as recently as last September, “it had rarely been so calm”. I was regularly discouraged from engaging with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. I was told that it was impossible to find a solution to this conflict and that, with the Abraham Accords, the situation was evolving positively between the Arab countries and Israel. Despite increasing violence against Palestinians in the West Bank and the ongoing encroachment of illegal settlements eroding the territory of a potential Palestinian state, no one was really paying attention any more. It was widely assumed that the Palestinian issue would resolve itself.

However, just weeks after I presented the Strategic Compass, war suddenly returned to the Union’s borders, and since 7 October, the situation in our immediate neighbourhood has become even worse. The dramatic situation in Gaza has become an immediate priority, but the war against Ukraine remains crucial because it poses an existential threat to the European Union. Despite differing actors and origins, these two conflicts are intrinsically interconnected.  The perception of the conflict in Gaza in many of the countries known as the “Global South” could weaken their support for Ukraine against Russian aggression. 

Europe’s Demosthenes moment

During the COVID 19 pandemic, we set up the Next Generation EU by issuing common debt. Some had evoked a “Hamiltonian moment” in reference to the decision taken in 1790 by Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, to take over the debt of the federated States, creating a common federal debt. However, this analogy is debatable, as Next Generation EU did not address existing debts of the Member States and was intended to be a one-off operation. 

Today, some speak of a Demosthenes moment, in reference to the great Athenian orator and statesman who, starting in 351 BC, rallied his fellow citizens through the Philippics – a series of famous speeches – to defend Athens’ independence and democracy against the imperialism of Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. This comparison is more apt: we are now facing the imperialism of a great power that threatens not only Ukraine but also our democracy and the entire European Union.

I fear that if we do not change tack quickly and mobilise all our capabilities, if we allow Putin to win in Ukraine, if we fail to end the tragedy suffered by the people of Gaza, the European project will be seriously threatened.

Let us examine these two wars more closely to understand how we can influence their course. We have often been told that geography no longer matters, that it has disappeared from conflicts. But these two conflicts are still about territorial issues. In the case of Ukraine, the conflict pits a sovereign state, Ukraine, against an imperialist power, Russia. Russia has never developed into a true nation state. It has always been an empire, whether under the Tsars, the Soviets or now under Putin. Unless this imperialist identity is challenged, Russia will continue to be a threat to its neighbours, particularly us Europeans, and its political system will remain authoritarian, nationalist and violent. Many Russian intellectuals  have already pointed this out: as long as Russia does not abandon its imperialist project, it will not be able to democratise or reform itself. 

Two peoples, one land

The conflict between Israel and Palestine is of a different nature, but it also centres around a territorial issue. Here, two peoples are fighting for the same land, a land to which they both have legitimate claims. This conflict has been going on a century. We had a 100-year war in Europe, but this is the 100-year war of the Middle East. The question is: How can this conflict be solved ? The answer lies in one of two possibilities: either these two peoples share this land, or one of them will have to leave, die or become second-class citizens under the domination of the other. 

The second option would be unacceptable. We need to strive towards the first possibility. This is exactly the aim of the two-state solution that has been on the table for over 30 years, starting with the Oslo Accords. However, since then very little has been done to actually implement those accords. Yet the entire international community supports this solution, including all the Member States of the European Union. 

The extremists on both sides – Hamas on the one hand, and the fundamentalists of the Israeli right on the other – oppose the two-state solution and have done everything to make it impossible to the present day. Crucially, the Oslo Accords did not stop the illegal settlements in the West Bank, in other words, as in Ukraine, the occupation of other people’s land in contravention of all the United Nations resolutions. There are now 700,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, four times as many as at the time of the Oslo Accords, with the clear aim of making the creation of a Palestinian state impossible.

The Israeli government rejects the two-state solution

Hamas is opposed to the very existence of the State of Israel. But the current Israeli government is also opposed, and for a long time, to the two-state solution. Benyamin Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister, promised to his fellow citizens that with him a Palestinian state would never see the light of day, despite the entire international community being in favour of it. This community therefore has a problem with Benyamin Netanyahu’s policy. However, other voices in Israeli society, such as that of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or that of a young survivor of the attack on Kibbutz Be’eri, whose testimony touched me deeply, are stressing the need for the creation of such a Palestinian state. I am convinced that it is essential for the long-term security of the State of Israel.

In any case, the tragedy of 7 October signalled the collapse of a status quo that was untenable, even if we did not want to see it. In my opinion, there are two lessons to be learned from this tragedy. Firstly, the solution cannot be found by the parties to the conflict themselves. It must be imposed from outside by the international community, the Arab neighbours, the United States and Europe. Secondly, we need to change the negotiation method. In Oslo, the endpoint of the negotiations was not clearly defined. We need to reverse this process. The international community needs first to define an endpoint, and then, through negotiation, Israeli and Palestinian must find the way to reach it. Today the Arab states, including those that have recognised Israel and maintain relations with it, are making it clear that it is out of the question for them to pay once again to rebuild Gaza if there is no guarantee that the two-state solution will actually be implemented. Long-term peace will never return if this is not the case. 

There is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

There is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hamas is first and foremost an idea, and you can’t kill an idea with bombs. The only way to kill a bad idea is to propose a better one, one that gives hope and confidence in a future where peace is possible. This can and must be the implementation of the two-state solution.

But let’s return to Europe and ask ourselves a fundamental question: what is our capacity to act collectively in the face of these conflicts? We are not a state, and not even a federation of states. Our foreign and security policy is still being defined unanimously, which means that the opposition of only one State is sufficient to make us unable to act. 

And we obviously find it difficult to achieve such unanimity on complex issues. If we had a system of qualified majority voting or a decision-making process that did not require complete unanimity, we could motivate everyone to seek a point of convergence. There would be an incentive to negotiate, because nobody would want to be isolated. However, the possibility to block the entire Union while remaining isolated creates a great temptation to use such leverage to obtain concessions from other countries. This is what happened at the last European Council when deciding on opening accession negotiations with Ukraine. If one can impose a veto, the others are obliged to haggle over the return to consensus. Often this haggling is very costly, and above all it wastes a lot of time. We react far too slowly to events, and we often pay dearly for it. In practice, our size is not always a strength, and in moments of truth, our rules often prevent us from acting. The envisaged enlargement of Europe to include Ukraine, Moldova and the Western Balkan countries raises the question of the reform of the European Union. I cannot imagine how we could continue to operate with 37 members if we maintain the unanimity rule. We need to work differently to be able to act quickly and forcefully enough in this dangerous environment. 

A remarkable European response to the war against Ukraine

In the case of Ukraine, unanimity was fortunately achieved quickly. Before the war began, I visited the Donbass in January 2022. I met Denys Shmyhal, the Ukrainian Prime Minister. He told me that in a few days the Russians were going to invade Ukraine and he asked me if we would then help them, not by sending troops, but by delivering weapons so that the Ukrainians could defend themselves. At the time, I did not know how to answer because I was not sure that we would reach unanimity to do so. But fortunately, when the day came, we did. 

Europe’s reaction to the war against Ukraine was indeed remarkable. First, we succeeded in drastically reducing our energy dependence on Moscow, which seemed almost impossible at first sight, with a 40% dependence on Russian gas. Moscow thought that this dependence would prevent us from reacting, but we proved otherwise. However, this came at a high cost. Inflation rose and the economy held back. We also paid a significant geopolitical price because we bought the available gas at a price that many less affluent countries could not afford to pay, thus depriving them of this resource. But, at the end of the day, we largely freed ourselves from our energy dependence on Russia, which was a major constraint on our foreign policy. 

We also imposed unprecedented sanctions against Russia. While they have not stopped Putin’s war machine, they have weakened the Russian economy by driving down the value of the rouble and pushing up inflation. Finally, for the first time, we have given military support to a country at war. We supplied Ukraine with military equipment worth almost 30 billion euros, in particular by mobilising the European Peace Facility. Although, it was not originally designed for this purpose, I am very proud to have succeeded to use it for Ukraine. Thanks to our help, Ukraine has been able to resist. American military aid has certainly been greater, but if you add up the military, financial, economic and humanitarian aid, Europe has provided Ukraine with far more support than the United States.

Will this unity last? What are we going to do if the Americans reduce their support for Ukraine once they have elected a new president, or perhaps even before then? These are indeed questions we are going to have to answer. 

During the Grand Continent Summit, someone asked whether I believe that Putin could win the war in Ukraine. However, this is not really a relevant question. What each of us thinks on the subject is of little interest. The real question we need to answer is: What are we prepared to do to ensure that Putin loses this war? Are we prepared to do what it takes to achieve that result? Do we really want to prevent Vladimir Putin’s victory, which would mean the installation of a puppet government in Kiev, like the one in Belarus? Personally, I think we need to act faster and more decisively to support Ukraine, because Russia represents a major strategic threat to the European Union, even if I have to admit that not all Member States agree on the nature of this threat.

We must not underestimate our adversaries. Russia is still capable of mobilising large numbers of troops despite the heavy losses it has sustained so far. In February 2022, there were 150,000 Russian troops amassed on the Ukrainian border. Currently, there are 450,000 in Ukraine. The Ukrainian counter-offensive did not succeed in breaking through Russian lines. This endeavour was made even more difficult without the air support we promised but have not yet delivered. Putin was wrong about the capabilities of his army. He was wrong about the resistance of the Ukrainians. He was wrong about the Europeans’ unity. He was wrong about the strength of the transatlantic link. But he is still there. He is still prepared to let thousands of Russians die to conquer Kiev. His army and his people are suffering, but he does not know the meaning of reversing gear.

Vladimir Putin does not really want to negotiate

Before the war, everyone went to Moscow, Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz… to try to dissuade Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine. It was to no avail. And it’s the same now. Vladimir Putin is determined to carry on until he achieves what he defines as victory. One need only watch his latest press conference to see that. It is evident that he has no intention of settling for a piece of Ukraine and letting the rest join the European Union. On the contrary, he is already beginning to threaten other countries, notably Finland. In any case, he is not going to seek any appeasement before the American elections, which he hopes will favour his imperialist plans. The high-intensity war will therefore continue, and we must prepare for it. To start, we need to develop our defence industry, which is nowhere near adequately prepared to meet the challenges we face. Defending Ukraine means defending our own security. If Ukraine were to lose the war, it would encourage Russia to further pursue its imperialist ambitions.  

But, as I was saying, not all Member States share this view. Some do not see Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a strategic threat. Does disunity on this existential issue threaten the future of the European Union? It is impossible to say at this stage. For my part, I am convinced that Europe must do everything in its power to prevent Putin’s victory in Ukraine, which would be extraordinarily serious. I will be working tirelessly in this direction over the coming months. I am convinced that, on the contrary, if Europe commits all its strength to counter this threat, it will cement our unity and make us stronger.

Europe divided on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the situation is very different. The perception of this conflict varies greatly between Member States. This is primarily due to historical context, in particular the aftermath of the Shoah, the darkest chapter in European history. Nevertheless, the European Council has reached a minimal agreement among Europeans, stating that Israel has the right to defend itself in accordance with international law and that we would not call for a ceasefire but for humanitarian pauses. However, on two occasions, when resolutions calling for a ceasefire were put to the vote at the United Nations, our unity wavered, weakening our internationally stance. The number of EU Member States supporting a ceasefire increased from 8 to 14 between the two votes, while the number of those opposing fell from 4 to 2, with the others abstaining.

What capacity do we have to influence the actors involved in this tragedy? We are the biggest supplier of aid to the Palestinians, and in particular the biggest funder of the Palestinian Authority. The European Commission has recently scrutinized this financial assistance to ensure that none of the funds have been diverted to Hamas. This was not the case and I hope that European aid to the Palestinians will continue, because without the Palestinian Authority, the situation on the ground would be even more difficult. In particular, this Palestinian Authority should play a central role in the management of Gaza at the end of the current crisis. Regarding Israel, we are the country’s leading trading partner and our association agreement is the closest we have with any country in the world. This means that we would have the means to influence both players in the conflict, should we choose to do so. However, so far we have not exercised this influence, particularly concerning Israel. For my part, I believe that Europe should be much more involved in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Until now, we have relied too heavily on the United States in the search for a solution to this conflict that directly affects us. 

Problems of coherence and credibility

The coexistence of these two conflicts poses problems to the EU’s coherence and credibility vis-à-vis the rest of the world. In the case of Ukraine, we defend the country’s sovereignty, its territorial integrity and the fundamental principles of the United Nations Charter. And the international community shared our view: 145 countries condemned the Russian aggression and supported Ukraine at the United Nations. However, we must be aware that many of these countries do not share our sense of indignation at Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. They agree to condemn this invasion at the United Nations, but their support does not extend to sanctions or other measures. Instead, they are asking us to put an end to this war as quickly as possible because they are suffering from its consequences, notably on energy and food prices. Moreover, some express distrust in our policies, which are supposed to be based on principles, but are perceived by many as driven by double standards depending on our interests.

In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, our lack of unity has weakened our credibility when it comes to defending international law. When 144 States support Ukraine at the UN General Assembly, we believe that they are on the right side of history and that the international community is indeed speaking out. However, when 153 countries call for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, we struggle to see it the same way. It is difficult to appeal to the judgement of the international community and the United Nations vote in one case and not in the other. This conundrum presents significant political and moral dilemmas for Europe that must be faced with clarity and courage. 

This is one of the main reasons why the conflict between Israel and Palestine and the war in Ukraine are so closely linked, despite their differences in nature. If we do not want to lose our footing in a large parts of the world, if we want to prevent the situation in Gaza from undermining support for Ukraine in many countries – not just in the Muslim or Arab world but also in Latin America – then we need to defend our position in a way that is much more compatible with the world’s perception of what is happening in one place and in the other.  

Of course, many other issues play a significant role in our foreign and security policy. However, in the current context, I have chosen to focus on the two main conflicts we are facing, the existential risks they pose to Europe, and the urgent need for European society to understand them and for its political leaders to act accordingly. Thank you for your attention.

voir le planfermer
citer l'article +--

citer l'article


Josep Borrell Fontelles, Europe between two wars, Jan 2024,

lectures associées +--

lectures associées

notes et sources +
voir le planfermer