When we look back on the year 2021, the American withdrawal from Kabul seems to mark a turning point. The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, shared his assessment at the time of the sequence of events that began in August. What is your assessment?
I have not yet made a final analysis. The images that we saw made me sad and perplexed. Sad because the Afghan affair, if I may use that expression, ended very badly, in defeat, and with a feeling of wasted effort. I felt perplexed because I believe that this affair will undergo developments which will be difficult to predict but which do not bode well for Europe. It has led us into a situation about which, to tell the truth, we know almost nothing.
How did you interpret the Biden administration’s stance vis-à-vis its allies?
Biden should have consulted with his allies. But the Afghan affair, in and of itself, did not change anything about the European relationship with the United States. The American president’s words told us one thing: we have gone down the wrong path. The Atlantic world’s thinking for the last several years, perhaps even since the end of the Cold War, has run its course. The imperative of intervention, even with the aim of avoiding the worst, is no longer appropriate. The idea that we can intervene from the outside in the internal development of societies that do not resemble ours was wrong. It has only produced failures.
With the Taliban takeover of Kabul, the Americans, the Europeans, the “NATO countries” lost on two fronts: that of credibility vis-à-vis other world powers and that of the trust in their capabilities. This is the point we must start from. This is what the president of the United States means when he says again and again that we ought to learn to manage our own affairs before concerning ourselves with the affairs of others.
To do this, we must develop our own analysis. Rather than talking about strategic autonomy I would urge us to first of all put in place an analytical autonomy through a study of geopolitical positions which must be much more complete than it is at present, taking into consideration interests that are in line with our values.
What would this analysis tell us about the state of Atlantic relations?
We experienced the Donald Trump era, with whom I got along well with, oddly enough. We have transitioned to the Biden administration. I knew Joe Biden well when he was vice-president to Barack Obama. He is a much better listener than Trump to say the least. But above all, he knows Europe much better.
Donald Trump had an inaccurate view of Europe. He held this surprising fantasy that the Union had been created as a sort of plot against the United States, that it had been designed to undermine America’s influence in the world. You can say many things, but this is simply not the case. The Union was a project led by affirmed Atlanticists. That’s the bottom line.
Do you see a continuity between the two administrations?
Yes, in a certain way there is continuity. Trump — like Biden — operated from the idea that he was responsible for American interests and that the president of the United States and his foreign policy should respond to the needs of the middle class. As such, the interests of others are not very important. Is that so different from European heads of state? But Biden listens, and we can see that today.
What exactly defines the Atlantic relationship today?
The geopolitical problem which faces us today has three names: China, Russia, and to a lesser degree, the area immediately surrounding Europe which includes Turkey and the Middle East. On all these matters we are fortunate to be able to exchange ideas with the Biden administration.
There is an idea which is increasingly present in Washington of a “New Cold War” with China. Do you share this idea?
From an economic and trade point of view, China is an important partner for us. To say otherwise has no basis in reality. But we in Europe have been naïve with regard to Beijing for far too long. We have accepted Chinese companies having access to our interior market even while European companies have been denied the same access to China.
I feel that I have helped to correct the situation. In the last meeting I had in Paris as president of the Commission with Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, I said to the Chinese president — who took it very calmly — that of course China was a partner, but that it was also a rival and a competitor that did not play by the rules.
What is your analysis of the Union’s relationship with Russia?
Unlike with the United States, Russia is our next-door neighbor. We cannot change geography; Europe is close to Russia, and this proximity has consequences. To envisage a security architecture for Europe without reserving a place for Russia is a dead end. I would not say that this is regardless of the problem in Crimea or Eastern Ukraine, but we must have an ongoing relationship with Russia. We have to talk to each other. The Americans are not in Russia’s immediate vicinity.
In regard to these two matters — Russia and China — we cannot follow the instructions coming out of Washington; we must have analytical and operational autonomy.
You are using words recently introduced into the European vocabulary — geography and autonomy. When I interviewed Romano Prodi in 2019, he seemed surprised by the circulation of a geopolitical vocabulary in Brussels. According to him, these concepts were not in the toolbox of the Commission he chaired between 1999 and 2004. What is your impression? Have you sensed an acceleration of this awareness with the Von der Leyen Commission, which aims to be “geopolitical”?
I had stated that I wanted my Commission to become political. This already implied that the geopolitical dimension would play a greater role. This is because we need to define a relationship with the rest of the world — with China, with Russia, and with Africa, a continent whose importance is greatly underestimated by European nations.
Everything is geopolitical. Geopolitics is the intersection of politics and geography. This is a Luxembourger you’re talking to. There are large agglomerations — sometimes even large continents — which are often more important than us from a geographical or demographic point of view.
We have just celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the USSR. With the Belovezh Accords we saw a shift in political maps, but was it really a geographical transformation?
The USSR was an immense empire; Europe, which cannot be reduced to the European Union, is quite small. We are the smallest continent in the world even though we always think we are the center of the world. We are not, and never have been, the masters of world history. Every time that someone in Europe has tried to become the master of the world, it has gone awry; Hitler and his associates chased a foolish quest for power.
Does analyzing Europe’s place in the world lead you to a kind of humbleness?
Yes. In a geopolitical analysis of the world and the intertwining of different groups we must be humble. Of course, we have something special. Apart from the Hungarian and Polish setbacks which we are observing with concern — and it is important not to neglect supporting the democratic movements that are beginning to mobilize in these countries — we have a set of values that others do not have. Neither the Americans or the Chinese — especially not the Chinese — have this because they subscribe to a vision of man and a societal model that we do not share, and the same is true of Russia. Naturally, there have been improvements with regard to human rights, which, after being invented in France, have spread widely to the rest of the European continent.
You have been central to the Union’s transformation into a regulatory power. Is this the direction to take in order to implement European geopolitics?
The European Union is an entity which sets norms at a continental level. Those who are not members adopt — sometimes rather reluctantly such as Switzerland or Norway — our norms. We therefore have a normative responsibility. Other actors, such as the United States, go it alone. We all too often adopted responses that did not reflect Europe. I am thinking of this brazen neo-liberalism that has infected the bureaucratic and political elites of the member states and Europe itself and that has set a course that does not match the European approach.
Based on your personal insights of the European institutions, what, in your opinion, is the most profound change brought about by the Covid crisis? Do you see historical transformations?
At the beginning I was surprised, even shocked, by the lack of motivation shown by member states. Each one was kind of off on its own, doing what it felt was appropriate. Of course, the Union didn’t have any authority in the public health realm and so the point of reference became the national level. It was utter chaos. The von der Leyen commission deserves a lot of credit; it successfully took charge of the situation. It imposed common rules.
I have drawn a positive lesson from this crisis, insofar as one can take anything positive from a pandemic. Europeans, and European public opinion, came to the realization that no member state — not Italy, not Spain, not even France or Germany — had anything to gain from dealing with a sweeping global crisis alone. The idea that there should be joint action in response to this crisis therefore gained traction. This was reflected in the European Council’s adoption of the 750-billion-euro Next Generation EU package.
Is this a lasting change? Do you see this as a shift away from the consensus that you yourself just described as “neo-liberal”?
I will say that this should have been done much sooner. I had already advocated for Eurobonds in 1999. That idea was immediately rejected by the Germans and Austrians. We have reached a point which, from my point of view, is a positive change and which, in fact, ushers in a future of greater solidarity and mutual understanding.
How do you explain this change?
By a return to the European project’s roots. We were reminded of the reasons that united us in the first place. The member states, and especially public opinion, realized that Germany or Italy alone did not have the means necessary to respond to the pandemic crisis. The national governments — for whom I have the utmost respect because Europe is not built against the nations that make it up — recognized their weaknesses and the strength they have when they act together.
The other issue that would have been even more central to the Commission’s initiatives if the pandemic had not struck is the ecological transition. What is your analysis of its actions?
I think that the Green Pact is an initiative that should, in fact, be pursued and encouraged. The goal of zero emissions in 2050 is good for Europe and can serve as a model to other powers such as China, the United States, and the rest of the world. It is an initiative that allows the European Union to have a common understanding of the future it envisions.
Do you think that we are in the process of developing new conditions for debate and a new consensus that is specific to Europe? You spoke of the need to move beyond the neoliberal phase. In your opinion, what are the priorities for achieving this aggiornamento?
This is a challenge that is still relevant today. I put a lot of care into the development of a social Europe, which I have always believed in. It is a delusion to imagine — as many have done in recent decades — that the European Union could continue to exist while neglecting its social aspect and which has been characterized by an uninhibited and shameless neoliberalism.
Wanting to build the European Union in a way that is almost openly against the interests of workers does not work. Neoliberal measure after neoliberal measure, workers — and not just trade union organizations, but workers in general — have rebelled; they can no longer support this model. What has been missing in Europe’s recent history is solidarity. This is a matter that we must continue to improve upon. During my mandate, the Commission laid a foundation, step by step, for European social rights. This has continued with the current Commission, and I believe that this is the right path. I have great hope that the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union (PFUE) will succeed in furthering this engagement.
What is your analysis of the Council’s apparent predominance over the other European institutions?
There are both positives and negatives. The positive side is that by meeting more often than in previous years, the member states, governments, and above all the heads of state feel more involved in European affairs. Moreover, the European level has palpably been integrated into national thinking.
There is also a negative side because the European Council does not always respect the normal interplay of the institutions. It does not have enough respect for the European Parliament, which is, after all, co-legislator with the Council of Ministers. It also has little respect for the Council of Ministers, which in many cases can decide by qualified majority, whereas the Council has to decide unanimously, which leads it to agree on vague concepts that, in legislative and practical terms, do not lead to any result.
We can detect a desire on the part of some — not all — to reduce the role of the Commission. I always fought against this harmful temptation, and I always defended the unique role of the Commission which must remain the driving force of European construction. I believe I succeeded because I restored the Commission’s authority.
What is your understanding of the evolution of the far-right in Europe? It seems to be losing ground in Germany, while in France it is reaching unprecedented levels in terms of voter intention…
The European and especially the French far-right still does not have Europe at its core. It systematically gives in to the temptation to reject others. For the major European political families — liberal, socialist, conservative — others exist in the same way as us. The far-right is incapable of this show of solidarity.
Throughout my long career, and especially in recent years, I have seen attempts to bring together far-right forces at the European level. This has always failed because in reality, in addition to not liking others, these parties have no love for each other. I remember when I gave my inaugural speech, Ms. Le Pen stood up and said that she was going to vote against me. I told her that I didn’t want any votes from her party, which hates others. True conservatives must understand that the far-right is a danger to Europe. If the far-right were to win in France — despite the polls, this is not my prediction, I don’t think they will win — but if they were to even expand their role it would be a defeat for all democratic forces in Europe.
What is your analysis of this triad that seems to be reforming between Italy, Germany, and France?
Germany has been able to make Europe an essential part of its raison d’être, and the new chancellor and his government are resolutely pro-European.
I have been following the improvement of the Franco-Italian relationship, which has not always been very good, with great interest. Its strengthening in no way poses a danger to the Franco-German partnership. It is quite the opposite. The fact that Italy, under Mario Draghi, has become a highly constructive force actually strengthens the driving role of the Franco-German friendship.
Jean-Claude Juncker, Gilles Gressani, “Everything is geopolitical”, a conversation with Jean-Claude Juncker, Dec 2021,
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