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Ukraine and Europe's Historic Moment

Interview with Luuk Van Middelaar

Ukraine and Europe's Historic Moment
 Luuk van Middelaar
Historien et théoricien politique

Russia's war against Ukraine is already transforming the international order. For Ukraine Shifting the World Order Luuk van Middelaar, Political Theorist and Historian, argues that there is hope for the European Union to come out stronger in this historic moment, but more needs to be done to cross the rubicon of geopolitics.

Looking back at 2013-2014, it was the European Union, rather than NATO, that lay at the origin of the Ukrainian crisis. What happened there? What was the role of Europeans themselves in creating the saga that is being played out with Russia?

This is not yet a question for historians; it is a highly political one as history tends to be. Professor Sarotte’s book Not One Inch (2021) is an important starting point in retracing the "prehistory" of the current conflict by going back to the American-Russian relationship in the 1990s and 2000s, two key decades in this context. To understand in the broadest sense possible what's at stake in Europe today, we must consider events that took place following the end of the Cold War, and in particular the successive EU enlargements. Three Soviet sphere states - Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic - joined the EU in 2004. All three joined NATO before joining the EU (in 1999). For the generation of President Mitterrand, Chancellor Kohl, Jacques Delors and Margaret Thatcher, Europe was synonymous with Prague, Budapest, and perhaps Bucharest. No one thought of Kyiv. Unlike the states that joined the EU in 2004 and then in 2007, the Union applied a neighborhood policy to Ukraine. The approach to Ukraine - as well as that to Moldova and Georgia - also contrasted with the Balkan countries, which were given a "European perspective" in 2003, meaning that they were destined to join the EU someday. In 2003, former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi's Commission conceived the neighborhood policy as an alternative to membership. As such, it left no room for ambiguity. Europe’s neighbors to the south are the only ones to have never faced ambiguity about their status. It is worth recalling the King of Morocco’s application for membership in 1985, which elicited an unequivocal response: Morocco is not a European country in the geographical sense. 

From Russia's point of view, the period from 1989 to 2000 was one of impotence. 

Ambiguity started with the EU membership of countries like Poland in 2004. The notion of "Eastern partnership" nourished hopes that Poland’s neighbor would one day join the Union, but the meaning of the phrase depended on interpretation. Was it a simple partnership? Or the antichamber to enlargement? On the Russian side, meanwhile, the Kremlin was working on its own strategies, and Ukraine found itself caught between two parallel endeavors.

From Russia's point of view, the period from 1989 to 2000 was one of impotence. Things turned around from 2000 onwards, with the arrival of a Russian leader who did not accept the all too visible loss of power in his country. The Russian president seriously challenged American hegemony at the 2007 Munich Conference. The 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest marked a turning point. Following a series of misunderstandings between Americans and Europeans, NATO, for the first time, mentioned the prospect of Ukraine and Georgia joining the alliance. Admittedly, there was no indication of a timeline, but the statement was the result of insistence by President Bush and VP Dick Cheney (against the opinions of almost all of their advisers it seems). Putin is said to have told NATO’s Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer that "this will not happen" - a clear position, to which he has held firm.
As for the European side, the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement negotiated with a hesitant President Viktor Yanukovych, also bore the seeds of the current crisis. It was signed at a time when Europe as a whole was thinking in "post-historical" terms as if the triumph of liberalism abolished the laws of history and everything was taking place on a universal and atemporal level. On the contrary, the Russians were aware of the geopolitical significance of the agreement, which was not limited to a simple economic partnership, regardless of how the Europeans saw it at the time. This also coincided with the emergence of pro-European sentiment among parts of Ukrainian society. By 2013, facing pressure from Russia, President Yanukovych found himself in a tough spot regarding the agreement. What came next is known to all: the Maidan Uprising, the president’s flight and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Let us turn to those key years and the famed Minsk Agreement. There are differing accounts of Russia’s response. According to some, the agreement was unacceptable to Putin while others claim Putin did not mention the subject when he spoke to EU leaders. What roles did the Swedes and Poles play? Why did major European democracies let this happen?

The fundamental problem of this period is that everyone seemed to be working in a silo. Sarkozy had his Mediterranean initiatives; others looked eastwards. There was a lack of coherence. Choices were more guided by political and opportunistic considerations than by strategic objectives. As for the Eastern neighbors, official statements indicated that the EU "recognized the European aspirations of…". This can be understood to mean the following: you have the right to believe in it, but we are not committing ourselves to anything. There is no real clarity on where you stand if you are on the receiving end of such a statement. A shift took place, from constructive ambiguity to harmful ambiguity.
The Minsk Agreement was negotiated in this context. The negotiations were led by François Hollande and Angela Merkel, in a format invented by the French president, on the sidelines of a D-Day commemoration in Normandy in 2014. A meeting took place between the newly elected President Poroshenko, Vladimir Putin and the two European leaders. In early 2015, a ceasefire was negotiated in Minsk. The compromise allowed for a return to a frozen conflict, without giving up on a more long-term solution for the future of Ukraine - but the agreement did not really satisfy any party. It was implied that Ukraine would not join NATO, but this did not apply to the EU. The agreement never had NATO’s full support, nor that of the Americans, London, or the Poles. The Russians certainly were not happy. For it to work, efforts needed to be made on both sides. Washington and the Kremlin should have pushed their protégés into the conflict. But there was no political will to do so. Suffice it to say that both parties acted in bad faith and resigned themselves to the status quo.

Is the Minsk Agreement "post-historic"? Did the French and the Germans not make a strategic mistake when they excluded the Poles and the European institutions from the agreement?

First, we need to consider the Normandy format, which involved two national leaders and none of the European institutions. In March 2014, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy could have flown to Moscow but eventually, he decided against it. From that point on, there was no role for the EU institutions.
It is worth recalling Sarkozy in 2008 for contrast. He had the enormous advantage of being president of France and the European Council at the same time. During the war in the Caucasus, he arrived in Moscow with both French and EU flags. In 2014, the context was very different. We had to improvise. The two largest European states took the initiative, which was not shocking at the time. One might have expected British involvement, but David Cameron was uninterested in the matter. Yet when it comes to the EU, Merkel and Hollande made careful efforts to involve the institutions and their partners. They spent a night negotiating and then flew directly from Minsk to Brussels, to present a finalized deal to their counterparts at a European Council meeting. Reflecting on this course of events today, it is quite clear that we could have done things differently. Moreover, there was a lot of mistrust of Franco-German initiatives on this front.

But the most interesting point is that the Minsk Agreement was not post-historic but fundamentally historic. It was a recognition of the tragedy of history. It reflects the understanding that we sometimes face tragic choices and dilemmas. If we wanted to restore peace, we would have had to accept a form of injustice with regard to international law, including the annexation of Crimea, an act of land grabbing at a scale not seen on the European continent since 1945. 

The most interesting point is that the Minsk Agreement was not post-historic but fundamentally historic. 

Conversely, if we wanted to undo this blatant injustice, it would have meant war and death. The lesser evil won. But this, it turned out, was only the beginning of the story.

I would now like to discuss some theoretical notions, in order to contextualize the difficulty Europe has when it comes to power and geopolitics. Three key concepts allow us to understand the mismatch between Europe and geopolitics: power, geography and narrative. The latter relates to the importance for a geopolitical actor to appeal to a community through a narrative; to present a narrative capable of "selling" sovereign choices and policies. This dimension is particularly underdeveloped in Europe. Without the combination of power, geography (serious debate on space and borders) and narrative, we cannot be a geopolitical actor. Since February 24, the EU has seemed extremely ill-equipped to deploy a geopolitical apparatus. This is perfectly understandable when we look back at the genesis of the European project, which, following two world wars, was established to abolish power asymmetries and to do away with borders. This was done to such an extent that the geographical dimension was forgotten altogether. Reflections on territory became inexistent. There was no concern for the question: "Who is our neighbor?"

Since February 24, however, it seems the EU has used some of its power, through sanctions or military aid to Ukraine. It has also taken an interest in the question of territory since the conflict is a border issue. In other words, does Europe’s main failure lie in the construction of a narrative?

On power, two aspects are worth highlighting. First, the importance of military power. We are witnessing the return of a classic war with its disastrous arsenal of tanks and soldiers dying in combat. This incited a historic German reversal. A major step was taken on February 27, 2022, when Chancellor Olaf Scholz admitted that we are living through a "watershed era" and announced that Germany would be investing €100 billion in defense. Remember that Berlin, like Brussels, was the center of post-historical Europe. There is also awareness of the nuclear dimension of this conflict, though the Europeans continue to underestimate it, unlike the Americans, who are much more realistic on this issue.
Second, Europeans are becoming aware - though too late - that all politics is strategy. This is very clear when it comes to energy policy. Putin has deployed two very powerful assets in this war: the "General Famine" and the "Marshal Cold". They go beyond strictly economic considerations. The underlying stakes are famine in Africa, migration into Europe, and energy deployed as a geopolitical weapon by a warlord in the Kremlin. On July 20, 2022, the European Commission presented an emergency plan for the winter, with the aim of reducing gas consumption in each Member State by up to 15% in the name of solidarity. The Commission is opening the door to a war economy in the field of energy, reminiscent of the war economy in the medical field during the Covid-19 pandemic. This changes the whole fabric of the EU's "open market" doctrine. The awareness of the link between politics and strategy must be institutionalized and consolidated if it is to be more than ephemeral. To achieve this, it is imperative to reconsider all the EU's policies through a security lens. We need a very radical change of approach.

It is imperative to reconsider all the EU's policies through a security lens. We need a very radical change of approach.

As for the territorial dimension, there are two fascinating developments since February 24. First, borders between Europe and Russia are hardening. In the minds of Europeans, Ukraine was, for lack of a better term, an "in-between" country until the Minsk II Agreement: not really European, but not entirely Russian either. However, since the start of the conflict, we have seen a reversal of this vision. 

The very notion of "in-between" space is disappearing. For one, Ukraine has a prospect for EU accession (this may not be acted on immediately, but, as underlined by the French President, there is no going back on it).

We are also seeing changes in the positions of non-aligned countries like Sweden and Finland, which were in the EU but not in NATO. Without these "buffer countries", borders are solidifying. EU and NATO membership will increasingly overlap. Note that, while Denmark was the sole country that opted out from participating in European defense and security cooperation, almost 67% of Danes recently voted in favor of integrating the EU’s defense policy.
Quite logically, the second development is the shift of the European center of gravity towards the East. This has been happening since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it is becoming much more pronounced. Countries such as France and the Netherlands now represent the Western front of a Union that extends all the way to the Black Sea and, conceptually at least even beyond. Add Brexit into this picture, with a strong western nation leaving the club, and we can see how much European geography is changing.

In other words, we are witnessing the emergence of a new Europe. Will our institutions allow this new Europe to enter into history? Will we remain united? Will the Franco-German and Polish-Swedish divisions not reappear very quickly?

In my view, the change we need is, above all, psychological; a major institutional overhaul might be uncalled for. We need a new political and geopolitical awareness, undoubtedly accompanied by new tools that help us be less naive: the assessment of the strategic dimensions of our policies, the creation of a security council for defense issues, the scrutinization of foreign investments… But we do not necessarily need to reinvent a new European Union. I have lived through other crises, notably the financial crisis and the migration crisis. At no time did I consider it desirable to restructure our institutions from top to bottom.
This is all the more valid if we consider the remarkable unity shown by the EU since February 24. This unity is coupled with a capacity for action on a scale unheard of in 2014-2015. All this is not just happening at the political-diplomatic level. Waves of change are running through European societies. Faced with a war and a nation with whom we can easily identify, public opinion has been turned upside down. Ukraine's victory in the Eurovision Song Contest is a telling example. It says a lot about the sympathy felt for the Ukrainian people. Herein lies the basis for agreement and unanimity. However, the real difficulty still lies ahead: through the energy bills, the war is entering households. This will create divisions between Europeans with different levels of energy dependence.

Lastly, let us discuss the United States. Is America destined to regain control of European defense? What about strategic autonomy? Can the US-EU relationship be rebalanced?

Americans are not looking to reinvest in Europe militarily. It would be a distraction from their priority, which is the growing rivalry with China. Joe Biden's domestic popularity does not benefit from investing in the European issue (his approval rating is currently at its lowest level in the polls so far and depends in any case mainly on domestic economic issues like the fuel price or inflation).

The possibility of creating a truly geopolitical Europe in the future is a bigger concern. The prospect of EU membership granted to Ukraine complicates matters. Europe is certainly doing the right thing, from a geopolitical point of view, by opening the door to this new member. However, the more Europe grows, the more it jeopardizes its potential strength and unity. Five or six Western Balkan countries are set to join the Union, which will become much more diverse and include a number of countries with relatively weak state institutions. That could weaken Europe. It is already not easy, with 27 Member States, to reach a consensus on issues as strategic as the common position to adopt vis-à-vis China.

When it comes to EU enlargement, we need to think about democratic resilience and the rule of law. Cracks have already appeared; enlargement might open them up a little more.

With 35 or 36 Member States, how can we hope to develop a truly geopolitical Europe? It is also worth noting that legitimate concerns about the rule of law are emerging (no one wants to see a repeat of the Hungary or Poland examples). If there is one principle, one notion, that is unanimously accepted in the EU, it is democracy. When it comes to EU enlargement, we need to think about democratic resilience and the rule of law. Cracks have already appeared; enlargement might open them up a little more. These are some strategic dilemmas which we should face openly.


Copyright: Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

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