“Building Europe in a world of bullies” is the title of a book published in France last year by Enrico Letta with Sébastien Maillard. M. Letta has been Italy’s PM in 2013-2014, and is now president of Jacques Delors Institute, a French think tank dedicated to European affairs. Letta’s phrase catches in a nutshell the situation and self-perception of EU, on a threshold between breakdown and reset. EU is in disarray: it faces a major governance crisis with Brexit and growing tensions between “liberal” and “illiberal” member states. Moreover, EU, both citizens and leaders, discovered suddenly that it had borders to be designed and secured, and that it was surrounded by hostile partners and even enemies. What is obvious for historians and for Eastern Europe nations, notably Ukrainians and Balts, remained invisible for a “European construction” intoxicated by the belief that its “model”, based on free market, human rights, welfare and piecemeal integration of legal systems, was a heaven who could have only envious and friendly neighbors, that the rest of the world would crave for the same values and governance, in the long if not short term. Conflicts of national interests and of cultures, not to mention war as such, had disappeared from EU’s mental map. Even the discourse on “European values” was flawed because it referred to values as something any rational being should and will adopt, and not as values one has to fight for, as did Ukrainians in 2014. This was the basis of EU’s inability to understand Ukraine’s predicament and to react adequately to the Russian aggression. A war in and for Europe, for Europe’s security and integrity — which is exactly what is happening in Ukraine —, was something logicallyimpossible. That’s why European support to Ukraine was, and still is one step below what it should be, and always vulnerable to rollback, specially the sanctions against Russia.
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Yet, the good news is that with perils grows awareness. EU leaders cannot ignore anymore that they live in a world of bullies and have to behave accordingly. Trump and Putin did a lot to open their eyes. There are still wise guys denying the Russian threat, and elites do not yet fully understand that the discontent of middle class and low-income people in face of the damages of globalization must be taken seriously and not dismissed as “populist”. Now, this discontent, rather anger, focuses primarily on EU (“Brussels!”), much more than on national governments. The most serious threat against EU comes from the inside: on one side, useful idiots applauding to the fall of EU because they think that “sovereign” states will do better, intended or unintended Russian agents; on the other side, post-modern liberals who think that globalization and finance driven economics are good for everybody, that national identity is the enemy, that more “rights”, more multiculturalism, more “openness” (ultimately self-hatred) are the way. Until recently, Brussels’s bureaucracy acted or seemed to act mainly in support of the later. But it is reasonable to expect a dramatic change in another direction. EU leaders (presidency, European Commission, Central Bank) and governments are realizing that the EU of rights and market is a dead-end: because of the magnitude of “populism” of various brand in all countries, because of the Russian threat, because of Trump’s attacks on the liberal world order. “In a world of bullies”, EU has no choice but to act as a regional tough power, focusing on strategic interests before values, and building actively compromises between member states, instead of considering that unanimous agreement will come spontaneously between distinguished guests, provided they neutralize the black sheeps (Poland, Austria, Hungary).
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Who bears this new wisdom? At this moment EU’s political forces and societies are on a threshold between sober realism and childish radicalization: desperate conservatives who prefer Putin to freedom in the name of “Christian values” and of the fight against “homosexual decadence”, populists, radicals claiming that there is no human dignity without the right of animals, the right to choose one sexual identity, the right of pupils to teach teachers, etc. Ideological escalation is the current mood among Western Europeans. But this madness on “values” may be a transition storm on the way back to rational politics. Along with the growing (yet incomplete) awareness of the Russian threat, the driving force of the new European wisdom is paradoxically United Kingdom: Brits are making the painful experience of the chimera of Brexit. They understand that, and by this way they make it clear to other Europeans that, in a world of bullies, national interest and welfare cannot survive without the European shield. But the European shield must precisely be a shield, not a soilless bureaucratic agency in a fantasy land without borders and enemies. In the book mentioned above, Letta speaks of “debrusselizing” EU, that is revising the relations between EU and the member states, shifting the focus of EU policies from daily regulations to strategic issues like security, defense and energy, and asserting non-negotiable values, notably regarding women dignity, liberal education and secular state, instead of accepting any “reasonable accommodations” with Muslim and other minorities. This was and, let’s hope, this is Macron’s project for the reset of EU, this is UK’s horizon, Spain moves in the same direction, and so do many senior policy-makers in Brussels and in Frankfurt (the Eurozone Central Bank). However tentative, the compromises reached recently among European states on immigration and on NATO, and probably on the commercial launched by Trump, suggest a political shift, or at least the promise of such a shift. The big problem for EU at this moment is not so much the black sheeps as Germany: German allegiance to Russia through NS2 and overcautious monetary policy are stifling EU. German political leadership is bitterly divided on many issues including these, so the best could come out of German politics, as well as the worse. At this stage, I do not think unreasonable to hope that the logic of the situation will prevail on ideologies in EU. And, sorry if I sound like a broken record, Ukraine is the key of Europe’s future: the battlefield of our freedom and of our prosperity, and the place where Europeans will come to understand themselves, or not.