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Herman Van Rompuy calls for European unity over fragmentation at final EU IDEA conference

Future of Europe / SPEECH
Herman Van Rompuy

Date: 27/04/2022
Herman Van Rompuy delivered the following speech at the final EU IDEA conference on 20 April 2022:

“I hope you will forgive me for also speaking about the world and not just the EU as such. So much is at stake. There is a clash of values going on and values are central to a civilisation. In a way, it is a clash of civilisations – but not in the way Huntington thought. I apologise for going off-topic for a moment this morning. I will be more controversial than usual.

The term geopolitics, like many others, is ambiguous. It refers to power relations on a global scale, but there are different kinds: military, economic, moral and others. Let me apply that briefly to the EU.

The EU certainly plays a geopolitical role through its common trade policy and through the volume of trade. This is also called 'geo-economics'. The euro plays a geopolitical role as a reserve currency (20%) and as a means of payment. Almost 40% of global international payments and almost half of the EU's global exports are made in euros. At the same time, the Union is too dependent, not sufficiently 'strategically autonomous' with regards to energy, defence, chips, batteries, the dollar, migratory flows, etc. We are making significant progress in the last few years, but we still have a long way to go. The Union, through its socio-economic role, fulfils the role of a global player. The Union assumes, through its socio-economic and political model, an exemplary function worldwide (‘soft power’), but within the Union, confidence in this has declined sharply in recent years. A real paradox. About 20% of Europeans say they no longer believe in political democracy. This is where we need to turn the tide. It is no coincidence that the Conference on the Future of Europe focused on this before the outbreak of war. The internal consensus on a democratic renewal at all levels of government is essential to our future. Here there must be no differentiation on this objective.

There is no European army; the military landscape within the Union is fragmented – but the recent debacle in Afghanistan and Russia’s setbacks show also the limits of military power. We have known that since Vietnam. Of course, one has to look after one's own security, especially the EU. In any case, the human and economic cost of any military operation is enormous.

A prerequisite for every aspect of geopolitical action is unity. There is no room for differentiation in war times.  For the Union, this is easier to achieve with 'Community' powers, such as trade and currency, than with intergovernmental powers. Intergovernmentalism would function more smoothly if it were not for the rule of unanimity. QMV in those matters is a top priority in future proposals about the future of Europe. The future QMV for foreign policy may be different from what is currently provided for in the Treaties.  The aim is not to be blocked by one or a few countries. Yet, the 27 succeeded on an unprecedented scale in imposing sanctions on Russia since 2014 and, of course, in the past few weeks.

Achieving unanimity outside of times of crisis, however, remains difficult. Brexit gave a boost to military cooperation through PESCO and the war in Ukraine will hopefully give substance to the 'Strategic Compass' for stronger security and defence. We spend more on defence than China but we are far from their efficiency due to the heterogeneous character of the equipment. More uniformity and less differentiation is needed.

More generally, I would like to state that I am not in favour of regional collaborations. It is the time for unity, not fragmentation. But do the Visegrad and Frugal Four still exist?

The war in the East has also dispelled the naive belief that economic interests ultimately prevail. In a non-violent way, we have already seen the return of that kind of politics with Brexit and with Trump's trade wars, both of which were anti-economic. Ultra-nationalism is stronger than income. This has reached a new peak with the current war. German and even European foreign policy was largely a trade policy. This has led to the enormous dependence on Russian energy and on Chinese export markets. The war is a 'return of the tragic' (J.M.Domenach, 1967) where it is not reason and values that dominate but other dark and diabolical forces. Germany suffered and caused so much suffering that it chose a different model. History is now turning back – but not through their fault. Time runs backwards.

The rise of nostalgic nationalism also threatens to undermine the multilateral order. In the Trump era, the WTO, UNESCO, the UN itself, and NATO came under pressure. World trade – economic globalisation – already reached its peak thirteen years ago. But without Trump, China and others increasingly paid 'lip service' to the international order. The EU had to respond by deploying new tools to defend its economic interests. We remain the strongest 'believers' in multilateralism albeit with far less naivety. President Biden, too, is still clinging too much to the many protectionist measures of his predecessor. It is clear that the drive for 'self-reliance' among global actors and our own 'strategic autonomy' will put further pressure on multilateralism. How to protect better our interests without falling into protectionism?

But there is also an internal challenge. How to protect our own people better against real or perceived threats such as unemployment, precarious jobs, climate change, terrorism, corruption, illegal migration, military invasion, pandemics, and rising inequalities?  It is a task for all governments at all levels of power. How to better 'protect' our people without lapsing into protectionism? That’s the question!

The Climate Conferences of Paris (2015) and Glasgow (2021) were still 'successful' in a certain sense (also for multilateralism). The EU spoke almost with one voice. Now climate objectives threaten to be pushed aside by the need to become less energy-dependent on Russian gas through a greater role for our own coal and for shale gas. The real energy sovereignty or strategic autonomy lies with a climate policy aimed at renewable energy. Meeting the climate targets would have been very difficult anyway. On climate, it is clear that we are in the same storm, though not the same boat. Support for poorer countries is also a much-needed form of solidarity. Can the advancing populism in the West afford it?

Because of the war, not only the USA is back but also NATO and the West! Even in Europe, there are probably new candidates for NATO like Finland and Sweden. Putin's geopolitical blunders are piling up. I am sure that China is not happy with Putin’s war. But the aversion to the West is so strong that they will never admit it. The same goes for India, Pakistan and Indonesia, even though they are democracies. The same aversion can be found in half of the African countries, which have been hit hard by the rise in the price of energy and even more so, of food. Putin's soft power is small, but one should not overestimate that of the West. The non-aligned countries from the Cold War period have not disappeared. Europe has a role to play to reverse the tide.

Is the current geopolitical struggle between democracies and authoritarian regimes? Apparently, it is a strong narrative. This dichotomy does not apply to the third group of non-aligned ones. As mentioned, the world's largest democracies belong to this ' group'. At the time, the West included dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia. That is not so clear today. The connection between China and Russia is not so much that they are both authoritarian - they have no democratic past - but that they are against the West.

What is the EU's position in this new world? Originally, the idea of 'strategic autonomy' was also invented to oppose Trump's America. But the war has made Europe realise the importance of NATO again. It has even given the alliance a new reason to exist, spurred on by most of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. But what happens in the event of a possible return of Trump? The Republican Party is, if possible, even harsher than Biden in their anti-Russia stance, but will it stay that way? The policy of European sovereignty should, therefore, on no account be abandoned in the event of a possible new switch in American policy, which for the past 20 years has oscillated between multilateralism and unilateralism, back and forth.

Nevertheless, I argue for Atlantic solidarity. We should take this opportunity to greatly strengthen transatlantic relations. Abandoning the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) a few years ago was a missed opportunity. In a different way, we need to restore it. The EU and the US can set international standards in many areas. But at the same time, we have to deepen our work on our own technological, economic, monetary and military cooperation and integration. That will give substance to a truly balanced 'partnership'.

The enlargement of the Union to Central and Eastern Europe was a real geopolitical operation. But there is great disappointment at the violation of democratic principles in some countries. The war has shown that the EU shares the fear of Russia of a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Hopefully some now better understand the concerns of an overwhelming majority of member states about democratic values in the Union. We are in solidarity with Poland, but we must stand together in solidarity behind the treaties. The Union wishes to ensure that there is no repetition of this in further enlargements, however great the importance of the Western Balkans and peace there is. For Ukraine, but also for Georgia and Moldova, an intermediate stage must be sought, on the basis of the existing association agreements, a kind of upgrade of the present relationship and, of course, a much greater guarantee of security. If necessary, the EU Treaty should be amended for this. These countries and their citizens deserve it.

The war is far from over and will require us to work together even more. At the same time, we must seize this major crisis to build a true strategic autonomy. We should not wait for the results of the Conference on the Future of Europe. And we won't. Strategic autonomy is a matter of survival.

Barbaros ante portas. The enemies of our way of life are at the door. Over the next few decades, let's be more united around what we build together.”

Photo credits:
European Policy Centre

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