04 März 2022

War in Ukraine: Is self-assertion in a hostile world the new purpose of the European Union?

While the EU is learning the language of power, it must not lose its cosmopolitan soul.

Few things unite like facing a common threat. For the EU, the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine has triggered a sudden and unexpected determination to act together. Despite the national veto rights in foreign and defense policy, within a few days the EU has managed to agree on far-reaching sanctions against the governments of Russia and Belarus, put together financial aid packages for Ukraine and even organize its own arms deliveries.

In the words of High Representative Josep Borrell (PSOE/PES), the EU is becoming a ‘military union’ and it seems comfortable with it. After all, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (CDU/EPP) herself had announced shortly after her election in 2019 that Europe had to “learn the language of power”, and Borrell was already demanding in 2020 that the EU should conceive itself “as a top-tier geostrategic actor”. The idea that Europe must strive for “strategic sovereignty” was a popular catchphrase of both the French and German governments even before the war in Ukraine. Will political and military self-assertion on an increasingly hostile world stage become the European Union’s new raison d’être?

Coudenhove-Kalergi warned of the Russian danger in 1923

In fact, the idea that European unification serves to protect against external adversaries is not entirely new. Already Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi’s Pan-European Manifesto of 1923 proposed European integration not only to obtain peace and prosperity, but also to prevent “subjugation by Russia”. According to him, the “fragmented and disunited small states of Europe” would only be able to resist the “Russian world power” if they joined together in a common “defensive alliance”.

This idea of a joint defense against otherwise overpowering opponents continued to play an important role for European integration in later years, too. Jean Monnet, the founding father of the European Coal and Steel Community, had had his first experiences with supranational structures in the framework of inter-allied economic cooperation during the world wars. In 1950, Winston Churchill advocated a common European army to “deter Russian-Communist aggression”; shortly thereafter, the French government fleshed out this idea in the Pleven Plan. Two years later, the Treaty establishing the European Defense Community was signed.

The ratification of the treaty failed in the French parliament in 1954, which slowed down military integration within the framework of the EC for a long time. However, the motive of self-assertion in European integration was not completely lost. From 1970 onwards, the member states coordinated their foreign policy through the European Political Cooperation. During the 1990s, the EU’s inability to prevent the wars in its Yugoslav neighborhood spurred the gradual expansion of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. In 2004, the European Defence Agency was created; in 2009, the mutual assistance clause in art. 42 (7) TEU entered into force. Since 2017, most member states have intensified their common defence activities in the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). Moreover, from the 2000s onwards, the fight against terrorism has gained in importance for the EU, as did the protection of Europe’s external borders from 2015, for which the EU has created its first own uniformed service in 2021.

A self-image of peace and prosperity

In the official rhetoric of the European institutions and national EU policy-makers, however, political and military self-assertion did not play a central role after 1954. It was clear that the EU was in a system competition with the Soviet Union, but this was not made a big issue in speeches on European policy. In the public perception, the EU was above all a project for peace and prosperity, and from the 1990s on also a project for individual (travel) freedom and supranational democracy. Protection against external threats was primarily seen as the task of NATO – in which the European states were allied with the most important global military power, the USA.

When Europe’s ability to act in world politics was still presented as the purpose of European unification, it was usually in a context that was directed against US dominance. When, for example, French President Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s advocated a “European Europe” that “exists by itself and for itself and pursues its independent policy in the world”, he meant in particular independence from NATO. Similarly, when Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida wrote about a “rebirth of Europe” after the Iraq War in 2003, this was done in dissociation from the “hegemonic unilateralism of the United States”.

Commitment to a cosmopolitan world order

Remarkably, though, the two philosophers (unlike de Gaulle) were not even concerned with European self-assertion in the strict sense of the word, but rather advocated the EU as “a form of ‘governance beyond the nation-state’ […] that could set an example in the post-national constellation”. Europeans would have to face the “challenge of defending and advancing a cosmopolitan order based on international law against competing designs”. According to them, the EU’s success in domestic peacemaking showed that “the domestication of the use of state power also requires a mutual restriction of sovereign scope for action at the global level”.

Thus, for Habermas and Derrida, the goal of the European “rebirth” was not to involve the EU in a global game among great powers – but to commit it to a supranational, rights-based, post-sovereign world order. This was in line with the prevailing self-image of the EU. Of course, Europe had always stood up for its own interests in foreign (and especially foreign trade) policy. But above all, it wanted to be seen as a global role model in terms of peace, prosperity, freedom and democracy: not a rival, but an example to the rest of the world.

Since 2015, self-assertion has moved to the centre of EU rhetoric

Only from around 2015 onwards, the idea of European self-assertion started to take centre stage in the EU’s institutional rhetoric. On the one hand, this was probably due to reasons of discourse strategy: In the years before, the narrative of European unification as a guarantor of prosperity had been massively shaken by the euro crisis – which among many European policy-makers fuelled the conviction that the EU needed a “new narrative” for its legitimacy. When Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (CSV/EPP) launched the call for a European army in 2015, this was also seen as a lighthouse project for European integration that could have an identity-building effect and help to overcome wearing disputes on financial policy.

On the other hand, of course, the political situation also offered all kinds of reasons to pay increased attention to global issues. International terrorism, the global financial crisis, the pandemic, the climate emergency and the resulting refugee movements all make it clear that the EU cannot afford to be an inward-looking island of the blessed. At the same time, in view of the global decline of democracy and the crisis of the liberal world order, the increasingly aggressive authoritarian governments in China and Russia and the US Republican Party’s turn to the far right, the EU seems to be increasingly lonely on the world stage. Moving closer together to avoid sinking in the global political storms now seems to be a perfectly plausible slogan.

The new geopolitical vocabulary

Since then, geopolitical buzzwords have proliferated in the vocabulary of European policy-makers: from “Weltpolitikfähigkeit” to “strategic autonomy”, from the “geopolitical Commission” to “European sovereignty”. At the same time, this rhetoric is usually no longer about Habermas and Derrida’s cosmopolitan agenda, but primarily about the “protection of European values and interests”.

In this vein, the EU’s new Strategic Compass, to be adopted this year, places less emphasis on “soft power” than its 2016 predecessor, and more on the need to respond to a world full of threats with own military and technological capabilities. At the same time, the EU itself is using increasingly harsh rhetoric towards other global political actors – for example, when it (correctly, but not very diplomatically) refers to China as a “systemic rival” since 2019.

The self-assertion narrative threatens the values of the EU

Defending European interests on the world stage is thus becoming a central motif in the self-image and self-justification of European policy-makers. However, this development comes at a risk. The return of sovereignty and great-power thinking stands in contrast to the EU’s self-understanding as a value-driven project in which borders lose their significance, people meet as equal citizens regardless of their nationality, and common political problems are solved through supranational democratic procedures. Where politics is shaped by fear of external threats, strength and internal unity can quickly take precedence over democratic legitimacy, a fortress mentality over openness to the world, power politics over human rights.

The EU is not yet at such a point. It remains one of the world’s clearest advocates of international law, multilateralism and the strengthening of the United Nations. But on a rhetorical level, it is a fine line – and the more European policy-makers suggest that self-assertion against external adversaries is the main reason for European integration, the more difficulties they will have if in future they want to win their citizens’ confidence in strengthening world institutions or even surrendering European sovereignty in favour of a global democracy. Also internally, the harassment to which some uninvolved Russian citizens in Europe have been subjected in recent days should be a warning sign of how easily enemy images in foreign policy can take root in the public consciousness and poison a society.

Today more than ever, the EU must uphold its cosmopolitan vision

So what does all this mean for the European response to the war in Ukraine? There can be no doubt: the Russian government’s aggression was a massive breach of international law, and it was right to react to it with swift and far-reaching sanctions. It is also right that, in the long term, the EU must be structurally capable of reacting to attacks – all the more so when, as in this case, its own democratic values are at stake. The idea that Ukraine is part of a Russian “zone of influence” and that the EU should thus strive for a forced “neutralisation” of the country speaks all the more of an imperialist mindset that degrades the majoritarian desire of the Ukrainian population for participation in the democratic West to a minor matter in a geopolitical power game.

But precisely because the EU must stay tough in this case, we should now be particularly careful how we talk about the Ukrainian war. It would be a grave mistake if, out of horror at the Russian aggression, we talked ourselves into a world in which the global community is regarded as a mere illusion, in which there is only the law of the strongest and in which the most important purpose of the EU is to equip us for the global struggle of all against all.

The project of supranational integration is about much more than that. Today more than ever, the EU must uphold its vision of a post-sovereign, cosmopolitan democratic order, instead of only seeing itself as a great power among great powers.

Picture: By European Parliament [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr.

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