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O. Dupuis: “If situation in Ukraine were not a tragedy, it would be a blessing for the EU”

EU and Ukrainian flags fly over crowds of protesters during Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution in November 2013
O. Dupuis: “If situation in Ukraine were not a tragedy, it would be a blessing for the EU”
Article by: Olivier Dupuis
Translated by: Anis Memon, from French
The following is an interview of Ukrainian historian Andriy Portnov and Olivier Dupuis, Belgian journalist and essayist, former member of the European Parliament

A. Portnov: Can you explain why the West in general is so afraid of recognizing the fact of the Russian aggression in Ukraine and, more importantly, why it is so afraid of responding to it?

O. Dupuis: Obviously, Europe has been paralyzed by the changes wrought by the technological revolution and the speed of globalizing. More importantly however, Europe has so far been unable to see itself as a community, a heterogeneous community to be sure, but one with strong common interests and a shared destiny. The national leaderships of a significant number of European countries persist in their repugnant idea of a purely functional Europe that is useful exclusively for furthering national interests. This lamentable approach continues to posit two levels of interest – one national and the other European – when the goal of the European project is precisely to link the two. This insistence on ignoring the nature of the European design, combined with a persistent desire on the part of States to keep their citizens on the margins of European political life, is one of the main reasons that so many people are disaffected with and even reject the entire European project. It is why so many citizens fall back behind their national lines and all the illusions that these entail.

Nearly seventy years after the plan for European unity was launched, the Member States of the EU still recoil at the need to understand that the Union’s interests as a whole go beyond their respective national interests. Worse still, and in spite of important advances, such as the Treaty on European Union and the common currency, people are paying less attention to this need today than was the case twenty years ago. The disappearance of political, European leadership, especially in France and Germany, has been an important contributing factor. Both Gerhard Schröder and his successor, Angela Merkel, have presided over the transformation of Germany from a country that was once deeply attached to the process of European unity to one that is concerned with its narrow national, mercantile interests. The current Chancellor’s historically and “culturally” peculiar approach to the process of European unity has contributed very heavily to this swing. At the same time, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of France’s obstinacy in refusing Germany’s efforts at reinforcing European political unity, especially the Schaüble-Lammers and Fischer proposals of 1994 and 2000 respectively. France’s silence in these matters sum up the persistent inability to break with the myth of a “French Europe”, which is nothing but a rehash of old power politics incompletely purged of their imperial designs.

If we add to that the infantilizing effects of the last eighty years that Europe has spent in the strategic cocoon of the United States, harboring the mythology of soft power, then it becomes much easier to see why Europe tries its best not to recognize Ukraine as an integral part of Europe, and why it has difficulty seeing the threat to its own security posed by Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine and its refusal to let a sovereign Ukraine reach its destiny.

А.Portnov: Is it reasonable to refer to “the West” as an entity in a situation where it is deeply divided?

O. Dupuis: It is perhaps more appropriate to say that Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande share a largely similar outlook, than to refer to the United States and Europe as a single entity. We could call these political figures the post-moderns: at first they were skeptical, now they are paralyzed as they face the true nature of the current Russian regime, which in itself constitutes the most modern opposite to the Rule of Law, having been adapted from the great Russian and Soviet imperialisms.

But beyond this point of agreement, there are also very strong divergences in outlook. Within the EU there are groups of Member States that engage in polite disagreements. Hiding behind national interests (and difficult economic times), a similarity of views and a sort of political flippancy, some States do not want to face up to the gravity of what is going on in Ukraine and its consequences for the future of the continent. This group includes Spain, Italy, Austria, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. At the opposite end, there are States that have a much clearer view of what is at stake by virtue of their history, geography and / or political culture. This group includes Poland, Great Britain, Sweden, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and, to some extent, Romania and Bulgaria. Between these two groups of countries there are others, led by Germany and France, which, for different reasons, are generally afraid of fully sizing up the importance of the Ukrainian situation.

But there are two other fundamental differences that separate Europe and the United States, or to some extent, continental Europe from the Anglo-Saxon world. The first difference stems from the clearly unorthodox position that posits that there is currently still a certain common cultural ground between Europe and the post-Soviet Russian world. This community has deep roots that go far back to what I believe was the fundamental rupture in European history, namely that moment when the culture of rules and personal responsibility – the foundation of the Rule of Law and liberal civilization – began to be replaced in Russia and eroded or relativized  in continental Europe. This is a long rupture in history, if you agree with Marcel Gauchet that the Rule of Law and liberal civilization begin to emerge on the European continent on the foundations of Christianity around the year 1,000 AD.  This rupture was born from the rise of Marxism, a political culture where the economy and state mechanisms are challenged and where the Rule of Law is relegated to the domain of the super-structure. If the effects of the rupture are radical where there is a synthesis between Marxism and the Leninist doctrine of the conquest of power, the effects of the Marxist doctrine by itself are no less significant elsewhere, in continental Europe in particular (though not in the US), where they engender a form of relativism that persists even today with regard to the central place that the Rule of Law and individual responsibility hold in our civilization.

The other fundamental difference concerns self-image. Americans have accepted what they are, while Europeans – especially citizens in large countries – continue to gingerly waffle back and forth between what they used to be and still fancy themselves to be by virtue of their respective nations, and what they could be at the European level and simply are not (yet).

A. Portnov: What would you suggest the EU do now? In my opinion, the EU has no clear strategy with regard to Ukraine or post-Soviet Europe in general. What things are crucial to establishing such a strategy?

O. Dupuis: Given the consequences for all of the decisions that will subsequently have to be made, it is crucial that the Union undergo a mental revolution so that it can imagine itself as a whole. From that perspective, the Ukrainian situation would be a blessing for the European Union if it were not a tragedy with thousands of dead, tens of thousands of wounded, one million displaced persons and enormous material destruction. The reason is that unless the EU is trying to commit suicide, it will eventually have to face up to Russia’s aggression and political strategy and make political decisions that it has spent decades scrupulously avoiding.

And despite the urgent need to move towards economic and budgetary unification, Europe’s future will most certainly play out in the area of defense and of its relations with the rest of the world. But this doesn’t imply taking a giant leap to federalism or to a United States of Europe. Quite the contrary: such witchcraft is more often a source of confusion. The process of European unification is largely sui generis. It is a federation of Nation-States and of citizens. And as paradoxical as this may sound, the most urgent reform that fully assumes this dual legitimacy is to politicize the very institution in which the States are represented. The Council should be radically stripped of its diplomatic credentials and become a full-time institution, a genuine senate for Member States, a place for debates and public choices among all politicians, and no longer a closed-door chamber where political elites engage in muffled exchanges.

Moreover, the support for reforms and the indispensable, substantial economic aid that Europe must provide to Ukraine is anything but incompatible with the immediate need to confront the question of European self-defense. Europeans must find an instrument that forces them to take on their strategic responsibilities: a European army that is common to States that desire it and that are ready to acknowledge the real threats to European security. This is not merely a necessity for security, it is also a pressing obligation both for preserving the Union’s cohesion and for making Europe take stock of itself.

In addition to providing massive economic and financial aid, the first, and by far the most important, thing to do is squarely to affirm that Ukraine is destined to become a full member of the Union. What should immediately follow from this is a rapid conclusion to the process of ratification of the Ukraine – European Union Association Agreement, a liberalization of the visa process and, most importantly, a formal opening of the process of full membership, which is the only instrument capable of providing a framework and a calendar that will guarantee the establishment of those reforms that are so difficult to achieve and yet so necessary for instilling the Rule of Law.

At the same time, the EU must explicitly link its policy of sanctions to Russia’s violations of international law. In that light, Prof. De Grauwe’s proposal of levying taxes on Russia’s natural gas, gasoline and carbon as a response to its annexation of Crimea and occupation of Donbas, is all the more appropriate since it also provides a way to force the aggressor to pick up the costs of reforms and reconstruction.

Lastly, as Russia continues to pump arms and soldiers into Donbas, and as there are strong reasons to fear that it will launch a new offensive, the West’s persistent refusal to provide defensive weapons is no longer tenable. Ukraine must be able to acquire the arms that it deems necessary for its defense. And while we’re at it, Europe and the United States ought to establish a total embargo on the sale of arms and dual technologies to Russia.

А.Portnov: We know the EU is afraid of even touching the issue of Ukraine’s EU-membership prospects. It also seems there is no place for Ukraine in the EU’s current structure. Does this mean that the Union needs to reform itself? Or should Ukraine accept the reality of existing in a ‘grey zone’ between the EU and a belligerent Russia?

O. Dupuis: First and foremost, Europe is afraid of itself. In order to overcome this fear, it absolutely must undergo a mental reform. In line with Amin Maalouf’s reflections on violence and the need to belong, Europe must recognize that its plan based on a dual sense of belonging – both national and European – is a huge asset, one that constitutes the greatest guarantee of preserving national identities. Unfortunately, such an approach is not in everyone’s interest. There are giant forces working to preserve the status quo: the banking sector, which remains largely national; the weapons industry, which has become a virtual State within the State; diplomatic corps endowed with a formidable resistance to change; and politicians and journalists afflicted with provincialism.

In material terms, however, there is no need to go through a new Copernican revolution. The modifications to the Treaty that were made at the time of the last institutional reform in Lisbon in 2007 offer many possibilities. The treaty reinforces the options available to States that wish to deepen their participation in every domain of EU governance, including foreign policy and defense, thanks to enhanced cooperation and permanent structured cooperation. In addition, while extending the use of the double majority voting system (a majority of States and a majority of the population) at first seems like a purely technical measure, it actually constitutes one of the fundamental principles that would allow a Europe of thirty or thirty-five countries, obviously including Ukraine, to function without any single State seeing its authority and voice reduced to insignificance.

As for European citizens getting a grip on the object Europe, some innovations would obviously be desirable, for example, opening up the election of the President of the Commission to all citizens; a one-round, majority-vote election for European deputies that would establish a direct link between electors and elected; the establishment of a common European television and radio. To my mind, however, none of these measures represents a precondition for opening the membership process to Ukraine.

A more pressing question is whether the current Europe of twenty-eight countries is viable when some, like Great Britain, are not ready to subsume aspects of their foreign and defense policies under common policies; and when others, like Greece, Hungary and Cyprus, seem to favor a certain leniency and collaboration with the current Russian regime. As such, the wait-and-see approach of other Member States is not an option. It fosters the resentment of Euro-skeptics, encourages centrifugal tendencies, undermines the EU’s cohesion and hinders any advance in the crucial areas of defense and foreign policy. The time has come to take stock of the differing desires and ambitions of the different Member States, and to institutionalize a two-tiered Europe.

The question of Ukraine by itself sums up the great existential questions of today’s Europe: its plans, its security, its place and role in the world. Simply put, Ukraine is a part of Europe because it undeniably is. But it is also a part of Europe because it wants to participate in the best of what the European project represents: the Rule of Law as the common basis of life for citizens whose histories are both distinct and shared. So there is no space for a middle ground. Either Ukraine takes part and is included in this plan, or it is condemned for many years to Moscow’s neo-imperial, anti-thetic project, with everything that this project implies in terms of violence and oppression. There is no third option.

A. Portnov: Why is Ukraine so important to the future of the EU? And how is this importance tied to the EU’s interests concerning Russia?

O. Dupuis: You cannot have your cake and eat it too. Europe must stop cultivating illusions and understand that in the short and middle terms, the best way to create the foundation for strong relations with Russia lies in not pursuing strong economic relations with that country. That is obviously an unpleasant decision because it entails renouncing a market of 140 million people, even though the weight of such a decision also has to take into account the relative value of the market given the grave economic crisis that Russia is currently facing.

As Adam Michnik has made clear, Europe must understand that “Russia’s only hope lies in the establishment of democracy in Ukraine” and must do everything it can to help that process come to fruition.

A. Portnov: What do you see as the role of the US? Some EU and NATO members such as Estonia, Latvia, and Poland already look more to the US than to their Western European neighbors for potential military support. Could this be a sign that the US is poised once again to take on a leading role in European politics?

O. Dupuis: I’m one of those people who has never thought that the Americans have had such a dramatic influence in European politics. To be sure, on some issues such as defense, they were a major influence throughout the Cold War. But that is also understandable given Europe’s inability and total lack of willingness to take on its responsibilities in that domain. In terms of politics and diplomacy, the Americans have off and on been an important influence when the internal situation in a Western European country presented the risk of destabilizing Europe in general. In terms of economics, they have obviously tried to protect their businesses. But what country doesn’t try in way or another to protect its businesses abroad?

In a context in which most of the Member States of the EU, and foremost among them the large countries (Germany, France, Italy and Spain), are dragging their feet when it comes to assessing the threat that the current Russian regime represents, and furthermore persist in refusing to entertain the notion of a common European defense system, it seems natural and legitimate for certain States to turn to the United States when they feel threatened.

But if a strong American military presence has hitherto been indispensable in light of Europe’s grievously weak military, that does not exonerate the EU from finally taking decisive steps in the areas of defense and security. Nor is it healthy to neglect these areas by saying that Germany and France alone must come to a decision on them. Poles, Balts, Romanians also have the obligation and the right to conceive of the security of Europe in terms of Europeans.

That said, such an initiative would never meet the approval of the twenty-eight current Member States. Great Britain is officially opposed. The neutral States (Sweden, Finland, Austria, Ireland) are clearly not ready for such an undertaking. And for the moment other States are bound by the positions that their current governments have taken to opt out of participating. Still other States will have to clarify their position with respect to Russia. Italy in particular, whose prime minister seems to think that he can get by with verbal acrobatics such as this: “Dear Putin, in light of our differing positions on Ukraine, let’s leave it aside and see how we can recast European-Russian relations.”

A. Portnov: Thinking back on Ukrainian Maidan, what surprised you the most? And how would you classify Maidan as a political and social phenomenon?

O. Dupuis: Maidan resembles the great liberal revolutions of the 19th century that were often the conjunction of strong aspirations: a liberal aspiration to establish the Rule of Law, and a national aspiration for decolonization. But Maidan also has a new dimension: it is the first movement toward de-Sovietization and de-post-Sovietization in a large country that, with the exception of its western part, has seen seventy years of Soviet domination, including some particularly tragic “episodes” such as the Holodomor and the Second World War.

The importance of the success or failure of this movement therefore goes well beyond Ukraine itself. Should it succeed, it is an experiment that could become a concrete model for the future de-Bolshevization of Russia and China, two countries, two powers that exemplify the strength of the Marxist-Leninist model and that therefore constitute threats to the security of democratic countries – with all due respect for the idea that economic development must necessarily lead to the establishment of democracy and of the Rule of Law.

A.Portnov: Perhaps you could suggest how to make “old” Europe see that the ongoing war in Ukraine is actually about Europe and its future?

O. Dupuis: Think European. Free ourselves from the double intellectual shackles of Europe-absence and Europe-power, understood as freeing ourselves from American supervision. The war in Ukraine should lead Europeans to realize that Europe must take stock of itself and create the conditions necessary to defend its values and its citizens. We might call that Europe-decency.


Translated by: Anis Memon, from French
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