France, Ukraine, and Future of Europe [PODCAST]

In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Jacques Rupnik, Research Professor at Le Centre de recherches internationales – Center for International Research at Sciences Po in Paris, a visiting professor at the College of Europe in Bruges and an expert on the Central and Eastern Europe, a former advisor to Czech President Vaclav Havel and a Member of the board of the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation in The Hague. They talk about how the war in Ukraine has changed French foreign and security policy in Europe, what are the prospects for Ukraine to join EU and NATO, and whether the center of power in the EU has shifted to the East.

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): In light of the recent developments, does the war in Ukraine indicate the opening or closing of Europe to the east?

Jacques Rupnik

Jaques Rupnik (JR): It is both – an opening to Ukraine and a closure to Russia. It is certainly an opening, because it is a conflict on the eastern periphery of the European Union, and the EU – through its support of Ukraine during the war – is clearly drawn eastwards. Also, because during the conflict, the EU invited Ukraine to become a candidate country.

It is also a closure because it is a closure vis-à-vis Russia. During the post-1989 period, various attempts have been made and many debates had about how to deal with the post-Soviet Russia. At first, these efforts were meant as an opening, then as coexistence and cohabitation, while now it is clearly a closure.

LJ: Ukraine has been granted a candidate status to the EU and that it has applied to join the NATO – none of these memberships seemed realistic before the war. Are they realistic now?

JR: Literally speaking, no country at war can join the European Union. This is the first prerequisite to join the European project – you need to be a country at peace, control your own territory, and be capable of implementing common and shared requirements, policies, institutions, and economic constraints. So, if we take the proposition of membership literally, then the answer whether it is realistic would be ‘no’.

Similarly, there is no way that a country at war could join the NATO will have a chance of becoming a member. This, however, does not mean that it cannot make an application and start the process, because that is a different story.

Summarizing, membership while being at war is not feasible, but the application process itself can be started – even while at war. In the case of Ukraine, perhaps the process would not have been started otherwise, had it not been for the war. This, therefore, means that it would be a very different kind of enlargement process – and perhaps a different kind of membership as well, because it is a country that will be recovering from a war for a very long time (in a matter of years, not months). I will, hopefully, be a Ukraine that becomes gradually drawn toward the EU, but also the European Union will have to be different, so that it is capable of engaging in a place like Ukraine.

LJ: What kind of European Union we need to be ready to incorporate Ukraine?  

JR: To answer that question one has to recall what the European Union is about and how it came about. It was a post-war project created as a means of reconciliation between France and Germany. The idea behind it was based on the fact that there had just have been two wars in the 20th century, so they could not continue like that, because it was self-destructive for Europe. It meant that two non-European powers (Russia and the United States) were running divided Europe and so Europe as an actor could not continue in this way.

Europe was built against geopolitics. We built peace through economic, social, institutional, and legal interdependence between our countries. The philosophy of the founding fathers was that the more interdependence we have, the lesser likelihood of conflict there is. This has been a tremendous success among us, the EU members, but in our eastern and southern neighborhoods we are confronted with security threats and potentially destabilizing phenomena.

The war in Ukraine has confronted the EU with something that the latter has been somewhat dithering about. Clearly, that power (including military power) matters and, therefore, the EU has to think geopolitically. To cut a very long story short, thinking geopolitically means, for instance, saying that Ukraine can become a candidate member to the EU, while this was not on the cards before – and it would normally not be on the cards since Ukraine is at war.

It also means changing the thinking about what the EU is for – both for the founding and more recent members. I have just mentioned that the EU was founded against geopolitics – it was. In Germany, this word was taboo. In German constitution, there was a ban on false projection outside Germany.

France has always been thinking in terms of power politics, just like Britain – the former empires. But this was not a part of the EU, strictly speaking. Only in recent years, France developed the idea that the EU should be a strategic actor in its security and military component.

This idea was not at all appealing to CEE. To put it crudely, their view was that in terms of security there is only one institution that has proved itself – the NATO. Why? Because behind the NATO there are the United States, which serve as a deterring power. For the countries that have been emerging from the fall of the Soviet Union, the NATO was the only game in town in terms of security.

Then, as regards democracy, policy, and institution, it is the nation state constitutes the foundations and the framework within which one thinks. So, what is the European Union for? It is essentially a market and economic tool and framework, with all the legal norms that are associated with a well-functioning market. It is also a tool of modernization for less developed countries through the transfer of the so-called structural funds. That was the vision – a very British vision of the EU in East-Central Europe. This is, of course, a generalization, as there are always some exceptions to the rule – like, for example, Professor Geremek, who have their own vision of Europe as well. However, this was the dominant view of most governments in charge.

That view of Europe has also found its limits. After Brexit, we discovered that the British view of Europe is not necessarily the most relevant one for today. We also discover that the European Union is not just an economic space, but also a political project. Therefore, if you want to help Ukraine, for example, you cannot ignore the fact that Ukrainians are demanding to be close to the EU – and they are doing that for a political reason (not to just get some subsidies or for other economic reasons) while being at war. Ukraine wants a political anchor to the West. That is what the European Union means to the Ukrainians.

Even the Central Europeans, who have shared this British view of the EU, now need to revise it – and each of them must do it on their own.

LJ: What do you think of the concept of strategic autonomy? Will Europeans end up with more political integration and a bigger geopolitical vision? Or will the United States need to become even more present in the region in the near future?

JR: The war in Ukraine has altered or even changed the way people think about those issues. For a very long time, the French have had the idea that we should develop a European capacity in terms of the European strategic autonomy. Why? Because in today’s world, the main rivalry of the future is between the United States and China. Former President Obama announced the pivot to Asia, and Trump went even further – he explicitly questioned the relevance of the NATO on three occasions. People have already forgotten that, even though it was not so long ago.

There was this idea that we cannot always rely on somebody else to fix our problems. Yes, when there was a war in former Yugoslavia, like in the 1990s, it was eventually the NATO and the U.S. together with its allies that helped put an end to it. But there will not always be someone else to fix the problems. This was the reasoning behind the French way of thinking. However, behind the French drive for strategic autonomy and a European power, there was an attempt to implicitly take over the distance vis-à-vis the United States and, therefore, any suggestion of strategic autonomy was a ‘non-starter’ as soon as there was any suspicion.

The conclusion is that there cannot be a strategic autonomy in Europe. The only way is to convince everybody that the only relevant and plausible way to go about it is within the Atlantic Alliance. The idea is to have the European pillar with the United States as the primary ally, relying on their support. However, Europe will not always be able to rely on America to fix the problems in Europe’s neighborhood. When this is the case, then you strive to build a European strategic thinking.

What we need is a shared strategic culture – and that is not easy. Apart from the question of to what extent are Europe and the United States interconnected, there is also a question of where the main issues and threats are. This was one of the obstacles to the emergence of the shared strategic culture. Because if you are from Poland or the Baltic states then the main security threat is a no brainer – people from that area have known that from geography, history, and the way Putin behaved.

If you had asked somebody from Italy, Spain, or even France five years ago what the main threat in their opinion was, they would have certainly said that it was collapsing states on the southern shore of the Mediterranean – from Libya to Syria, with the Iraq war being the trigger. Collapsing states, terrorist organizations, migration waves, demographic changes etc. There is a great instability on the southern periphery, which generates security threats of a new type. Now, we are confronted with the war in Ukraine, which is a very classical threat. Just like in the WWI, people are in the trenches.

We are, therefore, confronted with two types of threats in two types of neighborhoods. Ten years ago, people would say that the main threat was the Islamist arch of crisis – from Libya all the way to Pakistan. Now, whole Europe agrees that it is Russia (with its revisionist approach to the European order and its aggression against Ukraine) that constitutes the main threat.

If one day we want to consider a common European power – in terms of military force as well, including a military contribution within the NATO, – we must reconcile these different perceptions of threats. And both these threats should be addressed, which is not easy. It is easier said than done.

LJ: Given the recent developments, may we expect real initiatives toward addressing the Russian threat from the European Union?

JR: First of all, we are already seeing some results. I do not think that Putin imagined that Europeans would remain as united as they have been in the first year of the conflict. Just under the French presidency six rounds of sanctions against Russia were introduced. Then, another three rounds of sanctions were introduced under the Czech presidency. Now, with the Sweden at the helm, another round is in the offing.

Despite the differences we are aware of, Europeans have remained united in their response. They have also provided massive aid – to a different extent. For instance, Poland has just announced that it will provide Ukraine with planes, which may not be something that others are ready to do. Despite these differences, I am rather impressed that, overall, Europeans have held their ground and their view of the war converged – even those who at the beginning were very fearful of escalation (including a possible nuclear escalation, which was a viable narrative).

There is no division when it comes to supporting Ukraine – here the goals are shared, as everybody wants Russians out of Ukraine. The differences arise because Europe does not want is to be drawn directly into the conflict. The question here is ‘How far do you go?’. We have seen, gradually, the progression in military support that Ukraine is getting. There will come a point when the divide between providing support and becoming actually involved (the worry which is stronger in the West) will need to be addressed.

How do we exit from this situation? There are those who say that there will be no end to this war until Russia is defeated and until Putin’s regime is overthrown – a number of intelligent people share this view in Eastern Europe (in Poland, the Baltic countries, and elsewhere). In Berlin or Paris, one will not hear comments about the need for a regime change as a condition for having a deal. What you would hear is the need to make a distinction between a ceasefire and a peace deal.

Clearly, nobody except for Ukrainians can negotiate a peace agreement. However, the European Union may be forced into a position where a ceasefire seems like the best option. Why? Because I do not see the Ukrainian side collapsing (it has the support of the Western countries and the will to fight), but I do not see the Russian side collapsing either (they are badly organized, poorly armed, but they do have a constant capacity to mobilize, since Russia is a dictatorship with a coercive power to send people to the front). As a result, we may be in this for the long haul.

There may come a point that during the ceasefire some provisional concessions will be made. Western European would likely be more ready to accept some concessions (for instance, on Crimea) than people in Poland or the Baltic countries. However, in a discussion between the former Czech president and newly elected Petr Pavel, who served as a general in the NATO for years, the latter said cautiously that although it is only Ukrainians who can decide on the potential peace agreement, there may come a point when both sides – depending on their level of exhaustion – will find it necessary to come to some sort of an agreement (even though he did not call it a ceasefire).

Ceasefires can last a long time. Take the Korean war, for example – they drew the ceasefire line in 1953 and it is still there today. They do not have peace; it is a ceasefire. I am not saying that this is a scenario that is likely – certainly, it is not something I would wish on anybody. However, if that were the case, what would the European do about it? They cannot tell Ukrainians to do something, but they may help Ukrainians cope with a situation in which they are forced to take that step by a military implications. The only ‘compensation’ for Ukrainians to accept something that would be difficult – because in principle you would want all your territories returned, including Crimea – is Europe. The European prospect suddenly becomes relevant.

Given that Ukraine will be involved in reconstruction, it will be an entirely new form of European integration. The closest example would be the Balkans after the war, but in their case, they had to wait 20 years in the waiting room to get the train moving. Now, because we gave Ukrainians a signal about the European prospect, we could not have done it without the Balkan train moving. To be credible vis-à-vis Ukrainians, Europe had to show that it is serious about the Balkans.

It is an entirely new ball game. All the things that the French had in mind had not worked out – they thought that some kind of security arrangement with Russia was possible, which did not work out. The idea behind how to how about enlargement also proved not feasible for a country like Ukraine. Therefore, the French must rethink all this, but so do the Eastern Europeans. Suddenly, they discovered that the European Union is not only about the common market, but that it also needs to be a political animal.

We can no longer just keep saying that we are fighting for democratic values against the dictatorship. If we are serious about what we are saying about the principles, values, institutions, and the rule of law, then we have to implement it ourselves. My take on this is that the future of the European Union – with the possibility of an enlarged EU – would mean broadening the horizons eastward (with Poland being a crucial country in this respect). Because of the war in Ukraine, the center of geopolitical gravity has shifted eastwards, but the institutions still remain in the West. When the war end, reconstruction will enter the agenda.

A European Marshall plan for Ukraine in terms of politics and economy will be created in the West because there are the countries that are the net contributors to the EU budget. In a post-war situation, Poland should drop its Euroskeptic rhetoric of the current government, which is not shared by the opposition. Perhaps the war itself has toned it down because I do not hear it that often anymore.

In the future, I can imagine that – if some political changes were to happen – we could see the emergence of a strategic axis of France, Germany, and Poland. The Weimar Triangle could become the key political axis in Europe. This requires the French to abandon any illusion about a possible security arrangement with Russia for the foreseeable future. German will need to take the Zeitenwende seriously and realize that the whole post-war political culture has to change. Finally, Poland might have to change the government.

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This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.

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