War and the Future of Europe [PODCAST]

European Liberal Forum

In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Wojciech Przybylski, President of the Res Publica Foundation and the Editor-in-Chief of Visegrad Insight. They talk about four scenarios for the future of CEE and the European Union, redefining EU strategic autonomy, and why a treaty change might be counterproductive.

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): What methodology have you employed for your “Report on War and the Future of Europe”?

Wojciech Przybylski (WP): For the past four years, we have been engaging ourselves at the Visegrad Insight in the so-called a ‘strategic foresight’ exercise. While doing that, we had to be aware of the demand side and the competitive edge of our network. In terms of the former, there is a recent increase in the demand across Europe for information about Central Europe, to have a structured and understandable perspective that comes from the east of the European block.

Wojciech Przybylski

This demand is never fulfilled enough – and we have heard that through various accounts. Specifically, in the State of the Union addresses, Ursula von der Leyen said “We should have listened” to Central and Eastern Europe. Now that Europe is listening, there are more things being said. Jaroslaw Kaczynski of the ruling Law and Justice party in Poland and Hungarian PM Viktor Orban often communicate with Europe. However, they are hardly representative of the Eastern-European mindset. They are, of course, part of the political establishment, but what is definitely missing is the whole spectrum of the region.

Here, we arrive at our competitive advantage, because we are the premium source of analysis, opinion, commentary, and debate concerning CEE. We have been doing that for the past 10 years – connecting journalists, experts, politicians, and businesspeople in one space for discussing the future of the region within Europe.

Then, several years ago, we had a moment of revelation. Brexit happened and put in question the future of Europe. The first partition of Ukraine was attempted already in 2014. In 2016, the European Commission was releasing the Juncker report about the possible scenarios for the future of the European Union (EU), which we perceived as too optimistic despite being relatively reasonable. The problem with the report and the foresight within tax-paid institutions is that they do not have a mandate to say something that might scare people and give them food for thought. Immediately, we brought back basic methods of foresight work, which basically use negative scenarios that may happen. Based on these, we started to work on recommendations.

Throughout several years, we have been utilizing this method to re-connect the region. The most diverse region of the EU overall needs methods to connect small intellectual outlets, experts, and think tanks and put them in a more coherent and vocal position in the EU debate.

With the “Report on War and the Future of Europe” we have done the same. It is part of our contribution to the Conference on the Future of Europe, but it had been updated with the issue of the war (which in 2021 and 2022 was not yet present that much in the European debate), thus making it a ‘shadow report’ to the institutional report of the EU.

LJ: What are the four possible scenarios? How did you arrive at these four and how do you perceive them now?

WP: In foresight exercises, we are not looking at probability. We focus on the scenarios within the time-frame until 2030. What we are doing is trying to open up the debate, as well as to structure it by means of including in it the voices that one might disagree with in order to show the perspective and consequences of a certain mindset that drives political decisions and develops political scenarios overall. These scenarios feature a CEE perspective on the whole of Europe. They, by no means, represent all of the voices, but instead present a distilled version of the most differentiated elements to see what the potential outcomes may be.

Each of the four scenarios focuses on a different outcome and are constructed on the basis of numerous variables. These scenarios were meant to show how Europe might end up at very different places in its political future. The two underpinning assumptions for creating them were that, first of all, Europe has been building up a concept of strategic autonomy for the past 10 years, even though President Emmanuel Macron took it over in the French debate and rephrased it into signifying a separation from the United States.

However, we were more focused on other elements of strategic autonomy – building up energy independence (energy packages and, eventually, the Grean Deal), the manifestation of strength of the EU in the Brexit negotiations, the decisions to fund arms exports (a unique situation in the European history, with the involvement of the European Peace Facility) – even to conflict areas such as Ukraine. We have been revolving around the question of how the strategic autonomy is linked to the democratic security of CEE.

Our second assumption considered Russia as a declining power, which is not a revelation. We have known that from many intelligence reports. These are the basics of the U.S. and global defense strategy. With this decline its projects its place in the world by means of being aggressive toward its neighbors. Since 1991, there were multiple instances of this attitude – with over 14 conflicts started by Russia (just as many as throughout the whole Cold War period). This fact alone already gives us a sense of what their future will be. In our view Russia is not going to forfeit its aggressive policy.

Based on these assumptions, the four scenarios are as follows. One of the revolves around losing strategic autonomy, when we may find ourselves in the moment for peace so compelling to the western partners in the European Union that they will push for an immediate ceasefire, while many countries in CEE (if not most) – including Ukraine – will want to regain the control over the sovereign territory of Ukraine. This divide in the perspective of strategic mindset might lead to a divided and disunified Europe which will no longer be able to deliver on the key unified priorities. This could be the beginning of the end. It is a doom and gloom scenario, despite obvious merits of stopping hostilities.

The second scenario is the so-called ‘united European patchwork’. Here, we were thinking over the consequences of the drive a more European response and a European security system. Obviously, the one we had, is already gone. We see that many more actors are interested in this vision – including Great Britain, which is interestingly becoming more and more embedded in this approach, even though it is not an EU member state anymore. Many moves have been made by the European Union – including the decision to invite Ukraine, Moldova, and Western Balkans to take a step forward toward the integration. A new deal on the Northern Ireland has been recently proposed. All this builds on the drive for a more common European project, with central European countries being in favor of enlargement.

Enlargement will be dependent on certain institutional changes and reforms. The so-called ‘passerelle clause’ will enable reforming a decision-making process in the area of foreign and security policies without a treaty change – should there be actually a trade-off in some countries. This would, indeed, create a patchwork Europe. It would not be perfectly designed, but it would help move the continent forward with certain positive developments.

The ‘European demographic deal’ constitutes the third scenario. It is based on a particular worry in the Central and Eastern Europe that their countries are depopulating – at different paces, with Central-Southern states depopulating even faster. Those fears of losing demographic potential underpin a lot of political populism and right-wing extremism. They also became a part of the discussion in many other EU member states. The consequences of an endured support pledged by the EU to Ukraine will bring benefits, but they will also be costly.

However, in order to upkeep the social cohesion and peace between generations (bearing in mind their different sensitivities), Europe will need to produce a social-policy response. And it has already been doing that – building on the pandemic experience and creating a joint EU response. The EU has also pledged to initiate a new pan-European program of psychological relief help. Overall, we see that there will be additional costs and burdens that will hamper the prospect of any economic growth for the European Union, but it will be at such an expense that the political leadership will be ready to make to maintain peace and avoid political cleavages.

The fourth scenario is based on the drive that we hear also in the European Parliament, according to which we should reform the treaty. Now, if we consider that we do reform it and it is perfectly well made, then there is no scenario – we would be awaiting a bright future. However, we tried to think about what may go wrong. Therefore, the last scenario is called ‘Careful what EU wish for’.

In the process of opening and reforming a treaty, we may end up with imperfect checks-and-balances solutions. We were trying to imagine what could go wrong in the CEE. After Orban, we may face a new wave of populism. We invented the character of Mr. Novak, who is the leader of a trans-national populist party. In such a case, even Ukrainians, who have very different sentiments in light of their experiences, might be unified in a big platform that spells more trouble.

LJ: How likely are these scenarios now, after one year of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, given the European and trans-Atlantic response to the war? Is the second scenario still likely?

WP: We are going to see it in the next EU priorities, which places a strong emphasis on neighborhood and enlargement. From the global perspective, the United States are giving full support to Ukraine – and the European peace in general. While they are doing that, they are also waiting for Europe to stand on its feet and for the European institutions to deliver security while Russia is weakened. I do not think this is something that will happen this year, but it is happening gradually over the years.

For the time being, the U.S. is waiting for the moment to be pivoting truly toward South-East Asia, and leaving the role of organizing the new peace on the continent up to Ukraine, Poland, Germany, France, and Great Britain. This would also include a reformed regime in Russia – which will take some time. Even though it will not happen overnight, the dream of a democratic Russia is already happening.

What is even more encouraging is the fact that a pragmatic compromise, which may be made at some point, is the more likely, the more Central-Eastern Europeans of illiberal mindset are prioritizing enlargement – to the Western Balkans, to the east. At a certain point, other EU member states will embrace this idea. They are already more comfortable with making a decision based on a ‘big picture’ instead of basic criteria that were freezing the entire process. When this moment comes, we will see more dynamism – the dynamism that has been the most successful EU policy overall, namely managing close neighborhood, but at the same time expanding its influence to African countries, where the European Union has a lot to do (and it could do a lot more than it is currently doing – while the big power competition is at the moment somewhere else).

It is a scenario that is hopeful, but it is also getting bumpier. It offers some promises and ways out, but at the same time there are certain dangers tied to it. Next year, European elections and the U.S. presidential elections will take place. Hopefully, everything will go well, but the results may also derail a lot of these ambitions. In such a case, we will suddenly wake up in a very different reality. However, even if another Republican president is elected, I remain hopeful that he will not cause so many troubles as the last one.

LJ: What recommendations would you give Western Europe vis-à-vis CEE?

WP: We could produce a number of factors and policies where Central Europe (or Europe in general) could put its weight behind in terms of priorities. Allow me to mention one of these, which is also a key recommendation from the Report. We propose to really reform and put forward the question of strategic autonomy as the key issue that needs to be redefined. It cannot be defined in an ambiguous way, as it used to be – especially when it was used by political elites. It has to be clearly separated from what has been undermining Europe’s ability to act (namely, the dependence on foreign autocratic powers).

The basic fundamentals are making production lines within the European Union as independent as possible. This will, of course, take time. Here, we are also in competition with the United States (through the IRA). Nevertheless, understanding strategic autonomy means also acting together within the trans-Atlantic alliance to develop an ability to deliver the same values and principles that we are all pledging to (in terms of societies and politics). This relates to the industrial, digital, and regulatory potential, and being more independent from corruption, which has been penetrating our institutions – both from within and from abroad.

All this also applies to fossil fuels and energy in general – which Europe has been ambitiously undertaking. In Central Europe, too little attention has been paid to the fact that the green transition and revolution – however hard economically – also has strategic significance of not allowing for further interdependence on hostile foreign powers.

To be able to move on together, as Europe, we need to take into account Central-European sensitivities on strategic autonomy and propose a clear-cut definitions and reforms we all agree on. The center of the debate should be placed around this topic. Otherwise, it will be picked apart by Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, who are already trying to provide their own definitions of European strategic autonomy. We should not be lured by it. We should define our politics on our own terms.   

The podcast was recorded on February 28, 2023.

Find out more about the guest: visegradinsight.eu/author/wojciech/

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.

European Liberal Forum