Tocqueville Conversations 2022
Does Putin’s aggression help to (re-)unify a disintegrating European Union?

Lessons from the Conversations Tocqueville
© Unsplash, Marek Studzinski

For more than a decade, the European Union has been caught in a mode of constant crisis. First, a global economic crisis challenged the financial stability of the Eurozone and the European project as a whole. This was followed by the so-called ‘refugee crisis,’ that uncovered very different interpretations of the notion of European solidarity and consequently strengthened populist movements in nearly every Member State. This ‘poly-crisis’ was paralleled by disintegration tendencies, leading to the first official withdrawal of a Member State. On top of that, a global pandemic curtailed our everyday lived freedom to previously unknown extents.

The 24th February 2022 marks a ‘Zeitenwende’ as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz put it three days later. Putin’s aggression against Ukraine as a blatant violation of cornerstones of the post-World War II international order. The prohibition of the use of force and the principle of sovereignty showed that the narrative of the end of history as a state of liberal peace remains only a tale. Moreover, this war in the backyard of the EU reveals a new dimension of crisis, which combines elements of all previous ones: currently the EU is on the brink of a new economic crisis with citizens facing an unseen rise of the costs of living, partly due to the war in Ukraine. In addition, European solidarity is once again put to a test as societies face the task of integrating millions of war refugees.

The invasion reveals cracks in EU’s political unity as well as constitutional shortcomings, especially in the area of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). In particular, the decision-making on sanctions against Russia showed once again that rapid, coordinated action by all Member States is difficult to achieve in the current CFSP-system: While the Baltic states and Poland called for far-reaching sanctions at an early stage, Hungary was able to block a rapid decision, because of the unanimity requirement for CFSP-decisions. Consequently, a common European response came only after a time lag.

Against this background, the Conversations Tocqueville, organised in partnership with FNF Europe sought to decipher the ‘anatomy’ of Putin's attack, the ‘strategic blindness’ of the EU towards Russia and lessons from Ukraine’s resistance. On the other hand, the conference tried to provide a look ahead:

“Could this crisis, as dramatic as it is, be the occasion for a salutary leap forward for our Western societies, which had perhaps forgotten the tragedy of history and the price of freedom?”

A War Pushing the West to Grow Together

Often, exogenous factors can provide the decisive push to finally make progress. One response to the war is the enlargement of NATO and the potential future enlargement of the EU. The Russian war strengthened NATO’s unity. Only Turkey vetoed against until the last second at a historic NATO-summit in Madrid, that led to the official inclusion of Sweden and Finland into the transatlantic security alliance.

After Ukraine had been striving towards the EU for almost two decades, the invasion gave the final geopolitical impetus to grant the country official Candidate Status. Thanks to its association agreement as well as the Eastern Partnership, Ukraine has already strong ties with the EU. Even if Ukraine’s candidacy can be seen more as a political signal than a substantive leap forward. it is the first but important step on a long road to EU Accession.

European Political Community – A New Old French Idea

Against the background of such a long accession process, French President Macron proposed a new European Political Community as a possibility for Ukraine and other strategic partners (e.g. the UK) to cooperate closely with the EU without granting official membership. He did so during a speech on Europe Day May 9 (the day of the Schuman Declaration of 1950), that also marked the official end of the Conference on the Future of Europe. Although this proposal was criticized by Ukraine as a bad compromise and is now partly superseded by the Candidate Status, it can be seen as an opportunity for closer cooperation with selected partners not just in economic matters, but also in high politics.

However, the idea of a European Political Community is as old as the project of European Integration itself. It was introduced in 1952 and should have complemented the newly founded European Coal and Steel Community with a political dimension. The project failed already in 1954, because of the resistance in the French Assemblée Nationale, that feared the implied loss of national sovereignty to a supranational authority. In particular, the European Defense Community linked to the EPC, which was already very close to the idea of a European Army, was the decisive factor for the rejection of the entire project in the French lower house. Although the French President brought up both ideas, this could ironically happen again under the current majority in the French parliament.

The Future of CFSP Remains Blurred

The need for internal reform of the EU’s constitutional and political structure is once again coming to the fore. Coincidentally, the crisis collides with the end of the Conference on the Future of Europe. In a resolution, the European Parliament already called on the European Council to convene a Convention on treaty change. Thus, the first formal step for the ordinary treaty amendment procedure according to Art. 48 TEU has been taken. As a core proposal, the general unanimity requirement in the CFSP will be transferred to qualified majority voting. Unfortunately, the change of the voting quorum in CFSP-matters is not sufficient to effectuate the Union’s capability to react to unpredictable events in an increasingly unstable international environment. Rather, the CFSP would have to be fully integrated into the supranational structure with exclusive competences at EU-level in order to achieve real responsible global leadership. However, the chances of such a reform remain poor. This is well-illustrated by the disagreement regarding the idea of a European army. The fact that this integration step is not yet necessarily capable of gaining a majority in the EU, despite the external pressure for reform, had been shown by the diverging views on this matter during the Tocqueville conference.

Despite room for improvement, the EU’s reaction to the invasion was relatively fast and strong with the strictest sanction package the Union has ever enacted, unprecedented solidarity with war refugees and swift support for Ukraine in various forms. Reforms that might prevent the Union from future damage or disintegrating forces cannot be taken for granted. Rather, this momentum should be used to think of “[comprehensive] reforms on different levels, that are not limited to the short term, as Ukraine is not a short-term conflict”, as Vice-President of the European Parliament Nicola Beer put it. The process of comprehensive reform to rethink the federal structure and constitutional balance of power between the EU and the Member States already started two years before the invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s aggression leaves no doubt about the urgency of this reform.

Alexis de Tocqueville in his time knew that “no protracted war can fail to endanger the freedom of a democratic country.” The Europe Union is an alliance of democracies, that only together can defend its values and use its normative power in a new geostrategic context.

Dennis Traudt holds a doctoral scholarship of Friedrich-Naumann Foundation for Freedom. He is also a research assistant at the Europa-Institut of the Saarland University and writes on a PhD-thesis about new instruments, that the EU can use to promote human rights globally.