Belgium (BrusslesMorning) The world is collapsing! These were the words of Cardinal Secretary of State Giacomo Antonelli when in 1866 the Prussian army was victorious over the Austrian imperial army in Sadova (Czechie). It opened the way to reshaping central Europe to the thoughts and interests of the Germans, away from what had been the order since the end of the Napoleonic wars and the design of Europe by the Congress of Vienna in which the victorious Russian Tsar Alexander I played a major role. I am sure many of us must have had a comparable mental shock as Antonelli when learning of the Russian invasion into Ukraine. But this time it is the acknowledgment of the collapse of the security order within contemporary Europe that is at stake, annihilating the way this order was redesigned after the fall of the Soviet Union and is since anchored in our understanding of Europe and its place in the world.
What Putin seems to look for is to have a world order and a Europe conform to Russian ideas as they are developed inside the bubble of the Russian Foreign Affairs administration, calling for a revival of an international concert of nations as was the case after the Napoleonic wars in the first half of 19th century. This made him pivot his politics towards Asia and away from European democratic models. Instructive on this move is what Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC, a Think Tank close to the Russian Government, wrote in 2018:
“Paradoxically the only realistic path for a Russian return to Europe today is via Asia. In other words, if Russia cannot effectuate a return to Europe-on acceptable turns-on its own, then it may only be through the creation jointly with China, India and other Asian partners of a greater Eurasia that Russia can acquire the expanded negotiating positions and potential it would need for its eventual dialogue with Brussels.” The rapid development of Chinese superpower in the economic, technological, military and diplomatic field gave this look to Asia an extra impetus. But it’s less than sure that this invasion of Ukraine is going to be a Sadowa victory that gives Putin the key to shaping political order in Europe. His pathetic reading of Ukrainian-Russian history hides the economic reality that without active participation of Ukraine in the economic cooperation this Eurasia Economic Zone did not have a good start and would not make Russia economically more independent. .
Resilience of Western democratic nations and its populations to autocratic tendencies has proven its value throughout modern history and this resilience is at the heart of the economic and political might the European Union represents today. As Europeans coming together in the EU we struggle though with our own identity crisis in the same way Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play does. Existential questions for this adolescent political entity hamper its action and efficiency. But it does not mean this has to lead to the same fatal issue as for Hamlet. On the contrary this crisis offers, as was the case in previous ones, the occasion to make the European integration process even more intense. At the beginning of the French Presidency of the EU in January the memory of Simone Veil and Jean Monnet was celebrated. In his memoirs Jean Monnet wrote “Europe will be forced in crises and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises” This is the challenge our leaders and we all face today to make out of this crisis a better, more adult European Union, able to realize its unique project of peace and understanding among nations as a universal solution to the world peace and governance in respect of its citizens.
Russian theorists lack an understanding of the unique and innovative integration process at work in the European Union, very different from the way empires in the past integrated different populations. They understand Europe and the European Union with Russia’s governance in mind as we do of Russia with our own ideas of governance while in fact the European Union and Russia today are two different models to cope with the same challenge of diversity, pluralism and the need of organic political coordination through institutions . Different views that illustrate the divide between east and West since Russia with Peter the Great and Catherine the Great ambitioned to be the leading power in modern Europe. An analysis of Russia by Dr Richard Sakwa of the University of Kent helps understand the exaggerated tendency to control in Russia as an answer to the problem of chaos that always lurks in Russian politics “where the contrast between the rhetoric of the strong state and effective leadership runs into the intractable issues of recalcitrant groups that resist governmental activism when it suits them and which can on occasion bend government policy to their will ,accompanied by leadership that appears to be both strong and weak at the same time”. Going back to communist times when Vladimir Lenin’s concept of trade unions and other social organizations as ‘transmission belts’ for the values of the Bolshevik Party aimed at the deprivation of the autonomy of pluralist institutions, he sees a resurrection of this de-subjectivization process. Institutions gain weight not as subjects in themselves but as instruments of some anterior and external purpose. Thus makes them instruments of regime action rather than autonomous agents. The constitutional state is entwined and in part overshadowed by an administrative regime.
The polity and the state effectively became the property of the regime and increasingly of the leader, Vladimir Putin. A logical answer in Russian tradition brought to the enduring problem of governance that needs to find the right tension between the plurality of social actors and the regime management of political processes.
Dr Sakwa describes Putin as “a faction manager, balancing interests and elite groups, ensuring that they all had a stake but not allowing any to predominate”. For him “while a power hierarchy exists in Russia it is better theorized as part of a conglomeration of power systems”. One exemple he gives is how two wars have been fought since 1991 to deny Chechnya’s independence, yet the republic remains an extra-constitutional enclave.
By his politics Putin gave back these last months to NATO its original vocation as an Alliance in defense of the member countries and the invasion into Ukraine is doing the same for the EU and its cohesiveness. The alignment of Victor Orban to the regime of sanctions might be seen as a sign of it. But we need not to lose the momentum to further work out the governance of our union.
The real central question Putin confronts us with is legitimation and not the one of democracy and self determination. Legitimatisation of our Western democracies and of the supranational EU. Legitimatisation of Ukraine as an independent state. For him and the Russian elite at his side democracy is an ism, an ideology and not a value. They speak about “democracism”.
The question of Rule of law posed inside the EU takes in this frame a special significance. We may hope we don’t find a way out of the internal crisis in the EU as Habsburg Double Monarchy did in its survival strategy after Sadowa. It promoted the notion of MittelEuropa in opposition to nationalist ideas of statehood and in practice did so by an obsessional predominance of the Homo Juridicus as Czech philosopher Vaclav Belohradski describes in one of his earlier works. Legality above legitimity, decoupling necessity and truth, conscience and consciousness, making bureaucracy, technocracy and formalism core. Remember authors such as Kafka and Musil who gave this literary value. This strategy proved only to work in the short term and the way it brought Europe to the first World War with Serbs and others contesting the legitimacy of Austrian dominance is well documented.
Also today for the EU it is not legality but legitimacy that remains the ever returning Sisyphus rock it needs to move up the hill and provide with creative answers that give a concrete answer to citizenship and what it means. These are challenging moments and we may hope our politicians will take into account lessons from history, listen to its citizens, take seriously the input of citizens in the Conference on the Future of Europe notably also in the question of common defense and the need to break the lock on unanimity in the Common Foreign and Security Policy-CFSP- decision making introduced by the Maastricht Treaty. They should so especially as one of the mantras of European union remains this iconic phrase of Jean Monnet, first honorary citizen of Europe: “We are not forming coalitions between States but Union among people”