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Stefano Braghiroli: Time for Europe to wake up

Stefano Braghiroli.
Stefano Braghiroli. Source: Private archive

2024 will be crucial for the future of the democratic West and a year of global struggle between liberal democracy and autocracy. It will also be a year of key elections, which are likely a play a substantial role in that struggle, writes Associate Professor of European Studies at the University of Tartu Stefano Braghiroli.

In June, more than 400 million EU citizens will be called to choose their new representatives in the European Parliament. This will also lead to a new EU leadership, with the appointment of a new President of the European Commission and of the European Council, together with the EU High Representative. While populist and far-right parties are on the raise in many member states and might cause trouble both at the EU and national level, their relative weight is unlikely to structurally alter the current balance of power in Brussels or to fundamentally alter the direction of EU decision-making on crucial issues – from the support for Ukraine, to the emphasis on green transition and renewables.

Dis-United States of America?

The US elections are proving to be much more unpredictable and their potential impact much more severe. A specter is haunting Europe's chancelleries —the specter of a new Trump presidency. Just recently, EU Commissioner Thierry Breton revealed that, back in 2020, then-President Trump told EU Commission President Von der Leyen that if Europe comes under attack, it would be left alone.

Allegedly, he added that "NATO is dead, and we will leave, we will quit NATO." On that occasion, von der Leyen's office did not confirm, nor deny the occurrence. The remaining doubts about Trump's preferences were shattered, a few days ago, by the commitment of the Republican front-runner and likely presidential candidate to encourage Russia to do "whatever the hell they want" to any NATO member that does not meet the alliance's spending guidelines on defense. Does anyone doubt that the attitude would be substantially different towards those who spend 2 percent, 3 percent or 5 percent? Trump is basically telling us that [NATO's] Article 5 means nothing to him. This means also that – for Europe and transatlantic unity – a new Trump presidency would be much more challenging than the first one.

There are three main reasons that justify such skepticism. First, unlike in 2020, this time Trump's administration will include only very loyal figures and will only marginally serve as a dam to hold back his worst instincts.

Second, Trump 2024 has clearly chosen to side with autocracy against democracy, both at home and internationally – standing with dictators rather than with traditional allies. In addition, he will be very vindictive towards all those he sees as disloyal or as potential conspirators and there is possibly no sitting European leader who has not criticized Trump or praised Biden's "Return of America."

Third, the recent failed votes in Congress to support Ukraine and the dynamics highlighted after the January 6 insurrection have shown that a re-elected President Trump would have tight control also on republican legislators, with any dissent silenced or outvoted.

NATO and Ukraine. Source: Ministry of Defense

We should also be aware that an electoral defeat for Trump, regardless of how likely or unlikely it is, would not necessarily assure a return of America. US society and politics would remain fundamentally divided and dangerously polarized. A Democratic victory – almost certainly not recognized by Trump and his Republican party – would not be the magic cure to the Dis-United States of America. If anything, it would increase the radicalization of the conservative half of US society and its representatives.

Levitsky and Ziblatt, in their 2018 book "How Democracies Die," describe this state of things well. In today's America (and in a growing number of advanced democracies) three key ingredients are increasingly missing: 1) mutual toleration between political adversaries, substituted by enemy logic, 2) institutional restraint, replaced by the growing politicization of institutional mechanisms and political misuse of constitutional rules (i.e. impeachment), 3) democracy as a repetitive game, substituted by the zero-sum game of total victory.

A European Response?

What does this mean for Europe? We are possibly facing the biggest challenge to Europe and its democracies since 1945.

Two years of brutal war in Ukraine with its barbaric crimes and Putin's poorly hidden appetite for regional dominance make the threat of new wars in Europe the highest since the end of the cold war.

Just like in the cold war, Putin – and his fellow autocrats – increasingly portray the West not only as a geo-political adversary, but also as an ideological enemy, contraposing the reactionary principles of autocracy to the decadence of Western liberal-democracies. However, this time, unlike during the cold war, the often taken-for-granted transatlantic ties are weakening and what Thatcher referred to as "Europe on both sides of the Atlantic," might lose its American shore.

Putin is just waiting for it and has made no secret that he sees 2024 as a turning moment for the fate of the war in Ukraine and for the emergence of a new world order that reflects the interests of Russia and other members of the autocratic Internationale.

What should Europe do as transatlantic ties grow more uncertain? The worst possible option is to sit and wait for the inevitable like sitting ducks. This is the best way to make our collective decline a self-fulfilling prophecy.

While Europe's leaders should do everything in their power to safeguard our transatlantic bonds and show unwavering commitment to our collective security structures – also in the case of a Trump victory – we should not bury our heads in the sand, nor be overly naïve. Polish President [Andrzej] Duda recently declared that he believes Trump when he says he could end the war in Ukraine in 24 hours, adding "I can say that President Trump keeps his word and if he says something, he takes it seriously."

It is not difficult to imagine the terms of such a deal. It would mean surrendering Ukraine's agency and giving up our values as well as a large portion of our collective security. When German Chancellor Olaf Scholz says that without US support Ukraine will have to give up, he implies that this is an inescapable reality, which Europe cannot avoid. I argue otherwise.

Over the last two years, since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion, the European Union has demonstrated an unexpected capacity to react to Putin's imperialism ways that few thought possible. An unprecedented number of sanction packages have been approved, the skies were closed to Russian planes, the Kremlin's propaganda outlets were banned, the main Russian banks were disconnected from the SWIFT system, a decade-long addiction to Russian oil and gas was ended, and the visa regime with Russia has been radically changed. More recently, Brussels has been able to approve a €50 billion multi-year support package for Ukraine, vital in ensuring the functioning of the Ukrainian state.

In the field of security and defense, the EU – not NATO – has directly assisted Ukraine with more than €30 billion, by means of the European Peace Facility and the EU Military Assistance Mission, and has also supported the training of more than 35,000 Ukrainian soldiers. Brussels has played a decisive role in bringing together its member states to coordinate their actions. Additionally, unprecedented ties have grown between the EU and NATO, with joint meetings and cross representation at each other's fora.

While the EU has done a lot, it has also done much less than needed, vexed by Hungarian vetoes, unclear long-term goals, divergent perspectives among its members, and temptations of appeasement.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Source: European Union/newsroom.consilium.europa.eu

What is crucial to understand is that a defeat for Ukraine would be fatal, not only to Kyiv's democracy and independence, but also to our Union. It would also represent the end of the post-cold war liberal order and certify the decline of the liberal democratic West.

With or without the US, supporting Ukraine should be seen as an existential endeavor for Europe, keeping it firmly in mind that, if Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, he will move on to threaten us directly to fulfil his imperial dreams, especially if the US is seen as abdicating its role and Article 5 becomes more theory than practice.

Nazi troops did not stop in Prague in 1938, they went on to Warsaw and Paris. In the words of Winston Churchill to Neville Chamberlain, "you were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war." Let's make sure that history does not repeat itself.

What Europe is faced with – in 2024 and in the years to come – is a Herculean, but not impossible task. As Europeans, when we felt that we were faced with an existential crisis, we were able to take decisive actions with the necessary unity and to mobilize all the resources needed – "whatever it takes" (cit. Mario Draghi). Just a few years ago, the battle against COVID-19 was correctly seen by governments and nations alike as a matter of life or death. On that occasion, we were able to put aside our differences, take swift action, and mobilize all the resources needed to provide a genuinely European response to our citizens.

Russia's imperialism is very different in nature, but not in terms of the scale of the threat posed to our democratic societies. Not countering it would threaten our nations from outside and poison our societies from within. This has to be made clear. The same resolve witnessed against COVID-19 is needed. For Europeans, it would mean taking the lead in supporting Ukraine, investing heavily in our collective defense, and – possibly – make up for the amount of support so far provided by the U.S., in case of Washington's abdication.

Let's not forget that Russia is anything but invincible. Moscow is a nuclear power, but it has the GDP of Benelux. Its army has the power of numbers, but lacks advanced technology. It threatens two continents, but it is consistently losing allies. A potential Russian victory in Ukraine should be in fact characterized as a defeat of the West, due to inaction or self-sabotage.

To live up to the challenge, three key steps are needed. First, investments in European security and defense need to be very significantly increased and made with the long term in mind, both in terms of supporting Ukraine and strengthening a defensive security framework against Russia and other autocratic threats. Second, the EU decision making in the field of security and defense needs to be made more effective and freed from the arbitrary liberum veto. For this, an institutional reform to reduce or abolish the burden of unanimity appears to be needed. Third, Brussels needs to combine its traditional value-based normative power with clear geo-political thinking, enabling it to act as a pole of attraction for like-minded partners in the region and beyond. This means not being afraid to take the lead in the liberal camp and to confront adversaries.

The combination of these three steps can make European defense a tangible reality that both friends and foes would find difficult to ignore. In normal times, such a defense union would serve as a genuine European pillar of NATO, together with the U.K., and as a guarantee of transatlantic unity. But it could also serve as an autonomous force to defend our interests and our democracy when circumstances demand it. As in COVID times, resources – regardless of how massive – can be found. What is needed is the political will.

What's in for Estonia and the Baltics?

What is the role of Estonia, the Baltics, and the whole Eastern flank in the middle of such tectonic changes? It has to be active, rather than passive. Their voice and input are key to filling such a defense union with purpose and direction.

With an eye on the other side of the Atlantic, the Baltic and Central and Eastern European elites could find good reasons to drop the traditional (and often well-justified) skepticism towards European defense integration, in order to contribute to shaping the process, rather than facing it as passive spectators.

While European security and defense have traditionally been modelled by the big member states of "old Europe," in countering Russian imperialism, the Baltics and their Central and Eastern European allies have a clear advantage. Given the clarity of their goals vis-à-vis the more nuanced positions of Western European partners, the Baltic position can be more easily translated into clear and quantifiable policy objectives.

Kaja Kallas at the NATO Vilnius summit on July 11, 2023. Source: Jürgen Randmaa / valitsuse pressiteenistus

Following the failure of all western attempts to "bring Russia back to reason," the Baltics have proposed a different experience-based approach towards the Kremlin – a radical alternative to appeasement. This approach is based on three postulates that have gained increasing traction, both within NATO and the EU,: 1) Moscow's appetite can only grow; 2) Moscow sees every concession as a sign of weakness; and 3) Moscow understands only the language of power.

When size does not help, credibility might prove to be a key factor for states to be taken seriously. In supporting Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have not only "talked the talk," but very much "walked the walk," both in terms of diplomatic pressure and military support (more than 1 percent of GDP).

The credibility of Baltic voices vis-à-vis the broader western community is enhanced also by the fact that, unlike other partners in the region, they have been able to combine their unwavering support with a strong adherence to the values of liberal democracy and support for European integration.

Since the return of liberal-democratic Poland under the leadership of Donald Tusk, the Baltics' weight and their potential to shape Europe's voice in security and defense are likely to grow even more in Brussels. This provides the Baltics with a solid moral ground to counter Russia's imperialist expansionism, not only in terms of security, but also in terms of values, through the prism of liberal democracy versus illiberal authoritarianism. This uncompromising position has gained ground both inside NATO and the EU as a direct result of the growing centrality of Baltic (and Central and Eastern European) voices.

By embracing the challenge of deepening EU defense and security rather than rejecting it, these are the moral credentials and the political energy that Estonia and the Baltic states – together with like-minded member states – can put on the table. The common goal is tomorrow's European defense – principled in its goals, transatlantic in its aspirations, and autonomous its capabilities. Such a defense Union would be a guarantee for Baltic security as well as for the voice of liberal-democratic Europe in these perilous times.

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Editor: Michael Cole

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