Wolfgang Streeck – Strategic desperation

Is there any chance of building an independent Europe with an independent security policy?

Wolfgang Streeck is the Emeritus Director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, Germany

Cross-posted from El Salto

Translation by BRAVE NEW EUROPE



As Germany and France were still the masters of the continent

When the best fall prey to misdirection, perhaps we can conclude that things are not really going well. At the end of July, Wolfgang Schäuble gave an interview to the centre-right Sunday newspaper Welt am Sonntag. In it he publicly renounced his lifelong conception of a Franco-German Kerneuropa, understood as the core of Europe, evidently hoping to save, after the war in Ukraine, what remains to be saved, if anything, of the always remote possibility of building an independent Europe endowed with an equally independent security policy. What Schäuble, now a high state authority without a concrete public function and one of the last intellectually respectable conservative politicians active, tries to present in the interview is his conception of an updated version of his old German-Gaullist concept of a united Europe capable of pursuing its own interests. The version proposed in the interview, however, is so far removed from reality that, coming from someone known for his ruthless political realism, it can be read as the subversive argument that with the Ukrainian war the integrity of the dreams, not only of the right but also of the left, of a Europe endowed with “strategic sovereignty”, to put it in Macron’s words, have forever become pipe dreams.

What does Schäuble suggest to turn Europe, now or never, into a sovereign power after the Zeitenwende (turning point)? Noting that the Franco-German tandem has failed to avoid war, or even to have a voice in it, Schäuble suggests expanding it into a triumvirate, a three-member directorate, inviting Poland to join Germany and France “as an equally important member in the direction of European unification”. Given that ‘under the Lisbon Treaty the defence policy set out therein is not adequate to meet today’s challenges’, the new board would operate outside the EU. France, Germany and Poland would invite other European countries to join them, for which Schäuble accepts the concept of a ‘coalition of the willing’. This same principle, he suggests, should also apply to issues such as immigration and asylum policy. Indeed, such an approach would give rise to a ‘Europe à la carte’, once supranationalism has been abandoned in favour of what Brussels, with an obligatory expression of disgust, calls intergovernmentalism. In the long run, such an approach could dispense with the Brussels establishment as a whole in favour of a multinational strategic alliance led by three sovereign nation-states.

But this is only the beginning. The main task of this directorate of three would be to build a nuclear defence for Europe. In Schäuble’s view, “given that Putin’s aides (!) threaten us every day with a nuclear attack, it is now absolutely clear […] that we need to have a nuclear deterrent at European level as well”. While France has the weapons, Germany has the money. “In our own interest, we Germans must, in return for a joint nuclear deterrent, make a corresponding financial contribution to French military power […]. At the same time, we must participate in a larger strategic planning agreed with Paris […]. In any case, a European defence capability is inconceivable without the nuclear dimension […]”. Schäuble repeatedly insists that none of this should contradict European commitments within NATO. “What France must concede” in exchange for German co-financing of its nuclear force “is that everything must fit into NATO”. Indeed, one of Schäuble’s reasons for co-opting Poland into his board is that its presence would ensure that “European defence would not be an alternative but complementary to NATO”. The general rule, according to Schäuble, “should always be: everything with NATO, nothing against it”.

Schäuble’s proposal for the reorganisation of Europe must be understood as a desperate attempt to keep alive a minimally credible prospect of European strategic independence. However, the leaps of faith he has to make to achieve this are enormous. To accommodate the rise of Eastern Europe as the new European power centre in the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Schäuble invites Poland to join Germany and France as Europe’s hegemonic co-power, hoping against hope that this will boot it out of its symbiotic relationship with the US. (The Polish government has just presented Germany with a billion-euro bill for World War II reparations, hoping this will help it win the next election). Schäuble also hopes that France will accept a third country as a co-ruler of Europe, after the current leadership exercised by both countries has failed, and grant Germany and Poland what it has systematically denied Germany alone since the 1960s, namely the ability to have a say in the use of France’s nuclear arsenal.

The closer one looks at the proposal, the more striking are the illusions that a veteran of European politics like Schäuble feels compelled to assume in order to sketch out something resembling a model of European strategic sovereignty. One of the pillars of US power in Europe is Germany’s signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the 1960s, which made Germany dependent on the US nuclear umbrella for its Cold War defence. Today, that dependence translates into the presence of an unknown number of US atomic bombs on German soil, along with a licence for the German Luftwaffe to transport US warheads, under US command, directed against targets of US choice, using fighter aircraft purchased from the United States, officially termed “nuclear engagement”. There is no reason to believe that the United States can be convinced, with or without NATO, that Germany needs to participate in the management of French nuclear warheads as well, even if only indirectly by paying for them. Nor is there any prospect that France will allow Germany and Poland to have their say on when Paris should be put at risk for the sake of Berlin or Warsaw; in the past, French attempts to get Germany to share the costs of the force de frappe [nuclear strike force] were repeatedly abandoned when, in return for their participation, Germany simply wanted a look at the catalogue of French nuclear targets. And one might also wonder how someone with such a long experience and career as Schäuble can be confident that a Polish co-led European security policy could be anything other than an extension of US security policy, given the two main goals of Polish foreign policy, namely independence from Germany and a forceful US presence in Europe to keep Russia at bay rather than relying on unreliable European neighbours who, unlike the US power, might, when push comes to shove, fear for their own security.

Where Schäuble’s interview turns definitively into a document of despair and his Franco-German-Polish triumvirate reveals itself to be nothing more than the mirage of a traveller in the desert suffering from dehydration is at its end, when he tries to make the interviewer and himself believe that his triple nuclear alliance would seek to establish “a partnership with Russia, provided that Russia respects the basic rules of cooperation between partners”. “Surely,” Schäuble says, “the Poles will also agree when we say that a partnership with a Russia committed to the renunciation of the use of force, to the inviolability of borders and to the fundamental norms of international law is politically desirable. With such a Russia we can and want to cooperate in good faith. Of course, with Putin this will be difficult’, but not impossible, in his view.

Schäuble can harbour no doubt that for Poland and its protector, the United States, a negotiated security architecture in Europe that includes Russia is at best a second-best option; their preferred outcome of the Ukrainian war is a defeated Russia held in check by a superior military force. Europe, in this scenario, is led, not by Germany or France or both, but by the United States, and this not only on the Eurasian continent, but also on a global scale, particularly in relation to China, which Schäuble mentions only once in passing. That Schäuble can be confident that his repeated assurances that his triple alliance will be part of NATO, even going so far as to suggest that the United Kingdom (America’s self-styled global sub-commander) should also play a role in NATO, will fool the US, defies comprehension. Indeed, that someone like Schäuble should be constrained to propagate pious hopes that the US will look the other way can be interpreted as an indication of how effectively the Ukrainian war has shifted the centre of European national security policy eastwards and, with it, westwards towards the US.

Where Schäuble, for a change, is in line with the European Zeitgeist [spirit of the times] is when he claims that the European Union, as an actually existing international organisation, plays no role in his project; indeed, it is explicitly excluded from it. What he has in mind, without saying so, is what Macron, in his more exuberant moments, calls a refondation of Europe (of course, there is little that Macron does not want to refound). Over the past few years, von der Leyen’s team and the supranational ‘Community method’ it administers have roundly lost the reputation they once enjoyed among European heads of state and government. Brussels’ handling of the pandemic was widely regarded as a disaster, even though it was Merkel who commissioned it to procure the vaccines, a task for which it was not prepared, in order to avoid Germany being the first to be served when it was set to take over the EU presidency in the summer of 2020: the result was a two-month delay in the vaccination campaign on the European continent.

The EU was also blamed for failing to stockpile protective masks and equipment and for being generally unprepared to handle a medical emergency such as the covid-19 pandemic, as well as for trying in vain to get Schengen co-signatory member states to keep their borders open during the period of rising infection rates. This was followed by the gradual realisation that the acclaimed Next Generation European Union Corona Recovery Fund was too small and too bureaucratically managed to do anything for the country for which it was primarily intended, Italy, as evidenced by the pathetic fall, after only a year in office, of EU white knight Mario Draghi as his country’s prime minister.

Add to this haggling with Poland and Hungary over the ‘rule of law’ at a time when Eastern Europe was becoming the EU’s new centre of gravity, not to mention the EU’s total absence when the Minsk Accords failed and the US took over conflict management with Russia over Ukraine. Once Realpolitik reared its ugly head, the EU quickly became an auxiliary organisation to NATO, tasked, among other things, with devising sanctions against Russia, most of which were turned against it, and devising a common European energy policy – a mission impossible from the outset.

To assess how European leadership has slipped towards the United States and how the EU has lost control over itself, one need look no further than its policy of admitting new member states, which is an increasingly tangled battleground linked to the conflict over who runs Europe and for what purpose. In the 1990s, the US made it known that, as part of its New Order, the EU had to take in former Warsaw Pact members (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania) to strengthen them economically and reorganise them institutionally in order to anchor them firmly in the ‘West’; subsequently, the Baltic states, which for a time were part of the Soviet Union, followed suit. At the time, the EU was also expected to admit Turkey, whose main merit was its longstanding NATO membership, which would have given “Europe” joint borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran, as well as a possible war with EU member state Greece. Turkey’s accession was prevented by France and Merkel’s Germany, world champion in the art of passive resistance, although officially Turkey remains a candidate for EU membership.

The integration of new EU members is an arduous task for the Brussels bureaucracy, which has to teach them the ins and outs of the so-called acquis communitaire [the cumulative body of European Community law], the endless set of rules that states must apply as a precondition for membership. Moreover, to cement their allegiance to capitalism, the new members must receive economic support, and the poorer and more numerous they are, the greater the Union’s structural funds for them, which are financed from the respective national budgets. Moreover, as so often, money may or may not buy love, and the new member states in the East have their own ideas about when to follow Brussels’ orders and when not to. Thus, waiting periods have lengthened over the past few years, as negotiations are being unnecessarily drawn out under pressure from the current member states. The last new EU member was Croatia, admitted in 2013 after ten years of negotiations and with its institutional reforms completed to Brussels’ satisfaction. On the waiting list are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, the so-called Western Balkan states, whose prospects for admission in the foreseeable future are nil, after France publicly opposed their accession.

Enter Ukraine into the equation, which through its omnipresent president is demanding full EU membership immediately, tutto e subito, something hardly achievable without the encouragement of its US ally, which needs someone to pay for the country’s reconstruction once the war ends, if it ever does. On 18 June, von der Leyen, dressed as so often these days in blue and yellow, announced on Twitter, without fear of appearing decadent or tasteless, that “Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective. We want them to live the European dream with us”. But what appeared to be a fast-track trip to Brussels soon came to a screeching halt. While the Western Balkan states clearly must have protested, the crucial factor is that the current member states seemed to have realised that Ukraine’s accession would eventually blow up the EU budget, not to mention the Ukrainian oligarchic political system, which would have made Poland and Hungary, the ‘illiberal’ arch-enemies of the EU parliament’s liberal majority, look like Scandinavian democracies.

Reducing the number of Commissioners will require treaty changes that each member state must accept. Moreover, in a speech at the end of August at Charles University in Prague, which was intended to complement Macron’s speech at the Sorbonne in 2016, Scholz demanded stronger rule of law provisions in the Treaties and more effective powers for the EU to sanction member states for their infringements, knowing that this would be unacceptable to Poland and Hungary, and presumably to other countries as well. (Eschewing both the EU and NATO, Scholz also suggested a joint air defence system for Europe, set up by Germany together with neighbouring member states). ) In addition, Scholz insisted on majority voting in the Council on EU foreign policy, presumably by votes weighted by the size of the respective countries to prevent the new Ostblock [Eastern European bloc] from out-voting Germany and France on behalf of the US. Of course, in the EU, ending unanimity requires unanimity, an obstacle that even Angela Merkel had not been able to overcome.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, one of the Young Global Leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, lets the German public know that the war in Ukraine may last for many years to come and that Ukraine will continue to need economic and military support, including “heavy weaponry”, certainly through 2023. Leaving aside the Honourable Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, MP for the FDP, the German liberal party, for Düsseldorf, home of Rheinstahl, one of the world’s largest arms companies, and chairwoman of the Bundestag Defence Committee, the Greens are certainly the most militant among German politicians in their warmongering spirit, representing a generation that was, and will forever be, exempt from military service, unlike the despised pacifists of yesteryear.

This adds a peculiar flavour to the Greens’ endless expressions of gratitude and admiration for the brave Ukrainians who “defend our values”, risking their lives under a strict regime of compulsory military service. It also helps to explain their unconditional identification with the war aims of the now ruling wing of Ukrainian nationalism (Baerbock: ‘Crimea belongs to Ukraine […]. Ukraine also defends our freedom, our order of peace. And we support it financially and militarily, as long as necessary. Full stop”). Sending weapons, while these new warmongers watch them being used from the safety of their living rooms (Twitter offers an incredible number of tweets from exultant German tweeters in their armchairs celebrating Ukrainian artillery strikes against Russian targets, similar to those posted by video gamers reporting their exploits on their computer screens) is cheered almost daily accompanied by assurances, echoing statements by Biden and his team, that NATO, including Germany, will never send troops to the Ukrainian battlefields where Ukrainians “fight and die for all of us”. This obviously helps these new supporters of the war, who know they are safe from any risk to themselves or their children, to encourage it to the very Endsieg [final victory], insisting that there can be no negotiations on the end of the war before it has ended with the unconditional Russian withdrawal.

So far, the arrival of the Greens in the German government, the greening of what Germans used to call Friedenspolitik [peace policy], has been remarkably successful. The space for legitimate public debate on peace and war has been drastically reduced. The head of Germany’s national security service, the Orwellian Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz [Office for the Protection of the Constitution], publicly assured the government that it will keep an eye on all those who claim that the Russian attack on Ukraine might have been linked to the previous build-up of US military assets around Russia – in other words, on all Putinversteher [Putin sympathisers]. Like the gospel, the press, quality or otherwise, recites as the ultimate wisdom of international relations, forgotten by sentimental pacifists like Willy Brandt, the old Roman adage, si vis pacem para bellum (If You Want Peace, Prepare For War). It is to outlaw the more recent idea, dating in part to none other than Friedrich Engels himself, that with modern weaponry, preparing for war can trigger an arms race that achieves precisely the opposite of peace.

The unprecedented build-up of military resources by the United States during the first two decades of the 21st century, including the arming of Ukraine since 2014, which was without risk of exaggeration the most impressive preparation for war in history, further strengthened by the denunciation of all Cold War-era arms control treaties, should never be mentioned in this context. Indeed, anything that refers to the prehistory of the war is anathema, especially the Minsk negotiations and the winter months of 2021, except for that mythical moment when “Putin”, whoever he is and for whatever reason, discovered his genocidal hatred of all things Ukrainian. Another article of faith, which is an ideal proof of credo quia absurdum [I believe because it is absurd] to show the aforementioned loyalty, is that Russia, which could not conquer Kiev, located less than 160 kilometres from the Russian border, will invade and conquer, if it is allowed to survive the war in Ukraine, Finland, the Baltic countries and Poland, to be followed by Germany and, why not, the rest of Western Europe for no other reason than its total disregard for the European way of life.

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1 Comment

  1. I can’t understand why Schäuble is described as intellectually honest.

    After all, it was he who always maintained that Greece must cut down its economy to pay its debts – even as the cutting down made it virtually impossible to do so.

    Apparently, what he wanted was to wreck Greece to made it an example of what fate awaited a country that meddled with Germany and France. Even if that country was a member state of the EU.

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