A look behind the EU veil: Apart from the failed EU-Putin meeting, the June session of the European Council was dominated by an emotional debate on Orbán’s LGBQT legislation.
Wolfgang Streeck is the Emeritus Director of Director the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, Germany
Cross-posted from El Salto (in Spanish)
Translated and edited by BRAVE NEW EUROPE
On 24 June Angela Merkel attended what was publicised as her last participation in a European Council meeting – prematurely perhaps given that the formation of the next German government is likely to take some time. The European Council is the utterly secretive conference of the twenty-seven European heads of state or government; the EU’s executive and legislative in one. A crucial and contradictory arena of “multilevel diplomacy”, to put it in the language of American political science, its deliberations are hidden behind a torrent of carefully crafted and worded messages for the consumption of various national public opinions. On this occasion, it was generally agreed that the meeting had been a shambles, attributed by some to the Council’s long-time dompteuse now rendered powerless by her imminent departure from office.
The most spectacular fiasco was the Council’s refusal to support the Franco-German proposal to hold a plenary meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Leading the opposition were a number of Eastern European nations, which insist that the EU should maintain a position of maximum hostility towards Russia. Their position, which prevailed over the supposed dual hegemonic power of Germany and France, is that any meeting with Putin must be conditional on Russia’s withdrawal from Crimea. They know, of course, that this will never happen.
Why did France and Germany actually attempt to convene this meeting? Preceding their initiative was the Biden-Putin meeting in Geneva on 16 June. In the post-Trump era, the United States is returning with the Democratic Party to the Cold War against Russia, needed as a substitute for the Soviet Union, while demanding that its NATO entourage do the same, which conflicts with French efforts to seek some accommodation with the Russian power not only in Eastern Europe but also in the Middle East, ideally on behalf of the European Union as a whole. For this France needs Germany.
Germany, in turn, needs France to support its North Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia, urgently needed to secure its energy supply after Merkel decided to end nuclear and coal power at the same time. Siding with the Eastern Europeans, the United States opposes the pipeline in order to prevent any German rapprochement with Russia and thus keep the European Union united in the American fold. While during Trump’s term in office this line of behaviour manifested itself rudely, under the calmer-spoken Biden there is no hiding the blunt sticks the Americans have in store for the post-Merkel era. France and Germany, the odd couple vainly aspiring to the status of articulate European hegemonic power, could have gone alone to see Putin, except that in this case it would have further exposed and intensified the eastern fault line of the “European project”.
The Franco-German debacle at the last European Council meeting coincided neatly with two events formally unrelated to the EU, both of which may nonetheless have lasting consequences for its future policy. In early June, Emmanuel Macron announced that he would end ‘Operation Barkhane’, the French military invasion of several Sahel states under the pretext of combating Islamic terrorism that has lasted for more than eight years. This was followed in Mali by the arrest and deposition of the country’s president by his own French-trained army in a successful coup d’état, the second in recent months.
Operation Barkhane, which has more than five thousand French troops deployed in the region, was never popular with French voters and after the latest setback Macron seems to have feared that its imminent military defeat could jeopardise his already dubious re-election in next year’s presidential elections. His decision to leave the African theatre of operations was evidently made in the purest French presidential style without consulting anyone. Certainly Germany, which has 1,700 troops in the area, was taken by surprise.
At first, the German government indicated that it could, at French request, continue the effort on its own until the European Endsieg [final victory] was achieved. But then, while the European Council was meeting, a suicide attack in Mali wounded twelve German soldiers, requiring them to be airlifted to Germany for treatment. Even the Frankfurter Allgemaine, known for its Nibelungentreue, that is, its absolute and unswerving loyalty to the German allies in general and to the mirage of the Franco-German “tandem”, the driving force propelling “Europe” towards a better future, in particular, advised Germany to join the evasive French exit, though not without warning that the elimination of the Islamic rebel leaders could in any case be effected more effectively and discreetly through the use of special forces.
Not that Germany is in principle averse to picking up the tab for others. The second potentially decisive event was the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending its Operation Resolute Support (yes, this was the official name of the invasion). France and other members of the coalition of the willing had long since abandoned the sinking Afghan vessel. Germany, however, was still on duty, the last of the Mohicans, after three decades on the ground, currently maintaining a contingent of 1,100 troops, second in size only to the US in the region, and, of course, an unknown number of special forces.
When Biden, who unlike Obama and Trump had overcome the opposition of his military commanders to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, communicated that he would pursue his decision to leave the country, German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, aka AKK, publicly reflected on the possibility of Germany remaining in Afghanistan. After all, the mission – educating women, providing clean water in the desert and preventing young Afghan men from seeking asylum in Germany – was far from accomplished and official German doctrine still maintained that, in the words of a former Social Democratic defence minister, Berlin’s freedom was being defended in the Hindukush.
This, however, was too much deutsche Gründlichkeit [German thoroughness] even for domestic public opinion and certainly for Biden. On 30 June the last German contingent present in Afghanistan arrived at the military air base in Hanover, with all its flags unfurled, only to discover that there was not a single government representative to welcome it, as AKK had flown to Washington for urgent talks on an unspecified matter. Victory, it is said, has many fathers and mothers, but defeat is an orphan. To conveniently remedy the situation, the government is now preparing a welcoming ceremony in the backyard of the Ministry of Defence, hidden from public view, while the opposition, led by the Greens, is demanding a parade in front of the Reichstag. None of this, we can safely say, will inflame enthusiasm for further military ‘missions’ abroad, whether under German, European or US auspices.Returning to the European Council, the other high-profile drama ruined by Merkel’s farewell was the next episode of the ongoing soap opera starring Hungarian strongman Orbán, whose resonant name is Victor. The Council met during a Pride month characterised by LGBTQ demonstrations around the world. Just as it was meeting, Orbán had his parliament pass a law ostensibly to protect Hungarian children from information on homosexuality and transsexuality, reserving the responsibility for parents to educate their offspring on life in its diverse forms. The Hungarian law was garnished by a rich panoply of offensive expressions about gays and lesbians.
Coinciding with the European Council meeting was also the European Football Championship. The European Football Association, UEFA, traditionally a homophobic environment, had recently discovered anti-discrimination as a useful new marketing device to alleviate its battered reputation as a result of its high corruption rate. When the Council met, the German national team was preparing to play the Hungarian national team in Munich where the local government, in a spirit of anti-discrimination hospitality, planned to welcome the Hungarian team by lighting up the stadium with the rainbow flag. UEFA banned it in the name of sportsmanship, but allowed German captain Manuel Neuer, awarded the world’s best goalkeeper between 2016 and 2023, to wear his armband in those colours. Germany played poorly foreshadowing their subsequent elimination from the tournament at the hands of the English, while the Hungarians returned home with their heads held high.
The same can be said of their prime minister after the European Council. To understand why we need to know the prehistory of the affair. In order to get the 750 billion euro Next Generation European Union Fund package approved, the Commission had to promise the European Parliament that payments to Hungary and Poland would be conditional on changes in their domestic policies aimed at reducing the influence of their governments over the judiciary under the so-called “Rule of Law Mechanism”. The Commission, however, needed a unanimous vote to circumvent the Treaties’ prohibitions on borrowing. To obtain this it had to promise Poland and Hungary that the Rule of Law Facility would not be used against them until the European Court of Justice had ruled on its legality, which would be long after their share of resources had been delivered and spent. When this became public, the European Parliament was so angry that it took the Commission itself to the European Court of Justice for failure to fulfil its obligations. The Commission responded to placate the Parliament by initiating similar infringement proceedings against Germany for violation of the EU Treaties.
The infringement, according to the Commission, was that the German government had failed to prevent the German Constitutional Court from ruling that the European Court of Justice had acted beyond its competence when it ruled that a particular quantitative easing programme of the European Central Bank was in conflict with the Treaties, the de facto constitution of the European Union. One of the reasons given by the Commission was that the Polish and Hungarian governments were citing the German Constitutional Court, arguing that the European Court of Justice must interpret the intention of member states as signatories to the Treaties narrowly and not loosely and that it must not be allowed to expand its jurisdiction or that of other EU bodies beyond the strict wording of the Treaties. This is how “the ever closer union of the peoples of Europe” is being forged, or not forged.
Apart from the EU-Putin meeting, the June session of the European Council was dominated by an emotional debate on Orbán’s legislation. In an attempt to close ranks with the European Parliament, Council members expressed their displeasure not only with Hungary, but also with Poland where some local governments had declared their municipalities “LGBTQ-free zones”.
Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands, under pressure at home because his government had for years harassed a considerable number of vulnerable families for allegedly illegally receiving certain social security payments, asked Orbán why he did not simply leave the European Union, given his contempt for “European values”. Meanwhile the Luxembourg prime minister, reportedly in tears, told his colleagues that his mother would never speak to him again because he had married his male partner.
Other leaders, whose countries have laws very similar to those of Hungary and Poland, partly because they are inspired by the Catholic Church, a European institution like no other, did not say a word. The same, it is argued, apply to Orbán, who reportedly may have calculated the number of votes the event would bring him in the next national elections early next year, compensating for any support he might lose due to cuts in EU financial aid.
As for the Commission, it seems to understand that its sexual re-education exercise carried out through the leaked reports of a closed-door meeting did not constitute sufficient redress for its secret dealings with Orbán, not to mention the possibility of achieving regime change in Poland or Hungary. In another twist, four weeks after the European Council meeting, the Commission launched further infringement proceedings, this time against Poland and Hungary for defiance of “European values” given their discrimination against LGBTQ people. Such a procedure could result not only in fines but also in expulsion from the European Union, although this would require a long period of time during which all sorts of agreements could be reached.
In addition, proceedings related to LGBTQ issues may contribute to diverting attention from the less sexy and more technical issue of law enforcement whereby, according to the Treaties, the Commission must prove that the judiciary of a given country lacks the independence required to oversee the proper use of EU money. (It will be interesting to see how the Commission manages not to bring similar proceedings against countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia and Malta, which, when it comes to the corrupt use of European funds and indeed corruption in general, are actually on a par with at least Poland and Hungary, and the same can be said of various forms of discrimination.)
Whether one or the other type of measures will be able to discipline Orbán and his Polish counterpart, Kaczyński, seems doubtful. The advantage of LGBTQ procedures is that they offer more drama and can provide a façade behind which compromises on EU financial subsidies can take place. Overall, the hope on the part of the Commission seems to be that “values” are a better tool than the “rule of law” to extend its jurisdiction over member states’ domestic policies, above and beyond the language of the Treaties.
In any case, the LGBTQ dispute will continue to rage, and to add fuel to the fire. At the end of July, to avenge the Commission’s infringement proceedings, Orbán has decided to call a national referendum on his sex education regulations. If the case reaches the European Court of Justice, it will keep it busy for a time during which the moral fervour of June 2021 may cool and geostrategic interests, not least those of the United States, in Eastern Europe, which remains a Western-European thorn in Russia’s flesh, may reassert themselves.