Editorial of September 2022

By Alessandra Silveira and Pedro Madeira Froufe (Editors) 

The (near) future of the European Union: Remarks on the “State of the Union” Address, September 14, 2022

On September 14, 2022, Ursula Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, delivered her third “State of the Union” address in Strasbourg. The two previous addresses by the President of the Commission were marked by the pandemic. Another kind of crisis conditioned this year’s “State of the Union” address: war. One key idea emerged from the address and was underlined by the President of the Commission: the war we face – which gives rise to many of the problems the Union and its citizens will have to deal with – was caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Quite clearly, there is a direct perpetrator of the war being waged in Europe and, in a similar vein, an indirect culprit for the subsequent economic crisis, inflation, and the social and migratory crisis triggered by the war and which the Union will have to overcome: the Russian Federation and the Russian power centered and personalized in Putin. In other words, there was an assertion of political principle at play here; an attempt to make the Union’s geopolitical position clear. Similarly, Ursula von der Leyen proclaimed the impossibility of the European Union (i.e., the historical and values-based framework of integration) being defeated: “this is about autocracy against democracy.” In that sense, unless we relativise the preconditions of integration and the “Union of law”, there is an irreconcilability in conceptual and civilizational perspective that determines the proclamation that Ukraine cannot succumb in these terms.

This political clarity regarding the war is in line with previous political choices and actions of the Member States regarding the European geopolitical scenario and Ukraine in particular. It should be recalled that in June of this year, the European Council granted Ukraine the status of a candidate for accession to the European Union. The formal acceptance of this application gave rise to a general debate, both in academia and in public opinion, about the actual conditions and the consequent feasibility of Ukraine’s future membership, with Ukraine at war – and hence Europe at war! Although the debate then raised focused above all on Ukraine’s position vis-à-vis the Union, it is worth remembering that Moldova was also officially granted this status as a candidate for accession, and the broader relationship between the Union and various Western Balkan States was also at issue. Some of these States are already formal and effective candidates, such as Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Kosovo.

However, how can we envisage the Union’s future action in effect, particularly on the basis of Ursula von der Leyen’s “State of the Union” address? In our view, the answer is clear: the European Union must keep its citizens committed to the “European way of life”. Support for Ukraine and, ultimately, “standing up for democracy” inevitably involves the resilience of the European Union and its citizens in the face of the difficulties created or made more difficult by the war. The united support to Ukraine has, therefore, a broader meaning than that of a geopolitical statement. Ultimately, from this perspective of defending European values (and the aforementioned “European way of life”), the aim of supporting Ukraine is to keep the spirit and ideals of European integration alive. In shaping the future, the Union will have to protect its citizens and provide them with the necessary conditions for European and popular resilience to be strengthened.

In other words, there are measures that were announced in the address in question that will help – if they prove successful – to build and project a deepening of integration in a new post-war era and also in a new framework of geopolitical priorities (i.e., in a new European order, embedded in a new world order). In this sense, the President of the Commission pointed to the effective fight against energy dependence in which Europe has incurred through its disregard for the warnings and signals it has been receiving. Among other points projected for the path to be followed in a near future through European integration, this is one of the most salient and innovative (as to the announced modus operandi). The diversification of energy sources is fundamental and a priority. “European sovereignty” in the sense in which the expression is used by French President Emmanuel Macron (i.e., the ability of the European Union to defend its citizens independently) depends on this capacity for energy self-reliance – and thus on the diversity of energy sources. As President Macron also stated in his speech on May 9 of this year, we must never abandon the agenda we pursue,  especially in times of crisis – that is, even in war or in a pandemic crisis, we must not let go of the goals for the future that the European Union has committed itself to. Thus, the achievement of “energy sovereignty” must also pursue the objectives outlined (notably by this current Commission) to tackle climate change and the implementation of the so-called “European Green Deal”. 

According to the President of the Commission, the strategic focus will have to encompass the ambitious goal of institutionalizing a hydrogen market. This involves a common supply, production and distribution exchange that meets European needs, namely the industrial production needs of the various Member States. At the same time, intensive investment in and development of alternative/renewable energies will also be a path that the Commission will strongly pursue (Von der Leyen gave the successful, and so far, almost unique, example of the investment in wind power undertaken by Denmark a few years ago).

Another point that we consider paradigmatic as far as the future of European integration is concerned is the statement that the Internal Market cannot respond only to objectives dictated by a strict economic efficiency. The Internal Market is an instrument for deepening integration policy, based on a “highly competitive social market economy”, according to the expression contained in Article 3 (3) of the Treaty on European Union. Therefore, as an instrument serving a broad political objective, it must promote, directly and indirectly, action that culminates in the defense of European values. The concept of the Internal Market as a political and civilizational construction motivates, for example, the intention of a rapid extension of the regime of economic freedoms – and, in general, of all the potential of the Internal Market regime itself – to Ukraine. The European Internal Market, its regime of freedom and competition, as well as progress and modernization of economic structures, will be an efficient factor/instrument for promoting the reconstruction of Ukraine. In terms of programmatic reaffirmation, there is a sort of return to an integrated, ordoliberal approach to the Internal Market (and, broadly speaking, to economic functioning).

A final remark that to some extent goes beyond the “State of the Union” address, although it is based on it:  in these times of resilience against the effects of a disruptive war – or at least of potentially dangerous consequences for the traditional and usual European frameworks of life –, it is important to protect and strengthen the “everyday Europe” of European citizens.[1] And to that extent, it is essential to achieve this from within civil society, in terms of what it can do independently and beyond the public authorities to protect and maintain the “European way of life”. Moreover, it is vital to strengthen the climate of trust in European solutions – and to encourage citizens to experience integration by promoting compromises between divergent visions for the European Union. This diversity strengthens the “European way of life”, and it is also its “watermark”!

This is where solidarity among citizens who take responsibility for one another also comes into play. The very idea of European integration, shaped in the aftermath of World War II, presupposes a commitment to solidarity among States, with a view to solidarity among peoples – as, for example, solidarity with the refugees from the war in Ukraine and with the invaded Ukraine has already manifested itself, largely and overwhelmingly among European citizens.

The idea of solidarity – that is, of equitable burden sharing – can be spread through learning processes, can be stimulated by the perception of economic and political needs, the one inseparable from the other (as Ursula von der Leyen’s address reaffirmed, in essence, with regard to the Internal Market in particular). And, in this way, loyalty is built and solidified. The more individuals become aware of the influence of the European Union’s decisions on their daily lives – and the more this is also revealed by the media – the more their interest in exercising their democratic rights as European citizens will grow.

The solution is widely studied and requires a different practice from both i) national governments (which tend to nationalize successes and Europeanize failures in order to win elections), and ii) national media (which can make a decisive contribution to the mutual opening of public opinion in the Member States), as well as iii) national political parties (which have often sown the winds of separation between national and European politics and are now reaping the storm of populism).

At a particularly difficult moment for European integration – at war and constantly provoked by populism and its manifestations of “collective bestiality”[2] –, this is perhaps the great challenge currently being posed to the European Union and from a broader perspective to Western legal and political culture itself, in defense of its most recognized and precious heritage: rule of law, democracy, and human rights. 

[1] Cf. Ulrich Beck, A Europa alemã – de Maquiavel a «Merkievel»: estratégias de poder na crise do euro, Edições 70, Lisboa, 2013., p. 101.

[2] Cf. Stefan Zweig, O mundo de ontem: recordações de um europeu, Assírio & Alvim, Porto, 2014, p. 22.

Picture credits: ArmyAmber.

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