Barely 24 hours after the summit that the European Union closed last Friday in Versailles, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, takes pains to explain why, in his opinion, this meeting will mark a milestone in common history. This 46-year-old former Belgian prime minister spared no time for the journalists of EL PAÍS, the Italian newspaper The Republicthe French The Figaro and the belgian Le Soir (LENA alliance members) during the interview granted this Saturday in a hotel in Paris. Michel vehemently defends the great steps that the EU has taken in the covid crisis and in the current critical situation. He does not quote it, but his speech is undoubtedly linked to that tradition that Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the Union, summed up in a clichéd and hackneyed phrase, even worn out, but unfortunately current: “Europe will be made in crises and it will be the sum of the solutions that are given to these crises”.
Expressions forgotten decades ago have also returned to that discourse. Michel was a 15-year-old teenager when the Berlin Wall fell. That end of the Cold War banished a rhetoric —and some fears— that now shudder again: “Free world”, “nuclear threat”, “third world war”. Those dangers and their language have returned with the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the president of the European Council combines them.
Ask. Has the EU risen to the occasion at Versailles?
Answer. This summit will remain in the annals of the EU. We may not see it anymore, but I am convinced that it is a boost to a more sovereign and independent Europe. We have decided to address, in a spirit of European sovereignty, issues that are fundamentally national [como la energía o la defensa]. It is an election of the 27 heads of state and government that commits their democracies.
P. Does Ukraine have reason to believe that Europe responds according to the seriousness of the moment?
R. I am in constant contact with [el presidente] Volodymyr Zelensky: You understand the political step taken at this summit. It is true that he wanted more. But enlargement is a sensitive issue, on which not all European countries have the same opinion. We must also consider the countries with which the accession process has already begun [Serbia, Albania, Macedonia y Montenegro]. We must support our partners who look to the free world and do not want to fall into the world of autocrats. Association agreements have enormous potential that is underestimated.
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P. For the time being, sanctions have had no effect on the war, should Europe stop buying Russian oil and gas?
R. We knew that they were not going to stop the war in a snap of the fingers. We have calibrated the first four sanctions packages to be harmful to the [Vladímir] Putin and have as little impact on us as possible. There is an impact: now there is direct negotiation between Ukraine and Russia. We are not naive, it is not enough, and there are doubts about the sincerity of the negotiations. Is there any additional option? Yes. We will examine when to activate it in a concerted way.
P. What will happen to the closeness of the EU to Ukraine, if it is defeated and Putin installs a puppet government?
R. We have the conditions to collaborate with governments committed to democracy, freedoms, human rights… Today there is a free and democratic Ukraine, the challenge is to fight with it so that it will always be like that. We try to support them as much as possible, even breaking taboos, such as the 1,000 million that the European Fund for Arms allocates, and with strong economic sanctions. We are doing as much as possible without aggravating the conflict. Russia is a nuclear power and we are well aware that if this conflict turns into NATO against Russia, we will fall into the third world war.
P. And handing over weapons, doesn’t that make Europe a co-belligerent?
R. The European Union is not at war with Russia. We support Ukraine with military, humanitarian and financial means. Putin is losing the communication battle. He wanted to show a latent conflict between Russia and the European Union and NATO. But the world is wider. It was essential to mobilize, together with Zelensky, for the United Nations resolution. This in the short term may not seem like a game changer, but it is. In the Pacific area, in Latin America, in Africa, it is increasingly understood that it is a Putin war, not a Russian war against Ukraine. The lies, the fables to justify the war did not resist. It is often said that democracies are weak in the face of propaganda, but the European democracies and our partners have opened the eyes of the world to the real reasons for this war.
P. Has China done everything possible to stop the war?
R. He did not vote with Russia at the United Nations. It may not be enough, it would have been better if he had voted with the Europeans, true. But that China does not vote [con Moscú] is an interesting point. China is in a middle position: it is not unconditional support for Russia, nor is it full support for Ukraine. Make no mistake though: it would be a mistake for the Europeans to write themselves off [como interlocutores]. What is happening is a global problem, but it is first and foremost a matter for Europeans. What is at stake is the situation in Europe. We cannot subcontract this matter, yesterday to the United States, or tomorrow to another.
P. Is the relationship with Putin at a point of no return destined to end before international justice?
R. I advocate pragmatism. Today Vladimir Putin is in the Kremlin. What will be the situation tomorrow? Nobody knows. There are immediate issues to discuss: humanitarian access, nuclear power plants and, of course, a possible peace negotiation. We need to talk to whoever is in the Kremlin today. But it is the European Union that says that if international law exists and — it does exist — then there is a need for international justice. There is no law without justice.
P. For you, are there war crimes?
R. It will be up to international organizations to say so. In any case, when there are shootings that appear to be deliberate against civilians, in a maternity hospital, I think they should be classified as war crimes, even if it is up to the international justice system to do so.
P. Has Europe been naive with Putin?
R. No. Democracies must talk to countries that are not democratic. Has this been triggered by the association agreement [de la UE con Ucrania]? I do not believe it. It is a cocktail of elements. There is the Maidan square. It is the panic of an autocrat in the face of freedom and democracy. These are countries with Russian-speaking populations: if you see what the democratic reality is, the reality of the free world… He sees democracy as a pandemic. He fears contagion.
P. You talked to him…
P. Do you feel cheated?
R. The fact that I am one of those who have spoken with him regularly gives me access and allows me, for example, to address the humanitarian or nuclear issue. There is a history of our relationship that now allows us to talk to each other understanding the points of view. Not that we share them, but we understand what his angle is and he must understand ours. We can repeat that we want peace, but that will not bring it. It will be brought about by the change in the balance of power and negotiation.
P. Are you afraid that Russia will use atomic weapons?
R. If we talk about the third world war, if we talk about a conflict between NATO and Russia, it is because it is a country with nuclear weapons. All conflicts and wars are dramatic, extreme and often difficult. But when the aggressor has the nuclear button, there is a dimension of a different nature.
P. Will these challenges require a new pooled debt fund in the EU?
R. First, common goals must be identified. This is structured in three parts. First, we have an energetic weakness. Second, in defense, it is no secret that just weeks ago there were differences, but Putin has inadvertently contributed to raising awareness of the need to take this seriously in a European framework. Now we all understand that strengthening European defense means strengthening NATO. The third point is the economy, with its weaknesses: we saw it when we lacked masks, we see it today with microchips.
P. With what instruments?
R. We are only at the beginning of the European budget period, reinforced by the recovery fund. We can examine how to adjust the execution of this fund to better match our objectives. Second, we must study how to better align private capital with our objectives. Thirdly, I am not betraying any secrets when I say that there is a debate on the Stability Pact.
P. Europe has a problem of bulging debt and aging. How to combine it all?
R. We are an economic power. We have the financial capacity, as was shown in the covid crisis. Not all member states have the same level of debt to GDP, but the EU is a project of convergence.
P. Will another joint loan be necessary?
R. We thought of a scheme for mobilizing the means already available. On the hypothesis of deploying additional resources —public and private— and how, different opinions were expressed [en Versalles]. The Commission will also have to present options, and the Member States will decide.
P. Are the differences deep?
R. Absolutely. We made an intelligent decision: first define objectives and then adjust instruments. This will be discussed in the coming weeks.
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