29th Feb 2024


Verhofstadt: EU unfit for emerging 'new Age of Empires', time to act

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It has been eight months since the war started and a new period in human history was born on our live TV screens. After the Cold War that started in Yalta, and after the victory of liberal democracy that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new era has begun: a 'new Age of Empires'.

This new world order will not be based on the sovereignty of 199 individual countries, but on a brutal competition between big continental blocs — militarily as well as politically, economically and technologically. A competition not only on earth, but also in space, and not only physically, but also virtually on the internet.

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By securing a third term, Xi has moved China from an autocracy to a dictatorship, to which India and Russia look jealously. A return of Trump is all too easily thinkable. Ultimately, we will not escape an existential fight between autocracy and democracy.

The inconvenient truth is that the European Union is not ready for this new age and the confrontations that it brings.

Instead of our democracies linking arms, implementing reforms and taking decisive action jointly, we see a lot of hesitation. Compared to the immediate and massive reaction of the Americans, the response of the European Union to the brutal invasion in Ukraine was slow and weak.

Besides the efforts of a few Central European and Baltic member states, the delivery of arms to Ukraine remain modest. And on sanctions the different packages come as fast as they are minimal.

Unlike the US, Europe will have no embargo on Russian oil in place until the beginning of next year. And from the so called 'Navalny list' of 6.000 citizens, who are the backbone of Putin's war machine, only 1,262 people have been sanctioned. Someone like Elvira Nabiullina for example, a key pillar of the regime as head of the Russian Central Bank, is sanctioned in the US, the UK and elsewhere, but not in Europe.

This reluctant European response is caused by the obsolete institutional system of the Union, a system still based on unanimity.

A veto by whoever of the 27 member states — be it a big or a small one — is sufficient to block any decision. Moreover, tensions as we see today, between the governments of France and Germany add to the incapacity to act.

It reminds us of the financial crisis. Also then, the Union settled for too little, too late, as if that's the best we can do. This was far removed from the decisive action taken during Covid , when we crossed boundaries in tackling the pandemic and raised the bar, with the NextGenerationEU fund, financed trough European bonds and new own resources.

Today we get nothing of all this, even when in-depth reforms in two crucial areas stand out.

First in energy. Instead of instantly creating a fully fledged Energy Union (breathing life into a promise made in 2006 at Hampton Court), we are taking reactive measures only. Vague 'roadmaps', 'dynamic price corridors' or 'voluntary common purchases' will not do the job. Even with the recent lowering of gas prices, we pay three times more for our gas than the Americans.

To tackle this, we need a real Energy Union. And that means the establishment of a common purchase platform that uses the EU's combined weight to shift markets (and not for 15% of the purchases). On top of that, a security fund to invest in renewables and common grids is needed. And finally an energy assistance plan to support households and businesses, instead of 27 national plans that fragment the single market. As we did with Covid, European bonds must be issued for that purpose.

Second in defence. The use of the European Peace Facility (EPF) to supply weapons to Ukraine and the common training of Ukrainian soldiers, is certainly useful, but it falls short of the dramatic shift we desperately need.

Today, the member states of the EU combined spend four times Russia's military budget. Together we spend roughly the same amount as China. And we get much, much less defence power in return.

The call for an increase of current budgets is totally useless if we don't end duplication, through the creation of a real European Defence Community (EDC) as the European pillar of NATO. Such a community will contain the establishment of joint armed forces on the level of the EU, as well as the common and mandatory procurement of weapons, an absolute necessity to reduce the inflation of weapons systems in place today.

A European Defence Community is simply a precondition to survive in the new, threatening era that began on the 24th of February.

A geopolitical Europe is only possible if we are ready to redefine our politics and to reform our institutions. By giving up veto rights and by sharing sovereignty in the domains where we need it most. By eliminating autocratic rule within the EU so that they stop undermining our actions and credibility. By creating a sustainable European budget based on EU wide bonds and genuine own resources — in sharp contrast to the current financing based on member states contributions, which only leads to friction and fragmented policies.

It's time to act.

The Commission has to outline and come forward with a global and ambitious vision for the future and at the same time table a numbers of reforms to make it happen. Like Jacques Delors did by tackling the crisis through the launch of the single market and the preparation for a single European currency.

Equally, national governments have to come out of their comfort zone to shape Europe together, including the prospect for change treaties. And if all this is not possible with 27, let's move forward with a coalition of the willing. With authoritarianism on the march, we can no longer be allowed to be held back.

Author bio

Guy Verhofstadt is Renew Europe MEP and former prime minister of Belgium.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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