René Repasi is Professor of Public and Private Interests at the Erasmus School of Law and a specialist in European Union law. He has been a Member of the European Parliament since last month, representing the German Social Democratic Party.
The European Parliament on Tuesday strongly condemned the Russian invasion. Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodimir Zelensky addressed the parliament during that session and received a standing ovation. What is the mood in the parliament in these times of war?
“The mood is extremely tense. We have a lot of colleagues from Eastern European countries. They remember how it was in the 1980s and are very afraid that the attack will not stop at Ukraine.“
“The images of the invasion reminded me of the 1990s, when I was still a boy. The war in Yugoslavia, the invasion of Kuwait. I don’t think I fully understood what I saw on TV then, but I was really frightened. And now that I see the images of the Russian attack on TV, I have exactly the same feeling: ‘What’s going on here?’ And that is also the mood in parliament.”
“The main question in parliament is genuinely existential: ‘What is the EU actually worth in a situation like this?’ This is why we have the European Union in the first place, so that something like this doesn’t happen. We should be able to protect each other if a country like Ukraine is attacked just because it has made a certain political choice. Initially, we felt that the member states were not doing enough, but that soon changed. Germany has started to block Russian banks and is also stopping the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. That is also going to hurt Germans. We did manage to grow a little bit as the EU on Tuesday.”
What do you think of Ursula von der Leyen’s remark that she would like to see Ukraine join the EU as soon as possible?
“I thought that was a bit hasty. It is important to declare that the path for Ukraine can lead to the EU, but we have a clear procedure for admission for a reason. If you are a member of the EU, you are part of the internal market from day one, where there is stiff competition. If you are not prepared for that, it will destroy your economy. This is what happened to some countries in Eastern Europe back in the 1990s, who perhaps, in economic terms, also became members a bit too quickly. The economies of these countries are still suffering from that to this day.
“And the EU is not only an internal market, but also a club of values. A country must also meet the Copenhagen criteria of rule of law and democracy. It would also be unfair to countries like Bosnia and Serbia, who have been candidates for membership for decades. It is important that Europe offer these countries a perspective as well.”
What would you have said to Ukraine in Von der Leyen’s place?
“What you could say to Ukraine is: The European Union and Ukraine drafted an Association Agreement in 2014, which established far-reaching political and economic cooperation. In the Netherlands, 62 percent of voters voted against the agreement, but the government did not have to formally adopt that result and ultimately voted in favour of the agreement at the EU. However, thanks to the Dutch lobby, a statement was included that the agreement would not automatically lead to membership of the EU.[/annotation] that is a run-up to membership. We can grant it the status of a candidate country. The path is open, but under the same conditions as other countries.
“We need to support Ukraine on this path. That will cost money. The country has a huge corruption problem. Therefore, depositing money in the government’s bank account, as we normally do, will not work. A lot of guidance is needed, more than in 2013. At that time, the EU offered 600 million euros in aid, whereupon the then-Prime Minister Yanukovych went to Putin and got 15 billion and refused to sign the Association Agreement with Europe. That also had to do with Europe’s insistence that Ukraine had to choose: Russia or the EU. Its trade interests are divided squarely between these countries.”
Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the Association Agreement led to the Maidan Uprising and his own ousting. What if Yanukovych had chosen the EU in 2013? Would things have been any different?
“I think so. The bigger question is what Russia would have done then.”
Maybe Putin would have invaded right then instead of now.
“I don’t think so, because something like that takes a lot of preparation time. But it is clear that Putin is not attacking because of any ‘NATO threat’ or EU expansion, but because of weird historical ideas about restoring the original Russian empire. He had those ideas even back in 2013.”
What difference would it actually have made to the war if Ukraine had already been a member of the EU?
“That would have made a significant difference. Article 42 in the EU Treaty lays down the terms of military solidarity between the member states. And although a member state is not automatically part of NATO; it doesn’t take much before NATO states who are also members of the EU get involved.”
Would the EU also not have intervened if Ukraine was a candidate member?
“No, it wouldn’t have. Candidate membership is mainly symbolic and does not automatically lead to military solidarity. If you look at the non-reasons Putin gives for the invasion, candidate membership would not have been an obstacle either, since he knows that it has no military consequences.”
Would you have preferred that the EU had been able to provide military support?
“With a European army? Maybe it has to do with my German background, but I think you can only have an army if it is under the control of one parliament. That is how it is in Germany. On account of our past, we do not think it is a good idea for the executive powers to have control over war and peace. That must always be part of the democratic process. And that is not the case with the EU. Will Von der Leyen make a decision about an army, or will the Council of Ministers? Military autonomy can only be achieved if the treaties are amended to allow the European Parliament to make decisions. But there are other possibilities, like arms supplies by member states, coordinated on a European level. I do see a role for the EU in that.”
European countries could also intervene in the conflict on an individual basis. How would you view that?
“I am not convinced that you can solve this militarily. It just makes it more complicated. And we should instead find a way back to a way where we can solve the conflict diplomatically.”
Zelensky is calling for a no-fly zone over the country and many Ukrainians would like to see the EU intervene. And frankly, if a 60-kilometre-long military column descended on my city, I would like the rest of Europe to intervene as well.
“Yes, I understand that very well too. But we are on the brink of a world war. And if countries like Germany, the United Kingdom or the United States intervene now, we will have one.”
You think Putin would strike back at all those countries that show aggression?
“Yes, that’s what I expect would happen.”
The horrendous alternative is to let the bully have his way in Eastern Europe.
“It’s not an alternative for me either, of course, and that’s what makes it so complicated. That’s why we are now manoeuvring in a grey area where we are providing support with weaponry and imposing drastic sanctions so that Russia is unable to sustain the war. But I do not want us to end up in a world where a small country has to capitulate if it is attacked by a big one. That would be like being back in a nineteenth century world order, where only the law of the strongest applies. That is not acceptable. So, I can’t rule out that Western armies will still have to be deployed, although I do not see that happening at this point.”
It also sets a precedent if Europe does not respond militarily right now. What will stop Putin from attacking other Eastern European countries? And China may see its chance to annex Taiwan. They are now hearing: there will be no intervention if we do that.
“That’s right. The consequences are that these threatened countries wonder what use the fine words of the West are to them, and start arming themselves. And then we will end up with more and more weapons everywhere. Then it’s just a matter of time before that leads to a huge explosion.”
It is beginning to be a rather depressing story. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?
“In the past, it turned out that great wars are never won from the outside, but typically from the inside. Leaders or governments have usually been deposed by their own people. The First World War ended after the German Kaiser Wilhelm II was deposed by the German government because of mutinies within the German navy and the 1918 German November Revolution. I think that is also the only way to go in Russia. Russians themselves have to say to Putin: ‘It’ s the end of the road for you now.” Therefore, we have to support the people who are standing up to Putin and the government. Those people standing in the squares along with the Ukrainians fighting against the Russian army, are, of course, the real heroes.
“[W]e should instead find a way back to a way where we can solve the conflict diplomatically”. These are absurd words and it is an absurd idea to invite a politician of the rulling German party to speak in a student’s magazine.
Macron and Schroeder are trying the strategy of diplomacy but words make nothing to change Putin. It’s only real power and decisiveness that he can be afraid of. But there are no such leaders in Europe. Such wishful thinking of diplomacy resulted in today’s war and either the West gives up the hopes of unrealistic academic-politic diplomacy against a heartless KGB agent and support Ukraine militarily or next will be Eastern EU countries, and then Western Europe. Then the EU’s project will be as meaningless again as the words of diplomacy. Not to mention that EU and especially Germany funded and is still funding Russia in this war with buying resources from Putin. How much more blood of innocent people will make you feel uncomfortable to think economic growth is so important?