Revisiting the question of Europe’s order

HR/VP Blog - President Putin’s decisions and speeches shows how he is taking his country deeper on the path of war and isolation. We should not be intimidated and continue to build a wider European political and security order with all countries willing to abide by common principles. On 6 October in Prague the first meeting of the European Political Community will take place, which is a new political venture to go in that direction. 


Last week, President Putin gathered Russia’s political and security elite in the Kremlin to mark his totally illegal land grab, whereby four regions of Ukraine were forcibly annexed into Russia. This followed the sham “referenda”, in which often only a handful of the pre-war populations voted - at gunpoint.

He repeated that the annexation of around 20% of Ukrainian territory would be “irreversible”, mixing it with overt references to the use of nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory (saying the US had already set a precedent in 1945 with its atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The Ukrainian President Zelenskyy that same night spoke for many, rightly denouncing the annexation as illegal and unacceptable, adding that Ukraine would continue its fight to liberate “all the territory that is currently occupied”. Quickly and forcefully, UN Secretary General Guterres also condemned the annexation. And the following day in the UN Security Council, no country voted with Russia, while a clear majority voted to condemn it (as expected, China, India, Brazil and Gabon abstained).

As EU, we have made it clear that we will never accept the annexation and that we will not be intimidated by Russia’s threats and escalations. On the contrary, we will reinforce our strategy of supporting Ukraine - militarily, financially and politically; upping the pressure on Russia with more sanctions and supporting our international partner to handle the fallout of the war. At the next Foreign Affairs Council on 17 October, I hope we can formally launch our training mission for Ukrainian armed forces. At the same time, we remain ready to pursue a diplomatic solution, should the circumstances return to do so in a meaningful way.

A speech of fantasy grievances, closing the door to dialogue

On the one hand, all this felt familiar, as Putin had followed a similar procedure in 2014, with the annexation of Crimea (naked use of force, a forced referendum, followed by a grandiose ceremony to force through a fait accompli). On the other hand, last week’s events felt different. For Putin is now facing defeats on the battlefield, growing opposition at home and increasing isolation abroad. The speech he gave and the thinking he presented was an almost surreal cocktail of wild threats, conspiracy thinking and fantasy grievances. It suggested a man who is so isolated that he is drowning in a sense of victimhood and who has lost touch with reality.

The enemy he focused on was no longer a Ukraine with no right to exist and run by Nazis. No, the main target was “the collective West”. He denounced the “totalitarianism, despotism and apartheid” of today’s West which wanted Russia to “be a colony”. He lambasted the West’s for many things ranging from the bombing of Dresden to the pillaging of India and even to and “gender reassignment surgery”. He even claimed that in the West “the suppression of freedom itself has taken on the features of a religion: outright Satanism.”

Putin’s choices and his speech show to what extent he has closed the door to dialogue, diplomacy and a minimum sense of common humanity. He is only taking his country ever more on the path of war, escalation and isolation. And this is certainly worrisome.

Putin, Gorbachov and Europe’s order

All this is shows how over several years Russia has moved away from the rest of Europe. Putin’s dangerous and deluded worldview are a far cry from the ideas, for instance, of Mikhail Gorbachov, who passed away recently. As Ivan Krastev reminded us, Gorbachov taught all Europeans two words in Russian: glasnost and perestroika (openness/transparency and reconstruction/reform). Putin instead will be remembered for only one word, siloviki, strongmen.

Gorbachev played a central role in ending the Cold War and proposed ‘a common European Home’, based on the fundamental premise of shared security and equal rights for all states. The reaction to these ideas and the debate on them belongs to the history books – and we cannot go back in time. But historians and others will continue to debate this period including on lessons to learn on how we handled the end of the Cold War, including what we in the West could have done differently.

Now we are again in a new phase of history. Russia has launched a brutal assault on the basic tenets of the post-Cold War European and international rules-based security order. For the foreseeable future and probably as long as Putin is in power, it is impossible to conceive of a new security order or ‘peace architecture’ in Europe of which Russia’s Putin would be an integral part, respecting shared principles again. Russia remains a geographical neighbour and a member of the international system – but right now, we have to build a European political community without Putin’s Russia.

Wide Europe and the European Political Community

Still, we do need to rethink and reform the wider European order, beyond the work of the EU and NATO as such. Indeed, we are in the midst of an active discussion about how to organise this European political order, partly triggered by President Macron’s call on 9 May for a ‘European Political Community’ (EPC). In recent weeks and months, we have seen a multiplication of proposals and analyses by political leaders, and the full range of European think tanks, tackling this issue.

After initial discussions in the European Council, the inaugural meeting of the EPC will take place on 6 October in Prague. The leaders of 27 EU member states will take part plus all the EU candidate countries, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, the UK plus Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, making a total of 44 leaders representing their countries.

It will be a half-day event and with that many participants, it cannot be more than an initial exchange. Some still unresolved questions include: what should be the EPC’s core rationale, its final membership and its relationship with the EU? Also, how should it work in practice? For example, how should it take decisions and should it have its own budget?

While many aspects remain to be clarified, for me at least a few things are clear:

  • The EPC can be no alternative to EU enlargement (i.e. no ‘Ersatz’ or substitute for full EU membership)
  • It must add value to existing institutions and formats, like the OSCE, Council of Europe and EU frameworks like the Eastern Partnership.
  • The EPC should be a community of shared principles (even if we all know that the degree to which these principles are uphold varies across countries…)
  • It should have a light-touch structure, but it cannot be just a meeting or talking shop: it needs to do things not just talk about them. In all the areas that leaders will discuss in Prague (security, energy/climate, migration), there could be concrete projects to undertake, to boost resilience across the continent. 

As the debate continues, having this common ground is at least something to build upon. Let us use the time until the next meeting takes place, to flesh out this important new political venture.