The EU requires strategic sovereignty

9 May is the date marking the birth of the European Union. On 9 May 1950, the then French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman gave a speech proposing that a European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) be created in order to make wars between the nations of Europe unthinka-ble and to preserve peace by pooling coal and steel production. The ECSC would later be-come the EU.  A visionary idea at the time, the European Union has assumed contemporary significance against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine in 2022. In the following interview, Prof. Dr Björn Hacker (Faculty 3), an expert on European economy and integration, provides an analysis.

Question: 9 May is usually a day of celebration – what are your thoughts on this?

Prof. Dr Björn Hacker: There can be no talk of a festive mood, unfortunately, as the war of aggression in our immediate proximity also endangers and threatens our European model of society. Europe Day on 9 May is a cautionary reminder of the reconciliation of Europeans that only succeeded after two devastating world wars. Territorial expansionism like that of the Russian president is alien to the EU and its member states for good reason.

Has the EU responded adequately to the war?

Even in crisis situations, the EU is used to protracted negotiations and package deals to get all 27 member states on board. However, things moved quickly in the face of military aggression which contravenes international law. On the day the war began on 24 February, EU leaders condemned Russia’s military attack as unjustified and assured Ukraine of European solidarity. Initial EU sanctions against the Russian government have been followed by further sanctions packages, as well as support for Ukraine in various areas of civil defence and protection and the provision of assistance for Ukrainians fleeing the war to the Union. Even constant critics of the Brussels-based European cosmos, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán, have stayed relatively silent, so as not to undermine the EU’s unity in its anti-war stance.

Which measures do you deem particularly important?

Although the EU is a dwarf in terms of foreign policy and as far as military power is concerned, it is an economic giant. The leverage it can exert lies in the imposition of economic sanctions. Russia is already severely isolated after a major series of sanctions packages, with its participation in the international market extremely limited, enabled almost exclusively by states reluctant to condemn the war. This applies to trade in goods as well as to movement of capital and the personal mobility.

Two problematic areas remain, however: some member states – including Germany – have become too dependent on energy imports from Russia. In the absence of quick alternatives, these ties could only be ended abruptly, incurring major economic upheaval. After more than two months of war, the question of whether Vladimir Putin will succeed in riding out the economic sanctions at the expense of the Russian population while creating military faits accomplis also arises.

Should or could more be done?

When Ursula von der Leyen took office as President of the European Commission, she spoke of the need for a “geopolitical commission”, and of the EU having to learn “the language of power”. Widely ridiculed in 2019, everyone is aware of the shortcomings of the union of states three years later. However, it cannot now be solely a matter of accelerating the development of a common security and defence policy. The oft-cited strategic sovereignty of Europe now needs more than coordinated armed forces and European battlegroups.

How would you define the EU’s strategic sovereignty?

The war in Ukraine shows us how important it is to defend our specifically European social model of cooperative coexistence in peace and economic prosperity – by armed force if necessary. However, as a community, we are only sovereign externally if this model is also implemented, consolidated and further developed internally. In my view, therefore, strategic sovereignty signifies the rapid implementation of the EU internal energy market, the concerted effort to address transformative challenges in terms of climate change and digitalisation and the facilitating of supranational management for economic and social crises.

At HTW Berlin, the Faculty Council of Faculty 3 has initiated the establishment of a new Master’s degree in European Economic Policy as a transnational cooperative study programme. This is also a small contribution to ensuring that future graduates make the EU stronger.

How stable do you think the solidarity of the EU states actually is?

What Moscow has achieved – probably unintentionally – by initiating the war is the revival of transatlantic friendships, the revitalisation of NATO and the barely recognisable unity of the EU. Even during the COVID-19 crisis, the EU states engaged in protracted negotiations until a joint response regarding financial solidarity amounting to 750 billion EUR was agreed in the form of the NextGenerationEU package. And this in itself was very progressive when compared with the so-called refugee crisis or the Euro crisis, where little solidarity beyond one’s own national borders existed. It is almost certainly the force of events, first in the pandemic, now in the war, that graphically underscores the need for cooperation. I would like to see an increased understanding of this in other policy fields as well.

How should the EU treat Ukraine’s application for membership?

Symbolically speaking, the hand extended by the EU for an application procedure is very important. However, it would be wise for any EU institutions referring to this now to have the honesty to verbalise that it is likely to be a long and rocky road, a process of adjustment lasting many years. Some Western Balkan countries are already in the queue for EU membership, and the Union would be well advised to refine its internal capacity for reform and community sovereignty with alacrity before any further enlargement.