Putin’s war of aggression has shattered the German strategy of hope that economic interdependence can be the engine for a change of values in autocratic states. The fact that Germany continued to build the Nord Stream II Baltic Sea pipeline with little self-reflection and in opposition to its European neighbours and even its security guarantor, the US, is incomprehensible from today’s perspective. Despite the Crimean annexation as well as the war in eastern Ukraine, influence on European elections and targeted pinpricks by the Kremlin in the form of political assassinations, Germany continued down the dead-end road of energy dependency. Meanwhile, democratic change in Putin’s Russia had disappeared from the horizon of history, but cheap energy prices beckoned.
Against the backdrop of this shambles, the German government now has a responsibility to act more consistently in a pan-European and strictly value-oriented manner. It must therefore work for a new liberal-democratic integration landscape in Europe, which should of course be guided by free trade principles and Germany’s interest. But it must also be clear that human rights, the rule of law and democracy are central guarantors of our prosperity. Because ducking away and selling out to dictators with a contempt for human rights costs not only prosperity but also human lives in the medium and long term.
The German government should therefore live up to its own claim as a proactive shaper of a “Zeitenwende” with the aim of strengthening a democratic Europe based on the rule of law. The largest member state of the EU must not duck away from the current discussion on further EU accessions, but must, in accordance with the European treaties (Article 49 TEU), be at the forefront of working on a perspective for all European states that share our values. It was therefore right for Chancellor Olaf Scholz to speak out in favor of an accession perspective for Ukraine and Moldova last week in Kyiv, in close coordination with France and Italy.
Balkans: no further political stalling
But this promise can only be an intermediate step: First, the German government should throw its political weight as representative of the largest EU member state into the European Council negotiations tomorrow, so that all heads of state follow this path and grant EU candidate status to both countries threatened by Russian imperalism.
Secondly, the German government must continue to be the best critical advocate for the EU enlargement process with our neighbors to the east and southeast. There must be no repetition of a political dragging out of the accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova, as is the sad reality today in most Western Balkan countries despite the EU promise of the 2003 Thessaloniki Declaration. Fulfilment of the Copenhagen criteria alone should dictate progress in the accession process. This also means that the German government should push for an immediate start of EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. After all, any shifting of this responsibility will only further open the door to nationalism, autocracy and the Russian sphere of influence in the Balkan region, the EU’s inner courtyard. The Chancellor’s trip and the new office of the Federal Government’s Special Envoy for the Western Balkans provide the right impetus in this regard.
Thirdly, the German government should force the debate in the EU on the negotiations with Serbia, Montenegro and also Turkey, which are also still on the table today. A long-term perspective on how these countries could be included in a European integration area of democracy and the rule of law despite all political and historical hurdles is currently missing. The Copenhagen criteria must apply fully in as many European countries as possible, because they serve the people and peace.
Implement reform proposals
Fourthly, an informal political structure going beyond this, as proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron as the “European Political Community“, can support coordination and political rapprochement. However, such intergovernmental “summititis” should not undermine actual and legal integration achievements of our European partners.
Closely linked to the question of reorganizing Europe’s integration landscape is the need for an active German claim to shape Europe’s institutions to make them fit for the “Zeitenwende”. This applies not only to the European Union but also to the Council of Europe, for which a critical window of opportunity for a reorientation towards its democratic DNA has opened after the Russian expulsion. Both institutions must be strengthened in their ability to act and react quickly if the European continent is not to become a pawn in the global power game.
The Conference on the Future of Europe has put forward 49 encouraging reform proposals for the EU that set a concrete agenda. These reforms should be implemented using all options, including the possibility of enhanced cooperation, the use of Passerelle clauses and of course the debate on treaty changes through a Convention.
Germany’s security can only be strengthened in the broad alliance of European democracies and not by going it alone with autocracies in economic and trade policy. Let us therefore bury the value-empty principle of “change through trade” and instead work together on a European integration landscape that draws its strength from its shared values of democracy and the rule of law.