What’s cooking in Brussels

Schwarz-weiß Portrait von Claire Stam

Brussels scramble: On May 30 and 31, the 27 heads of state and government will meet in Brussels for an extraordinary European Council devoted to the war in Ukraine. Yet, while the European Union preaches unity toward Russia, the rift in the European edifice between the Franco-German pair and the Central and Eastern European countries is widening.

Most EU summits take place in Brussels in that building colloquially known as “The Egg”. Next door, the press rooms of Germany and France are located next to each other. These are the rooms where the heads of state and government usually address the press at a very late hour after long negotiations.

The fact that the two press rooms are next to each other is of course highly symbolic and in its own way reflects the weight of the Franco-German pair in European diplomacy. This weight is regularly denounced as oppressive by the other member states.

Now the war in Ukraine is fundamentally changing the situation here, too. Berlin and Paris see their initiatives, positions and strategies with regard to Moscow seriously challenged – by the Central and Eastern European countries. Seriously, because the war in Ukraine has sustainably strengthened the legitimacy of these member states’ arguments – a legitimacy that has its roots in their national and sometimes personal histories.

So says Kaja Kallas, prime minister of Estonia. She is a fierce critic of the ongoing efforts of politicians like Emmanuel Macron to cultivate contacts with Vladimir Putin as Ukraine fights for its existence as an independent state. She has received much praise for her warnings that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine represents a turning point in European history and must be beaten back at all costs and without compromise. But just not from Paris and Berlin. Kaja Kallas spoke about her own history in her speech to the European Parliament on March 9: Her family was deported by Stalin and sent to Siberia. Her mother was only six months old at the time.

“Can no longer trust Germany and France”

And while Warsaw, Prague or Tallinn did not hesitate to supply weapons to Ukraine, Olaf Scholz was reluctant to do so for a long time. A position that clearly contrasts with the attitude of Washington and London, the main suppliers of weapons to Ukraine. And one that, of course, does not leave him cold.

“We, the Eastern and Central Europeans, can no longer trust France and Germany. After the war in Ukraine, we should rethink our security and conclude security pacts with the US and the UK,” tweeted Ivana Stradner, for example, after her appearance in the EU Parliament about the threat to European security posed by Russian information warfare.

Emmanuel Macron’s May 9 proposal to create a “European Political Community” also offends some in Central and Eastern Europe. They suspect Macron of wanting to use it as a parking lot for Kyiv and other countries seeking to join. The Czech government, on the other hand, wants to make Ukraine’s accession one of the priorities of its presidency, which begins July 1. Berlin and Paris, on the other hand, warn against a hasty admission.

What’s more, Macron spoke in the speech about his concern not to “humiliate” Russia in the event of a – still very uncertain – defeat in Ukraine. Many Balts, for example, see things differently: “We believe that Russia must be punished, reparations must be imposed on it and it must be ensured that there is a regime change in Moscow,” Margarita Seselgyte, director of the Lithuanian Institute of International Relations, told Le Monde.

“Customer service” for France

Incidentally, the idea of a “European Political Community” goes back more than 30 years to a French idea originally voiced by President Francois Mitterand. On December 31, 1989, there was a new wind was blowing on the European continent: the Berlin Wall had fallen, Germany was initiating its reunification, while the Eastern European countries were closing the communist chapter.

Yet Emmanuel Macron is the one of the French presidents who has most clearly recognized the political gains, both domestic and foreign, that he can derive from involvement in the European Union. Consider his role in elevating Ursula von der Leyen to head the European Commission. Yet also consider his influence over Charles Michel, who is perceived in the Brussels bubble as providing “customer service” to the French president. Indeed, following Macron’s “European Political Community,” Charles Michel this week called for the creation of a “European Geopolitical Community.”

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