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Speech by Herman Van Rompuy delivered at EPC's Jubilee Conference

Future of Europe / SPEECH
Herman Van Rompuy

Date: 01/12/2022
One of my teachers in politics told me 60 years ago that politics was, in essence, about power. The power to achieve goals for society as a whole. But this is not the place to philosophise more deeply about this. Instead, I immediately switch to the EU.

Some years ago, it was said that the European Commission was political, but this has been true since 1958. The European Commission has power. It is not about management or execution. It has power and, thus, a monopoly on legislative initiatives.

The present Commission says it wants to be geopolitical, but, again, it has been for a long time. Whoever determines the trade policy of the world's largest trading bloc is involved in geopolitics. After all, being geopolitical is not just about war and peace. Geopolitics is a broad concept. Today, it is also about climate, the biggest issue of our time. In the past few years, the EU has played a key role in the latest COP conferences, most recently in Sharm el Sheikh.

So, what geopolitical role are we not aiming for? The Union does not dream nostalgically of the past when some member states were real-world powers, albeit in colonial times. 'Make Europe great again'.

At the other end of the spectrum, some people fear the word ‘power’. I know that a number of member states prefer to see the EU as a market rather than a mighty power. I will go one step further: according to these cool lovers of the Union, the EU should not engage in power politics but act according to economic so-called rationality. It should stick to the rules at all costs.

But in a world of the primacy of politics, increasing unilateralism, and unfair competition among all other global actors, is the Union doomed to stand by powerlessly? In the eternal struggle between principles and interests, the EU must not be condemned to principles only, under the motto: ‘better to die for its principles than those of another.’ We also have European interests. We have to protect them without falling into strict protectionism.

The EU has long since ceased to be the EEC, an economic community, a mere single market. It is a political Union, albeit a very specific one. The Lisbon Treaty demonstrates this well, and, in practice, since 2009, there has been more political unification every year. Political unity is on its way. Besides, this is why the British have left. If they ever wish to return, they should accept this fact. If not, they should stay out.

Paradoxically, among the European institutions, power is not a dirty word. With some imagination, in the Union, we also have a trias politica with legislative, judicial and executive powers and where powers keep each other in balance.

The European Council collectively plays the role of head of state in a kind of presidential regime. Its president is important only because he presides over an important institution. The Council is not accountable to Parliament but cannot do without its legislative powers. The Parliament cannot do without the member states if no law exists. The Commission is part of the European Council and must get the confidence of the Parliament.

Everything is in everything and vice versa. No one can say in Europe today that he or she alone has the power. One can say that this or that one is the most powerful or more powerful than the other.

Because politics is about power, there is a power struggle. But one does have to ask whether, in a permacrisis, in existential crises, there is room for personal or institutional rivalry or power struggles. To ask the question is to answer it. Should one not be able to rise above private interests to work jointly with all actors for the common European good? Fortunately, this does happen, but too often, we have to wait for a crisis to take difficult and courageous decisions.

And, at the global level, shouldn't we be able to rise above rivalries to work together for the good of humanity, for example, on climate? If not, the Titanic of humanity will sink. Everyone will lose. However, I would also add: if there is general mistrust among global actors, it becomes difficult to act exceptionally alone in an area necessitating mutual trust like climate change.

Sometimes politics shows powerlessness rather than power. In the eurozone crisis, the unnamed financial markets or powers were our biggest enemies. I did not notice much of the rationality of the markets then. Now, there is increasingly the power of social media and its owners. How can one man say whether the truth or lie is being told on Twitter? It is Orwellian.

Faced with the barbarity of Russian power today, the EU is opting for counter-power. For too long, it has been believed that interdependence is the way to peace. But, what is true within the EU does not apply to countries that hold totally different values or un-values. As a result, for us today, security is ultimately more important than cheap energy because life is more important than death, and freedom is worth more than money. This is why the EU chose to fund arms supplies, set unilateral economic sanctions, and freeze of assets of collaborating oligarchs. It is no longer a time for powerlessness but for the power and strength of our convictions.

Political institutions, especially in a democracy, ultimately get power from the people through elections. Paradoxically, parts of the population feel no power but only powerlessness towards their elected representatives. According to a survey, 37% of Belgians feel that a good dictatorship would not be a bad thing. The same feeling prevails in other countries. Citizens would choose definitive powerlessness in an authoritarian state to react against powerlessness within a democracy. Yet, some of our fellow citizens want something different. Many want to retain their freedom of speech in an authoritarian regime. One wants to continue to democratically oppose a supposedly undemocratic state. It will not work. Ask many Chinese or Russian citizens today how they see it!

We need to respond to that sense of helplessness through policies that achieve faster and better results on climate, migration, job security, poverty, and security. We need more recourse to participatory democracy alongside representative democracy, starting at the local level. We also need to get back to treating each other in a respectful manner, far from the Twitter culture or lack thereof. Free speech is something other than free swearing and shameless lying. It reminds me of the state lies of authoritarian states.

The crisis of European democracy is only part of the crisis of democracy at large. Fortunately, populism is on the rebound in many places, such as the US, the UK, Brazil and several European countries, according to opinion polls. We will see what happens in Italy in terms of policies themselves. Modern society is complex and will remain so. Populism lives off simplisms. Their greatest enemy is facts. They are the enemies of fact-based arguments. On the other hand,  authoritarianism is under pressure in Russia, Turkey, and even in China. Don’t underestimate what is happening there.

Global actors are all practising 'strategic autonomy', but nobody wants to go down the road to complete autarchy because it is the road to impoverishment. If we still remain dependent on each other to some extent, there is a sharing of power. No one rules the world alone. The heart of the matter is that we, as the EU should not be too dependent on strategic areas such as energy, defence, and others. How can one be geopolitically relevant if one is too dependent on other global actors?

In that jungle, the EU, member states and citizens must find their way and find their place without fear, uncomplexed. Fear only leads to despair and violence. One must want hope. The less time is ripe, the more we must do to make it so. Nothing is lost. The real decadence is war or being a people who can or should only obey, trembling with fear. The opposite of what Europe is and how Europeans see themselves. We will turn fear into hope.

Photo credits:
Christophe Licoppe

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