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EU Elections a chance to push out warmongers


Europe’s rearmament strategy as a reaction to the war in Ukraine is a dramatic historical mistake and the upcoming parliamentary elections are a chance to rectify the EU’s failures, writes Adriano Tedde.

CAN YOU GUESS which U.S. 20th-century leader said the following words?

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

I once used this quotation in one of my comparative politics classes and the students overwhelmingly believed it belonged to Martin Luther King Jr, the inspirational civil-rights leader who professed his support for peace and a strong welfare system.

The correct answer surprised the class. It was President Dwight Eisenhower who articulated the sentence in a speech known as The Chance for Peace in 1953. Demands for increased military spending were strong at that time, as the Korean War was going through a stalemate and Soviet military investments were growing.

Eisenhower, who witnessed the devastation of war in his life serving as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, put the prosperity of his nation at the front of his worries, expressing a preference for dialogue with the adversary. 

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Today, with a stalemate in the Ukrainian War and a crushing rise in the cost of living and subsequent social unrest that originated in that war, European leaders have nothing better to preach than mass rearmament against the phantom threat of an imminent and necessary war with Russia.

According to a dominant bipartisan narrative and mainstream media, Russia will roll its tanks into the continent once they are done with Ukraine. Listening to those voices, the words of Eisenhower would sound like heresy in the current political climate dominated by nationalism and belligerence, which surprisingly found enthusiastic support among the key institutions of the European Union (EU) in Brussels.

Far from being a political actor, the EU today is not a democratic federation but a negotiating table, a sum of sovereign member states that has achieved two great historic goals since its inception in the 1950s. Firstly, the creation of the biggest market in the world. Secondly, and more importantly, decades of harmony and collaboration in a continent previously torn by differences and conflict.

So far, the great ambition of the EU experiment has remained dead letter on its founding treaties. That is the creation of a union with its own political and military projection. A common foreign and defence policy and a continental armed force, foreseen in the treaties but never put into practice, would make the EU what international relations experts call a “great power”, a subject that acts outside the influence of bigger third actors and stirs big decisions at the international level.

Instead of marching toward the application of the treaties, the European Union of the past two decades has functioned on autopilot, depending on a technocratic leadership bent to the neoliberal axiom of profit and economic growth. Against the welfare of its member states, the Union imposed fiscal rigour, encouraging devolution, privatisation and austerity politics, while upholding values of cosmopolitanism, globalisation and free-trade agreements.

Affordable and polluting energy resources supplied by Russia kept the manufacturing sector going, while the taken-for-granted U.S. military protection provided a sense of safety. In the absence of a clear political vision and a common strategy, the major economies of the region juggled close ties with a Russian oligarchy that happily flooded the European market (and this includes the UK, too) with investments in key economic assets, including real estate, industrial technology and even football.

This occurred while the North Atlantic Alliance expanded its organisation closer to the border with Russia, despite the historical promise not to. As a result, Europe sleepwalked into today’s dramatic situation against its own interests, allowing once again the explosion of armed conflict on its soil, three decades after the tragedy of the Balkans.

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Awaken from the long sleep, the continent finally recognises in its old partner, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a despicable authoritarian adversary, while vowing to defend its “values” through the figure of a populist comedian cum-president who banned all opposition voices in his torn country.

Instead of engaging in a diplomatic effort and leading the belligerents to a peaceful solution for the contested Ukrainian territories, since March 2022 the European Union, for the first time in its history, has openly declared its hostility against a third state, Russia. A look at the official websites of the organisation reveals unequivocal conflict rhetoric, even if war has not been declared (yet).

The Union has made it clear on many occasions that peace will be reached only through a military victory. A fund called the European Peace Facility was created to provide weapons to Ukraine. Around €33 billion (AU$55 billion) has been invested in military support from the EU alone, while member states have unilaterally provided military weaponry and equipment for a total of €40 billion (AU$65 billion).

In March of this year, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in her last speech to the European Parliament, urged European nations to come together to invest in rearmament as they did for the COVID vaccine, comparing public health spending with defence spending. A few weeks later, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, announced, “If we want peace, we must prepare for war”.

This pronouncement reminds me of the principle of trickle-down economics. After they told us for decades that allowing rich people to become richer will produce wealth for the poor, they now want us to believe that war, not dialogue, is what produces peace. Europeans know well that the first principle was a fairy tale with disastrous consequences for many people.

These institutions are the same ones that in 2015 announced that public money spending was over once and for all when it was time to support Greece in its request to renegotiate its public debt. Unwilling to rescue an economy that equalled a mere 1.8% of the total GDP of the continent, they forced a whole nation into years of suffering through excruciating draconian austerity measures.

Today, they resumed public spending not to alleviate suffering but to protract the tragedy of war outside the boundaries of the Union, with a public expense that is three times bigger than what was required to help Greece, a member state, in its moment of need — €90 billion (AU$147 billion) spent so far for Ukraine against the Greek request of a credit line of €29 billion (AU$47 billion) rejected in 2015.

The case for diplomacy in Ukraine

To echo the EU leaders’ belligerence, national leaders have been following the clarion call of Brussels, with French President Emmanuel Macron leading the way, blatantly announcing the possibility of sending troops for a direct intervention in the Ukrainian conflict.

After two years of composed declarations about the necessity to re-establish a dialogue with Russia, this sudden change in Macron’s tones is due to generating consensus for his political side against his party’s main contenders in the forthcoming EU Elections, far-Right leader Marine Le Pen and socialist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who both oppose further support for Ukraine.

Some observers believe that Europe’s mass rearmament is a necessary step in view of the decline of U.S. supremacy and a possible re-election of Donald Trump, who might pull the U.S. out of its transatlantic security commitments. If that’s the case, wouldn’t the opposite strategy be a better bet? In other words, if Europe is bound to lose the military support of its big ally, diplomacy and dialogue with its unwieldy big eastern neighbour should be the priority to preserve peace and security in the continent and avoid what could be a disastrous military confrontation with a nuclear power.

The muscular tones of today’s politicians, driven by their immediate internal political calculations, hide a dramatic lack of strategic vision for the continent. As political theorist Lea Ypi said in 2022, isolating Russia doesn’t bring peace to Europe.

This message was first formulated in the classic Project for Settling an Everlasting Peace in Europe (1713) by Abbé Saint Pierre, the precursor of Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace (1795). The French thinker foretold that there would never be peace for Europe without the coexistence of nations in a federation of free states including Russia. In short, Europe’s interests depend on one word: dialogue.

Faced with the Ukrainian crisis, Europe failed to put its interests forward — that is, the peaceful coexistence among its peoples, following what seems to be a perilous rearmament strategy that erodes the chance for peace in the continent.

During the Cold War, the risk of nuclear war was labelled under the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction”, better known as M.A.D. The word “madness”, used by Pope Francis in 2022 against the rearmament race in Europe, seems the most appropriate to describe the strategy of today’s European leaders. These leaders have not considered the only sensible answer to the ongoing agony and senseless massacre of Ukrainians, which is, once again, dialogue.

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In response to Putin’s madness, they add more madness forcing young Ukrainians into the continuation of a war that cannot be won against the manpower of a much bigger opponent.

The crisis in Ukraine is a tragic failure of European diplomacy. After decades of peace and prosperity built on the free movement of goods and capital, the European institutions seem to have abandoned their historic call to promote dialogue and collaboration. European citizens, excluded from a public debate of the most urgent nature, seem unwilling to get involved in an archaic war with the historically difficult neighbour.

Polls recently showed that most Europeans want a diplomatic solution to the war and reject Macron’s idea of European troops on the field (85% of respondents in Italy, 76% in Germany and 74% in France). Other polls show a fragmented continent when evaluating the effectiveness of the EU support to Ukraine (with 63% of respondents undecided or critical and 36% supportive).

On 8 and 9 June, 350 million European voters will elect their representatives in the European Union Parliament. The only elective body in the EU, the Parliament is home to second/third-tier national politicians, who will have no real decision-making weight in what is merely a representative institution with little to no powers.

The Parliament, however, has a relevant role in nominating who sits in the main executive body of the EU, the Commission. The EU Parliament’s election also reflects consensus shifts within the different member states and can have an impact on national politics, prompting government reshuffles if not full-scale political crises.  

In today’s rearmament rush and chest-pounding proclaims, the words of a renowned Italian war doctor who passed away in 2021, Gino Strada, come to mind:

“If war is not pushed out of history by mankind, it will be war that pushes mankind out of history.”

European voters have a chance to use their democratic prerogatives to send a strong message in the June elections and push the current continent’s warring leaders out of history. This is the one small step that we can take to avoid Macron’s bleak omen before it becomes self-fulfilling.  

In the meantime, the continent will have to wait for a future generation of leaders with a better understanding of the perils of waging war against a nuclear power, who can comprehend the significance of Eisenhower’s words today.

Adriano Tedde is a researcher in American studies with a background in political science and cultural studies. He is currently working on a project on neoliberalism and culture.

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