The decline of the European Union in the new global order

The failed attempts to avoid the crisis. The role of the EU and that of the United States.

The timing of the war in Ukraine is uncertain. Initially it seemed that a solution could be reached with an acceptable agreement among the main countries involved. The prediction proved to be a mere wish, even if it was not without a real basis.

Agreement was still near when, in the autumn of 2021, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, meeting in Moscow, had defined the terms of an agreement. And mot by chance, Putin had welcomed Angela Merkel with a large bouquet of flowers.

Relations dated back to the beginning of the century, when Putin, elected to the supreme office of Russia, on his way to Berlin for a formal visit to Chancellor Schroder, had wanted to meet Angela Merkel, then leader of the opposition CDU-CSU, before taking on the role of Chancellor in the 2005. Sixteen years had passed, but relations between the two countries, although marked by ups and downs, had never stopped.  So, not surprisingly, this was Angela Merkel's last trip to Moscow before leaving the chancellery.

Relations between the two countries were marked by mutual political and economic interests. It is no coincidence that the second gas pipeline was soon to come into operation, intended to double the supply of Russian gas to Germany, reaching 100 million tons a year. A large quantity that Germany would have partially transferred to Netherland and Italy that needed it.

Germany and France
Germany, together with France, had maintained an uninterrupted dialogue with Russia even in the moments of greatest difficulty following the uprising in Kiev in early 2014, and the subsequent incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation.

Relations had not been interrupted, and in a meeting in Minsk in February 2015 between Germany, France and Russia with Poroshenko, new head of the Ukrainian government, the path for new relations between Russia and Ukraine had been defined. In particular, Article 11 of the agreed Treaty provided a special status of autonomy within Ukraine for the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in the Donbass region.

Being fundamentally Russian-speaking areas, an autonomous location of the two provinces within Ukraine was not a step without references in the European Union. Catalonia in Spain has a special status and can use its own language, just as Walloon and Flemish are formally recognized in Belgium, even though the two regions have different histories and tradition. Both languages are spoken in Brussels.

But the agreement had melted like snow in the sun in the space of a few months since the Ukrainian government did not recognize linguistic and regional autonomy within Donbass. This was the conflictual framework that tore Ukraine apart for following years.

Negotiations resumed in December 2019 at the initiative of Germany, France - now under the presidency of Macron, who succeeded François Holland - and Putin, with the participation of the newly elected Volodymyr Zelensky at the head of the Ukrainian government.

According to the European newspapers which had covered the meeting, the summit had concluded with a positive outcome. "Repubblica", one of the major Italian newspapers, headlined: "Russia-Ukraine, first steps towards a thaw at the Paris summit".

Angela Merkel declared herself "very satisfied with the outcome of the summit". And in the press conference that followed the meeting, Putin declared in turn that he considered the summit "really useful", and recalled the Minsk agreement which had formulated a special status for the provinces of Donbass within Ukraine.

These were the premises of the meeting in Moscow at the end of the summer of 2021 between Angela Merkel and Putin. Even the boldest of prophets would hardly have foreseen the outbreak of war in Ukraine within a few months, involving Russia on the one hand and the United States and the European Union on the other.

Withered flowers
The optimism with which the meeting in Moscow between Putin and Angela Merkel ended was not without foundation and, not surprisingly, it ended with the agreement for the opening of the second gas pipeline, as evidence of a new phase of cooperation between Russia and Germany.

But, as we know, the deal and the flowers offered to Angela Merkel withered in a short space of time. Merkel was at the end of her fourth term, although she remained at the head of the government until December, when the new coalition government led by Olaf Scholz would take office in Berlin and after a few weeks war would break out with the Russian invasion.

In fact, the conflict had another protagonist in the United States for which Ukraine was part of the European and, more generally, Western defense system. From a global point of view, the main adversary of the United States in perspective was China. But the intermediate step was to divide Europe from Russia. A goal that clearly contrasted with the policy of Germany under the leadership of Angela Merkel.

Government included in the coalition supporting the Social Democrat Scholz the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, two parties for different reasons opposed to cooperation with Russia.

In essence, Germany was entering a new political phase. And, in many ways, the change entailed a weakening of the relationship with France led by Macron. The new French president had hosted Putin in Versailles as soon as he was elected to the Elysée in 2017; and he had returned the visit to the Kremlin the following year and maintained constant relations with Putin. But after Merkel's withdrawal, in Putin's opinion, European politics had definitively passed into the hands of the United States and, virtually, of NATO.

A new international framework
The war definitively changed the international picture. Russia, estranged from Europe, has established a privileged relationship with China, which has become the main outlet for Russian gas pipelines.

The establishment of a privileged relationship between Putin's Russia and Xi Jinping's China opened a new chapter in world history. At the 10 October 2022 session of the United Nations General Assembly, 143 member states sided with the United States and five (along with Russia) voted against, while 35 countries abstained. But abstention acquired particular significance including China and India - two countries which, together, have a population of almost three billion citizens. To which was added a significant number of countries in Asia and Africa for a total of over four billion people.

Meanwhile, the Middle East in turn presents an unpredictable novelty after Xi Jinping's recent trip with the agreement reached between Iran and Saudi Arabia - an agreement sanctioned by the meeting in Beijing under the direction of China. An unpleasant surprise to the United States, Saudi Arabia's traditional allies.

If we add Turkey's choice of neutrality and mediation, the position of the main countries of the Middle East- an area to a large extent under American control - has unexpectedly changed.

What was envisioned as a local war, centered on Ukraine, has become the bait for a global confrontation. The risk of a conflict that could have nuclear involvement is often mentioned. The hypothesis must be excluded (or hopefully will be excluded) because the consequences would be catastrophic, the United States and Russia being the major nuclear powers in the world in which we live.

Concluding The ongoing war, which more or less directly involves the entire intercontinental system, has no precedent after the Second World War. The outcome cannot be predicted. What we know is the substantial subordination of Europe in the scenario that mainly involves the United States and Russia. And, consequently, China together with the major countries of Asia, to which is added, as we have seen, the position of neutrality of the principal countries of the Middle East.

If we consider that negotiation is the only alternative to a global catastrophe, what appears most disconcerting today is the absence of a significant role for Europe. The European return on the global scene towards a solution capable of stopping the conflict would be an important step forward. But, at present, the premises cannot be glimpsed.

Antonio Lettieri

Editor of Insight and President of CISS - Center for International Social Studies (Roma). He was National Secretary of CGIL; Member of ILO Governing Body and Advisor for European policy of Labour Minister. (