The uncertain future of an avoidable war

The French and German initiative in relations with Biden and the inconsistency of the position of the Italian government.

The main theme of the meeting between Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden at the White House at the beginning of December was centred on the possibility of an initiative to end the conflict in Ukraine. It was an important meeting: the first between the head of the White House and a head of a European government after the years of the pandemic.

Biden said he wanted to meet the leaders of NATO member countries before taking a step towards Russia. In fact, it's all about buying time. The confidential talks between the United States and Russia have been going on for months, unfortunately without a solution. The bone of contention remains the fate of the Crimea acquired by Russia for more than a decade and now that of the Ukrainian provinces, starting with the Donbass, which Russia incorporated after February 24th. It is no coincidence that in the same days Putin declared that these are territories that cannot be part of a negotiation. 

1.   Now something is moving. On the one hand, Macron continues to consider the possibility of a visit to Moscow. On the other, Shultz had on December 2th a telephone conversation with Putin. It hadn’t happened for a few months. It seemed that the head of the Kremlin did not attribute an effective value to relations with the countries of the European Community, considering the head of the White House as the only effective interlocutor.

While the United States remains at the centre of the conflict, the two most important countries of the European Union are back on the scene.

In the meanwhile, Scholz's trip to China, accompanied by a large delegation, has been aimed at strengthening trade and economic relations between the two countries. An initiative taken in full autonomy that bypasses the conflicting positions that characterize relations between Chine and the United States.

Together with Macron's position, it is clear that France and Germany intend to play a specific role in supranational relations and, in this context, a particular role in the conflict with Russia.

But it is significant that Europe is divided, on the one hand the European Commission which with president Von der Leyen is aiming for the defeat of Russia, on the other the two great countries which are following their own diplomatic and political path.

The consequences of the conflict have spilled over into Europe, but in unequal terms. Germany and France are intensifying relations with China and, as we have seen, are aiming to re-establish relations with Russia.

2.  The international scene presents unexpected novelties. The American choice to aim for the liquidation of Putin has proved unfeasible. Russia has suffered the break with the European Union, but has expanded and strengthened relations with China.   

 The ongoing conflict has opened new rifts in the Middle East in favor of Chine. “Xi Jinping will this week pay his first visit to Saudi Arabia in six years – writes the Financial Times - as part of efforts to boost China’s relations with the Gulf region…. The Chinese president’s visit…-underscores China’s desire to boost links in a region that is traditionally seen by Washington as falling under its sphere of influence” (Xi steps on US toes with Saudi trip, 6 December 2022). 

The trip follows the agreement between South Arabia, Qatar and the Emirates with Russia in relation to the price of oil and liquefied gas to global markets. The United States has been deeply angered by these agreements in stark contrast to its policy towards the Middle East. It can rightly be said that the European Union is fundamentally isolated in paying the consequences of the new world asset.

3.  Italy stands out for its absence from the debate involving the two major European NATO countries. has essentially disappeared from the scene.

Initially, the European Commission had been deeply suspicious of the new government. The fear has been overcome. On the one hand, the new Italian government has embraced the American line on the conflict without ifs and buts; on the other, it has accepted the lines typically opposed to a moderate position - more simply, French and German - towards the Ukrainian conflict. A conflict that cannot be resolved by simply returning to the situation that preceded its inception.

The fear of the Commission was that the new Italian government could have taken its own line also in the domestic policy. There was the example of Germany which, without consulting the European Commission, had decided to invest 200 billion to increase public spending and support families.

German policy has not been an isolated case of intervention to revitalize the economy by supporting businesses and households. Japan has invested 200 billion dollars to support the economic recovery. In Europe, Austria has moved in the same direction. The fear of the European commission was that the new Italian government could adopt a similar position by violating the strict limits imposed on public spending.

This move would have definitively changed the economic scenario of the Eurozone dominated by the restrictive European financial policy. A policy for which Italy must reduce its debt year after year regardless of the circumstances that frustrate growth and, at the same time, reduce the meagre incomes of the most disadvantaged sections of the population.

The fear of the European Commission was overcome without problems. The new government has chosen the austerity line. The expenditure deficit foreseen in the budget of approximately 35 billion for next year is mainly intended to contain the price of energy. Support aimed at relaunching the economy has disappeared from the scene. The return to a deflationary economy could not have been more evident.

For the rest there are the typical accents of a right-wing government such as the attempt to block immigration, the progressive elimination of the basic income for the poorest families, the reduction of public spending. The European Commission is satisfied. Italy has not escaped the rules that have seen a reduction in national income over the last 15 years, a circumstance that has no equal in any country with advanced capitalism. So, the country has entered in a new phase of recession after the one generated by the pandemic.

In 2023 growth should be zero-something according to the government, below zero according to international organizations. Italy closes itself in a right-wing policy: fight against immigration from Africa, progressive liquidation of the "citizenship income” (the income for citizens in extreme poverty which affects about 5 million people), constraints on public spending according to as foreseen by Brussels. The consequences of the conflict have spilled over into Europe, but in unequal terms. Germany and France are intensifying relations with China and, as we have seen, are aiming to re-establish relations with Russia.

4.   The European initiative, in contrast to the European commission position, remains in the hands of France and Germany.  But the United States once again took center stage. In the last half a century it has lost the wars of Vietnam and Iraq and abandoned Afghanistan after twenty years of war. 

The war could have been avoided. It was the autumn of 2021 when Angela Merkel had signed an agreement with Putin on the opening of the second gas pipeline. The meeting concluded with a bouquet of flowers offered by Putin to the Chancellor. Europe was moving in a direction of good internal relations and growth. After Merkel's withdrawal, the line of separation from Russia prevailed. But now there's no use crying over spilled milk.

Italy has essentially disappeared from the scene. The European initiative, in contrast to the Commission, remains in the hands of France and Germany. But the United States is once again at center stage. In the last half century, the US lost the Vietnam and Iraq wars and abandoned Afghanistan after twenty years of war.

The future of the relationship with Russia remains uncertain. But we cannot ignore the consequences affecting peoples not responsible for the war in the heart of Europe. The last few decades have been marked by wars that have been as bloody as they were avoidable. It was hard to imagine that the war would directly affect EU relations with Russia. But that's what happened in an unforeseen context and far from any reasonable forecast.