The diplomat, theologian and anthropologist Teodor Baconschi, former Minister of Foreign Affairs (of Romania), answers questions regarding the EU’s post-pandemic future in an interview offered to Geostrategic Pulse.
Geostrategic Pulse: Lately, political and institutional cleavages have become more apparent within the European Union. The declining level of cooperation, the lack of solidarity at the institutional level, the widening developmental gaps among members states – all these seem to support the idea that Central and East European states are still inferior – economically, politically, and socially -- vis-à-vis their Western counterparts. To what extent should we still contemplate the idea of an EU of nations, where each member state, regardless of its size or geographical position, could expect to benefit from economic support and fair treatment on behalf of its partners?
Teodor Baconschi: The EU can be described as a massive supranational bureaucratic framework that governs over a mosaic of member states, whose behaviors and interactions are shaped by the principles and norms enshrined in the EU’s treaties. Unfortunately, the gap that separates Europe’s Western and Eastern fronts has not yet been bridged. Even though the newest member states have made considerable progress in getting up to speed with the “Carolingian” core of founding states, there are good reasons to believe that reaching full convergence will require at least three additional decades. The mounting Euro-skepticism displayed across the political and mediatic landscapes of European countries, and particularly within the Visegrad Group, is, paradoxically, empowered by the very fact that Central and Eastern European countries are closing in on their Western counterparts in terms of living standards. One can only afford to criticize a given system when one counts oneself among its vital components. This attitude is noticeable in Romania as well: the boost in economic growth that we experienced in the aftermath of our country’s adherence to the EU in 2007 led to the emergence of various sovereigntist voices, who have nevertheless remained relatively tame, as Romania still lacks a strong enough economic foundation to justify a genuinely aggressive stance towards the European affairs.
I, for one, do not believe that the principle of juridical equality is sufficient to mitigate the economic, demographic, and cultural imbalances between member states. This principle does work in practice, but only when we acknowledge the major differences that separate the Big Ones (Germany, France, Spain, Italy), from the medium-sized yet strong (The Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, etc.), the medium-sized yet fragile (like Romania and G4, minus Poland, ahead of the group), and the very small states (the Baltic countries, Slovenia, Malta, Cyprus, etc.).
Can Ursula von de Leyen's mandate at the head of the European Commission bring about important changes to the European economic architecture?
I believe that Germany’s rotating presidency comes in at the right time… And I am convinced that it will facilitate synergy between Berlin and Brussels, and in particular, between Chancellor Merkel and her former colleague, Ursula von de Leyden. We hope that this German-German cooperation will clarify the EU agenda in its entirety, in full transparency and responsibility. Many of the sectoral strategies promoted by the EU over the two past decades were implemented poorly, precisely because they had set an overly optimistic target for collective ambition. How much did we ultimately achieve from the 2020 Agenda? What is the regional relevance of the EU Strategy for the Danube Region? How realistic is the Green Deal that is currently being promoted by Brussels, given that 80% of electric car batteries are produced in China? Examples abound. On the other hand, the EU – born from the ruins of two world wars and raised on a Christian-Democratic foundation during the Cold War – has contracted the mania of restorative ethical exemplarity, apparent in the tacit adoption of a multiculturalist ideology whose limits have evidently been reached, yet who the Eurocrats continue to endorse (out of inertia and convenience more so than dogmatism). This diffuse, unofficial yet persistent (and increasingly more compulsive) ideology has devitalized the link between the techno-structure of the EU institutions and the electorates of the member states, who often resent the EU’s elites for failing to address their real grievances (jobs, pension system, defense, immigration, economic competitiveness, the future of research and education, etc.). After all, the much-criticized wave of "populism" that emerged in almost all member states in recent years can be interpreted as an alarm signal from an electorate that has become increasingly frustrated by the superficial rhetoric of the European Commission and Parliament. I believe the EU would benefit from greater self-awareness and willingness to address its own flaws, instead of the arrogant self-sufficiency that some of its representatives have displayed in the aftermath of Brexit.
Against the background of Brexit, the crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the prospect of elections that will take place this year in several EU member states, can we expect a more integrated, united and supportive Union, or conversely, more division?
I am genuinely convinced that national selfishness – exacerbated by internal electoral considerations – can jeopardize the historic success of the Union, either through the renationalization of key policies or through the promotion of a "multi-speed" model of European integration. Indeed, it is very difficult to maintain balance between subsidiarity and the objective need to develop common Taxation and Defense strategies. The EU is now facing the greatest geopolitical storm of the 21st century. It has an existential need not only for cohesion but also for the facilitation of consensus-building mechanisms when making strategic decisions. The creation of a functional European system cannot be carried out in the absence of upward homogenization or through the antagonization of new member states, some of whom have rather precipitously been labelled “illiberal”. Europeans ought to finally put the “Three Musketeer Principle” into practice, as we all share a common destiny which entails an authentic, rather than merely declarative or ideologically conditioned, form of solidarity”.
The European Union can become a global actor if it continues to maintain, even under current circumstances, a high degree of involvement in the economic development, at regional and global levels. However, in order to become more influential, it needs to improve in certain fields. What are the areas where the EU is still weak but that can improve vis-à-vis the other global actors?
Returning to the theme of "moral exemplarity", which is either utopian or self-limiting, it is interesting to note that after Brexit, the EU no longer has any universities in the top 25. We are running the risk of falling behind in the technological race with the US and China. The EU no longer produces smart phones and computers, we are deeply dependent on the infrastructure of American digital giants, we relocated far too many industries, we cannot implement 5G technologies on our own, we have failed to find a common voice with regard to foreign policy, just as we have failed to build a European army, in support rather than opposition to NATO. We should also be thinking about the revitalization of our relationship with the US: we should not let circumstantial factors (such as the current American president’s communication style) deteriorate our transatlantic partnership.
What is the best course for the EU to navigate in order to ensure its citizens' security and prosperity, amid competition from Russia, China and even the US?
If we wish to avoid a Pax Sinica, we need not compete with the US, but rather cultivate a climate of strategic cordiality with our American partners. Unfortunately, the current cultural war that is raging between progressives and conservatives, which has surreptitiously been imported from the US into the EU, will continue to undermine the political cohesion of the Western world: moderate and rational voices from both camps have an obligation and interest to put an end to this self-destructive ideological conflict and emphasize instead the importance of bipartisan logic in the process of democratic negotiation. Let us not forget that we do not have the luxury of historical "breaks" – the processes through which the West's democratic-capitalist hegemony is challenged are in full offensive, even they are masked by the seemingly benign pretext of a "multipolar world"…
Romania is located in a particularly complex region, where actors and interests relevant to national, regional and European security and stability, like Russia, Turkey, China, the US, etc. face off. Given that it also represents the eastern border of two organizations, NATO and the EU, Romania must combine its efforts with those of its allies to consolidate an eastern and southeastern flank, common to the Union and the Alliance, that will guarantee stability in this part of Europe. What are, in your opinion, Romania's main vulnerabilities and opportunities, and what do you see as optimal Romanian policies (national or as an ally) in the short and medium term?
I believe that Romania is right in advocating greater transatlantic cohesion and consolidating NATO's eastern flank (Kogălniceanu, Deveselu, Câmpia Turzii, allied exercises in the Black Sea and the committment to allocate 2% of its GDP to modernize the armed forces). On the other hand, the world has changed and we have the obligation to strengthen the Romanian state in order to transform it into a meaningful regional actor: there are many ways in which this goal can be accomplished, these include mobilizing domestic capital to promote economic development, facilitating investments and carrying out structural reforms in the fields of education and research, as well as putting an end to counterselection and replacing it with the meritocratic selection of the elites. We debate a lot, often using outdated mantras, but we have not yet managed to halt the brain drain, the proliferation of impostors with faked diplomas and the intensification of partisan divisions. Declaring ourselves a haven of predictability will not give us a more favorable position in the Euro-American equation.
Lately, and in the context created by this pandemic and by the restrictions imposed on religious cults, the special importance EU member states as well as the US attach to the subject of religious freedom has gained prominence. Why do you think there is a lack of interest in this topic, and why does it have no place in the public agenda in Romania?
In our case, we are experiencing a false "modernization". We have no modern highways or hospitals, we don't even have a single university in the top 500, we are struggling to lower the rate of functional illiteracy, but we are increasingly convinced that religion (which remains the moral, historical, and anthropological anchor of Europe) is, in fact, the root cause of all our developmental woes. Instead of confronting and shaping reality, we enable and promote self-denial, anti-clericalism, as well as superficial clashes of ideas, which find battling ground on social media, and ideologically charged accusations. Secularism has undoubtedly been a source of economic development (as it promotes individual autonomy), but this does not mean that we should discard the important spiritual, patrimonial and social role played by Churches in society. Neither should we seek to replace our Christian roots with post-modern corporate micro-cultural implants. The state's religious neutrality is a condition of democracy, but it must not be converted into an official atheist policy. Didn't we have enough of the "scientific atheism" of the communist decades?