25 March, 2022

Europe after Merkel: How can the EU best build on its strengths and mitigate its risks?


The Ditchley community debrief, from the conference on Europe after Merkel: How can the EU best build on its strengths and mitigate its risks? was held on the 18 March 2022. The main themes to emerge from the discussion were:

  • The first chapter of a new international system. Europe is struggling with enormity of transformation as the old Europe is coming to an end, and the direction of its future is not clear.  What will Europe’s borders look like in the next ten years – will they be democratic, political or trade borders? How will the world respond?
  • Is it possible to decouple supply chains? Germany’s current economic patterns (dependency on Russian energy and export of goods to China) are incompatible with its values system and also with perception of foreign policy.  It is geopolitically imperative that Germany doubles down on moving away from Russian energy dependency which it will likely do successfully and quickly now. However, decoupling other supply chains - if even possible - would be painful globally.  What would a different Germany mean for the rest of Europe?
  • Russia and China’s potential alignment in war.  There is ambiguity as China has expressed support for the broad geopolitical goals of Russia, while not expressing support for Russia’s war in its current form.  What does China’s support therefore look like in reality? What would such an alignment between Russia and China mean for China and what might possible sanctions from the West look like?
  • What happens next? Tragically, there was little confidence in solving this crisis in the short-term and a strong argument that this conflict will last for years to come as Putin will not accept defeat easily and the regime could be criminally liable should it fall.  There is anxiety over how permanent some of the decisions - sanctions, for example - will be and how unity can be upheld for the long-term.  Thus far, Putin’s war has made unity easy for Europe but disrupting threats loom (rising populism and economic after effects of the pandemic, for example).  On this point, are countries preparing their citizens sufficiently for what is to come in the next coming years?
  • This is not a European crisis but a Global crisis.  The war will see up to 10 million Ukrainians flee their country. Across the world food prices will be driven up, the climate agenda will be set back by up to a decade and financial sanctions could change the face of the global finance system.  It will also have an impact on China’s rise and ‘in between states’ like India will find making a pathway forward difficult.
  • A time for creative diplomacy? The war creates an opportunity for a more stable European security and defence policy through a more mature and more equal partnership between the EU and the US.  The EU defence policy in the future should be more open, think bigger and overcome tensions.  However, events are moving faster than our defence policies can capture.
  • Is now the time for EU candidate status? On the one hand, it would send a positive signal to Ukrainians fighting and is seen by some as morally right.  However, on the other hand, it could have a negative impact on other countries like Moldova and Georgia. The EU cannot be strengthened by bringing in countries that are not ready, as this leads to increased dysfunction.  It could also prolong the crisis as Putin is unlikely to ever agree with Ukrainian EU status.  There was a suggestion that Putin might try to bring NATO into the war as he would rather lose to NATO, than be defeated by the Ukraine.
  • How do we find a place for Russia?  Could Ukraine be neutral in the future and borders be redrawn, so that Russia’s deeply held security concerns over its Western border are accommodated?  Can we build a sustainable order with the Russia we have, or is that impossible? What are balances of appeasement versus taking action now? How much should Putin be punished, since this approach has failed and will always fail?  What is our absolute hard line?