Interview: Brigid Laffan on ‘Europe in the World: The Emergence of Collective Power Europe’

Interview: Brigid Laffan on ‘Europe in the World: The Emergence of Collective Power Europe’

Until this summer, Brigid Laffan was director and professor at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies and director of the Global Governance Programme at the European University Institute (EUI), Florence, where she has worked since 20‌13. In 20‌18, Politico ranked Laffan, a long time professor of political science who grew up in Ireland, among the women who shape Europe. Laffan is a leading thinker on the dynamic of European integration. She has published a number of important books on Europe, such as Integration and Co-operation in Europe (19‌92), The Finances of the Union (19‌97), Europe’s Experimental Union – Re-thinking Integration (20‌00, co-authored), Core-periphery Relations in the European Union (20‌16, co-edited) and Europe’s Union in Crisis: Tested and Contested – West European Politics (20‌16).

Professor Laffan was awarded the THESEUS Award for outstanding research on European Integration, and the UACES Lifetime Achievement Award. In 20‌10, she received the Ordre national du Mérite by the President of the French Republic.

This interview was given complementary to the 7th Annual T.M.C. Asser Lecture which took place on 10th May 2022 at the Academy Hall of the Peace Palace in The Hague. For more information, please visit here.

The interview was conducted by Eva Kassoti and Narin Idriz, researchers at the T.M.C. Asser Institute where they lead the Global Europe Project

Q: One of the major challenges facing the year has been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? What do you think about the EU’s response to this war?

Prof. B. Laffan: ‘I would say it is not one of the major challenges. It is, in my view, the major challenge because it has completely shattered Europe’s illusions about the post-cold war settlement. It has shattered Europe’s sense that interstate war happens elsewhere. Now, it is happening in Europe. It has shattered the sense that Europe had solved the problems of imperialism and colonialism, at least on its own territory. I would say it has been a general, very serious shattering of illusions. It has also shattered the illusion of the French and the Germans that one could do dialogue with Russia; that there was, in the end, a possibility of having a fruitful, stable and peaceful engagement with Moscow and with the Putin regime. I simply think that was never true, and has now been proven not to be true, and Europe clung to these illusions. Despite the fact that Putin invaded Georgia in 2008, we had Crimea, we had the Donbass, we had Syria and we had Chechnya. We had all of this evidence, but this evidence amounted to nothing. 

Now, fast forward, the world changes on the 24th of February. In my view, it is a transformative moment in Europe. It has shattered the security order and it will put enormous pressure on Europe to align its political economy and its strategic security interests. So how did Europe respond? Well, the first thing to say is that the EU responded swiftly, with draconian sanctions much stronger than anyone would have anticipated. The second thing is it used the peace facility to agree to send lethal weapons to Ukraine. That is extraordinary, because if someone has said to me, prior to this, that this would be the case, I wouldn’t have simply believed it possible. And then the third thing that Europe did very quickly was, it used the 2001 Temporary Protection Directive to ensure that those fleeing war in Ukraine had protection, access to welfare and social security systems that simply is much easier than being a refugee under any other circumstance. 

So, I would say that the initial response was strong. It was followed up by a strengthening of language at first. So, the EU has ratcheted up. Now, the individual member states of the EU are, of course, also sending material and armed force as well as lethal weapons to Ukraine. Therefore, on a scale, one has to say that Europe understood that the world had changed. It understood that this was a very serious development globally and in Europe. But, and here’s the big one, Europe is sending about a billion euros a day to Moscow, paying for gas and oil. And that billion is part of the financing of this war. On the one hand, Europe has done a lot, but on the other, it hasn’t followed the consequences of its own poor geostrategic dependence on oil and gas. I would say at the epicentre of this is Germany. 

German geostrategic dependence on Russian oil and gas has increased since Crimea. It hasn’t gone down – dependence has actually increased. This is simply an example of a failed policy. It was dangerous for Germany, to rely on this to the extent that it did on oil and gas from Russia. Not just Germany, but Italy as well, for example, and others. But those two in particular. So, we are now left with a situation where the big sanctions, oil and gas, are still on the table but because of the level of dependency, there is real hesitation, in, for example, Berlin, doing anything about this. Why? Because of, simply, worry that the German economy will take too much of a further hit. Of course, sanctions always hurt the other side, but they also hurt the sanctioning side. What I see in Berlin at the moment is a very weak Coalition, a three-party coalition, and an extraordinarily weak Chancellor. Scholz cannot make up his mind, he is hiding behind other countries in Europe. He’s not driving the analysis to the logical conclusion. Which means that it is imperative for Europe that Ukraine does not lose this war. 

Why do I say that? Let’s be very clear what Putin’s objectives are. His first objective was to basically take Ukraine over again, have it in his sphere of influence, put a puppet regime in Kyiv and undermine Ukrainian statehood and nationhood. He has publicly said that Ukraine has no right to exist, and that it is not an independent, sovereign state. In other words, he has not accepted the post-cold war settlement in Europe. Now, that is very serious. If a country with nuclear weapons can wipe another country off the map, then there is no future security for the rest of Europe. And if I were sitting in the Baltic states, I would have reason to be very worried indeed. So, on the one hand, Ukraine cannot – I would put it this strongly – lose the war. They might, or they might not end up partitioned. In which case, Europe’s future security architecture is in terrible trouble. Now, this brings me to my point, that there are those in the western half of the continent, who thought this would be a quick war, who thought somehow rather, Putin would win quickly, and then we would have to come to terms with that – a bit like Crimea. What I would absolutely emphasise is the extraordinary agency that Ukraine and Ukrainians have exercised in this war. 

I am in awe of Zelensky and the way in which he has played a very weak hand. I am in awe of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and more than anything, I am in awe of the people. Because when you see individuals walking against Russian troops or standing in front of tanks, then to be honest, the rest of us in the western half of the continent are worried about our gas bills. There is a problem here. So, I think that Europe has a way to go. But I do understand how difficult it is because economic interdependence and, particularly, energy dependence is a major weakness. On the other hand, either Putin is stopped now, or he will have to be stopped elsewhere. By that I mean, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia. He will not allow these countries to have agency over their own futures. 

We shouldn’t ever forget that Kyiv as a city predates Moscow by about 500 years. Ukraine is a European state, wanting sovereignty, wanting democracy and the rule of law. Yes, there was corruption. But to be honest, if I look at Orbán, there’s a lot of corruption in the EU as well. So, the war in Ukraine and what happens will have a legacy in Europe for the next 20, 30, 40, 50 years. I would put it that strongly. Of course, the other big European challenge, which is the global existential one, is climate. In a way for the future of mankind, climate is most important. But for the future of Europe at the moment, it is Ukraine. One would have to hope that over time, the shock of Ukraine and the invasion will accelerate Europe’s energy transition. That’s the sort of virtuous cycle that one might hope.’

Q: You just mentioned that the war in Ukraine is “a transformative moment for Europe”. Do you think that this war has brought Member States closer together? What are the consequences for European integration?

Prof. B. Laffan: ‘So— I think—that it has brought states closer together — I doubt, in the sense that there are fractures in Europe. But what it certainly has done, is it has revealed and highlighted the importance of unity on these major questions. And we have seen a pattern of that unity: we saw unity in the Brexit negotiations, we saw —in the end— unity on the RRF (Recovery and Resilience Facility) in the pandemic. So far, despite Orbán, we are seeing, broadly, unity on this. But of course, will the unity survive, if Europe has to go further? And my view is, it has to. But can it then sustain the unity in the future? And the other —I think— concerning issue is that, as you get a cost of living crisis and a cost of energy crisis in Europe, will domestic politics hold, in support of all of this? When it begins to hit people’s pockets, how much are we all prepared to pay for Ukrainian freedom?’

Q: Indeed, in the area of energy, obviously, we need to stop financing the Russian war by buying their oil and gas —with gas, it’s apparently a bit trickier because of the infrastructure— but Russia will immediately shift its orientation and market —towards the China, India, etc.— i.e., it will still be able to finance its wars. Do you think the EU has the tools or the vision to enrol also other non-Western states —like China, India and the Global South— in the wider sense, in its cause against Russia.

Prof. B. Laffan: ‘I think that’s a great question. So, Xi Jinping and Putin met in early February, and they established —what they called— a strategic partnership without boundaries and limits. Why? Because China sees great power competition, it sees the containment efforts of the United States, and it wants to contain as far as possible, that conflict; or it wants strategic partners on its side. In my view, rhetorically and publicly, Beijing buys the Russian line— they call the war a military operation, they say that the cause of the war was NATO expansion. But, when it came to the UN General Assembly vote, they abstained. 

Secondly, they have not broken —at least on the basis of available knowledge— the sanctions. They have not, for example, given the Russians spare parts for their aircraft. China has a very delicate balance, because it is actually very difficult to justify the war. So, Beijing might think, “Oh, great, the West and the US are back in Europe, this is good news for us.” And of course, they read everything through the prism of Taiwan. But if I were in Beijing and assessing this, I would think, “there was a Western response.” The financial sanctions simply revealed the power of the United States and its continuing hard power when it comes to the dollar. The Chinese, in my view, have a very delicate balance to pursue, in terms of not finding themselves on the wrong side of history. China would potentially have the capacity to influence Moscow and put pressure on Moscow, but they clearly don’t want to. They’re sitting on the fence.

What does this mean for the EU? I think that it means —with the strategic compass— that the element of the policy towards China —that they are systemic rivals— is strengthened. And there is a world coming, or potentially —because again, one has to be extremely careful in making any sort of long-term predictions—, but I think we already see decoupling dynamics in the global economy and we could see those decoupling dynamics in the years ahead. 

It’s also fair to say that it’s not just the US and Europe against Russia, but you also have Japan and Singapore. In other words, it is a more complicated picture. I think the pressure that is far more likely to have any effect is the American pressure on these countries. What we should also learn from this, is that the United States is certainly not a unipolar power in the world anymore. But China, in my view, misread US power and thought that US power was waning more rapidly than it has. So, I think, this first and foremost, is a war in Europe, and the values that are being defended are the values that make Europe what it is. And the US is back, the US is clearly giving real time intelligence to the Ukrainians, it is giving them a lot of arms, etc. So, of course, the other thing that has emerged from the war, is that the EU can talk about strategic autonomy forever and ever — NATO is the security ‘gateman.’

And what we need to see is a strengthening of the European pillar in NATO, a complementarity between the EU and NATO, cooperation and not rivalry. But the idea of an independent European security strategy — I don’t buy it. Now, of course, that can change depending on who sits in the White House. Because, of course, the big question is the future of American democracy in American politics — and that has a way to go.’

Q. ‘You hinted earlier and now you mentioned expressly the term ‘EU strategic autonomy.’ What is your take on the concept? Some commentators have also said that the discussion surrounding this concept lays bare a tension, between the ability and the need to act autonomously, and the traditional image of the EU as a soft power, and as a power committed to the ethos of multilateralism. Is there really a conflict there?’

Prof. B. Laffan: ‘So firstly, let me begin with ‘strategic autonomy’ and ‘European sovereignty’. Those concepts are grappling with a very real challenge to Europe, and that is in Europe’s approach to the world. It spent years and years —decades— thinking and hoping, the world would be more like Europe. Now we know the world is not like Europe, and it is not likely to be. So, yes, the EU —traditionally civilian power Europe, etc.— has to grapple with hard power. And remember, the EU always had some hard power: it is called ‘trade.’ The EU was never very nice about trade in negotiations with third countries. They used hard power, because they were a powerful market actor. 

So, what we are seeing at the moment is those concepts of ‘normative power Europe’ —where it is all about the values and about Europe being this wonderful example for the world—, and then ‘market power’ —which is the single market, which we know is very powerful—, but what I will talk about in the lecture is the need for Europe to also embrace ‘collective power.’ By ‘collective power’, I mean capacity across the range. That means— Member States will spend more on defence now, but they already spend a lot on defence. The issue is, it is not very effectively spent: you don’t have interoperability and you have a lot of waste. So, the EU needs to make sure that whatever it spends on defence and security adds value. And I don’t mean just ‘the EU’, but everything that is spent by Member State governments as well. So, Europe cannot avoid hard power in an era of great power competition, and the kind of century we face.

On multilateralism— multilateralism became a fetish for the EU. The EU is multilateral. We are very committed to a multilateral world. That is fine, provided multilateralism is effective and has an output. Multilateralism is not a good in itself. It is simply a means to create collective goods for the world we live in. And again, I think Europe needs to get beyond this ‘fetishness’ about multilateralism and look at what kind of international order is emerging in an era of great power competition. And I am afraid soft power matters, but only soft power will not be good enough.’

Q. To go back to the response to the war in Ukraine. So, we can see that there’s a welcoming of Ukrainian refugees, which stands a little bit in contrast to the push backs that we’ve been witnessing in relation to for example Middle Eastern, African and Afghani refugees in various member states. Does this say something about the EU’s belief in the universality of human rights? 

Prof. B. Laffan: ‘For me, there is a sociological answer, and there are two parts to that sociological answer. One, it is well established in research – the evidence is there. People have the most sympathy for people, a) who are like them, and b) who live near them. That is what the research tells us – that is innate. Well, innate might be too strong a word, but it is learnt. Secondly, what we see predominantly from Ukraine is the migration of women and children; whereas, the push from Africa and Afghanistan involves a high proportion of young males, and it is not necessarily easy to distinguish between rights of refugees and economic migration. So, in my view, there is a difference. Now, is there a racist element? There are those who argue that there is, that it is because we are happier with people who are not of colour, etc, etc. I think there is a racial dimension to the response but it is also complicated. I think it is probably the expectation in Europe that if Ukraine survives, most of the Ukrainians will go home. There would be much less expectation of people returning to  much poorer parts of the world. So, on the universality of human rights, human rights are universal, but that implies that all regimes observe human rights. The burden of global human rights cannot fall just on Europe, but if you have badly run countries across the world, there’s also a responsibility beyond Europe.’

Q. At this point in time, there is a discussion going in the Netherlands about whether to grant Ukraine an accession perspective or not. What do you think? Why do you think the EU and some of the member states are so hesitant about offering Ukraine the candidate status and the prospect of accession? Because as we all know, having the candidate status does not automatically entail opening accession negotiations, and immediate accession. We know countries that have been waiting around for decades. Why not give them that one symbolic source of hope?

Prof. B. Laffan: ‘I think I would, on the basis that Ukraine is actually fighting for our way of life. And the idea that somehow, the European Council said Ukraine was part of the European family. In my view, it is leading the European family at the moment. So, if I were -because I’m obviously retired now – but if I were to dedicate time and energy to something over the next 10 years, then I would gladly train every Ukrainian civil servant on the EU, I would give my time for nothing, because I think Ukraine should have a) a membership perspective, and b) the EU is going to have to relook at its enlargement process. I think the war has altered the dynamics of the enlargement policy. And of course, it is scary. Because there was in a sense too much benign optimism in the 1990s, early 2000s. And we ended up with Hungary and Poland. And both those countries have every right to be members of the EU, but the EU cannot and should not tolerate an authoritarian inside the tent, and Orbán’s regime is entirely authoritarian and no longer democratic. SI regard Hungary now – the Hungarian regime, not the Hungarian people, but the regime – as a cancer in the EU. And it has made it much tougher for the Western Balkans, because the countries of the Western Balkans are smaller, also corrupt and still lack capacity. But over the next 20 years, if Ukraine survives, will we see Ukraine or perhaps Moldova, Georgia, etc, etc, as member states of the EU? Yes, we will. And that is transformative. And I understand how people in the Netherlands or in Ireland are worried because it makes the whole system less comfortable, less ours. But, you know, countries in the western half of the continent had a tough history up to the end of the Second World War. But since then – they’ve been the lucky countries. So, lucky countries need to understand their luck. It’s not because they are better. They are just lucky.’

Q. We can see that the EU is committed to protecting and promoting its values externally. But we can see that these very values are in crisis at home. How does this affect Europe’s ambition to project its founding values abroad? 

Prof. B. Laffan: ‘In my view, you can never externally impose either democracy or human rights on other countries. What you can do is add conditionalities in return for market access. . Europe will not alter the nature of the Chinese political system. But Europe has a choice in terms of the Uyghurs by making sure you do not take products from those so-called factories. It is important that Europe retains its commitment to those foundational values, which are much better for everyone to live under than being without. Living in a country of arbitrary state power, where the police can come knock at your door and make you disappear, is a very unsafe way to live. There is enormous value in European values. Those values were hard fought over through the 19th and 20th centuries. It isn’t that Europe woke up some morning and had these values. People stood on barricades, people died for these values. In that sense, yes, there is a certain hypocrisy of projecting externally when you have Orbán and Kaczynski. But in a way, that is not entirely representative of Europe, either. Most European member states are democracies with at least decent human rights provisions. There is no perfect polity in the world, and there is no such thing as perfection when it comes to human rights. But, if you want to choose the kind of society to live in, that gives your children prospects and gives you protection, and avoids that arbitrary state power, then Europe is that – despite all the inequalities. 

Q. The conference on the future of Europe has sparked a debate between the Union and its citizens about the its identity and its role as a global actor. However, the peoples of Europe do not speak with one voice. We have Eurosceptics and we have others who are strongly in favour of multiculturalism and mobility. How is the union to accommodate all these different voices in shaping its identity?

Prof. B. Laffan: ‘Politics is about conflict. Identity conflicts, material conflicts. You cannot have politics without conflict. There is nothing surprising about conflicts around material left, right, or identity; a cosmopolitan versus more illiberal nationalism. So those are just simply the fractures and cleavages of politics. What is very important from my perspective is that the illiberals don’t win because I don’t want to live in that kind of Europe. It should worry us to see Marine Le Pen take around 45% of the vote. That tells me that France is a very fractured country. It should not be possible that if you are a European committed to liberal values, you vote for Marine Le Pen. And lots of French Europeans are going to vote for her.’

Q. To follow up on that, with the UK having left the club and with Merkel also having exited, the internal EU landscape has changed significantly. How do you think this will affect the external posture of the Union?

Prof. B. Laffan: ‘I think the external posture of the EU will not be influenced by Brexit, will not be influenced by the departure of Merkel, it will be entirely influenced by what happens in Ukraine. It will not get away from us.’ 

Q. Professor, you’ve had a long and distinguished career in academia. Are there any challenges that you faced as a woman in academia? Is there any advice that you would like to give? 

Prof. B. Laffan: ‘Of course, it is different for women. In the early 90s, when I got a chair, I was shocked going to the first Academic Council in my university when I went into a room full of older men and only about four women. I have always tried, at every stage of my academic career, when I was an assistant lecturer, lecturer, Professor, to do my job to the very best of my ability. I worked the ladder, not feeling that I would be discriminated against as a woman, rather, what were the things I should do. I was always very passionate about my subject and very passionate about my students. I also took leadership roles in my university. That is where I began to see where the structural problems were. 

I began to see that the male academics and professors would be in the common room at five o’clock in the evening, having a post work drink before they went home, whereas the women were running home to mind children or other ‘house work’. So, the whole networking was very different. I also saw blatant discrimination, as in references from male professors saying, ‘Dr. X, I have not seen her lately. Not been very active’. Then I would say at the promotions meeting, ‘this is illegal. Because Dr. X is on maternity leave’. I would say to the dean, ‘you need to talk to this professor and tell him he gets his university into terrible trouble’. I saw things like that. One year in my university, not a single woman was promoted to professor. Basically, all the women stood up at the next Academic Council and kept talking for hours, hours, we just filibustered. What we wanted to do was make the issue visible to the president. Interestingly, I was on the next promotions committee, it was half and half.  

Leaving all that aside, things are better than they were when I started. There are more women. I think, obviously, the child bearing and rearing years are the toughest.  I have three children and I worked very hard. There are years I don’t remember at all because I clearly wasn’t getting enough sleep. But I was always just very committed to what I did. I was an academic who happened to be a woman, more than I ever felt I was a woman academic. But I also never ever, ever forgot I was a woman. And I used whatever authority and influence I had to make sure that the environment was good for women. I used the opportunities that my leadership roles provided. But again, even at the EUI, I was the only woman on the executive board for my first five years.

The world cannot afford to ignore the talents of half of its people. Countries that don’t have enough women in senior positions, in whatever sphere, are less well governed, less prosperous, and have bigger problems. The most dangerous thing is ‘toxic masculinity’. In other words, those men who think that women in any position are a problem. There is much less of it now, but there is still some. I favour a world where people can live their authentic lives as they see fit. But of course, that is broad brush and it disguises the very real differences in opportunity, depending on where you are born, who your parents are. These are the kind of real-life chances that are tied to socio economic status. I feel fortunate that I had a great career. I just loved what I did. I loved the classroom. I loved my own work, I still love learning. I feel very blessed and appreciative and grateful that I was allowed to spend a lot of time doing things I love. I wouldn’t say I would have done it for nothing, because one should never do that. But it wasn’t just work for me, it was a vocation. I remain very interested in it all. I remain very interested in the world. That is probably a good thing when you’re 67 years of age and retired.’

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