Europe at the Centre of Global Crisis

Honorary Professor Bruno Mascitelli provides a commentary on the European response to the unfolding crisis with conflict in Ukraine and its impact on global equilibrium as well as Australia.

As in previous times in history, Europe is again at the core of global attention and crisis. This time the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has put the spotlight on European fragile borders and historic tensions. The European Union (EU), an entity poorly understood outside of Europe, is taking a forceful approach in seeking to punish Russia, something it is often accused of being unable to do given its association of 27 member states. 

Europe is again at the center of global attention, in particular, giving rise to global uncertainty. After more than a decade of difficulties in Europe with economic and debt crisis, Brexit, the rise of right-wing populist governments, the COVID pandemic and response came the Russian invasion of Ukraine which further destabilized what is commonly termed "the old continent." 

Within Europe, rarely has the EU, primarily lead by the European Commission and its main voice, Ursula Von Der Leyen, been so forceful and outspoken: first with its Green Deal Investment Plan announced in January 2020 (investment in the environment) and soon after with the poor COVID response and the need for coordinated European health and economic recovery response. Then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the outspoken voice by Von Der Leyen in proclaiming Ukraine as "one of us" in her 4 May 2022 speech at the European Parliament Plenary on the social and economic consequences of the EU of the Russian war.  

A different tone was set from the past. The EU positioned itself to be a player in this war, engaging in activity of delivering arms, unprecedented in its history.  As we have seen through our media channels, calls have been made for Ukraine to quickly join the EU, sidestepping many of the processes and delays - which may actually happen. This would be the quickest accession of any nation into the EU since it was established. The other nations - in the Western Balkans (Montenegro, Albania, Serbia, and North Macedonia) and two as potential candidates (Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo) - were clearly unimpressed by this change of procedure given the holding pattern over years experienced by most of these countries in relation to joining the EU.

From my perspective as a long-time scholar in the field, the EU as an intergovernmental arrangement is poorly appreciated and poorly understood generally. Now over 70 years of existence since its first days in the post-war period with the 1951 Coal and Steel Agreement between the original six members (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg), its first agreement was to coordinate the war industries of coal and steel as one mode of avoiding war in Europe from within Europe. The strongest voice often heard about the legitimacy and success of the EU is the message that the EU was built on the prospect of peace. 

We have all watched how, throughout the following decades, the European entity grew with new member states joining reaching 28 states in 2013, with Croatia as the last to join. In 2016, the EU saw its first defection with the United Kingdom, after deciding to exit in its referendum, beginning the complex and messy procedure of leaving the EU after joining in 1973. In 2002, eligible countries within the EU coordinated their efforts to introduce a single currency - the Euro, alongside an open border, free movement, and a single market - all of which have helped member states to grow their trade and people exchange to levels unseen in their history. 

As a case study, it would seem that many Australians think of the EU as a place to travel freely with relatively open borders, a simple and single currency, and EU flags everywhere, possibly even on a European passport. Also, Australians rarely pay much attention to the EU and their attention span rarely leaves United Kingdom affairs. This was slightly improved during the Brexit process (2016 -2020) but only just. No media entity has a correspondent in Brussels, and the few Australian news correspondents that exist are located in London.  It will be interesting to see how the Australian media could possibly have their finger on the European pulse now that the United Kingdom is out of the EU. By the way, Australian diplomacy in Europe will also be struggling to understand what is going on in the EU now that the United Kingdom is out. This was aptly noted by the Australian Institute for International Affairs in June 2017:

Even though Brexit is undoubtedly a new phenomenon, the fact that it features so prominently in the discussion reflects the long-standing role of the UK as primary entry point to Europe for Australia. This historical centrality of the UK in EU-Australia relations partly explains the current concerns about ‘the future of the EU'. Indeed the ‘uncertainty', as noted above, is not only for the EU itself, but rather about how Australia can relate without a UK gateway. ‘Insider' respondents backed this up somewhat, suggesting that the EU is portrayed rather negatively in the Australian media, not least through reports from the UK. 

One of the important activities which maintains a thread of connection with the EU from Australia is the Free Trade Agreement currently being negotiated. Negotiations formerly opened in 2018, covering a wide array of trade and services exchanges to provide better access to each other's markets. The background to this relationship in relation to some sectors, such as agriculture, is the notion that Australia lost significant access for its agricultural products to European markets in the 1970s, and this soured relations between the two for decades. Further adding tension between Australia and the EU was the AUKUS submarine decision of 16 September 2021, the tripartite defense technology agreement promising to deliver at least eight nuclear-powered submarines to the Royal Australian Navy, and one of the best-kept secrets in Australian political history. In doing so, Australia annoyed France by rescinding the submarine contract with France, resulting in the liar accusation against Prime Minister Scott Morrison from President Macron: "I don't think, I know." This contrast has reverberated in EU-Australia relations and resulted in delaying discussions on Free Trade negotiations. Many would like to see these negotiations sped up and for these to be as quick (and superficial) as the Australia-UK Free Trade Agreement. 

Rarely are European events off the front page of global news and the current period is no exception. However, it is imperative that there are changes to coverage of global events, particularly, what is happening in Europe during this critical time. The means to understand European events is challenging when there is poor and superficial coverage provided by media organizations: one hopes this will change. As the Australian example illustrates, having access to limited information can mean that major developments end up catching us by surprise, resulting in being underprepared.