Pol Morillas is director of CIDOB (Barcelona Centre for International Affairs). He is a political scientist with a doctorate in political science, public policy and international relations from Barcelona’s Autonomous University (UAB) as well as a master’s degree in international relations from the London School of Economics (LSE). He has taught at several universities, including the UAB, Blanquerna-Ramon Llull and Esade. In this interview, Morillas reviews international current affairs and analyses in depth the role of the European Union in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Has the Russian invasion of Ukraine brought the European Union closer?
What Ukraine represents is the effective implementation of what the European Union has said and done in recent years, and in particular since Von der Leyen’s presidency of the European Commission. It must be a geopolitical Europe, able to adapt to the current times, which are marked by more confrontation. The European Union has always been an institution that shuns the logics of power, because it was created as a supranational institution, precisely so that rivalries and struggles between member states would not occur again. Its genesis lies in the struggle against the primacy of power, but now it must adapt to the new circumstances.
Is Ukraine a turning point in the history of the European Union?
What Ukraine shows is that this is not just theoretical but that a confrontation in classic terms has taken place, once again, in the heart of Europe. As far as Russia is concerned, it is the invasion of a third state, it is the use of force for its territorial expansion and to undo the borders of this state and incorporate them into its sphere of geostrategic interest. For the European Union, this is a reality check in terms of how it has seen itself for years now. This is why the war in Ukraine is so important for Europe.
What is the change?
The European Union has always been very dependent on the security umbrella of NATO and the United States. With very few capabilities of classic “hard power” at its disposal, because the European Union has no military capabilities of its own. It has the capabilities of its member states, but not as a whole. There are also situations in which the strategic divisions between member states are very different in terms of the international agenda. The relationship with Russia is one thing and the relationship with the United States is another. There are those who believe in accepting a secondary position and the support of the United States versus those who believe that the European Union should be strategically autonomous.
What’s the balance? Which EU countries would choose to have the support of the United States?
There is a rift between those that call themselves “Atlanticist countries”, which is to say those who will always see the United States as the guarantor of security in Europe and with the capabilities to do so, such as Poland and the Czech Republic in Central and Eastern Europe. There are also the Baltic countries and before, the United Kingdom, as well as to a large extent the Netherlands. In contrast, the “integrationists” are those who believe that Europe must mature in all areas of power, including the military, such as France and Germany, Spain, Belgium, and Luxembourg. This is just one fracture. The other rift has to do with relations with Russia. There are countries that consider it a very important actor on which energy needs depend, requiring an understanding because it is an important neighbour and this will always be decisive for Europe. France and Germany would be on this side of the equation. In contrast, there are others who say it is impossible to get along with Russia because what it has done to Ukraine, it will eventually end up doing to all the countries it considers to be in its sphere of interest. These countries feel the Russian threat so existentially, so strongly, that they think that what is needed is a confrontation with Russia so that the same thing does not happen again to any other European country. In this camp are the Baltic countries, Poland and other countries that were part of the Warsaw Pact.
Finland and Sweden are countries that have rushed to join NATO in view of the Russian threat.
Yes, these countries have realised that due to Putin’s belligerent logic, the debate is no longer what is the position of the country, but who will protect them from Putin’s aggression. Much of Finnish and Swedish politics and society see NATO membership and not neutrality as the best security guarantee against Russia, because there is no possibility of neutrality in the logic of confrontation. It is a great contradiction for Putin, because what he wanted to avoid – the expansion of NATO – has ended up happening, as the organisation will now have 32 members instead of 30.
Do you think Putin has miscalculated? .
Putin has not achieved his initial aim of a quick war resulting in the annexation of Ukraine, the fall of Zelenski’s government and its replacement by a friendly regime. This has not happened. Now it has become a war of attrition. Wars that are prolonged in time and that are of higher or lower intensity depending on the moment and that allow Russia to maintain real or de facto control over the territory of third states. These scenarios have happened in Ossetia and Abkhazia. And this is precisely what he has tried to do in the Donbass, to make this a reality. And, at the same time, to undermine the position of the West, especially the European Union, and hope that its internal divisions will also weaken it as an international actor and that at the end of the story the Ukrainians will not want to be part of it. It’s a war of attrition, against the desire to get closer to Europe, against what Europe considers its local neighbourhood. The longer the war lasts, the more instability and division it will generate, the more it will wear away at energy resources, the more Putin will trust that all of this will turn the situation around in his favour.
They say this will be a complicated autumn. In recent weeks, we have seen how Russia can cut off the supply of gas into Europe. How much control does it have over the situation?
Obviously Russia has the capacity to set conditions, because we are in a phase of transition towards new energy sources, but it is a transition that has not yet been fully carried out. We still depend a lot on conventional energy sources. Putin has the capacity to influence the European economy and to use the energy card as part of a power play. Yet at the same time the Russian economy depends on these gas exports, which serve to fund the war and Putin’s largely corrupt and dictatorial regime. Unlike oil, finding alternative routes to channel gas to destinations other than in Europe is very difficult. Pipelines or other major infrastructure cannot be built overnight. Thus the bond tying each side together works both ways. It means that the European Union has adopted positions that, most recently, can be considered positive changes regarding the reduction of gas supply, the joint provision of gas or the provision of armaments. Sanctions are working, but they are not able to change the course of the war. The question is: are these steps robust enough, fast enough and effective enough to counteract these dynamics of energy dependence? We are in a very complex moment in history.
Who has been hurt more by the divorce with the United Kingdom?
What we see in this case is that the disruptions that Brexit has caused are evident. What we are seeing is a difficulty in finding workers and labour in the United Kingdom, because one of the main points of Brexit was not only leaving the European Union, but also a clear stance against immigration. This is also having consequences commercially. The whole logic of the agreement had to do with the request of the United Kingdom not to remain under the jurisdiction of Brussels. They didn’t want to be in this single market or under its rules. This was one of the main demands. This next day this created problems in the management of Brexit. This is not to say that the European Union without the United Kingdom is much better off, because the United Kingdom is a global, diplomatic power. However, since Brexit, everything that should have been a domino effect of countries wanting to leave has not happened. The post-pandemic recovery, the arming of Ukraine..., much more federalising steps have been taken. Also because the circumstances demanded it.
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