Prime Minister of Belgium: ‘The EU Is a Project Concerning the World and Stability’
On January 31, Belgium’s Prime Minister, Charles Michel, gave a public lecture at HSE on how the EU has developed, what lies in store for Europeans, and the future of Russian-European bilateral relations.
In Charles Michel’s opinion, the EU is a ‘project concerning the world and stability’. What began as an economic union, eventually became a political one between countries with similar values. The EU is also important from a historical perspective. Charles Michel noted that Europe had been ‘divided for hundreds of years’ and wars had been going on almost constantly which eventually turned into world-wide conflicts. And it was the people, in the end, who had to pay a very high price.
‘Following WWII, in a Europe that lay in ruins, several politicians came up with a new world order and new relations between European countries’, said Mr Michel. At the core of these relations was not the intention to get revenge. Rather, it was about ‘reconciliation, dialogue and collaboration’. This generation of politicians, the ‘founding founders’ of the EU- brought ideals of education to the fore; ideals which had been lost in the labyrinth of nationalism.
Charles Michel reminded the audience of Montesquieu, who believed that trade brings peace to countries. This was the path chosen by the founders of the EU. ‘Governments had to give up some of their sovereignty, so as to create a unified market’, said the PM. ‘In exchange, they established peace, security and freedom, and they flourished. These principles have remained important to the leaders and people of Europe, and these are the values which should be at the core of the future Europe’.
The fall of the Berlin Wall signified the beginning of a new stage in the development of the European project. ‘The generation of ‘builders’ arrived: Francois Mitterand, Helmut Kohl. Together, they reconciled Germany and France’, said Mr Michel. In his opinion, a major step was made in this period towards establishing the freedom of European citizens to move between countries, as well as towards the free trade of commodities, services and capital.
The PM looks towards the future of the EU with optimism, despite Brexit
‘I acknowledge that the EU today, for the majority of Russians, is a weak player in the world of politics, divided by internal disagreements, losing its values and going into decline’, explained the Belgian PM. ‘But the EU’, he continued, ‘like any organization made up of people, is in a state of constant change. We know about its weaknesses, but they are simply the flipside of the EU’s strength, which is dialogue between people who are strong and responsible.’
Mr Michel also made the point that, regardless of the problems, the EU accounts for 20% of the world’s GDP, making it third in the world after China and India. Also, a large number of countries who are not EU member states wish to become one because the EU guarantees ‘freedom, stability and prosperity’.
Europe is dealing with some serious challenges: security and the fight against terrorism, demographic shifts which impact on social security and health insurance, and waves of migration which have increased as a result of the conflicts in Syria and Libya. Also, we mustn’t forget technology and the difficult questions around how artificial intelligence will impact on societal development.
‘We can consider these challenges with pessimism, or we can choose to see them as opportunities to become more stable, to become freer and to improve the quality of life of our citizens’, said Charles Michel.
He looks to the future of the EU with optimism, despite Brexit. He also considers this event to be an opportunity for development. ‘We must respect the democratic choice of British citizens,’ Mr Michel said. "I am convinced that we will maintain our strategic relations with the UK both economically and in terms of our countries’ security, because our values remain the same.’
The future of Europe largely depends on its ‘ability to organize strategic partnerships with its neighbours’, whether it be Africa, America or Russia. Charles Michel noted that this year marks 165 years since diplomatic relations were established between Russia and Belgium. He also recalled the words of Charles de Gaulle, who spoke of Europe being ‘between the Atlantic Ocean and the Urals.’ And this, according to Mr. Michel, is Russia's very advantage: the country can be a ‘bridge’ between the European Union and China.
The Prime Minister recognizes that the European Union and Russia take different stances on a number of issues, primarily concerning the Ukraine. ‘A broader dialogue is needed between Russia and Europe,’ said Mr Michel. ‘Of course, we have to talk about the situation in Ukraine and about human rights, but we also have to talk about other things – the common fight against terrorism, economic cooperation, energy, and participation in the peace process in the Middle East.’
Without undermining the importance of bilateral agreements, the Belgian prime minister remarked on the importance of global cooperation, in particular, with regard to migration and climate change. ‘These are global issues: even the most powerful countries cannot cope with them alone’, he emphasized.
Cultural cooperation, including student exchanges and university partnerships, will help to achieve mutual understanding. The Erasmus+ programme is especially important, as it helps to develop university projects outside the EU. ‘This is yet another step towards a more harmonious and stable world,’ said Mr Michel.
Photo: Mikhail Dmitriev