Before the Bleak Midwinter: a Review of the Clingendael State of the Union

For many, a state of the union address is a moment where the world casts its eyes to the American president, as he or she offers their two cents on the affairs of state. Less high profile, I would venture, but by no means diminished for being so, is the yearly state of the union (SOTU) address given at the Clingendael Institute of International Relations, a renowned international think tank and academy. It was there I travelled on Wednesday 28th of September, for the annual Clingendael SOTU, where members of the public and practitioners alike could gain access to the institute’s thoughts on the state of international security.

The timing of the address could hardly have been more pressing. Russia’s violation of international law (notwithstanding the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014) with its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in March, has been followed by mounting evidence of war crime violations, food blockades, and dystopian hints by Putin at Russia’s readiness to go nuclear. With sham referendums taking place in Eastern Ukrainian regions, Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia, and the annexations that shortly followed in the days after the conference, the need for the European policy and diplomatic community to be singing from the same hymn sheet was clear.

Key topics in the SOTU included the migration aftershocks that Europe will experience as a result of unprecedented refugee inflows, Ukraine’s new-found EU candidate status and the prospects for further integration, the expected arrivals of Russians fleeing the draft to Europe, the issues present in arms collection and delivery from the EU to Ukraine, the historical perspective on the Russian psyche of war, and much more besides.

Most memorable to me was the presentation of keynote speaker Gerald Knaus, chair of the Berlin-based European Stability Initiative. He stressed the scale of the refugee crisis facing Europe at this time, dwarfing that even seen as the height of the Syrian crisis. He drew attention to the Czech Republic, who, having taken in 300,000, have taken the most refugees per capita in the world. Poland and Germany were also mentioned for having taken vast numbers, whilst France was called out for having only taken in 100,000. The SOTU as a whole did well to stress the aftermath effects that follow from such huge intakes of people. There was not a simple statement of the fact of there being so many refugees, but rather an admission that the human effects of refugees on countries accepting them would have to be considered by policymakers in their planning. How well Ukrainian refugees are able to integrate will at least in part depend on the thoughtfulness of policymakers working to ensure there is a viable path to integration.

The bulk of the morning discussion was split between refugee inflow considerations and Ukraine’s prospects for EU accession. On this, it was referenced that polls indicate 91% support amongst everyday Ukrainians for the prospect of EU membership. Whilst EU membership does not equate to a defensive alliance on the level of NATO, it was nonetheless admitted that tying Ukraine’s economic future to Europe’s via the giving of the four freedoms (capital, services, goods and people), would do much to assure Ukrainians of Europe’s long-term commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty as an economic and social neighbour. Further, if Ukraine were to be part of the EU, then Russia’s logic regarding re-alignment with Ukraine would be defeated. Also touched upon was the reduction in domestic support for Ukraine joining the EU. Diminishing support for Ukrainian accession over time in the Netherlands was mentioned, as, in line with the cost-of-living crisis, familiar (if in my view unhelpful) claims of ‘charity starts at home’ start to wind their way to the surface of political discourse.

More general criticism of the EU enlargement process took place with Donika Emini, head of the CivKos platform, a secretariat of 250 CSOs based in Kosovo, being particularly outspoken in lambasting the circular movement towards membership experienced by her country. Other states embroiled in seemingly endless roads to EU membership including North Macedonia and Serbia were mentioned, as well as the sheer number of months it took for Croatia to be admitted. Ms Emini stressed that it was lack of political will more than anything else, that was holding back the accession attempts of these countries. By way of a compromise, the idea of an EU at different speeds was touted, with different strata, short of full EU membership, as a way to bridge the divide between candidate status and full member; to inject some movement into what has become a stifled process.

Edward Lucas, former Moscow Buro Chief of the Economist, warned against falling for the politics of inevitability. It was not enough for western politicians and thought leaders to believe that the future would simply resolve itself, that the values held dear in democratic society would sustain, by virtue of their inherent goodness. Rather, values of truth, democracy and freedom need to be fought for again and again, in the face of those actors who would tear them down. This means all of us have a responsibility to stand up and be counted in defending democratic values. To not is to relinquish the moral responsibility we owe to future generations to preserve the freedoms we now hold.

Altogether, a brilliant score of ideas were discussed in the SOTU, leaving much food for thought for those present to take home to their communities and workplaces. The need for European solidarity with Ukraine remains. I leave you with the Ukrainian rally call heard the world over in these times. As we approach a bleak midwinter, the need for unity and togetherness must prevail. Слава Україні!

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