Luc Jacobs: “I don’t see any reason for feeling shame over what the EU achieved so far”
“I don’t see any reason for feeling shame over what the EU achieved so far”
Ambassador of Belgium to Ukraine on the essence of the EU, the vision of Europe and Ukraine’s place in it
The office of the Ambassador of Belgium to Ukraine features old photographs of the workers and engineers at Belgian plants built in the Donbas in the early 20th century. Next to them are weathered copies of bonds and shares that served as a channel for European investment to the industry. These images have two things in common: first, they were about business cooperation; second, none featured the title “Ukraine”. Over a century since then, the themes of business cooperation and investment flow between Ukraine and Belgium remain similarly important. Meanwhile, Ukrainian politicians regularly travel to Brussels to meet with their European counterparts. December 2016 marked the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the independent Ukraine and Belgium. The Ukrainian Week spoke to Ambassador Luc Jacobs about what happened over the period between the early 20th century and today: the foundations and philosophy of the European Union, the way it is perceived in Belgium, the concept of European solidarity, and the place of Ukraine in Europe.
Amidst the challenges faced by the EU, how does Belgium feel about it? Is it optimistic or pessimistic?
Belgium was among the founders of what began as the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and eventually became the European Union (EU). So, we stood at the cradle of the European project. The EU is indeed more than a static organization: it is a political project that is about peace and prosperity. Since prosperity is impossible without peace, the latter is the underlying factor of the EU. That was the basis of the Schuman Declaration: "World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it." When these words were spoken, we were five years after the end of WWII. Its tragic legacy was still very much present in political minds – especially in France and Germany, the two countries that had been entangled in three major wars since 1870.
Eventually, the EU and the European project was able to achieve just that, during more than 70 years already: peace. That is a feat that should make us optimistic about the visionary choices that were made at that time.
Another aspect is how the EU – as we know it now – has been growing organically from its initial version, the ECSC. Every new development and achievement in the European construction has triggered new steps. Here is an example: you have a Customs Union. But what is its full benefit to the economy when you do not create a single market which allows goods, services, people and capital to circulate freely across internal borders? Thus, every new step created new challenges, then new solutions were found, and further steps forward were made. This logical deepening of the EU can also be considered a success.
Or, take the Eurozone. It is often said that, given its shortcomings (accentuated by the Greek financial crisis), the Eurozone is on the brink of collapse. Every new economic or financial hiccup in a Eurozone country immediately incites a choir of voices saying that the euro isn't working. But we are still there. By now, 19 countries, some very recently, have made the bold political decision to share a single currency. We've been able to put in place an architecture that makes the economic and monetary union much more resilient to various challenges, and this in a record time, considering that we have to agree steps between 19, or, in some cases, 28 member–states). The project is not finished yet, nor is it perfect. But this is not a reason to say that it doesn’t work, nor that the political response to the challenges was completely inappropriate.
The same thing is with the migration crisis. We've seen a constant flow of migration through the Mediterranean for many years. This movement has swelled to a much bigger scale and has become harder to manage. But does it mean that we completely fail in coping with the phenomenon? At the European level, we are devising solutions. There can't be a magic one; it takes time. Yet, decisions are being made in order to tackle this challenge.
Meanwhile, whenever EU citizens are asked about what the EU really means to them, they say "no border queues". Think of your own aspiration for a visa–free regime. And, wherever we go, we can spend the same
currency. Those are very tangible achievements of the European project in daily life.
The reason I give these examples is because one could ask: do European leaders make wrong decisions? Do they devise and launch wrong projects, the consequences of which they can't imagine, let alone control? I’ve been reflecting on this, and here is my conclusion. While it is often said that the EU is a 'bastion of bureaucracy', I would argue instead that the EU does not thrive on bureaucracy, but on a political vision. Again, it was absolutely visionary to take the bold decision, underpinned by certain economic fundamentals, to adopt a single currency. Could the political leaders foresee all the consequences? No. But the political drive was such that this project could come about. This is success. Of course, there are problems now. But our actions within the EU should stay in line with the political ambitions that we have set ourselves. This is a question of consistent political leadership in Europe.
Look at the borderless Europe. It started with a handful of countries. Then, the formula became so attractive to others that they’ve joined gradually. Now the Schengen area is nearly identical to the EU and even reaches beyond. Why did national leaders, democratically elected and controlled by Parliaments, take such bold steps if they didn’t see the benefit for their countries and citizens? And it is another manifestation of how the EU develops organically, step by step, often lead by a vanguard of ambitious members.
I still believe that these decisions are being made consciously and because of a vision, the ambition to make economies and societies progress. I don’t see any reason for feeling shame over what the EU achieved so far. And we can be optimistic about the future of the EU because we know: when challenges present themselves, solutions are found. Maybe, not immediately. They may be unpopular and contested, but they are gradually devised and implemented. I’m not alone in this. This is a feeling of optimism, of European voluntarism that is still very present in Belgium – among the political leadership, and among the population.
And yet, forces are rising to contest that vision; their influence on decision–making is growing so far. Will the vision survive this surge?
We may have reached a certain point where the historic reality that lay at the basis of this political project is somehow forgotten. I belong to a generation that has had the luxury not to know any armed conflict or war in their countries. Our parents spoke about the war, so we could have some idea of their experience. But not the generation of our children. They feel somewhat too comfortable, too detached from that reality. We may be losing touch with the historic premises of the European project.
When it comes to migration and asylum, we may have forgotten that our great–grandparents, too, migrated to Canada, the US... that our grandparents fled to Britain and France in WWI and WWII. We received migrants from Central and Eastern Europe in the 1920s and in 1945, then from Hungary in 1956. We should not forget this.
It would be illusory to think that we can devise some magic immediate solutions to the current challenges. Nor can a single state answer them. I should remind another keyword in the Schuman Declaration that is a cornerstone of the European construction: solidarity. This principle is absolutely essential for the EU to function and succeed, to implement the vision that it has projected for itself.
Take the Greek case: with all the criticism of the flaws in the policy developed towards the country, Greece has been the beneficiary of a very substantial amount of European and international financial assistance to help it meet its basic obligations – not only towards its international creditors, but also towards its own citizens. The new financial architecture put in place in the EMU is about more responsible economic governance, but also about more solidarity in sharing risks and tackling crises.
Likewise, we can’t expect Greece, Italy or Malta to be solely responsible for managing the influx of refugees. Solidarity means, among other things, that when countries get into a difficult situation for reasons that don't necessarily depend on them, there is a fair burden sharing. That’s the answer we have to give – more coordinated policy and solidarity among member–states. In the longer run, closing borders and building safe nests just for ourselves is not workable.
When talking about a strong Europe – where is its strength? What does a “strong Europe” mean?
Speaking with one voice. And realizing that you can’t influence the world around you on your own. In terms of the global population, the European component is becoming smaller and less influential, proportionately. We have to be conscious of this and decide how best in our capability we can influence today's global developments. It is important that the EU speaks with one voice in international organizations: the UN, OSCE, WTO, G7. And it should be where it matters globally. Because a country the size of an average, or even a large European state, can hardly negotiate trade agreements with China or the US, do anything about climate change or alleviate world poverty alone.
Belgium has consistently advocated the development of a strong external dimension of the EU. Because we see the logic and necessity of it. In order to weigh on decision–making and have a grip on what’s happening globally, we need a more united, not a fragmented EU.
It can be assumed that one of the ultimate goals of the European project was to arrive at some sort of a European identity, a European citizen. While many young people in the EU do feel that way, the overall dynamics on national levels in many countries seem to move back inward. Is it possible to accomplish this unity and solidarity with the diversity between various EU member–states?
I’m sure it is possible. The way we’ve seen the EU integrate proves it. The motto of the EU is being "united
in diversity". It’s also a motto for the multicultural and multilingual country that is Belgium. In my view, there is no contradiction between this unity and one's sense of belonging to a particular country, nation or region. Within Europe, we respect the fact that there can be national and even regional identities. This is very important for Belgium as well: we are a federal state with regions and communities that have vast autonomy.
The European Committee of the Regions' mission is to involve regional and local authorities in the European decision–making process. The European cohesion policy, one of the oldest policy areas of the EU, is promoting more cohesion and solidarity between the various regions, reducing economic disparities.
This identity dimension within the EU is not based on some kind of a gentlemen's agreement among the leaders, but based on the EU treaties. The concept is called subsidiarity. It means that the EU should not take any action if local, regional or national authorities can take a more effective action. This principle always played an important role in the development of the EU. It is also not a static one, but evolves along new realities and needs.
One big and tangible achievement I see in promoting a European identity is the Erasmus programme, the mechanism that gives vast access to students and allows for their mobility. Its role in exchange and interchange of knowledge, respect about each others' cultures cannot be underestimated.
There is no deliberate attempt from so called "faceless European bureaucrats" to kill diversity. Diversity is part and parcel of the European project.
How do you see the role of Germany in the EU as its most powerful economic clout?
This question would also include France in a way, as French–German cooperation traditionally constitutes the twin–engine of European integration. Belgium has always kept very close relations with Germany in the European context – as a crucial engine for the economy and policy making. This is not out of fear for its influence or because of the unhealthy thinking that following the big ones will keep us safe, but out of the experience of Germany’s staunch and solid commitment to European integration.
Thanks to its sheer size and economic clout, Germany is a big and decisive factor within the European reality. But the interesting thing about the European construction is that every member–state, however small, has a say. Luckily enough, this does not mean that everything has to be decided by consensus and would thus depend the member state not using a de facto veto. But the institutional model that has been shaped by the EU allows for this unique type of interaction between states, based on mutual respect and dialogue. There can be very heated debates, but the common sense of belonging to the same project is the overriding one. It is not that smaller member–states can be silenced because of power politics. The European project is not about power politics.
Apart from the European project, Belgium was a co– founder in NATO as well. How do you see the present and the future of the Alliance today?
For us, NATO is absolutely crucial in terms of its role in providing security and collective defense. In a less predictable security environment, challenges are changing and NATO is adapting accordingly. The NATO Summit in Warsaw last year set important new goals by identifying new challenges: terrorist attacks, Russia’s aggression and deliberate destabilization of Ukraine, hybrid threats, cyber attacks, just to name those. The Warsaw Summit is an important milestone in shaping NATO's response to these and other new challenges. The next rendezvous will be in NATO's new HQ in Brussels in March. Belgium actively participates both in the policy–making, and in the practical implementation. For instance Belgian F–16 fighter planes take part in NATO's Baltic Air Policing mission and a contingent of the Belgian Armed Forces has recently arrived in Lithuania as part of NATO's Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic region.
Another important thing is that European defense and NATO are not regarded in terms of competition, but in terms of synergy; that the EU can develop a strong European pillar within NATO. The EU–NATO cooperation is a fundamental aspect of the EU's Common Security and Defense Policy.
Also in this area we see how EU policies develop organically: some member–states start to work together and develop best practices, those become attractive to others and they want to join. For instance, Belgium and the Netherlands develop a unique cooperation in the sphere of naval defense by pooling training, maintenance and military procurement. That's how complementarities form between the armed forces of member states that can set examples for others to join.
BELGIUM HAS CONSISTENTLY ADVOCATED THE DEVELOPMENT OF A STRONG EXTERNAL DIMENSION OF THE EU. IN ORDER TO WEIGH ON DECISION-MAKING AND HAVE A GRIP ON WHAT'S HAPPENING GLOBALLY, WE NEED A MORE UNITED, NOT A FRAGMENTED EU
Historically, Ukraine and Belgium had links through capital and migration flows. There were several generations of Ukrainian diaspora in Belgium throughout the past century. How have these links affected the relations between the two countries – in the past and present?
History helps to put into context what I see happening around me as far as Ukraine is concerned, as well as the relations between Ukraine and Belgium, Ukraine and the EU. History helps understand, compare and draw lessons.
I have the intuitive feeling that a lot of the common history between what is now Ukraine and what is now Belgium is under–researched. Or if it is, the results are not known enough. Both me, and the embassy team are fascinated by this shared history and we see the potential of it for our public and cultural diplomacy. In 2016, we worked on two such projects. Both lead us back to the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
One theme focuses on massive capital investment in Ukraine at that time. It was triggered by the following factors: Belgium was the first industrialized nation on the European continent. Industrialization started in Great–Britain but was then exported to Belgium as we had coal, iron ore and other resources, as well as water– and railways. The other factor was that we had favorable
financial environment, regulations and thus a thriving stock exchange. Already then Brussels was an important financial center of Europe. As industrialization kicked off in tsarist Russia, we had the technological advance over other European countries and the financial substratum to export it. So a lot of capital that was traded on the Brussels Stock Exchange found its way to the east and south of Ukraine. In addition to the capital invested, technologies were transferred, factories built, and engineers, workers and their families were moving with them. At the height of the period, around 1900, about 20,000 Belgians lived in tsarist Russia, most of them in the Donbas area. That’s part of the shared history that we put in the limelight last year together with the Ukraine Crisis Media Center. They took up this theme and constructed a traveling exhibition based on research by the Dnipro National Historical Museum. We supported this exhibition.
Myself or my Deputy traveled most of the Donbas cities accessible to us but as close to the contact line as possible. The Belgian industrial heritage from that time is often still there. In Lysychansk, for instance, a chemical factory was founded by the multinational company Solvay. While it has gone bankrupt only recently and was dismantled for scrap, the main hospital and children's hospital, the church, the director's house, the accommodation for the workers and engineers are all still there. Importantly, this exhibition encourages the local communities, authorities and researchers to dig in the local archives and family memories and revive their past that had been hidden from them for far too long.
Since 2014, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of WWI which had a devastating effect on Belgium. It was the time of big powers and colonies, so the opposing armies also enlisted soldiers from their possessions in Africa and Asia, from New Zealand, Australia ...– they all fought in Flanders Fields. And we found an interesting page of shared history related to Ukraine: the fact that the Belgian Expeditionary Corps of Armoured Cars, an advanced division for its time, fought at the Galician front in two big offensives in 1916 and 1917. Later, after the Bolsheviks took power, this group of 400 soldiers was withdrawn to Kyiv for a short while and found refuge in the Saint–Michael's Monastery. One of them, the poet Marcel Thiry, wrote a novel titled Passage à Kiew based on that experience. It was translated in Ukrainian in the autumn of 2015.
Another fact: Belgian Redemptorists played a crucial role in the survival and continuity of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church during the Interbellum and under Soviet rule.
The Via Regia is also an interesting concept that I would like to develop further. Since more than 2000 years it was the kings’ route that linked Kyiv to Belgium and France, down to Spain. It was used by political leadership of that time. This shows how much history we have in common that needs to be explored. Importantly, it needs to be matched with ways in which Ukrainians are now writing their history. Too often, your history has been written by others, not by yourselves and not as seen from your viewpoint. I’m not saying that we should all start to rewrite our history or artificially construct new narratives or myths. But it is obvious that you can shed your light on the facts as we have never read them before. And it is as important to compare and discuss these new insights with researchers elsewhere in Europe. We see a lot of sincere interest from the Ukrainian public in these pages of shared history and feel encouraged to go further in this area.
The interest of Ukrainians in their shared history with other European countries is easy to understand: it is largely driven by the search of identification and recognition. How is Ukraine's place seen in Europe, or Belgium in this case?
Ukraine is not known enough as a country in Belgium. We have been separated artificially for too long, and brought up in that narrative which we haven't been able to control, nor challenge. This went unnoticed because you were part of the Soviet Union. Not much natural, spontaneous and unbiased exchange happened then. As a result, there is not much knowledge of what an independent Ukraine is about now, nor of its past. Instead, it all boils down to stereotypes like 'Chernobyl'. Also, you came into the news with violent clashes on the Maidan, the annexation of Crimea by these “little green men” – it was all over the media. Your image has been formed amidst the armed conflict in the East, the downing of MH17. But that is a very incomplete image. It's an enormous challenge for Ukraine to fill this gap in our knowledge. But efforts are done in that regard. There is a small but active Ukrainian diaspora in Belgium: members of this community have launched the Promote Ukraine campaign to help put Ukraine in a positive light. An interesting initiative also is the second edition of "Ukraine on Film" in BOZAR, one of the prestigious cultural venues in Brussels. These initiatives show Ukraine in a modern light. Plus, it should not be forgotten that Brussels hosts the biggest diplomatic and media community in the world. I think that Ukraine would make an excellent country as focus country of a next edition of Europalia, a multi–disciplinary biennial cultural festival in the heart of Europe.
But when you ask me now about how I see Ukraine and its aspirations to be seen as a European country, I say: Ukraine should not be overly fixated on just this question. There is no doubt that you are European. When we think about the recent past, Ukraine’s independence, it is often forgotten that you have been a full member of the Council of Europe for 20 years already. One may say that the CoE is a toothless organization. But I do not agree, the CoE wields a lot of smart power and is about the essence of what Europe stands for in terms of shared democratic values, human rights and the rule of law. Ukraine works intensely with the CoE, and vice versa. So you are a committed member of this European family.
I know that your eventual aspiration is the EU. But you should not feel as incomplete Europeans at this stage. You should not doubt about your European destiny. It is firmly rooted in the past. History is so easily forgotten. Yet, whenever you would fear that you drag this image with you of a "dependent state" of Russia, remind us of how massively Ukrainians voted for independence in 1991, to re–register themselves into the family where they belonged, distancing themselves from the legacy of 70 years of Soviet rule. It was a major feat of Ukrainian nationhood. And it was part of a process to assert independence that had been brewing long before.
You have a lot for us to discover. That merits encouragement. And you have a story of your own – an appealing story. But you have to prepare the minds for that.