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Presiding over Europe in times of war

After France from Jan. 1 to June 30, the Czech Republic will hold the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union until Dec. 31. For the first time in the history of institutional Europe—the European Economic Community and later the EU—these are wartime presidencies. Even if the EU member states are not legally at war, the new Russian offensive against Ukraine is, indeed, a European war. It is in Ukraine, as the former Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg stated already in 2015, that the fate of Europe will be decided.

In fact, this war on European soil has been going on for more than eight years in Ukraine—and certainly even longer if we remember the Russian aggression in 2008 against Georgia, 20 percent of whose territory is still occupied. This is a war of the Russian regime against Europe: Mr. Putin has never hidden his intention to destroy Europe, to unravel the values of freedom, law, and open society that characterize Europe, to break down international law, and to restore the zones of influence whose very principle was rejected by international law in the aftermath of World War II. This legacy was at the heart of the tradition of France, which, with René Cassin, brought human rights to an international level. This aggression also runs counter to the principles of freedom and emancipation embodied by the dissident, hero of the freedom movement, and then the first president of free Czechoslovakia, following more than 40 years of communist dictatorship, Václav Havel.

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Milan Kundera will serve as a link between the presidencies of our two countries this year, and as an incentive for us to think about Europe, as we will do on June 29 at the Alliance Française de Manille. A French citizen of Czech origin, now 93 years old, he embodies the destiny of a Europe of dark times that we find today: persecuted, forced into exile, stripped of his nationality, and then regaining it at the end of his life, he is a voice that alerts us to the fragility of freedom and the duty to not give up in the face of the grip of criminal regimes.

This Europe has shown for too long to paraphrase the title of one of his books, an “unbearable lightness” by not taking the Russian threat seriously. It was too exclusively focused on the economy and the peace project of the founding fathers of Europe to see the war. It did not perceive, despite its massive crimes committed over the last 22 years, the danger of the Russian regime. One half of Europe, the western half, did not want to listen to its central and eastern parts, which, because of its closer experience of oppression, had a better understanding of the threats.

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But the good news is that Europe has woken up. In the months leading up to the outbreak of this new massive war, it realized the futility of trying to deal with the Russian regime. Consequently, it prepared a drastic reinforcement of the sanctions, which, since Feb. 24, have not ceased to be reinforced. It has taken up the cause of Ukraine by granting it the status of candidate country to the EU—it was actually not a “gift,” but the integration of this great European country will represent a major asset for Europe: economic, security, spiritual, intellectual. It has coordinated its action with Nato, the US, and the United Kingdom. It was able to respond quickly to the dramatic influx of 7 million Ukrainian refugees fleeing desolation and death. It has clearly taken a stand in favor of aid for the military defense of Ukraine. On the scale of the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian victims of the barbarity of the Russian regime, this is still insufficient, but the progress made in recent months has been considerable. They must continue and the countries of the Alliance must become even more involved in the defense of Ukraine: time is running out and every day that passes results in hundreds of deaths.

This Russian war has global ramifications: in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The Kremlin makes no secret of using the weapon of famine to put pressure on Europe and the world. The EU will not remain inactive in this area and will ensure that the countries threatened by this weapon, which the European leaders have designated as war, will not be blackmailed. World food security must not be threatened, especially in the Indo-Pacific area.

Europe, a power by choice and more than ever by necessity, will remain in the front line to defend the universal principles that are not only its own throughout the world. Human rights, truth, and dignity are values shared in all parts of the world. It is also this memory of past and present struggles for freedom that we must preserve. Let us recall the words of Kundera: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against oblivion.”

Dr. Adéla Gjuričová is a senior researcher at the Institute of Contemporary History at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. Nicolas Tenzer is director of the weekly French newsletter Desk Russie and president of the Center for Study and Research on Political Decision.

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TAGS: Europe, food security, Ukraine, War
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