Imagining a Europe that would stand up to Putin on human rights

The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell during a debate following his visit to Russia on Feb. 9. (Olivier Hoslet/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell during a debate following his visit to Russia on Feb. 9. (Olivier Hoslet/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Imagine a parallel world in which Europe lived up to its ideals. In that universe, members of the European Union would react to Russia’s attempted murder of regime critics with a single, unified, emphatic voice and would follow its words with action.

Imagine how the bloc could use its tremendous economic and political weight — 27 countries, 448 million people, one of the largest economies in the world — to impose a cost on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime for its flagrant violations of human rights. A strong and focused European voice would have forced Putin to think twice about his brutal treatment of anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, whom he has tried to assassinate and has now thrown back into prison after a contrived trial.

Imagine how the E.U.’s foreign policy chief could have responded to Navalny’s imprisonment — and the widespread protests in Russian cities that followed it — by proposing a tough package of sanctions targeting key Russian officials and business tycoons. The measures might have included making it illegal to demand bribes or to invest corrupt profits in the West, and it could make it impossible to get in-and-out of European capitals and resorts easily. Aside from making life unpleasant for the oligarchs, this would have also forced them to rethink their own cozy relationship with Putin, perhaps making his seemingly endless grip on power a bit less of a sure thing.

This imaginary E.U. would also make it clear that anti-money laundering measures, a freeze of assets held in the West and a series of other steps would follow unless Moscow started making progress on human rights and democracy, beginning with Navalny’s release. Faced with intense pressure from its leading trade partner, Russia would not simply be able to go on with business as usual — and Europe could present itself as the world’s leading defender of freedom and human rights.

This version of the E.U. could contrast itself favorably with the dramatically diminished stature of the United States. Europeans spent the four years of the Trump administration bitterly complaining about America’s abdication of its role as a defender of free societies. Imagine a Europe that was to make good on those criticisms by acting in defense of its own values, finally assuming the “strategic autonomy”it has long claimed to want.

All this is a useful thought experiment — because it brings into relief just how pathetic real-life Europe has become. Last week, when the E.U.’s de facto foreign minister Josep Borrell traveled to Moscow for “talks” on the Navalny issue, the Russians were happy to display their contempt. Borrell stood meekly by as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov humiliated him, calling Europe “an unreliable partner.” Then, adding injury to insult, Russia expelled three European diplomats it accused of participating in the recent wave of pro-Navalny protests.

Europe ought to be a tremendous force for good in the world. Instead, it too often cuts a pathetic figure.

Germany has just restarted work — in defiance of U.S. sanctions — on the Nord Stream 2 project, a system of pipelines designed for the import of Russian gas. By doing so, the Germans have effectively declared that they could not care less how Russia treats its own people and that they will unquestioningly hold their economic interests higher than their alleged loyalty to European values. They didn’t even pause the work for symbolic effect.

This might be a good moment to point out that defending human rights and democracy is not some obligation imposed on the Europeans from without. The European Union’s own founding documents explicitly embrace “universal values of human dignity … based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law.” Imagine if Europe took these values seriously in its dealings with the rest of the world. And imagine if the E.U. and the United States consistently collaborated in their defense. Other tyrants around the world would have no choice but to take notice.

Imagine if the liberal democracies, acting in concert, implemented sanctions against those who benefit from corrupt regimes and imposed curbs on those doing business with state-owned firms in authoritarian states. Despots would have to think twice before imprisoning dissidents, toppling elected officials, muzzling critics, or sending death squads to other countries to silence their foes.

It’s a beautiful dream. But it’s far from reality.

After Navalny’s jailing, E.U. foreign ministers met to discuss the case — and came to no conclusions, no action. Borrell went to Moscow anyway — with predictable results.

The spectacle of his visit was so damaging to Europe’s reputation that scores of members of the European Parliament wrote a letter urging European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to fire Borrell. Failing that, they wrote, he should resign for causing “severe damage to the reputation of the EU.”

Von der Leyen said Borrell has her “full support,” which is hardly surprising. After all, this is the reality of today’s E.U. — not the one we see when we try to imagine a better world.

Frida Ghitis is a former CNN producer and correspondent who writes about world affairs for the Washington Post, and World Politics Review.

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