Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, has just set a new low for Europe’s standing in the world. In the wake of Russia’s sham presidential election on Sunday, Juncker sent the victorious Vladimir Putin a message of unctuous praise. “Congratulations on your re-election,” Juncker tweeted. “I have always argued that positive relations between the EU and Russia are crucial to the security of our continent.”
Juncker also made a point of signaling his enthusiasm for the Kremlin’s demands for a new Europe-wide security architecture, a proposal ultimately designed to split Europe from the United States and inevitably weaken NATO. “Our common objective should be to re-establish a cooperative pan-European security order,” Juncker wrote.
Just like the United States’ President Trump, who was widely criticized this week for congratulating Putin on the Russian election’s outcome while failing to mention its flagrantly undemocratic character, Juncker had nothing to say about the brazen ballot stuffing, the intimidation of independent candidates, the unexplained deaths of activists, the role of state media, or a host of other irregularities leading up to the poll.
This latest failure of moral courage once again shows the growing indifference of European leaders and governments to the defense of human rights. At a time when the Trump administration seems uninterested in advancing the cause of democracy overseas and has just chosen Gina Haspel, who is closely linked with the George W. Bush administration’s policies on torture, to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, Europe should be at the forefront in taking a united stand against the flagrant abuse of human rights.
But it isn’t. Dissidents and activists pushing for civil rights and democracy outside the E.U., and who once looked to Europe as a beacon for the values of freedom, can count on little support from Brussels these days. Authoritarian regimes have every cause to be overjoyed.
No wonder British officials were furious with Juncker’s statement. London is still reeling over Russia’s alleged role in a nerve-agent attack that has left former Russia spy and double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in a critical condition.
Ashley Fox, the leader of Britain’s Conservative Party in the European Parliament, described the European Commission president’s letter to Putin as “disgraceful.” “To congratulate Vladimir Putin on his election victory without referring to the clear ballot-rigging that took place is bad enough,” Fox noted. “But his failure to mention Russia’s responsibility for a military nerve agent attack on innocent people in my constituency is nauseating.”
When Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, took the floor at last month’s annual Munich Security Conference, he was, once again, treated with kid gloves. Forget about the torture, the executions, the flogging, the deaths during detention.
Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security, and the big E.U. countries such as Germany, do not want to spoil their relations with Teheran. For them, Iran sticking to the nuclear deal that the E.U., along with Germany and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, struck in 2015 takes precedence over talking about human rights.
There are plenty of other examples.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have rolled out the red carpet for Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sissi — despite a crackdown on opposition that in its harshness has left the Hosni Mubarak regime far behind. Disappearances, torture, police brutality, detentions without trial: None of this seems to bother the French or German leaders. “Disgraceful policies of indulgence” was the term human rights activists used in connection with Sissi’s visit to Paris in October.
On China, the E.U. has completely discredited itself in the eyes of reformers and those struggling for human rights. It has criticized neither the Communist Party’s state-of-the art mass surveillance of its citizens nor the constant harassment and imprisonment of dissidents.
Indeed, in June the E.U. failed, for the first time ever, to make a statement about China’s crackdown on dissidents and activists at the United Nation’s Human Rights Council in Geneva. The 28 member states couldn’t agree.
Greece blocked the statement. Why? Reuters explains: “China’s COSCO Shipping, owner of the world’s fourth-largest container fleet, took a 51 percent stake in Greece’s biggest port last year.” Athens didn’t want to offend Beijing. Hungary, which has also benefited from Chinese investments, has repeatedly blocked E.U. statements criticizing China’s rights record under Communist President Xi Jinping, according to diplomats.
E.U. leaders show conspicuous uninterest in following up on their oft-proclaimed commitments to democracy and human rights. Nowadays they focus instead on realpolitik and “stabilization,” the craven new buzzword.
Their Egyptian counterparts claim that “stabilization” is the price to pay for avoiding a Syrian, Libyan or Iraqi morass.
Nor are things any better inside the bloc itself. Few member states show any willingness to take Poland or Hungary to task in any serious way for their steady erosion of democratic institutions and norms. The bloc, its defenders say, already has enough problems to worry about, from Brexit to Macron’s ambitious plans for E.U. reform.
But there can be no hiding the shameful reality. Europe has lost its moral compass. Its current enthusiasm for interests and “stability” will one day come back to haunt it.
Judy Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor of its Strategic Europe blog. She previously served as the FT's diplomatic, Jerusalem, Germany and Eastern European correspondent and latterly as a columnist for the International New York Times. Follow @judy_dempsey