José Manuel Barroso: image: António Pedro Santos/ Lusa

“How can sanctions be reversed with Putin labeled a war criminal?”

Former European Commission president highlights crisis within ‘international order’

Former Portuguese prime minister, European Commission president and current Goldman Sachs’ non-executive chairman José Manuel Barroso has warned of a “danger of disconnection between the world’s economies” exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Talking at the 10th Lisbon Legal Forum – also taking place in the capital during this busy week of international conferences – he traced a picture in which the world may not yet be “in a moment of complete reversal of globilisation but we are at least in a mitigated phase of de-globalisation, in a globalisation that presents contours of great uncertainty, and of greater friction and greater economic costs”.

The scenario is “aggravated by the situation in Ukraine” – and, because of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, we are “testing the separation of two systems”.

The war has not been the starting point. There has been an “accumulation of trends of various phenomena”, according to the former PSD politician. “Trends that were deepening (…) with the development of the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Even before the pandemic, there was “the intensification of an economic and social, geopolitical and technological conflict between the United States and China“, whose economic growth was “the most important event in the last 30 years”.

The West must “be prepared for the long term” in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict: “Let there be no illusions”, he said. “Even if there was a miracle of a short-term ceasefire agreement, there will be no reconciliation possible in the foreseeable future between Russia and Ukraine.”

“How can you reverse sanctions when you designate the current Russian leader as a war criminal?” 

“I learned (as a result of working in Brussels) that sometimes it is very difficult for the European Union to take decisions, but it is even more difficult to change decisions once they are taken. There is a great rigidity in the system, (…) The sanctions we took in 2014 (when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea), were subject to several attempts to lift them, but they stayed. Now, what there is, is a new dimension of those sanctions.”

In Mr Barroso’s opinion the rift between the West and Russia will last “for a long time and this will lead Russia increasingly to depend on China“.

As for “China, which 30 years ago was more or less at the same economic level as Russia’s domestic product and which today is ten times higher – which today represents around 20% of (world) GDP, it is obviously worried about what is happening with Russia, because it sees that it could also become, to a certain extent, disconnected from the big western markets, namely Europe and the United States”.

The situation is compounded by the “maladjustment of existing multilateral organisations” to address problems, such as those that are crippling the global institutional architecture.

“Today, the World Trade Organisation is basically paralysed. International organisations can only act where their ‘stakeholders’, their members, namely the states with the most influence, allow them to go. The United Nations is paralysed, the Security Council is paralysed by Russia’s veto system,” he explained.

“Despite all the goodwill of all those who want the United Nations to have a decisive role, the truth is that this is not going to happen. That is why we are, in fact, at a moment of crisis in the international order”.

The former European leader stressed “the world is at a crossroads between friction and flux“.

“On the one hand, the flux of free movement of ideas, people, goods, capital and services, and on the other hand the friction of extreme nationalism, protectionism, isolationism and xenophobia“.

For now, international order “is in crisis” – and this has “obvious consequences from the point of view of international law, because if we consider that international law represents only a Western legacy and that it is determined by a biased vision from an ideological point of view, then this fuels resentment against that law and that international order”.

In the West, there is “not a good understanding of the resentment that exists against the Western world – particularly in developing countries”, thus the question hangs of whether, from a normative point of view, we will be “able to maintain a minimum of functionality in the international order”.

As José Manuel Barroso gave his speech in Lisbon, NATO’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels announced “the biggest overhaul of (the Alliance’s) collective defence and deterrance since the Cold War”. NATO is expected to boost its high-readiness forces to well over 300,000 troops along eastern defences, and “adopt a new model for defending them”. The model will include “more pre-positioned equipment, and stockpiles of military supplies,” as well as “more forward-deployed capabilities, like air defence” and “strengthened command and control.”

Sources: LUSA/ politico.EU