The European Sisyphus

Michele Testoni

9 mins - 16 de Noviembre de 2023, 16:00

The myth of Sisyphus is one of the most famous in Greek mythology: his punishment, decreed by Zeus himself, was to push a large stone up a steep mountain; before it reached the top, however, the stone rolled back down, forcing Sisyphus to start all over again, over and over again. The myth has become so popular that, in common parlance, the expression “Sisyphus’ work” is used to define a labour so hard and difficult that it never seems to end.

Whenever we talk about Europe and the obstacles to its integration process, the myth of Sisyphus comes up again. This is no coincidence. We owe it to a magnificent book by the Austro-French professor Stanley Hoffmann, the founder of Harvard University’s Center for European Studies in 1969, a pioneer in the research and teaching of French and, of course, European politics in the United States. Published in 1995, the book is entitled The European Sisyphus and brings together the main essays published by Hoffmann himself between 1964 and 1994. In them, the author analyses the problem of the constant and cyclical divisions that have been characterising the process of European integration since its beginnings, emphasising, for example, the Cold War and the crisis of European identity, the future of the nation state, the ambivalent role of France, the knot of the ‘German question’ or the capacity of the newly established European Union to play a proactive role in the new (post-1989/1991) world order.

[Recibe los análisis de más actualidad en tu correo electrónico o en tu teléfono a través de nuestro canal de Telegram]

The most recent episode in which the “European Sisyphus” has spoken of himself again was on 27 October when the UN General Assembly was called to vote on a resolution calling for the “immediate and unconditional release” of all hostages, an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities” and, of course, a “just and lasting solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Gaza Strip, in relation to the renewed conflict between Israel and Hamas. The text, presented by Jordan, was an attempt to end the impasse in the UN as the Security Council had failed to reach agreement on four draft resolutions. In the end, the General Assembly adopted the resolution with 120 votes in favour, 14 against and 45 abstentions.

Despite the non-legally binding, but politically oriented character of the resolutions adopted by this Assembly, the vote was deeply disconcerting because of the position – or rather the positions – of the Western countries. Of the 27 EU members, 8 voted in favour (Belgium, Slovenia, Spain, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, and Portugal), 4 voted against (Austria, Croatia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic) and the remaining 15 abstained (including Germany, Italy, Poland, and all the Nordic countries). And if we look more broadly at the other Western nations, especially NATO members, we see that Norway and Turkey voted in favour, the US against, while Albania, Iceland, Canada, and the UK abstained. So did Ukraine (abstention), which is very striking – Russia, on the other hand, voted in favour, which, I think, is even more striking.

The turmoil generated by this vote relates, above all, to two kinds of consequences. The first is the separation between the West and the rest of the world. Only nine other countries voted against the resolution: Guatemala, Paraguay, some Pacific Island states, and, of course, Israel itself. And only 25 others abstained - among them Australia, Cameroon, South Korea, Ethiopia, India and Japan. The remaining countries all voted in favour of the Jordanian resolution, i.e., 109 non-Western nations out of a total of 120 votes (add New Zealand, a Western country that voted in favour).

Is this a problem? Yes and no. On the one hand, it is quite obvious how difficult it is for the white, democratic West to connect with other regions of the world – indeed, China and Russia voted in favour, as did, for example, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, and all Arab countries, with the sole exceptions of Iraq and Tunisia (abstention). However, in the history of voting in the UN General Assembly, it is quite common for countries from the “global South” to vote against those from the “North”. Votes with a largely symbolic value and which, for the moment, do not reveal the formation of any united and homogenous anti-Western bloc (BRICS+ is not this) – although, admittedly, to downplay their importance in today’s world would be short-sighted and misguided.

The second negative consequence of this vote is the one that interests us most closely because it is the one that speaks to us of the revived “European Sisyphus”. As much as Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, tries (every day and on every occasion) to talk about a common foreign policy, and that Europe needs to “learn the language of power”, both the EU itself and its member states are characterised by a rather consolidated dynamic: the moment a crisis erupts (terrorism, migrants, COVID, the war in Ukraine or the conflict in Palestine), the first posture that emerges is one of disunity and lack of coordination, which ends up producing centrifugal, even contradictory or opposing options. The result is a diplomatic cacophony that, contextualised in the harsh reality of the facts, is a symptom of weakness and, therefore, of a lack of capacity to exert influence in terms of both hard and soft power. After a while, however, Europe manages to do its homework and reach a common position that makes us say, with some relief, “at last Europe exists!”

But it is just at that moment that we realise that the Sisyphean stone is once again starting to fall downhill. This is the moment of the effectiveness and credibility of Europe, both of its countries and of the EU itself. Let us remember: the process of European integration stems not only from the will of Monnet, Schuman, and Adenauer that France and Germany should never fight against each other, but also from the new configuration of power, i.e. the fact that after 1945 Europe is no longer the subject, but an object of the rivalry between the two new superpowers. European integration, and hence the EU, is a tool with which Europe was intended (and succeeded) to pacify Europe, not to enable Europe to intervene again in other regions of the world. And it is not just a question of institutional design.

The UN General Assembly vote is inevitably the product of this divergence between aspirations on the one hand, and the power of the European framework to institutionalise common practice and objectives on the other. But the problems started earlier, right at the beginning of the atrocities, when the European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, the Hungarian Olivér Várhelyi, who is very close to Orbán’s Fidesz party, suddenly and unilaterally announced a freeze on aid to Palestine. The Commission finally rectified after protests from several member states - Spain among them. A few days later, it was Von der Leyen’s visit to Israel that raised criticism: not only a trip not agreed with member states, but one in which the European Commission president did not ask Netanyahu’s government to respect the most basic rules of international humanitarian law in its (legitimate) retaliation against Hamas.

It took until 15 October, eight days after the Hamas terrorist incursion, to reach a common position: on the one hand, Israel’s right to exist and defend itself in accordance with the rules of humanitarian and international law; on the other, the importance of ensuring the protection of all civilians in accordance with the rules of international humanitarian law. 

However, Europe’s Sisyphus can (and must) make a virtue out of necessity, for as Luigi Scazzieri has stressed, in this outlet, “while Europeans can do little to influence the course of the conflict, they can help to prevent some of its worst consequences from materialising”. It is true: Europe’s specific weight is minimal in relation to Israel, the PNA, the Arab countries (Saudi Arabia and Egypt, above all) and Iran. Today, however, Europe needs to play a role that is perhaps less visible but essential: rebuilding unity, i.e., transatlantic negotiating credibility.

If the United States is currently the only major Western power that can offer a negotiated solution i.e., the short and medium term, then that is where a common foreign policy should be directed. The US State Department’s growing concern over Israel’s repression (understandable but brutal and inhumane), coupled with election polls that are not positive for President Biden, should encourage a reunion between the US and the EU and stimulate an attempt to reach a common position between Blinken and Borrell. Both in the short term (a ceasefire that seems increasingly distant) and in the medium term (the economic reconstruction of the Gaza Strip and a plan for the stabilisation of the region, which Chinese bureaucrats are also very interested in), the war between Israel and Hamas - without forgetting Russia and Ukraine – could be a lever to give more strength and global appeal to the democratic West.

The intransigence of the Israeli government, the passivity of many Arab states and Europe’s weaknesses are neither conducive nor promising. Yet this is the fate of Europe’s Sisyphus: to keep trying to achieve the impossible.
Se puede leer el artículo original en español

¿Qué te ha parecido el artículo?