NATO and the EU are complementary, but the Union must have a common defence

Interview with Klaus Welle by Alfredo Marini

Secretary General of the European Parliament from 2009 until 2022, Klaus Welle is currently Academic Council Chairman at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, with academic roles at the KU Leuven University, the London School of Economics, and the Colin Powell School for global leadership. After his experiences within the Young Union and the Democrat Youth Community of Europe, between the 1980s and 1990s, he directed the Foreign and European Affairs section of the CDU, before starting his long and prestigious career at European level: before his last assignment, which ended last year, he was Secretary General of the EPP (1994-1999) and Director General of the EP’s DG IPOL (2004-2007). In this interview, Welle reflects on the prospects of the European Union in the current historical context, in view of the 2024 elections and in light of the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, also offering his own vision on the topics of a common European defence and of the relations between Italy and Germany. This chat manifests a profound reflection on the legacy of the values of the founders of Europe and on how the latter must still inspire the next stages of European political integration, also in memory of the enduring David Sassoli.

The European elections are approaching. Compared to 2019, the world has changed profoundly and the Union must also change to adapt. In a context in which non-traditional political forces continue to gain consensus, the classic coalition built on the EPP/S&D pivot does not seem to be an obvious conclusion. What is your opinion on the matter?

First of all, I would like to point out that in the European Parliament – contrary to what usually happens at the member state level – there are no systems based on fixed coalitions. This aspect, after all, is easily deduced from the observation of the discussions on the individual dossiers. In fact, this situation means that during each vote, majorities are built from time to time on individual proposals and it is not uncommon to observe atypical convergences. I would add that the individual political groups do not always express themselves unanimously, and this represents a further element that hinders the creation of a fixed coalition system.

Having made this necessary clarification, in thinking about the possible outcomes following the 2024 elections, I would keep in mind what I have just said, but above all I would avoid using national political categories to read the dynamics of European political groups.

A further factor of complexity that influences the formation of coalitions is constituted by the so-called institutional issues, such as the election of the President of the Commission, for which a double qualified majority is required, both in the Parliament and in the European Council. In this regard, reaching this majority in the European Parliament requires complete convergence between the EPP, S&D and Renew, but as in political groups internal cohesion is never complete, looking to other political forces to build a coalition project represents a viable option.

The interlocutors could be those with whom it will be possible to find an agreement on the names for the Presidency of the Commission and of the European Council. I therefore expect that all the parties of the current Italian Government could be considered as interlocutors, as they would participate in the creation of the convergence within the European Council.

I make a final digression on this aspect, recalling what happened in 2019, when the Greens – on the basis of a programme that we could define as a little too green – decided not to support the candidacy of Ursula von der Leyen; so it will be interesting to understand whether or not, after the 2024 elections, the Greens will remain unavailable to carry out convergences as happened almost five years ago. Certainly, what has just been said will influence the negotiations for the creation of the next coalition.

In an article which appeared last May in the columns of «Le Grand Continent» you described your idea of “conservatism of the future” and the role of the EPP in relation to the other European political families. In this article you also traced a sort of useful perimeter for defining the category of far-right parties…

What I set out in that article is, first of all, a clear definition of the European People’s Party, after which I made a conceptual distinction between the political forces that can be included under the label of the conservative right – which do not fall within the perimeter of the EPP – and those included in the category of the reactionary far-right.

In my opinion, the European People’s Party can be defined as a programme party. I was able to deduce this peculiarity in the field when thirty years ago – during my mandate as Secretary General of the EPP – some of the so-called Catholic or Christian Democratic parties, despite having a name that could have linked them to a pro-European thought, in reality did not share positive feelings regarding the idea of ever greater political integration of the Union.

The EPP is, therefore, a programme party since it includes within it only those political formations which, although not formally belonging to the Christian-democratic milieu, substantially share its entire political programme.

What would this programme consist of?

In an approach that can be summarised in the complete acceptance of three key points: full support for the European integration process, support for the transatlantic partnership, and defence of the post-1945 political order, in turn based on the cornerstone of representative democracy.

Current Christian-democratic thought is based on the desire to be able to find a synthesis between apparently irreconcilable concepts, such as the protection of social rights and the promotion of the free market, with the final aim of the protection and well-being of the individual.

To conclude this answer, in the article published in «Le Grand Continent», I spoke about the method with which the EPP has developed over time, which I wanted to define as a method of mergers and acquisitions. An approach that fits perfectly with the essence of the EPP as a programme party, rooted in the three assumptions and principles I mentioned previously.

And federalism? Is this word, cited in the 7Ds for sustainability report drafted by the Martens Centre, one of the guiding principles of the EPP?

Of course, European federalism is part of these guiding principles. When I refer to it, I think of something very concrete. Federalism means thinking about different levels of government – local, regional, national and European – together and in harmony, with the aim of integrating them. I do not share an idea of federalism which paradoxically underlies a centralised government model. The guideline to follow to correctly express the idea of federalism we are talking about is condensed in the principle of subsidiarity.

So, which sector should we start from to integrate the levels of government you are talking about?

I firstly refer to the principle of subsidiarity, which requires that only those functions which require it to be carried out correctly must be integrated at a higher level of government.

Having recalled this concept, I try to respond by saying that the sector from which we could start is that of defence. In this regard, I am drafting a paper that deals with what I have defined as the European defence pyramid; in the document I explain that the precondition for our member states to contribute effectively to NATO takes the form of the need to provide the EU with an internal defence market. The purpose of this choice lies in the strategic need to provide our Union with sufficient production capacity to not be dependent on non-EU countries (such as South Korea, for example).

After that, this single defence market should be accompanied by the planning of large investments in the logistics-infrastructure sector and by research programmes that have a dual purpose, both civil and military. This defence and protection system that I am outlining should then be completed by a civil protection service on the model of the one developed by Michel Barnier some time ago.

Everything should be financed with resources from the Union budget.

The outbreak of the war in Ukraine has brought the issue of common security back to the top of the EU’s priorities. From this event, we have learned how much being technologically lagging compared to our allies and our enemies, continuing to depend on foreign countries in the defence production chain, is no longer an acceptable situation for Europeans. The Union must develop its strategic capabilities by investing in infrastructure, research, logistics and intelligence, drawing the necessary resources from the EU budget which, inevitably, will have to be strengthened.

In 2019, President Macron, referring to NATO, said that the Alliance was in a state of “brain death” but, as you just recalled, the war in Ukraine changed everything. Are the European Union and NATO complementary entities or not?

As I said, after this conflict I firmly believe that a new approach to defence is needed within the EU, but this is not currently possible outside the framework offered by the Atlantic Alliance. Therefore, for us Europeans, the time has come for awareness and efficiency in terms of defence. I also think that the European Union and NATO are complementary, as demonstrated by the progress of the conflict.

In the next legislature, the European political leadership and the parties will have to act by starting to consider an effective common defence as a European public good.

Next Generation EU (NGEU) was a successful response by the Union to the great damages caused by the pandemic. Could it become a structural measure?

I believe that the NGEU was necessary, but there are some unknowns that must first be addressed and resolved. The NGEU was accompanied by the adoption of a Decision on own resources; with this instrument, to which is added a specific interinstitutional agreement, European institutions seek to repay the debt contracted through the EU’s own resources, with the promise – starting from 2021 – to work on a radical reform of the EU revenue and budget, foreseeing a strengthening of the latter with the introduction of new own resources. Therefore, in order to think about a structural NGEU, we must wait for a timetable from the institutions to understand when we can start seriously discussing the topic of the new fiscal capacity of the Union.

Having clarified these aspects, I do not believe that we should proceed with the simple creation of new debt without first providing adequate financing, something on which the Member States have not yet found an agreement. After that, I add that the use of important resources outside the budgetary control of the European Parliament (which also needs to be strengthened) should not be allowed, even more so when the debt is entered in the Union budget. Parliament, therefore, must be able to control spending through the relevant budget control commission and the plenary. To conclude, if we were not to adequately find the own resources I was talking about, we would find ourselves faced with a very complex situation, because if the payment of interest on the NGEU loans were to take place during the next MFF it could happen that, de facto, we would have between 10-15% fewer resources than today. We must therefore urgently resolve the issue of the Union’s new fiscal capacity in order to make it increasingly less dependent on transfers from member states.

The NGEU has been read by many analysts as the foundation stone of a true European public debt. Are we close to our Hamiltonian moment?

You talk about the European Hamiltonian moment, but we can also draw from other historical examples. For example, until 1913 the US federal budget was just 1% of GDP, a ratio that could only be changed in times of crisis (as happened during the Civil War). The introduction of the federal income tax represented an adequate response to provide the American federal government with the right resources.

In my view, the urgent need for a common defence, as well as external border protection programmes, represents the starting point from which to start working to increase the resources of the Union budget. In conclusion, to keep this instrument credible and give it a structural look, before thinking about new expenses, we must find a way to finance it adequately with common resources. And this objective cannot be achieved by simply adding together the debts of individual member states.

The war in Ukraine broke the promise of eternal peace that Europeans believed in. In the aforementioned 7Ds for sustainability document, you help to describe the new concept of European defence on which the EPP would like to work. What can you say about this and what do you think of the new funding that the German government has allocated for the defence sector?

I’ll start with the second part of the question. I would not give much importance to the efforts that Germany is putting in place to increase the defence budget, also because this situation does not represent an internal problem within the EU. In fact, it must be remembered that the German government’s commitment on this aspect is the minimum necessary to fill the enormous gaps generated by decades of lack of investments and, indeed, it is hoped that this action will lead to a sort of normalisation. Having clarified this, I return to the first part of your question, the one relating to the new concept of European defence.

There are two points that I would like to clarify: first, the Russian aggression of February 24, 2022, underlines how only within the European Union can one be protected, and this is why the Ukrainians would like to join quickly. The war reiterated how NATO is about military hardware, but nowadays we live in an era where any phenomenon can be transformed into a weapon, which is why the European Union remains indispensable. In almost two years of war, we have seen food being used as a weapon, and the same has been true for energy and migratory flows. In the areas I mentioned – which are of strategic importance in the system of modern symmetric warfare – NATO cannot act effectively, while the EU can. My argument is that since this aggression, it has become clear that now, and from now on, NATO and the EU are and will necessarily be complementary. The problem, as we said previously, consists in the need to strengthen the Union in the defence sector very quickly; currently, according to some estimates, the lack of a European internal market for defence products leads to a waste of resources amounting to around 30%. This is because we still only have procurement procedures at national level, which result in an absence of competition. In the United States, there are just over 30 weapons systems, while in the EU we have as many as 160. This means that the United States can scale up and produce efficiently, while we waste money producing inefficiently. This is the first difficulty to overcome by means of a European internal defence market.

The second aspect is this: as I have already said, we need to invest in research through the EU budget, using the next MFF to finance investments in transport and logistics, so as to intervene promptly in regions that may be at risk, such as the Baltic countries.

The initiatives I have listed so far, let’s be clear, cost nothing! In fact, they would save money. We cannot afford to be inefficient and divided. The initiatives I have described regarding security and defence must not be implemented over the next ten years, but immediately, because we may not even have much more time available.

Foreign policy continues to be a field in which the Union struggles to express and assert itself. Current events in the Middle East are a testament to this. What do you think can be done to make the EU a body capable of developing a foreign policy that is as univocal and effective as possible?

With the current institutional structure, the EU’s room for manoeuvre in the field of foreign policy is limited. In reality, European citizens have been asking for a common foreign and defence policy for at least thirty years, but as we well know, these aspects touch the profound heart of the sovereignty of individual member states. The first decisive step to start from, as I have said up to now, is the defence sector.

I add a further suggestion. If we look at the constitutional experience of the United States and France, we note how the direction of foreign policy is strongly anchored to the figure of the President. I say this because within the European institutional panorama, the European Council is becoming a sort of collegiate Presidency, and would enjoy the necessary legitimacy to act as interpreter of the implementation of European foreign policy, while also deliberating with a qualified majority.

During the closing ceremony of the Conference on the Future of Europe, President Macron proposed the establishment of the European Political Community (EPC), an idea that also garnered interest and consensus from other European leaders. The EPC was born as a response to the geopolitical crisis following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, but among its main purposes there is also the creation of a political space for those countries determined to become part of the European Union. Does the EPC have a future?

The European Political Community is, essentially, a platform for political discussion without a solid legal framework. The choice of this very “light” structure arises from the need to offer the United Kingdom a guarantee – following Brexit – that would allow it to join the EPC initiative while maintaining its extraneousness with respect to the continent’s political integration process. Having said this, I believe that the effort of the EPC is very limited in this extremely complex context.

It is equally true, however, that it is urgent to find an answer for those countries that want to become members of the EU, but which currently do not yet possess the requirements to be such.

In short: the European Political Community currently cannot play a concrete role in the field of defence and security, due to the limited political space at its disposal. However, I do not deny that it could develop in the near future into a platform for dialogue and support for the candidate countries for European membership.

October 7, 2023 could become a date fixed in our collective memory in the same right as February 24, 2022. As the war between Hamas and Israel continues, images from the Be’Eri Kibbutz and Gaza bring to mind the horrors of Bucha and Kharkiv. The Middle Eastern picture is increasingly unstable. What do you think?

We have to ask ourselves why what is happening in the Middle East has happened right now. In my opinion, the triggering cause of this tragedy lies in the success of the process of normalisation of the relations between Israel and its neighbours, which has now been underway for some years. In fact, in the wake of the Abraham Accords, Israel and Saudi Arabia would have normalised their diplomatic relations in the coming months, thus designing a new geopolitical structure that would have seen Iran certainly more isolated. Hamas’s ill-fated move must be read in this context and its aim was to prevent Israel from normalising relations with its Arab neighbours.

The risk of escalation is frighteningly real, also due to the Israeli military response…

I believe that Israel has the right to adopt severe measures against Hamas, but it should prevent these from turning into the political lever that Hamas is waiting for to achieve its objective, that is, to promote a general escalation of the conflict, in order to avoid a stabilisation of the geopolitical scenario of the Middle East.

Do you have any proposals in mind to reach an acceptable settlement of the interests at stake?

The scenes of violence that we are witnessing with astonishment bring the real issue back to the political discussion table, that is, how to reach a fair agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people that is capable of guaranteeing peaceful coexistence between two states. The agreement I am talking about should include as its central point the fair and shared exploitation of the region’s resources, such as water and arable land, following the example of what happened between France and Germany immediately after the end of the Second World War.

What is happening today in the Middle East is reminiscent in many respects of the Franco-German case: the two European countries were bitter enemies for a long time, and both suffered the disastrous results of the wars that we all know, but after these events they managed to change their relationship, moving from an aggressive logic to one based on cooperation and peace (the so-called win-win logic). If in the Franco-German case the engine of peace was the shared management of limited resources such as steel and coal, in the Israeli-Palestinian case we could refer – as I was saying – to the joint exploitation of water and arable land.

It is probably obvious to reiterate that Hamas can never be a party to this agreement because: a) it does not represent the Palestinian people; b) it is a terrorist organisation with which any form of dialogue is radically excluded; c) it embodies the opposite of any logic based on peace and cooperation.

I conclude this answer by referring one last time to the Franco-German example. After the Second World War, there was more than one reason not to reinsert Germany into the international community, but it was still decided to offer the German people a second chance. And it was thanks to that courageous decision that today we can talk about the most successful project of peace and common development in history. I believe that the same pragmatic spirit must be adopted to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and I would add that the same should be done towards Russia; with this statement I mean to say that we Europeans must not abandon the hope of seeing a Russia different from the current authoritarian regime, a Russia that can become democratic and capable of cooperating peacefully with its neighbours.

Let’s move on to immigration, a phenomenon to which it has not been possible to offer an adequate response. Recently, the Italian and German governments also had a heated discussion on the Crisis Regulation. Your opinion on this aspect?

Let me start by saying that I am not an expert on the subject, but what I can say is the following: the EU is currently not a state but a union of citizens and states. Having reiterated this, all issues relating to the distribution of the burden of managing migratory flows are – politically speaking – always difficult. From my point of view, we must find a fair compromise and I believe that the proposal developed by the European Union could be one.

If border countries must commit to registering and providing protection to refugees who need it, at the same time we cannot allow this aspect to be managed by a few in the interest of all: therefore, it is necessary to provide a solidarity mechanism between member states. In addition to what I have just said, agreements must be signed with the countries of origin, even knowing that the task is not easy, since the countries in question are often not democracies. Limiting the number of arrivals and equitably distributing the responsibilities related to the management of the Union’s external borders must be our immediate objective.

With respect to the strategic issue of the protection of the EU’s external borders, I want to clarify how Germany itself must be ready to make its contribution, even though it is not a border country. A revolution in the approach to some issues is necessary. The external borders of our Union – as for defence – must be understood as a European public good to be protected with the EU’s own resources.

The elections last October in Hesse and Bavaria saw the victory of the CDU/CSU, but the AfD sees its consensus growing. Are we approaching a scenario where the far right in government may no longer be taboo?

In one of the previous answers, I stated that the far right can be summarised in a triple system of oppositions: against European integration, against the transatlantic partnership and against the post-1945 political order. The AfD, therefore, is undoubtedly a far-right party, as is Marine Le Pen’s party in France. These political formations have nothing in common with the EPP, as they represent its exact opposite. Therefore, any coalition with these subjects is completely excluded.

The AfD took advantage of the problems of the current German government to build its consensus; problems that are generated by the forced nature of the coalition made up of Liberals, Greens, and Social Democrats. The great failure of this government is also measured on the issue of the energy transition, where the desire to proceed with the decarbonisation of our production system did not consider the economic difficulties of a large part of German citizens (the reference is mainly to the energy conversion plan for existing buildings). The dissatisfaction generated among citizens on this aspect has turned into the political leverage that the far-right has exploited to build its crude populist program.

Returning to relations between Italy and Germany: which dossiers should the joint efforts of the two governments focus on?

Germany and Italy have very strong historical ties (in Germany we always say that we have a federal system because the Kaiser of the Holy Roman Empire was too busy strengthening his power in Italy to do the same in Germany). So, yes, there is a strong historical bond, but there is also an economic partnership of great strategic importance; it is no coincidence that southern Germany and northern Italy are, economically speaking, a single region and a single production chain, especially (and not only) in the automotive sector. For Germany, Italian stability – both economic and political – is a crucial aspect. We have witnessed many sudden and continuous changes in Italian politics (basically from the end of the Christian Democracy onwards) and we therefore hope to now enter a phase of greater stability. Perhaps it is a naive hope, but it would also be very welcome for our cooperation within the European Union.

You held the prestigious role of Secretary General of the European Parliament. I believe that this experience in particular gave you the opportunity to understand the potential and defects of the Union. President Sassoli, referring to the European Union, said that “we are not an accident of history”. So, what do you think the legacy of the Founding Fathers of the EU is today?

Allow me to make a premise. I had an excellent relationship with President Sassoli, at the time I was Secretary General of the EP and I remember the moment of his election very well. That day, immediately after the vote, while he was giving the inauguration speech you referred to, he took his seat and put his hand on my shoulder. It was an extraordinary gesture for me and thus demonstrated to the whole Parliament that we would share some important responsibilities together during his mandate.

From my point of view, the legacy of the founders is still here, and you can perceive it precisely by looking at the figure of President Sassoli, a person capable of condensing and interpreting the principles and values we talk about even in the difficulties of the present. So, the legacy of the founders is still here and is inspiring young leaders across Europe.

How is this legacy perceived in Germany in light of the great challenges of the present?

Challenge is a relative concept; in Germany we have often experienced this relativity. I believe that the present is complex, but in reality, every era had its own complexities. Like at the beginning, in the 1950s, when we had to decide whether to accept the Germans again after the atrocities of the Second World War. After that, it was a succession of challenging moments: in the 1960s we had Charles De Gaulle with the empty chair policy, in the 1980s the economic crisis, in the 1990s we had to introduce the euro and, finally, came the financial crisis.

I therefore believe that it is the duty of every generation to renew its commitment to Europe while keeping the spirit of the founders alive. I want to say that every generation has the possibility of becoming – again – the generation of the founders, because every era has specific challenges that only contemporaries can respond to.

Today, as I was saying, we are put to the test above all in the defence sector, in the awareness that the war in Ukraine is not a simple regional phenomenon and brings with it a big question, namely: what are the rules that we want to make reign on the European continent and, consequently, in the world? Russia answers this question by reaffirming the rules of the 19th century, according to which the strongest can overwhelm the weakest.

As the European Union, on the contrary, we offer to protect member states and our value system knowing that individual nation states are too weak to do it alone. Will we be strong enough to defend our Union from a new authoritarian wave?

In this sense, if we manage to move towards a serious effort for the creation of a common European defence, we ourselves will become founding mothers and fathers.

During my mandate as Secretary General, also thanks to the strong support of President Sassoli, the House of European History has become an important place both for spreading the principles and vision of the founders and for underlining this continuity between us and the past. I strongly support the idea that we Europeans have a common culture, past and future and those who do not fight for a common future will always oppose our common past too.

Poland, especially after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, plays a very important role both within the Union and NATO. In the recent general elections, the PiS failed to block the civic coalition led by Tusk. What do you think?

I think these results are a great relief for the European Union, they certainly are for me. I think Donald Tusk had great courage in taking the fight into his own hands. On this occasion, it was especially young people who came forward, clearly stating that they do not want a nationalist future, but rather aspire to a future in an open society within the European Union, also helping the Ukrainians of course. I therefore think that this is a very important moment for liberal and pro-European political forces.

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