• 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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  • The euphoria over the liberation of Kherson, along with hundreds of Ukrainian towns and villages, has been dampened by the fear of winter setting in. The Kremlin has decided to let freezing temperatures break the Ukrainians, rather than using bullets. Russia is focused on destroying power stations and energy grids. Millions of Ukrainians are already without electricity, drinking water or heating. While Russia, unable to sell its gas, is burning it off in open fields, Ukrainians are gripped by the fear of winter creeping in.

    The situation in the Western world is complicated as well, although naturally it could never compare with Ukraine’s. High energy prices, inflation, rising debt and social unrest, are all causes of distress for political leaders, but also among popular masses. These dynamics also create a breeding ground for populists, nationalists, and conspiracy theorists.

    Unsurprisingly, voices calling for a peaceful, diplomatic solution are growing ever louder. The Kremlin’s protagonists, whose idea of peace involves Ukraine’s capitulation or some form of appeasement, are no longer alone in the conversation about a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. President Biden was flustered by President Zelensky’s decision not to negotiate with Russia as long as Vladimir Putin remains in charge. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also stated that “…Russia’s war with Ukraine will most likely end at the negotiating table….”, reassuringly also saying Ukraine will determine when to start this process.

    President Biden was flustered by President Zelensky’s decision not to negotiate with Russia as long as Vladimir Putin remains in charge. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also stated that “…Russia’s war with Ukraine will most likely end at the negotiating table….”, reassuringly also saying Ukraine will determine when to start this process.

    What are the implications for us, as EU citizens, and our political leaders? Energy supplies from Russia have fallen, we imposed painful sanctions on Russia, and are helping Ukraine financially as well as by supplying defensive weapons. We are admitting Ukrainian refugees. Will these measures make the Kremlin reconsider its approach towards Ukraine? Will these measures help Ukraine push Russian troops out of its territory and achieve sustainable peace? Or must the EU do more for Ukraine to succeed? Does the EU dispose of a pivotal hold move that would help Ukraine pin its opponent?

    I think the most sensible and indeed necessary step to take is the creation of a common European defence force. A European army represents an instrument that would significantly tip the scales in the right direction. There has never been a more opportune moment coupled with urgent momentum to take this step than there is today.

    Diplomacy is effective when it is backed by real, deployable operational forces. Only real strength from Ukraine and its allies, present in Ukraine, can ultimately persuade the Kremlin to accept a peace settlement sustainable in the long run. Only true military capabilities will help the EU gain the respect and authority without which it is impossible to face today’s security challenges.

    I believe it easy to understand that the military personnel best suited to carry out a stabilising, peacekeeping mission in Ukraine and its vicinity is the UK and the EU. The Kremlin cannot sell the narrative that Europe has a vested interest in a cold war with Russia or in the country’s destruction as successfully as it can sell the narrative of the threat presented by the United States and NATO.

    Finally, there is the factor of necessity. The EU’s security dependence on the United States is no longer defendable or sustainable. It is immoral and naive to expect the US to bear a large cost – both politically and militarily – to defend a community that is more populous than the US and with a comparable level of economic strength. Such asymmetry is simply untenable in the face of the ever more assertive China and of the changing domestic political climate in the US. And, finally, Donald Trump announced he will seek re-election to the US Presidency. I am afraid no one can predict how the US government will act with Donald Trump at the helm again. But even if a different candidate wins, the state of affairs will likely never be the same.

    The EU should stop procrastinating. If anything, we only stand to gain from the creation of a common European army. A common European army would straighten out the feeble European pillar of NATO. Common European armed forces would be capable of more cost-effective procurement than individual member states are. Moreover, there will likely be better compatibility of weapons and equipment procured this way than is currently the case. Only three things are required: less national egoism, a greater sense of responsibility, and more courage on the part of political leaders; at the European, but especially at the national level.

    I’m not a wrestler myself, I enjoy jogging; but I’ve often seen a tie between two wrestlers broken by one bold, well-thought-out hold move. I believe we, the EU, have such a hold move at our disposal.

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  • The United States and Russia initiated a discussion on 10 January on European security and the Ukraine conflict, after Moscow demanded NATO commit to halting its expansion. Putin has already achieved an important goal: Russia has a principal seat at the negotiating table as Europe’s security architecture is being negotiated, without any other Europeans.

    For the average Ukrainian, the most concerning question nevertheless remains possible Russian aggression in the coming weeks. Despite the fact that after years of speculation and concern, Ukrainians have become somewhat numb to the daily speculations of war, the current situation is very worrying. Member states on the Eastern flank of the EU are following the situation with grave concern, especially those countries bordering Russia.

    In an interview with the Martens Centre, Russian opposition politician and former Deputy Minister of Energy and Martens Centre Research Associate Vladimir Milov gave an in-depth analysis on Russia’s intentions concerning Ukraine. In his view, Putin’s main goal is to ensure he plays a role in international fora when it comes to geopolitics, rather than truly search for conflict.

    According to Milov, the idea of a major war is hugely unpopular and would have a significant impact on Putin’s approval ratings, which Putin knows all too well. One recent poll shows that two thirds of Russians prioritise personal economic well-being and higher living standards over geopolitical greatness – among Russians aged 40 or below, this figure jumps to 70%. 

    Importantly, the Russian people do not really expect a war with Ukraine – the majority says it is unlikely. Thus, should there be a full-scale military confrontation between Ukraine and Russia, the war would come as a surprise and contradict Russian popular aspirations.

    A rapidly-rising concern is the increasing concentration of Russian troops in Ukraine’s neighbourhood.  However, these  ‘troops near the Ukraine border’, which we have heard so much about are not stationed in the field – they are amassed at permanent stationery bases like Pogonovo near Voronezh, which is geographically near the Ukrainian border, but in reality, is just a large stationery military base in Central Russia.

    As Milov points out, it is a relatively easy exercise for Putin to bring even a hundred thousand troops to military bases of that scale, because he can keep them there for an indefinite period without incurring major costs, playing with the West’s nerves and raising fears of an invasion, as a near no-cost exercise.

    The West should remain vigilant nevertheless. Russia is accumulating its combat-ready forces, and is conducting military drills with these units, which are effectively rehearsals of a hypothetical invasion. In such an environment, there are real risks of dangerous, war-triggering incidents, such as warplanes violating Ukrainian airspace during military exercises and Ukraine reacting to it. Should there be any mistake or sign of weakness from the West, Putin will use it.

    Italy’s President Mario Draghi was stating the obvious in December 2021. When it comes to resisting Russia in its pressure campaign on Ukraine, Europe has little leverage.

    However, the fundamental European problem is not the lack of common security structures with EU member states, there are plenty of those. The core challenge is not institutional but political. European countries do not have the political will nor culture to even think of engaging militarily outside their own borders, let alone in some cases taking full responsibility of their own security, even within the NATO structure.

    Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö, in his widely quoted New Year’s speech, referred to Henry Kissinger’s wisdom; Kissinger pointed out that whenever avoidance of war has been the primary objective of a group of powers, the international system has been at the mercy of its most ruthless member.

    Motivated by Putin’s latest actions, European leaders and the public need to ask if their strategy of complacency has come to an end and if their avoidance of war, well-meaning as it may be, might be detrimental to the peaceful European continent.

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  • AUKUS was an agreement high on symbolism but low on substance.

    It symbolised the continuity of the “Pivot to Asia” policy through three successive Presidencies, from Obama, to Trump, to Biden. In terms of strategic substance, however, it did not add much to existent collective security arrangements. The US and Australia were already formally bound together, along with New Zealand in a tripartite collective defense agreement (ANZUS). The signatories of AUKUS are also members of other security arrangements, such as the “Five Eyes” agreement on sharing intelligence, that includes Canada and New Zealand.

    Furthermore, AUKUS is not an alliance in the strict sense of the term, in that it does not include a collective defence commitment like NATO’s Article 5 does. Accordingly, it does not provide for automatic collective action in the event, let us say, of a Chinese provocation in Taiwan. All this may have amounted, in strategic terms, to a storm in a teacup, if the Biden administration had not infuriated the French and annoyed the Europeans with the way it handled the whole issue.  

    The French were infuriated because the largest arms export deal in French history (roughly 56 billion euros) was “stolen” from them, and to add insult to injury to Macron, it happened less than a year from the French elections. The deal was struck in secrecy, with the Americans and the Australians failing to inform the French that they were involved in parallel negotiations. This is not supposed to happen among allies and friends, and the French struck back accusing the parties involved of lies, duplicity, and a major breach of trust. The agreement was also a real blow to France’s Indo-Pacific strategy, meticulously developed over the last several years, along the Paris-New Delhi-Canberra axis.

    Finally, there was the ghost of Nassau. The French felt, once again in their history, slighted by the Anglo-Saxons. In December 1962, it was the Kennedy administration that tried to appease the Macmillan government over the cancellation of the Skybolt missile project that was supposed to provide the basis of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrence. In order to appease the British, the Kennedy administration conceded to provide them with the Polaris missiles that represented a much more technologically advanced missile system. De Gaulle became outraged over the special treatment of the British by the Americans and the fact that a similar deal wasn’t extended to the French. He castigated this “Anglo-Saxon collusion” and, months later, blocked Britain’s entry into the EEC. It would be the beginning of de Gaulle’s independent foreign policy. The force de frappe, the “all azimuth strategy”, and the eventual French withdrawal from NATO’s military structure would become de Gaulle’s heretical actions within the Western camp during the apex of the Cold War.

    The AUKUS agreement felt like déjà vu to the French political elite. It was no accident that the French opposition revived the Gaullist rhetoric, while the official French communiqué talked about “the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy”.

    If the French felt betrayed by AUKUS, the Europeans felt that the honeymoon between the European Union and the Biden administration came to an abrupt end. First, it was America’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan that did not give the Europeans enough time to withdraw their own people. Second, it was the troubling aspect of AUKUS that included Britain at the expense of a European member state, giving Brexiters the pretext to boast that they have delivered on their promises on a post-Brexit “Global Britain”.

    AUKUS reminded Europeans that Europe’s geopolitical significance to American policymakers has declined after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the rise of China. More importantly, it was a sad reminder that Europe is not viewed by the US as a global power with whom America needs to deepen cooperation to face common challenges.

    Suddenly, Europeans realised that Trump might be gone, but his policies remain, and Biden’s comforting words on the value of transatlantic ties did not amount to much more than words. It is no coincidence that besides the offended French, the Germans, the staunchest transatlanticists of the continent, argued that AUKUS “ought to be a wake-up call for all Europeans”.

    No one in Europe would argue against America’s urgent priority to focus on China’s rise and the need to deal with the challenges of China’s global agenda. The “Pivot to Asia”, however, together with the American withdrawal from other regions, send the wrong signals to other revisionist authoritarian powers such as Russia. They signal that America is receding from its role as a global hegemon, abdicating its global responsibilities. Furthermore, while America may be pivoting to Asia, China is pivoting everywhere, as its globally ambitious “Belt and Road” strategy suggests. Whereas China is emerging as a global power, America is perceived to be posturing as a regional Pacific power.

    The United States needs to address the rising Chinese challenge across the globe and in every relevant policy area. In this effort, “Pivoting to Asia” will not suffice. To effectively meet the Chinese challenge, America will need to resume its global reach. Doing so will require the cooperation of the European Union, and the unity of the Transatlantic Alliance. A united West “Pivoting to Eurasia” is a much more geopolitically sensible strategy to effectively counter China’s growing challenge.

    Constantine Arvanitopoulos China NATO Transatlantic relations

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    21 Oct 2021

  • 1. Do you think that the Vrbětice incident will weaken Central Europe´s sympathy for Russia? Can it be a turning point in the perception of Russia as a real threat to national security in the region?

    James Lamond, Director of the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis, United States: Over the last several years, we have learned that it is both difficult and dangerous to make political predictions, and this instance is no different.  

    On the one hand, the Vrbětice incident is part of a series of violations of international norms and aggressive behaviour from Russia in recent years. This series of events has included: the use of chemical weapons on NATO soil; the invasion and occupation of large portions of neighbouring countries; an assassination in a Berlin park; an unparalleled cyber-hacking campaign; the likely use of directed-energy weapons to attack US diplomats; and interference in democratic processes around the world to encourage and support anti-democratic, pro-Russian, and pro-authoritarian political forces. This is only part of the list of malign activity abroad, which is paired with oppression at home, most notably with the recent poisoning, detention, and abusive treatment of Alexei Navalny. After each incident or revelation, there is a feeling that something must be done and something must change, but things quickly return to a familiar and destructive pattern.  

    However, this moment does feel different. Neighbours in Central Europe were quick to express support and act in unison. Brussels increasingly feels frustrated with Moscow, particularly following Josep Borrell’s visit to Moscow earlier this year. And there is a new administration in Washington that is keen on countering Moscow’s malign activities. This new broader international environment, combined with revelations about how drastically Russia has been willing to violate the sovereignty of CEE countries in NATO and the EU, might just be a recipe for change.  

    Grigorij Mesežnikov, President of the Institute for Public Affairs, Slovakia: Russia has been behaving like an enemy of the West for years. It is trying to dismantle the West and its integration groupings (EU and NATO) from within. It interferes with the integrity of political processes, including elections, in the countries of the democratic West, which we in Central Europe belong to, and takes active measures on their territory. Members of the Russian secret services conducted both successful and unsuccessful attempts to assassinate persons that the Kremlin saw as opponents, endangering the lives of EU citizens in Great Britain, Germany, Bulgaria, and as is now evident, in Czechia too. The propaganda machinery of the Kremlin regime creates a hostile attitude among the Russian people towards EU and NATO countries, and when Russian spies or killers make mistakes and blow their cover themselves, the level of hatred against NATO and the EU in Moscow increases. The Vrbětice case is no exception. This is neither the first nor the only case to confirm that Russia is threatening the security of democratic states. It is important that the governments of Central European countries should respond appropriately given the circumstances – that means promptly, vigilantly, and principally. Thanks to their decisive steps, even those citizens who have so far had illusions about Russia’s “friendly” intentions could correct their views. The citizens of Central Europe should realise that thanks to the interplay of favourable circumstances in the 1990s – successful internal reforms, the readiness of Western countries to open the doors of integration groupings to the peoples of Central Europe, and the then-weakness of imperial forces in the Kremlin – Central European countries were able to successfully return to Europe after the fall of communist regimes. Today, everything must be done to preserve these gains and to sustain them for as long as possible.

    Željana Zovko, MEP, EPP Group, and Vice-Chair on the Foreign Affairs Committee in the European Parliament, Croatia: The involvement of Russian secret services in the explosions in Vrbětice is a severe violation of Czech sovereignty and was rightfully condemned at all levels across the European Union. The joint statement of the Prime Ministers of the Visegrád Group and the strong messages of other leaders in the region and beyond, including the EU High Representative, and the conclusions of the European Summit in May, all show the wide support for Czechia and the clear opposition to illegal Russian activities on the territory of EU Member States.

    However, the Vrbětice incident should not be singled out as a turning point in the European perception of Russia. It is rather part of a series of events that have increased general distrust in the EU towards Russia, such as the poisoning and jailing of Alexei Navalny, the Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian border, and the clear message of Minister Lavrov calling the EU “an unreliable partner” during the visit of HRVP Borrell to Moscow. These events have led to an accumulated frustration among European Member States that highlights the need for a united position towards Russia

    2. The Vrbětice incident has not only disrupted the security of Czechia, but also of the entire EU and NATO. Do you think the solidarity of some EU member states that expelled Russian diplomats and the statements of the EU High Representative and NATO Secretary General are sufficient responses?

    James Lamond: The solidarity shown by NATO, the EU, and other member states was an important signal sent to Moscow. Prague is also seen as a regional hub for Russian intelligence, so the expulsions there, combined with the five other Central and Eastern European neighbours, will likely have an impact on Moscow’s capabilities in the region. But the broader issue is that the transatlantic approach to Russia is often responsive in nature: Russia does something and then the US, the EU, NATO, and other member states react. The transatlantic community needs to take control of the relationship and start to define it along its terms, rather than Putin’s.  

    An instructive template to consider is when in October 2018, US, British, Canadian, and Dutch authorities jointly and publicly revealed a widespread hacking campaign against the West and international institutions, accusing Russia. This case was notable for two reasons. First, the western countries exposed the scheme, revealing the details of Russia’s malign activity to the world. Rather than providing a quick summary, they held press conferences and presented detailed evidence of how the Russian suspects committed these crimes. They displayed the fake passports, vehicle license plates, and airport taxi receipts used, revealing the tactics of the Russian operation. This established the narrative about the crimes and put Putin on the defensive, rather than the other way around. Second, American and European allies presented a clear, united front. The indictments were announced in a carefully orchestrated manner, clearly communicating that this was a coordinated response among allies to Russia’s malign activity.

    Grigorij Mesežnikov: Verbal expressions of solidarity with Czechia by the EU and NATO leadership, responding to the country becoming the target of sabotage and de facto terrorist Russian activities on its territory, can be considered sufficient. However, I expected the allied countries to be more active in expelling Russian diplomats. This time, Slovakia behaved the most solidly, expelling three Russian spies operating under diplomatic cover. Slovakia is a country with special, fraternal relations with Czechia, a partner in the former Czechoslovakia. Also, in this case, the well-known Czech-Slovak solidarity and reciprocity showed itself. Due to domestic political discrepancies, however, Czech diplomacy was apparently unable to convey to its allies in a clear and comprehensible manner what reaction to the Vrbětice case it expected from them. If Czech diplomacy had done so, perhaps the reaction of other EU and NATO countries to Russia’s subversive actions would be more robust.

    Željana Zovko: Although the decisions of Czech and other European authorities to expel Russian diplomats were a direct response to the attack on Czech national security, in the long run, these measures will not alter Russia’s attitude towards the EU. After the recent escalations in EU-Russia tensions, EU leaders tasked HRVP Borrell and the Commission in the May Council Summit to prepare a report on the EU’s strategy towards Russia. The Member States concluded that the EU needs to review its policies and create a united and determined position to counter future security threats and to withstand attempts to divide us.

    The European Union should invest in its strategic autonomy and a deterrence strategy to defend EU Member States against possible aggression of third countries. We must deliver on our commitments for collective defence made within the frameworks of the EU and NATO. We also need to contain disinformation campaigns and hybrid threats aimed at causing destabilisation and division in the EU and in its immediate neighbourhood. At the same time, the EU should conduct a strategic dialogue with Russia to de-escalate current tensions and to work on an improved mutual understanding and increased transparency.

    3. In his recent report on the state of Russia, President Putin said that no one should cross the red line in relation to Russia. Where does the West’s red line lie vis-a-vis Russia? Can we expect it to be set on the occasion of the upcoming Biden – Putin summit?

    James Lamond: Vladimir Lenin is commonly quoted as saying, “You probe with bayonets: if you encounter mush, you push. If you encounter steel, you withdraw.” Vladimir Putin appears to have taken this lesson to heart, which is why over the last few years he has continued to push against the West in new ways. This is also why it is somewhat ironic for him to issue his own warnings about ill-defined red lines.  

    During the Cold War, there were red lines that guided espionage activities between the two sides, and each knew where they stood. The problem for relations with Russia today is that these red lines no longer exist, or at least no one knows where they are. A key goal of a Biden administration approach to Russia should be re-establishing where those red lines are and making clear the contours of the relationship. The upcoming summit between Presidents Biden and Putin will be the most significant opportunity to send a clear message that the Kremlin’s trajectory over the last few years is unacceptable. Coming directly from the G7 summit, meetings with European Union leadership and the 14 June NATO leaders’ summit will all provide the symbolic message of transatlantic unity. Hopefully, the substance will match the symbolism and Biden will be able to present a clear and united message to Putin.  

    Grigorij Mesežnikov: That cannot be called anything but impudence – Russia invades neighbouring states, annexes and occupies their territories, supports separatist rebellions in these states, shoots down foreign civilian planes and shamefully denies it, interferes in elections in Western countries, organises coup attempts, murders emigrees which the Kremlin considers its enemies, uses banned chemical warfare agents against them, organises hacker attacks against the critical infrastructure of Western states, supports a lunatic dictator in Belarus who oppresses the people of that country; and Vladimir Putin has the audacity to teach the world about his own red lines. Russia has crossed all conceivable and unimaginable red lines in international politics, and is currently the aggressor and enemy of the West. The West must not be subject to Kremlin tricks, and should show no softness to Russian aggression, in any of its manifestations. You cannot meaningfully cooperate with the enemy; you can only coexist in a vigilant way, keeping the ability to respond harshly. The red line is our weakness, we must not allow it here.

    Željana Zovko: The development of red lines should be a part of the reflection process on a European Russia policy. We cannot accept threats to the sovereignty of European Member States, not via military pressure, nor via direct or indirect interferences in democratic and political processes. The EU should stand firm to guarantee the security of our neighbouring states and condemn any violation of their territorial integrity.

    Meanwhile, the EU should not refuse to communicate with Russia and must preserve dialogue with the Kremlin and Russian society. Diplomatic channels are a means to minimise divergence and build constructive strategic relations.

    Our Russia policy would be most effective if it were based on coordinated actions with likeminded states. The transatlantic relationship will play a key role in this regard. European strategic autonomy that is compatible with NATO programmes will enhance the transatlantic ability to safeguard a rules-based international order. The new US administration has shown its willingness to improve the alignment of its foreign policy with the European Union, including in relation to Russia. The upcoming Biden-Putin Summit offers an opportunity in this regard to assess where the new US administration stands towards Russia and what we can expect from future transatlantic coordination.

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  • A highlight of NATO’s forthcoming summit in Madrid in June 2022 will be the publication of its new Strategic Concept, a mission statement of the role and purpose of the alliance over the next decade. These periodic exercises by international organisations are frequently derided by critics as bureaucratic documents that reflect painful compromises, the lowest common denominator of consensus among the member states and wish lists of ambitions that are rarely implemented. Another criticism is that in a fast-changing world, the tasks and priorities that feature in these concepts are soon out of date and that what is not mentioned tends to quickly become more significant than what is included. Yet in the case of NATO, this criticism would be misplaced. War has returned to Europe, and military threats to the alliance’s security are now more real than they have been at any time since the height of the Cold War. If all of NATO’s 30 member states are to remain secure (and the number will eventually reach 32 when Finland and Sweden join), the alliance has to get its strategy for deterrence and collective defence right. It also needs to reduce Russia’s capability to inflict harm on its member states and partners over the long run, while managing crises and avoiding dangerous escalation. Thus, NATO’s critical choices now and in the immediate future carry unusually large risks and strategic consequences. This is why we should all be paying close attention to the debates on its new Strategic Concept which are currently taking place inside NATO. What is still valid in the existing concept, which dates back to 2010? And where can we expect new orientations and policy objectives? Will Russia’s invasion of Ukraine make it easier or harder for allies to reach consensus?

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  • For over a decade, the neighbourhoods of Europe have been faced with increasing external threats. It is not self-evident however that conflicts and disagreements will be solved within rules-based cooperation and established institutions. Recent actions of Russia, China, and Turkey, for example, have raised concerns. Is the EU capable enough to respond to new threats, such as hybrid and cyber warfare? Can the EU as a part of the Western security community respond to all the new challenges, and what options does Finland have – so far as a non-NATO country?

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