conducted by Madalina S. Vicari

Vocal Europe: The Bratislava Summit was a peculiar moment as the European leaders met for the first time in the EU-27 formula.  The current main challenges, as identified by the Roadmap, are migration, terrorism, economic and social security. Do you agree with this assessment, that those are the main challenges?

Stephen Szabo: I think it depends on how to define challenges. The European publics, I think, see certainly the issues of border security, terrorism, immigration as primary concerns and, then, of course, also the lack of economic growth: there are a lot of issues ahead of the EU.  There are others challenges like the policy challenges related to Russia but I think that right now those are the primary and immediate challenges for the European Union.

VE: Do you think that the measures outlined by the Bratislava Roadmap would be enough to tackle these challenges?

SS: No. I think that the Roadmap is a thing “to keep kicking the can down the road” to Rome, to make people think that things are happening; there are a few things, like the Bulgarian border issue that are more concrete.  I don’t think that this military cooperation issue is too serious right now, I think that is more cosmetic. I don’t think that it is much more than a sort of promises to try to fulfill in the future and I also think that they are trying to paper over the divisions within EU and between national leaders.

VE: And also the divisions between the institutions of the European Union: as we recently saw,  regarding the vision for Europe, the State of Union address of Mr. Juncker clashed with Mr. Tusk’s letter sent to EU national leaders

SS: I think it is correct and I think that what I see coming up all those years is much more an intergovernmental Europe at least for the short term, which means the European Council; and you can see Mr. Tusk is been talking about that, the Chancellor Merkel is been talking about that too. Given all of this- the renationalization of parts of the EU-I think it is gonna be a much more intergovernmental approach.

VE: How do you see the prospects of the French German plan for the common EU defense in the context in which UK has already announced that it would oppose an European but also given the difference of strategic defense cultures between France and Germany? : France is a member of UN Council, a nuclear power whereas Germany is more reluctant to deploy troops and so on…

SS: I think that it will be some limited progress just because the types of security challenges that Europe is facing now-immigration, border security, counter-terrorism, intelligence –sharing-are not really NATO-related types of challenges. Those things are better done by the EU states and not even necessarily by the defense ministries. I think that the EU is correct in saying: “we have to have some capabilities for these types of challenges” but leaving the biggest chunk of challenges, like the Russia challenges, to NATO. But the UK -the biggest military power in Europe- is out of it now and it does really mean that the pretty biggest challenges will remain to NATO, I think.

VE: Then, the EU common defense capabilities would be more a paper tiger?

szabo_stephen-1SS: It has been so far, maybe the battle groups.  But if you look at the German Defense White Paper, the Germans show some signs to try to take the military side a bit more seriously and there are also defense industrial considerations here, too. The possibility of defense cooperation between EU Member States is vital to keep not only the the European defenses up to date but also to keep the European industrial and technological base modernized. You would expect here, in US, a lot of defense people to be skeptical: “it’s a paper tiger”, “it’s duplication”, “we need resources for defense that should go to NATO”, but I think that there is also a sense here, too that as long as it enhances the defense capabilities it doesn’t matter that is for EU or for NATO, at least we have been doing that.

VE: Though, could the common EU defense plan weaken the NATO, as some voices claim it? And does it hold the potential to hamper the EU-US transatlantic relations?

SS: Yes, it has, but I think that it has a more positive potential;  if you listen to this awful campaign we are having right now in the United States, at what Trump is been saying..  I think that anything that Europeans do to show that they are taking their defense more seriously will certainly help and I think the threat to NATO may come more from this side of the Atlantic right now rather than from the Europeans.

VE: Over the past three years, the United States and Europe have been successfully maintaining a coherent and effective policy towards Russia, which have had at its core the economic sanctions against Moscow. Some Member States have already and repeatedly questioned the sanctions. What do you think that EU should do, as a whole to maintain the effectiveness of its policy towards Russia? : show inflexibility regarding the sanctions? Engage in an appeasement policy with Russia?

SS: It has been remarkable how the EU has held together on the sanctions regime. If you think about the various historical, cultural, geographic, economic interests, it is pretty impressive how the Europeans have done. And in terms of burden-sharing, the Europeans are carrying a much heavier economic burden and costs than the America does. I have always told to the Americans, that the Europeans are paying a much higher price for the sanctions regime. I think that is very important that the Europeans maintain solidarity and that they keep doing this together. So if they decide that there are some reasons to start to ease the sanctions it has to be a joint EU decision and the European solidarity should not be broken. The situation is not changing in Crimea or in Ukraine and for Europeans to say “let’s go back to business as usual with Russia”, that would change the whole European security environment.

VE: But wouldn’t those divisions between the Member States related to the sanctions-because France, Italy, some German politicians, to not speak about some Eastern countries like Hungary or Slovakia questioned them-hold the potential to accentuate other divisions within the European Union?

SS: That is true. But it is also the other side- that the European solidarity has really strengthened the EU’s credibility in foreign policy because it was able to tackle this major issue and hold together for so long. I would say that a lot depends of Germany and I think that as long as Chancellor Merkel is there we will see some sanction regime-even that it maybe not in the current form. In my opinion, the Germans will hold to the sanctions regime for the foreseeable future and as long as the Germans will hold to it, countries like Hungary and Slovakia and even Italy are going to be very concerned about trying to go against the Germans on this; they did that on refugee policy and it has been really pretty damaging. I think that one of the biggest challenges of the next year’s transatlantic relation will be: where we will go with the sanctions regime, where we will go with the Russia policy? We have been able to hold together remarkably well on this and I think that we should definitely continue to work together and if we decide that we would start a different policy we should do that together.

VE: How do you see the future of EU Russia relations, in general, especially in the context in which in Europe some people are inclined to consider a sort of appeasement approach?

SS: Not good.  I do think that it is not going back anymore and that the Rubicon was really crossed with Crimea and Ukraine; that is bad news for Europe because it means that we are going back to some sort of version of bipolar security system that we had hoped we got rid of in 1990. So I do think that it is going be very difficult for the Europeans to have a normal relationship with Russia as long as Vladimir Putin is in power and that will be for quite a while, it looks like. So I think that challenge is the appeasement based on the cynical vision that profit prevails, that we could do business, we could do deals  with these people, as Mr. Trump says, for instance, and as some people in some European countries-more than in the US, because of closer economic ties- think, too. This cynicism will be a surrender to lack of values and to material interests.

VE: It is very interesting what you said about the bipolar security system. I would say that it may be a bipolar security system in a rather multipolar world and that does challenge the international relation system and the mainstream theories of international relations too

SS: All the theories we had about collective security and all about, on sort of a pan-European security system-that’s dead. I think we may end with a sort of spheres of influence issue too there; I hardly see the EU or NATO seriously widening Ukraine or Georgia or other EU neighbourhood states policy in.  So I do think that there is a sort of acknowledgement, that nobody wants to say it, that that is gonna be the Russian sphere. Though, it is not gonna be as in the old days when the Ukrainian, the Georgian people had no choice. But I do think that in terms of fully extending security guarantees to these states it will be very unlikely so there is a sort of tacit acknowledgement that that is going to be a Russian sphere of interests at least, to put it bluntly.

VE: This kind of opinion is not going to be very welcome in Europe, especially by the people who have been voicing that the EU must have its own geopolitical project and NATO must extend its security guarantees to EU’s neighbourhood; it is in a way quite the clash of two schools and it is very interesting to see this kind of opinion so outspokenly expressed

SS: The US has depended a lot on the soft power of EU and the prospect of enlargement as a way of providing security and democratization through slow extension- that is gone. We now face the situation in which we do not have the EU’s ability as a magnet in that sense, and I do not like it either but I think that is the sort of the world we are heading for, especially if you look at these countries and all the trends which put those countries back on the zone war issues and this is a problem for the Europeans.  But we just do not know what Putin will gonna do. I do think that the American guarantees to the Baltic States and NATO’s guarantees of the Article 5 to the NATO members, are very real and I think that Mr. Putin understands that.  But countries like Ukraine, Georgia, and even Moldova-they gonna be grey areas, I think for a long time.

VE: Which are the main challenges ahead of EU-US transatlantic relations?

SS: A lot depends on the result of November election but overall I think that in the US there is still a lot of support for NATO, for Europe. There is a lot a concern right now in the US that EU is in a very difficult situation and there is fear that we would lose not only our best partner but the partner with which we share the values in terms of liberal democracy. I do think there is more awareness now in the US that Europe is in trouble and that it needs more American support; I don’t like to say more American leadership, I say more American support. Hillary Clinton re- emphasized the importance of alliances and that we need to re-ensure more our allies; and I think she will be even tougher on Russia than perhaps Obama.  If Donald Trump will win, he will still face huge opposition within the American national security establishment and even in the Republican Party in Congress. He could do a lot of damage but I think that is still a lot of “deep state” here, to use the Turkish or Italian concepts, on defense and foreign policy, that still sees Europe as a crucial ally and I think actually that the US-EU relationship may even get closer given the fact that it is in crisis. 

VE: And what are the challenges ahead of the future president of the United States: the weakness of Europe, the US shift towards the Asia-Pacific?

SS: There is a sense here that the biggest long-term challenge is China, but I haven’t seen a real shift of American defense resources towards Asia; there is a concern about that but I think that the ways to dealing with that should not be necessarily militarily. I think that the dangers of miscalculations with Russia in Europe and the Middle East are very high on the agenda. I noticed that it’s been a lot of articles in the press here in the United States that US defense and  intelligence establishment  is devoting more resources now on Russia than a year or two ago. So I think that Russia will be seen as a major challenge. Also issues like terrorism and ISIS are still very high on the public opinion agenda both in the US and Europe, so working together with the Europeans on intelligence-sharing and cooperating on counter- terrorism will be a high priority for both sides. On the economic side, I do think that TTIP is in big trouble but I would not over-exaggerate its importance because we have such a deep economic relationship with the EU and that will continue. Finally, we and the Europeans are faced with this idea that China, Russia try to change the international rules of the game in terms of free trade in the international economic liberal order so working together to preserve the economic international liberal order will be a main challenge for both the US and the EU. Also the challenge for the United States will be who will deal with in Europe, who is the leader?

VE: Henry Kissinger said: “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe? “

SS: Some people here think that the answer is Germany but I don’t think that is the right answer; Germany is part of the answer.  I think we have a big stake in seeing the EU hold together and be able to operate as a partner, as it did on the sanctions against Russia or on the trade issues. The Germans have certain issues, the French have certain issues, we lost the Brits as our key partner from the EU and I think that a key-question for the future president will be: “who I talk to, how do I work with Europe?”; “if I would start to work too much with the Germans, would that set up countervailing actions against Germany, against the US?”  I am worried also about Russia’s influence not just as a military threat but about the networks of corruption that it has been developing. I would say  that there are also legitimate economic networks, too but look at what is happening in Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, at the Russian lobbying in Germany; that it is to me concerning because it is not simply about business, it is about political influence too.

VE: How do you see EU in 5 year time? : more federalist? in a status quo? triggered apart by Member States’ differences and the rise of populism?

SS: It will not be more federalist, that is pretty clear. I think we will see a more emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity- what could be done at the national level should be done there, and what is at the European level should be done through the intergovernmental level. Of course, the European Commission will remain–on economic side-a major player. I keep my finger crossed that the populism is maybe peaking I will give a couple of reasons for that: the main reason is that the refugee issue, for a variety of reasons, may start to fade away; there are fewer people who are coming in Europe than before-partly because of the deal with Turkey but partly because of other factors; I also think that it will be a pretty strong option taken in Europe to control the borders, even that it might take a way. I see also little prospect of populism winning national elections: Marine Le Pen is the biggest challenge but it looks unlikely that she will be able to prevail on a second ballot. I will be very surprised that Trump wins here but if he does it will be a disaster not only for us but for Europe as well. I think it will be some reconsolidation at the national level and also the big question will be the euro itself: how does it gonna work out?; will we see a kind of core Europe re-emerging, with this kind of periphery, of variable geometry? ; that’s a big question . We have to see and wait the French election; the next France’s president, Alain Juppé- or whoever will be- will be more likely to re-establish the French voice and the French commitment within the EU; let’s hope so anyway.

I also think that a German Europe is not feasible anymore and that raises important question as well:  will it be a core Europe, of circles around it or some sort of intergovernmental Europe with coalitions of willing within that Europe?  The past crisis brought more Europe and there is still a lot of support in Europe, even in countries like Hungary and France, if you look at the polls:  the Europeans realize that you cannot go back and EU is here to stay. But I think that it will not be a bigger Europe either –except maybe for the Balkans;  but for the EU to go further eastward or expanding larger, I don’t think so.


*Stephen Szabo is Executive Director at Transatlantic Academy, GMF. His expertise covers Transatlantic Relations / NATO / European Union / German Politics / U.S. Foreign Policy. 


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