In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Stefan Lehne, Senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the post–Lisbon Treaty development of the European Union’s foreign policy, with a specific focus on relations between the EU and member states. They talk about EU foreign policy, the European response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, why the EU Council should turn to majority voting on foreign policy, and how to adapt EU institutions to the tasks ahead in light of the prospective enlargement.
Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): How can we make the EU foreign policy fit for the geopolitical war we are now facing? How would you assess the EU response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Stefan Lehne (SL): The European Union has responded forcefully and with determination that we have rarely seen before. The EU has always been divided when it comes to Russia. There were countries (primarily Poland and the Baltic states) who were very skeptical of Moscow, whereas there was a number of states (including Italy, Austria, Greece, among others) that were actually quite friendly with Russia. They took pride in a positive relationship with Russia, focusing on its economic potential.
These divisions were quite deep. There are two reasons why it was possible to overcome them in reaction to the Russian aggression against Ukraine. First of all, the invasion was so crass, unjustified, and horrible that even the biggest fans of Putin among the EU governments had to rethink their stance. Secondly, the U.S. administration handled this issue extremely well. They were among the few countries that assessed the threat correctly, and they worked extremely with Europeans in putting together the sanction packages, helping to insure a coherent EU response.
LJ: Could the recent events put into question the idea of strategic autonomy?
SL: For the time being, the war in Ukraine has put a damper on the development of the European defense policies – there is no doubt about it. NATO has been strongly reinforced as a consequence. Quite a number of countries realized that there is no alternative to the U.S. engagement on the European continent. The need for an autonomous EU defense policy is less evident than it had been before.
The fact that Sweden and Finland applied to join NATO is a vote of non-confidence in European defense. Clearly, they believe that it is only with the help of the United States that they can ensure the security of their citizens. This means that the focus will not be so strongly put on the autonomous European defense.
However, there remains one big question which regards the United States. It struggles with a highly polarized society. There is a great uncertainty regarding the outcome of the next congressional and presidential elections. It is not unlikely that someone of the likes of Donald Trump (or even he himself) will reappear on the political stage – with a huge personality, a lack of interest in international partnerships, and very little commitment to Europe. If that is the case – and it could happen very easily – then the whole picture will change dramatically. Suddenly, there would be a need to put much more emphasis on the European defense again.
LJ: Is it the problem on the side of Europeans that we got used to having the U.S. umbrella over our heads so much that our strategic thinking is hampered? Can we develop a strategic culture in Europe?
SL: There are three basic reasons for the weakness of the European foreign and security policies. First, there is a strong preference of some of the large EU countries for focusing on their own national foreign policy. This applies to France and, to some extent, Germany, Italy, and Spain. They simply want to run their own national policy and they look at the EU as mechanism ensuring that their national foreign policies are more successful and supported than those of other states. They do not want to fully identify with EU foreign policy. Certainly, they do not want for the Brussels institutions to be powerful in their state.
The French president is like a king – he can send troops anywhere within 24 hours. He does not have to ask anyone for permission. To believe that this person would then allow Joseph Borrel or Ursula von der Leyen run foreign policy for him is unthinkable. It is comparable to thinking that you can move the Eiffel Tower from Paris to Brussels – it is just nonsense!
The second constraint is related to the fact that a number of smaller member states simply do not have the strongest interest, strategic culture, and no real tradition of foreign policy players. They like to voice their opinions in the Council and comment on developments, but they lack the readiness to face the costs and risks of operational action and, probably, also the support of their population.
Thirdly, for decades, everyone in this field has been conditioned to look at what Washington is going to do about a crisis. It is, therefore, really hard to break free from this instinctive way of thinking and following the U.S. It is fascinating to see what happened after the Trump’s administration, as there was enormous sense of relief and happiness that the EU relapsed into this benign American hegemony.
If this was not to happen anymore, because the United States would be absorbed by internal crises or would be led by a leader who hates Europe (like Donald Trump), then there a need would arise to be much more serious about foreign and security policies. The other two constraints could then be possibly overcome, I do not rule it out.
However, in the short and medium term, I see a lot more promise in geoeconomics – in dealing with supply chains, climate change issues, or industrial policy. There is a huge amount of things to do that are, certainly, not less crucial than foreign policy. The European Union is much better equipped to deal with these kinds of issues because it has specific instruments and a more effective decision-making procedures.
LJ: Are we short-sighted in focusing on changing the EU treaties? Or will changing them help accelerate the decision-making processes?
SL: Over the last 20-30 years, there has been a large number of transitions – from unanimity to qualified majority voting, but also in rather sensitive issues (such as policing home affairs and justice); things that are equally close to the core of national sovereignty. These transitions took place, so there is no reason why it should not be possible in the area of foreign policy.
What poses the challenge in this regard are smaller countries – in particular those that struggle with big problems (Cyprus and to some extent the Baltic states). They are very sensitive. Cyprus, for instance, feels that they need the veto power in order to protect their vital national interests -for example, when it comes to Turkey. Therefore, it will be extremely difficult to get rid of these tendencies.
Constructive abstention is definitely a highly valuable mechanism, which has been very rarely used in the past, but it has considerable potential. In the treaty, there is also a provision according to which if you have the qualified majority vote but when important national interests are at stake, then it is possible for a country to move the decision to the European Council. This is another safeguarding tool that could be useful.
I am hopeful. If there is strong leadership on this issue, then I think it is possible to achieve some progress. In the past, even the big countries were not sufficiently committed to it – France never considered it to be a priority, the Germans talked about it a lot, but they never pushed very hard. However, I could imagine that now there is a context – with this much darker, more difficult world – for serious effort to overcome the issues we have been facing.
We do not need to change the treaty to do this. It can be done through the so-called ‘passarelle clause’ – via a unanimous decision of the European Council. In key issues a breakthrough is not impossible. Of course, this will not be a silver bullet that would make the European foreign policy incredibly successful. However, the proliferation of blockages that we have experienced in the past 5-10 years (from declarations on human rights, the relations with China, or issues related to Israel, among others). All these issues can be overcome.
We may already see a certain trend in the European foreign policy – for instance, in multilateral institutions – where if a country is blocking a proposal, the other 25 or 26 member states want to move forward, they can adopt a certain statement or a declaration. If there are more blockages, there will inevitably emerge a tendency for stronger groups that are willing to go forward possibly outside of the EU context – which would be, of course, negative for the development of the EU foreign policy.
LJ: Given the experience of a few months since the start of the war in Ukraine, should we change the way in which the EU institutions are designed and how they operate? Are there any institutional changes that should be introduced regarding Action Service and Foreign Affairs Council?
SL: There is a number of problems. The first one relates to the Council of Foreign Ministers. When I was working with Javier Solana, all the foreign ministers were there at the council meeting, and they usually were debating the Middle East and the Balkans for many hours. Now, many of them are absent, whereas others just come for lunch. This is devastating.
The main reason for this situation is that foreign ministers are simply not as important as they used to be. During the World War I, foreign ministers were in charge of critical decisions; now, they are basically the helpers of the prime ministers. Nowadays, international relations are not something for one ministry, but rather a matter for an entire government. The only politician who can really coordinate the efforts and make decisions move forward is the prime minister. The foreign minister might be influential only if he is close to the prime minister; however, in some coalition governments even that is not the case.
In the European Union, the emphasis on important foreign policy issues shifted to the European Council, where the prime ministers are present. This is not a tragedy, but the problem is that many prime ministers are not very good at foreign policy as they have been socialized in a domestic context. Some of them do not understand foreign policy very well.
Also, there is no strong support structure for the European Council in institutions. Everything basically depends on the president of the European Council, who does not have a strong council of expertise, among others; therefore, everything is rather improvised and focused on crisis management and, sometimes, even this is not handled very well at all. Therefore, it would be useful to create a national security council (like the one in the United States) – a body of experts and political advisors which analyzes intelligence and other issues, making recommendations to the European Council. This would be a positive development.
Another issue poses the rule of the High Representatives and the Action Service. The provisions of the Lisbon Treaty are actually quite strong. They created a very important function in the form of a Hight Representative, who chairs the Council, presides over the External Action Service (the foreign ministry of the EU), and who is also the Vice-President of the European Commission. Whoever holds this function basically coordinates between the external relations (led by the Commission) and foreign and security policy.
However, ironically, having created such an important position, the member states did not want any important person to hold this function because it would be to big of a threat to their national policies. As a result, if we look at the choices that they made so far – Federica Mogherini, Catherine Ashton, and now Borrell – they were all venerable figures, but they were no big players. They are not someone who could say ‘no’ to President Macron and suggest doing things differently. They are basically civil servants and there is some kind of lack of respect for this function among some of the influential politicians.
Borrell handles this job very differently from his predecessors. He is much more outspoken. However, of course, there arises the issue of whom does he actually speak for because frequently his statements go well beyond the consensus in the Council. In a way, he has become the High Think-Tanker of the European Union – he writes a blog and gives interesting interviews, but at times it is unclear whom he represents.
The experience of the last 3-4 years has shown that the European Commission has become a much more important player in foreign policy. Contrary to Jean-Claude Juncker, Ursula von der Leyen is hugely interested this issue and has a strong background (she was the former German Defense Minister). For instance, when it comes to the sanctions on Russia, most of the work was carried out by Washington (the security adviser of President Joe Biden) and the cabinet of von der Leyen. Borell and the External Action Service was barely on the sidelines.
Therefore, I do believe that the European Commission and its President are at the moment probably the most important foreign-policy actor in the EU. The institution itself is also stronger than the European Council and the High Representative.
LJ: You worked at the General Secretariat for the Council of the European Union as the director for Balkans, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia. Recently, we could see the promise of EU enlargement for Ukraine and Moldova. Does this symbolic decision mean that enlargement is back on the table?
SL: I have been told that there was a lot of resistance in the Council to granting Ukraine and Moldova the candidate status because many governments thought that it was not realistic. The argument that finally won over these reservations was that if we denied Ukraine a candidate status, it would have amounted to victory for Vladimir Putin – a nobody wanted that.
The decision was the right one because it shown commitment to the future of Ukraine as an independent and sovereign state with a European vision and destination. It is, still, a very long-term prospect. What needs to be done first is ending (and hopefully winning) the war and starting a highly important reconstruction process in Ukraine. Membership will likely not be possible for a number of years.
Enlargement remains a very important policy tool for the European Union. If we look at the Balkans, there has been insufficient progress – partly because of the countries not doing enough in terms of reforms, but also because the EU got somehow distracted by a whole series of important crises that we had to face over the last few years. There was simply no bandwidth, no real interest – this issue was simply not a priority. And if something is not a priority, it does not move forward. Still, it is very clear that the Balkans are an enclave in the European Union – almost 70% of their trade happens with the EU and most of the investment comes from the EU. So, there is no strategic alternative. Eventually, these countries will join the European Union, but it will take a long time, it will require more engagement and funding. I hope that the EU will find enough headspace to commit to the Balkans again and to do what needs to be done.
In the meantime, enlargement from the Balkans will happen, but on an individual basis because at the moment only 18 millions of people are left in the Balkans – millions are already in the EU because it is much easier to change countries than to change your country. Therefore, many great people from the Balkans have decided that it would be much better for them and their families to move to the EU. This, of course, poses huge problem because in the face of the democratic decline it is extremely difficult to re-start dynamic economic development. If the European Union is unwilling to re-commit to having the Balkan countries move forward and get closer to the EU, we will see many more people arriving in Europe. As such, we will likely also see many more problems coming from this region.
LJ: How will the war in Ukraine develop? What role will the European Union play in the conflict? Will the energy crisis influence the equilibrium and, as a result, the determination to support for Ukraine will weaken in winter? Will the EU push for ending the war regardless of the cost?
SL: There are different visions regarding ending the war. Some countries – and Poland clearly belongs to this camp – strongly believe that Vladimir Putin has to be defeated and that anything else will not solve the problem but rather lead to further aggression later on. Other countries believe that this is not realistic, and that Ukraine will not be in a position to expel Russian forces from all of its territories. They also think that the longer the war lasts, the more people die, and, therefore, our priority should be bringing the war to an end as quickly as possible.
At the moment, if we look at the EU discussions, this division exists but it is not yet evident as there still is a consensus on supporting Ukraine. However, I do fear that if the collateral damage of the conflict becomes greater (in terms of inflation, energy supply, or people being tired of refugees), then this ‘peace camp’ will become more vocal. In this case, we would face many much more difficult discussions on these issues.
If we look at the support coming from outside, the vast amount comes from the United States (particularly, military). Therefore, as long as the U.S. maintains the line of strong support for Ukraine, EU countries are not likely to say that abandon sanctions because we need Russian gas and otherwise we freeze in the winter. I do really see this happening. When we look at the example of EU sanctions after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, there were about eight countries in the EU who consistently said that sanctions are counterproductive, pointless, costly for the EU, and they do not bring any results. Still, every 6 months, the sanctions were continued even though it would be very easy for even one country to block them – but nobody did that. Thus, as long as big countries and the United States strongly support Ukraine, this course of action will continue.
Nevertheless, if things get really bad and if ‘yellow vest’ movements emerge in a number of member states, there is a risk of compromising this consensus. At the moment, this still depends primarily on U.S. leadership and a sufficient number of EU member states which want to continue supporting Ukraine. If this scenario happens, then I am fairly confident that the European Union will not fall apart over this issue.
The podcast was recorded on August 30, 2022.
Find out more about the guest: www.carnegieeurope.eu/experts/634
This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.