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16 February, 2016  ▪  Anna Korbut

Thoughts on the future

Experts on how they see Europe coming out of the current crises

 Judy Dempsey: “The more other member-states don’t help, the more anti-EU sentiment could grow in Germany”

Non-resident senior associate at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of the Strategic Europe blog

There has been a change in the Germans’ perception of their government. First of all, the popularity of Angela Merkel’s party has really fallen. Secondly, 80% of the public believes that the government does not have a grip on the refugee issue. Thirdly, and very worryingly, the far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), is rising. Their rate of 12% shows that it’s just not a typical fringe eurosceptic party, but a serious far-right one.  It will be very interesting to see if the AfD will get elected to the regional parliaments next month when three important regions go to the polls.

This party is putting pressure on Merkel’s sister party in Bavaria, the Christian-Social Union, who call on the Chancellor to put a cap on the numbers of refugees in Germany. The CSU which has become increasingly populist has adopted such a stance in order to maintain their core conservative base in Bavaria. The CSU does not want to see any kind of tilt of the vote to the AfD.  One of the AfD leaders already suggested that the police should shoot at refugees who try to cross the border to Germany. It caused outrage.  Decent Germans won’t vote for it. Still, it is the AfD that is now the party providing the anti-refugee and anti-EU stance. A contradictory trend to the rise of this party is the fact that there are so many strong volunteer organizations in Germany at the moment. Without them the refugee crisis would be even worse. Volunteers feed the refugees. They teach them German. They provide homes for them. And slowly but surely young children of refugees are attending schools in order to learn German and become integrated. 

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As to the popularity of Angela Merkel herself, it has fallen as well, but it used to be very high, over 70%. She’s no longer the most popular politician (actually, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is). Now, Merkel is trying ways (although she won’t say it) to restrict the number of refugees coming to Germany. She will not call for the restoration of borders, and she can’t afford to do this because that is against everything she stands for. Moreover, Merkel knows that this will actually inflict heavy damage on the EU’s and Germany’s economy and of course the Schengen system. At the beginning of the crisis, she told her party: give me a little bit of time and we can do it. But the problem is that for that time she depended on peace talks on Syria. Those didn’t succeed. In fact, Vladimir Putin complicated matters for Merkel. She hoped that the talks would result in some kind of a peace deal for Syria. Instead, more refugees started to try to reach Europe. So, pressure is coming on Merkel from outside, particularly from Putin’s bombing of Syria.

The recent visit of the Bavarian CSU’s leader to Russia didn’t go down particularly well in Germany, especially after all the reporting on the Russian-German teenage girl gone missing and the Russian media spreading all those lies about this. Eventually, if the German elites see that Russia is of no help in the Syrian war, they wonder what relations the Germans can have with Russia. Foreign Minister Steinmeier still believes that there is some room for diplomacy. But Merkel does not appear to agree at this point, especially given what happened in Eastern Ukraine and the fact that Putin’s bombing of Syria is making the refugee crisis even worse.

Meanwhile, the social-democrats in Germany are dependent on Merkel (for the coalition – Ed.), so they can’t criticize her too much. Plus, there is nobody in the SPD who could challenge Merkel. In fact, it’s hard to see who would want her job at the moment. The SPD are squabbling being over the asylum law, logistics, proposing ideas of their own. They are not in a strong position in the polls and the CDU has been weakened. But the coalition is staying together at the moment because there is no other option.

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What doesn’t help in the meanwhile, is that Merkel cannot depend on the other EU member-states to take their share of the refugees which most have refused. The more they don’t help, the more anti-EU sentiment could grow in Germany. Ordinary pro-EU Germans believed in the idea of solidarity among EU member states. Now they don’t find solidarity when it comes to the refugees.

Merkel has been trying to call for solidarity and unity in the EU. But then, a series of elections are coming up in EU member-states – French presidential election, populist parties in Denmark closing their doors to asylum seekers, the British referendum on staying in or leaving the EU - make unity even harder to attain. Plus, with the refugee crisis, Germany’s influence is waning, too. It cannot persuade the other EU member states to understand why they have a moral and legal obligation to help the refugees.

 Christopher Hartwell: “Schengen is the best thing the EU has done up to this point”

President of Management Board, Center for Social and Economic Research, Warsaw

I wouldn’t say that the restoration of border controls in the EU is a major threat right now. But the EU has lost its way in the past few years – probably since the global financial crisis. It has been so focused on macroeconomy, mostly protecting the euro, that it has lost grip of other issues, including external policy. The current crisis shows what the EU is trying to do with its member-states – and that’s what it did with regard to the eurozone, trying to bully its way through. What we see now is a backlash against that. The idea of restoring border controls and dismantling the Schengen zone is a pushback against Brussels and its undemocratic thinking, whereby member-states say that they still have the right to border control and their own immigration policy without being dictated from Brussels. Right now, there is a lot of posturing about this. If this actually goes further, it could have serious economic ramifications. Schengen is the best thing the EU has done up to this point – it facilitates free labor and capital movement, and it’s something to be proud of. It will be sad if it goes away.

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Poland has reaped benefits of free movement of both capital and labor. Opening up the border with Germany has done wonders for Poland’s manufacturing, technology development and foreign direct investment coming into Poland. Free labor movement helped more than just in a way of people leaving Poland – which is the headline story. It has also contributed to importing managerial know-how, which is still low here, bringing in Germans, Dutch and Brits who know how to run organizations, industrial farms and things like that. So, it’s very important both ways. But the most important thing about it was the Poles had an opportunity to go out into the EU and be in the UK, the Netherlands and elsewhere, and taking advantage of the opportunities that have not yet generated themselves here. By the way, the fact that the Poles leave for other places creates opportunities for Ukrainians on the labor market. 

 Bastian Giegerich: “The challenge for the EU is to develop a strong European voice in security policy”

Director of Defence and Military Analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London 

I think the first thing to recognize from the perspective of the EU is that the security environment is now much more challenging. And the challenge for the EU is to develop a strong European voice in security policy. At this point, the EU is not well placed to deliver that sort of contribution because it has internal challenges, as well as a bit of disillusionment among EU member-states with regard to the instruments of common policy, and specifically the Common Security and Defense Policy.

In theory, the greatly promising aspect of the EU as a security actor is the ability to combine civilian instruments ranging from diplomacy and aid to civilian crisis management, with the military crisis management tools – bringing all that under one roof. The problem with that is that this has not yet materialized in reality. NATO, by contrast, is a military organization and does not have these civilian capabilities. It is a strong actor, but it doesn’t have the other side which, I think, is also necessary in solving today’s security challenges as they are not exclusively of military nature.

The EU has potential in that, but it doesn’t realize it or bring it to life in practical terms. Optimists would probably add “yet” to this. I’m more skeptical than that.

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By June 2016, the EU will present a new “EU Global Strategy”. What I think it will say is that the world is a much more contested and complex place, so the EU needs to get better at coordinating its mechanisms and means, and think about how it can make a contribution in this new environment. The problem is that this is not really a concrete guide for action. The document will probably be something short and readable, it will be a contribution to the conversation, but I don’t think it will be a breakthrough guide for action after which the EU will move into a different sphere of security policy.

With regard to managing crises that have civilian and military aspects to them, the EU itself has no means. It needs to use the capabilities of its member-states in order to act. And very often it can do so as an entity only when one or two member-states take a strong lead position. Meanwhile, the countries that do leading positions on specific issues have to make sure that the others feel included in the process and their voice is heard, their interests are respected. Otherwise, once some member-states feel that it’s not the case, finding a compromise becomes more difficult. 

 Sven Biscop: “The greatest risk we are facing now is the lack of solidarity and cohesion inside the EU”

Director of Europe in the World program at Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels; member of the Executive Academic Board of the EU’s European Security and Defence College (ESDC)

The answer to the current crises is not in NATO, but in countries’ own policy towards refugees, and it’s a diplomatic one. It lies on more of an EU level.

It is true that the countries closer to Russia have a different perception of its threat than those farther from it. Western European members believe that we have to be cautious about Russia, but at the same time we shouldn’t overstate its military threat to EU and NATO territory, unlike in the case of Ukraine. The feeling in Brussels is rather as follows: ok, Putin tries to shift the competition into the military field. That’s where he thinks he is strong. But we should keep it in the diplomatic and economic fields, where he is weak. The more we repeat the anxious message that Russia is a great threat to Europe, the more we play into Putin’s hands. This is my feeling. However, this is not to minimize it.

I was lecturing at the Baltic Defense College – they know that there is not enough interest in Europe to escalate with Russia, and that the only answer to its intentions can be comprehensive actions of diplomacy, economy and military, with the focus probably lying on the diplomatic and economic aspects. We are not going to war with Russia.

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Overall, I don’t think NATO sees any real military threats to itself today. I don’t think Russia poses a military threat to us directly, which can’t be said about the case of Ukraine of course. There is a threat of terrorism for us as we’ve seen from attacks in Paris and Brussels. But that’s not a vital threat that put the survival of our countries and models of society at risk. When I speak of threats here, I mean a risk of violence.

The greatest risk we are facing now is the lack of solidarity and cohesion inside the EU, evidenced among other things by the coming to power of political forces in some countries that see a solution to problems in cutting themselves off the EU. That very clearly undermines the EU as a political entity and an actor.

 Ben Nimmo: “My understanding is that what NATO ministers are talking about now is potentially combat troops in the Eastern part of the alliance”

Adjunct Fellow at CEPA, Washington; Senior Fellow of the Institute for Statecraft, London; former lead press officer on Russia and Ukraine issues for NATO

NATO member-state defence ministers are meeting on February 10-11. They are looking at two main angles – Eastern Europe and the South-East, the Mediterranean and ISIS. The East is basically about the Russian issue as the main concern of the Baltics, the Poles and the Bulgarians. The South-Eastern aspect focuses on Syria, the Mediterranean. The challenge for NATO was always to do different angles at the same time.

It will be interesting to look at what the ministers say in the next few days. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg just announced that they have agreed on the principle of an enhanced forward presence of NATO forces in the Eastern part of the alliance, and an improved ability to send reinforcements. He said that it would be a multinational presence, and that it would be rotational. That’s quite interesting, and new. Before, NATO hadn’t had any kind of consistent on-ground presence of combat troops there. Last year, they decided to set up NATO Force Integration Units in Baltic States. But they are not combat units. My understanding is that what NATO ministers are talking about now is potentially combat troops, although Stoltenberg said that the details are still to be decided. And that would be the first time that the Alliance has had combat troops stationed there.

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If it is combat troops, I expect Russia will accuse NATO of breaching the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. Stoltenberg said that the decision is "fully in line" with NATO's international obligations. What the Act says is that NATO promises not to carry out "additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces", "in the current and foreseeable security environment" as it was in 1997, but instead to ensure "the necessary interoperability, integration and capability for reinforcement" for collective defence. My impression is that NATO would still be sticking to the letter of the agreement, but it's likely that Russia will accuse NATO of breaching the agreement. Stoltenberg said he's planning to meet Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov on the margins of the Munich Security Conference this weekend, so we'll see if the meeting goes ahead, and how Lavrov reacts.

At the same time, there are other issues on the agenda. There have just been talks between Turkey and Germany about NATO doing more about migrants crossing the Aegean. That hasn’t been a formal request yet, but they are discussing this now and Stoltenberg said he might be able to announce something as early as 11 February. That would be another thing for NATO to do potentially in the South-East, at the same time as putting some boots on the ground or bases in Eastern Europe. There is also talk of NATO providing AWACS aerial surveillance and coordination aircrafts not directly to the campaign in Syria, but what the Americans reportedly asked for is for the Alliance to send its AWACS to the areas where national AWACS are currently working. So, it wouldn’t be NATO directly involved in Syria, but it would still be doing something there. 

 Evert Somer: “Now national interests are weighing more than collective interest and solidarity”

Former NATO Spokesman for Civil Emergency Planning

The EU has been struggling with the refugee problem enormously since people started coming here. This is an external aspect, but it is having an impact on the internal one: it carries the risks for the EU. What I mean by this is that every country wants to benefit from being member of the club. But not everybody wants to share the same share of burden. However, both in the EU and in NATO you have to carry together the burden of a certain project. NATO is a project of collective defense where everyone has to contribute in an appropriate way. The same goes for the EU.

Then it fuels the tendency for nationalism. In the EU and within NATO countries have always had national interests. But now these national interests are weighing more on the positions nations are taking than collective interest and solidarity.

This may have to do with the fact that people don’t always believe in the EU and think, what can there be better for them. However, if you look at the life of an average EU citizen 60 years ago and now, we are bathing in richness. We have never had a life as good as it is now. So, politicians should make this clear. But a lot of them are, too, against the EU. That leaves good-willing politicians less room to maneuver – after all, they want to be re-elected again. So, now foreign ministers of the founding countries are sitting together in Rome (for the Treaty of Rome that officially established the European Economic Community was signed in the city in 1957 – Ed.) to discuss the project started 60 years ago and how we can make things in it better, but not let it derail.

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How do we improve cohesion – I don’t have an answer. Look at my own country – the Netherlands. It is going to have the referendum on the DCFTA Agreement between the EU and Ukraine on April 6. Why do they do this? Because they have a problem with the influence of the EU. I don’t think that the organizers have that much of a problem with the DCFTA with Ukraine. They could well pick other agreements – with Georgia or Moldova – that went through parliament on the same day. But Ukraine has a different profile because of MH17, the war in Ukraine. That’s a tool to mobilize people. Still, I don’t think it’s against the Ukrainians. It’s rather against the EU.

And then I ask myself the question: all these people complain about having no influence on European decision-making. But if you look at the number of people voting for the European Parliament, it’s always extremely low. If they don’t bother to go to vote for the EP, why do they complain? What should be done is that every politician – doesn’t make a difference where he/she comes from – should, first of all, not act for national interests to always be first. And, secondly, not act as if Brussels is a threat. 


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