Roderick Parkes: “The splits in the EU are completely different this time compared to the ones I’ve seen in the past”
The Ukrainian Week talks to Roderick Parkes, EU programme coordinator at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, about how united the EU is on resisting Russia, Germany’s idea of federalization, and how the current crisis has impacted the relations between Germany and Poland
UW: Many Ukrainians wonder how united EU member-states are in their stance on Ukraine and Russia? Officials tend to claim they are. Experts say the opposite.
I’m with the experts I’m afraid. You can’t expect 28 countries to agree. There has been a much greater degree of unity than I would have expected though. The splits this time around are completely different in the EU compared to the ones I’ve seen in the past. It used to be the big three member-states that would lead the coalition and disagree with each other. Now, they are pretty much coherent despite some disagreements, while there is the Visegrad Group led by Poland that are pushing their own agenda. A lot of member-states are keeping their heads down, such as southern ones, the Netherlands and more. That equates to more unity than in the past where the UK, Germany and France would argue with each other and everybody else would line up with one of them. There has been some progress but it’s not enough.
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The disagreement is between the proponents of Ostpolitik camp around the SPD (the Social-Democratic Party, one of the two major parties in German politics today with 193 seats in Parliament, along with the conservative Christian Democratic Union of Germany led by Angela Merkel, the holder of 311 seats in Bundestag – Ed.) and the business who are saying that trade with Russia will help transform it, that it should be further engaged, and the sharper line from the CDU saying that it will not happen and Germany needs to take a tougher approach.
When Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Germany’s Foreign Minister – Ed.) came back, he essentially brought with him the set of politicians who were there in the Schrцder years. But Steinmeier’s position has changed. He is no longer interested in Ostpolitik that much, aligning with Merkel more instead. Meanwhile, the politicians and experts whom he has put in power still support a softer line towards Russia. That needs to shift. But changing politicians and officials in place is a difficult thing to do.
In terms of the business, there has probably been a slight shift there. A lot of people in Germany are saying that they can deal with Russia on their own, so they don’t mind the political situation all that much. They see themselves as independent from what Berlin is doing in terms of sanctions, so they don’t matter too much.
Society is very much split between people who try to understand Russia and see it from the pro-European perspective where there is an understanding of the difference, the guilt towards Russia, and the like; and there are other people who say that having guilt towards Russia means having equal guilt towards Ukraine or Poland.
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What may be key in terms of the European divide is that the UK wants to get round the financial sanctions and impose trade sanctions, while the Germans want to stick with financial sanctions but leave out the trade ones. So, that is between hitting London City or the German Mittelstand in doing business. In fact, the split between the three key member-states mostly lies in the nature of their trade relations with Russia. Plus, the UK has deeper euroscepticism, a dislike of the EU and the Council of Europe, and a deep reticence when it comes to getting involved in conflicts after the Iraq war where the UK was involved and France wasn’t. Russia is playing on a constellation of historical arguments, saying that they can’t stand for European values because they don’t believe in them anymore, referring to the war in Iraq, and that they don’t have a historical interest in this region so they should just leave it. For France, Russia says, the interests are in North Africa, so it needs to cooperate with Russia over Syria; why antagonize the two over Ukraine. As for Germany, Russia is playing on its historical guilt towards itself. So, this is not just about trade differences, but political and historical ones too, and they are being exploited quite well. Still, the shift in the EU has been towards greater unity between these three countries. Earlier, France used to represent Southern Europe, the UK did Nordic States, while Germany allied with Benelux countries. Now, there is greater unity, and that’s a positive sign, although it may not look like one at the moment.
UW: What is the EU’s stance on federalization for Ukraine? Does it see is as an acceptable, even an easier solution for the current crisis?
It is for Berlin. But that is because of the German idea of what federalism is and of what it meant for Germany. Back when I worked in Berlin, we were promoting similar solutions for Moldova. No, thanks, the Moldovans would say. That has not changed. Berlin sees how it worked for Germany, but they don’t understand how setting up the federal system depends on the nature of relations between parts of the state, relations with neighbours, and lots of other things. I don’t think there is an understanding in Germany that federalism could actually make it worse for Ukraine. That will hardly change.
If you take the federal idea to France or Britain, the latter would take it as decentralization around the EU – and that’s a horrible idea. In France, federalization means decentralization away from Paris – and that’s a horrible idea, too. Germany could offer a Belgian solution for Ukraine, but I don’t think that there will be a lot of support for the idea. It would be healthy to take federalism out of the debate but still talk about where decentralization lines should go. If Germany understands that as federalism, that’s fine.
UW: What about the relations between Poland as an unofficial leader in Eastern Europe and Germany as a major core EU member-state in defence and security given the new threats?
What I hear a lot in Poland now is that there is a two-tier NATO, just as there is a two-tier EU – the eurozone core that sticks together, and other member-states that are outside. The debate on NATO is similar, assuming that there is a core of countries that will stick together, and a rim of countries like Poland which is perceived a little bit as a buffer. There are tensions between Poland and Germany over these things.
It reminds of the old solidarity debate in the eurozone when Germany was talking to Spain. The German idea of solidarity was that Spain, Greece or the like was responsible, compliant and keeping their head down. Their idea of solidarity, however, was that Germany should support them. We are seeing the same debate at the moment. Germany is saying that Poland is causing these problems because of its fears about Russia that have sort of provoked what has happened, so Poland needs to keep a low profile. The Poles say, hang on, you perceive us as a buffer between Germany and Russia as regional hegemonies. That is not senseless. Poland has longer boundaries with Germany; its trade with Germany is more intense.
The trouble is that, until now, Germany has thought of Poland as a plug-in state when it comes to defence. Germany wouldn’t fight, but it would provide resources to other European countries that would fight. That’s sort of what it has been promising Poland, saying that we don’t get involved in fighting if Poland does, but Poland can have Germany’s resources. In that, Germany was presumably thinking of something like Syria, not Russia and Ukraine. Now, the entire debate on what Germany promises to Poland in terms of defence has shifted somehow.
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I hope not. But the trouble is – and the fear in Poland, too, - is that the nature of the interventions in these countries can’t qualify as an invasion. It’s all in the grey area, with provocations, unmarked personnel and the like. If there was a clear invasion, Germany would probably step in, following the US leadership. But what if it’s a speculative attack on the currency; what if it’s a cyber attack; what if it is people coming across the borders and causing problems in the Baltic States or Poland? What will Germany do then?
Poland has to make a case of what has happened in Eastern Ukraine and say that this is a new type of warfare, an asymmetrical one.
UW: How is Poland going to proceed on Ukraine in the future? It is in the “hawk’s wing” on European sanctions against Russia and was the initiator of Eastern Partnership. What’s next?
When Poland embarked on this agenda (Eastern Partnership – Ed.), it was able to push it a little bit because it thought that people wouldn’t listen to it. It was a chance for Poland to make a case for visa liberalization, membership prospects and many other things, because it knew that other member-states would probably water it down and would be skeptical. Now, people are listening. So, they expect Poland to tell them what it actually wants. And Poland has a slight ambivalence towards Ukraine because, if Ukraine, say, had membership perspective, what would happen to the EU money currently going to Poland?
Now, that the EU is actually listening and Poland is sort of leading the approach, it is wondering what it actually wants. From the Ukrainian perspective, it may look that Poland’s interest dips and becomes less vocal. In fact, it may be becoming more substantial and grounded. What I’m seeing in Poland is an effort to see what Poland actually means and wants, and that is positive.
BIO Roderick Parkes heads the EU programme at PISM, focusing on EU home affairs policy and British European policy. Before joining PISM in 2012, Roderick worked as a researcher at the German Institute of International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin (2006-2009). He had previously worked as a researcher at the Bonn Institute for Media Analysis (2003-2006) and completed an M.Phil at Cambridge and Doctorate at Bonn University. He is a Senior Fellow (non-resident) at SWP, a regular media commentator, and has given evidence to the European Parliament and House of Lords
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