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“We Need to Fix Our Economy, That’s for Sure”

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A revival of the French economy is the precondition for a more influential Europe, says Poland’s former foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski. The disarmament of big EU states must also be reversed.

© REUTERS/Thomas Peter

In trying to make Europe more efficient, more competitive, and stronger on defense, what should our priorities be in your view? The key question is whether France’s new president acts on his reform promises and brings back competitiveness to the French economy. This is the precondition for Germany to be ready to give ground in the financial and economic sphere. Naturally, I regret that we are talking about the Franco-German couple rather than the Weimar triangle, which would include Poland – but there are of course reasons for this. If Emmanuel Macron succeeds, the balance of power between competitive and uncompetitive Europe will swing toward those advocating prudent policies.

Not long ago, an op-ed in The Washington Post written by your wife, the historian Anne Applebaum, claimed that Europe was “three elections from disaster.” Has the French election’s outcome lifted the mood in your household? That was a prescient observation, but the French people – and before them the Austrians and the Dutch – have shown us that you can beat the populists. This has certainly restored my moral, and I’m sure it’s uplifting to all those who would like Europe to prosper. My personal dream, though, is of a Europe once described by a former British prime minister, Tony Blair – not a superstate, but a superpower.

Wouldn’t Europe need more hard power to achieve such a goal, though? And wouldn’t it need to function at least a little like a superstate, at least in the realm of defense and security? It’s impossible to achieve anything unless we fix our economy, that’s for sure. But assuming that France gets it right and growth returns, there are other elements of power that Europe needs to build up as well. History is full of examples of richer but weaker parties being overwhelmed by external forces. US President Donald Trump has been more brutal, but the US has been telling Europe that it needs to be able to defend itself for quite a while now, and for good reasons. We’ve been over-relying on American strength for far too long. If we pride ourselves on being the richest and largest economy on earth, we should be able to defend ourselves. In fact, Europe’s biggest countries have disarmed. The last time I looked, Germany had 250 tanks, France had 250, too, and Britain 220. Poland has 1,000, Russia has 5,000.
We need to set ourselves up as more than a diplomatic power – with a European foreign minister at the top. We’ve given the EU many of the instruments our national foreign ministers enjoy, but as a former foreign minister I can tell you that you cannot be effective if your only instrument is diplomacy. A diplomatic service and a network of embassies around the world is all very useful; many clever people are working there and keeping channels of communications open. But to conduct foreign policy effectively you need to bring to bear all the elements of power a nation state has at its disposal – like industrial and financial power in the case of Germany, developmental assistance, humanitarian aid, cultural attractiveness, and – as a last resort – force. And I vote to deploy that. Military power is a key component of national power that can be quite persuasive in the eyes of third parties. When other instruments fail, we have to stand up to our enemies.

Wouldn’t that require a big mental change as well, to get people to want their soldiers to die for Europe? And wouldn’t we need a truly European defense industry to get there? Quite a bit of national pride would have to be swallowed …  Some of this is already happening, but without us asking ourselves fundamental questions. The EU is already conducting around a dozen military operations in which Europeans under the EU flag are risking their lives. The EU’s then-foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton issued an order for European forces to launch an air strike against Somali pirates at the Horn of Africa, and as a result piracy against shipping dropped for a while by 70 percent. The problem is: When Americans do such a thing they show it and they build their national pride around it, while we hide it and nobody knows about it. I think we should use situations like this to build our sense of Europe defending our interests and to build up European identity. Because – like it or not – it’s conflict and success or failure that builds up identity. We are defined not only by what we are, but in particular by what we are not and by who our enemies are. And there are people out there who know our way of life, who know our values, who wish to destroy them, and we have every right to answer them back.

How should the EU deal with member states that do not fully subscribe to those values you just mentioned, and even work to undermine them? This is a very difficult question. The EU has in the past labored under the “end of history” delusion: It was assumed that once you had created a European democracy, it was such a great creation that nothing could go wrong and nobody would be crazy enough to backtrack. I am told that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was designed precisely not for the situation of a member state seeking to leave the EU, but for a member state not meeting the union’s values and criteria anymore. But how to deal with members flouting the norms is very tricky. For instance, the composition of a constitutional court in a country is important to a rather narrow group of people who understand what the long-term consequences are likely to be. And on the other hand, we know about the strong mobilizing power of nationalism, the more so if it looks as if outside pressure were being brought to bear. So one has to be very careful here.

You lived in the United Kingdom for a long while. How do you see Brexit panning out? Well, I hope that some of our leaders in Central Europe have gotten scared enough to appreciate that using anti-EU rhetoric as a useful way of mobilizing nationalist opinion actually has consequences. If you tell your people over decades that Brussels is the source of too much regulation, that it is taking your sovereignty away, then eventually people believe it. And if you change your tune at the last minute, as happened in the Brexit referendum campaign, then you are not credible. Central Europeans should take the lessons of Brexit very seriously indeed if they do not want to exit the EU.

You once famously said that you worry more about German inactivity than German power … I don’t see too much of the latter …

…but wouldn’t Berlin need to be more active in this situation not only to get the tandem with France going again, but also getting the Central and Eastern Europeans on board? Poland needs to get itself back into the European way of doing politics, both at home and in Europe. And Germany needs to rethink its leadership style. I’m a fan of Chancellor Merkel, but during the refugee crisis she spoke as if the Schengen zone were German property, as if Berlin alone were entitled to decide whether or not the EU’s external borders should be open. And the Schengen area of passport-free travel is like the eurozone – any one country can bring it down by not keeping to the rules, by not enforcing the rules. Then everybody’s interests are affected, right? I agree with Ivan Krastev, who recently wrote that the refugee issue has the potential to actually bring down the European Union. Today we have the nationalist party in Poland maintaining popularity to a large extent by stoking up fears about Muslim refugees coming to Poland. Like it or not, it is partly the consequence of Merkel’s announcement. To defang the issue we need to persuade Europeans that we have permanently regained control over the EU’s external borders and that we know who comes and goes. That and growth are the best ways to save Europe from national socialists.