Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, made no bones about it: “We do not recognise the declared result of the presidential election in Belarus”, said the Vice-President of the European Commission on Friday during the Inter-Parliamentary Conference for the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the Common Security and Defence Policy (ICP CFSP/CSDP). According to Dr Borrell, the elections were neither free nor fair. This meant, he said, that Alyaksandr Lukashenko was not the legitimate President of Belarus. The justified desire of the people of Belarus for change had been brutally dismissed, he said, emphasising that “We support the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people”.
A government in exile with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as President?
For some parliamentarians, however, that did not go far enough. For example, during the first part of the video conference, hosted by David McAllister, chair of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs, Reinhold Lopatka, chair of the European Affairs Committee in the Austrian National Council, called for “fresh elections under international supervision”. Other parliamentarians, such as Jacek Protasiewicz, a member of the EU Affairs Committee of the Polish Parliament, expressed satisfaction with the initial response of the EU to the election but demanded sanctions against Belarus.
Audronius Ažubalis, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Lithuanian Parliament, went even further. Instead of calling for fresh elections, he said, the EU must recognise the opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who had been the clear winner of the election, as President. In this way a government in exile could be formed, Mr Ažubalis proposed, which would create an alternative power base to that of the dictator Lukashenko.
Borrell: European Commission has no power to recognise a government
The EU High Representative struck a considerably more cautious note. The Commission, he said, was focusing on sanctions against individual members of the regime so as not to penalise the population. With regard to the recognition of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as President, the Commission’s second-in-command stated that this was outside his sphere of competence. The European Commission had no power to grant or not to grant official recognition to a government. That, said Borrell, was for the Member States to do.
It became clear during the first part of the conference that Belarus is not the only work in progress on Josep Borrell’s foreign-policy agenda. This was amply evident from the fact that the High Representative was not addressing the Members of Parliament from somewhere like Brussels but had linked up from the Egyptian capital, Cairo. Following talks with representatives of the Egyptian Government and of the Arab League, Dr Borrell announced that he would be travelling on to Libya. The situation there, he said, remained complex in spite of the ceasefire, and the Government was not fully exercising its power.
Problematic situation in the Mediterranean
The situation in the Mediterranean was also fraught with problems. In the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey, which was steadily turning its back on European values, was acting “against the interests of some EU states”, said Borrell. When Greek and Turkish military vessels were confronting each other, that was a worrying situation. The European Commission, he emphasised in response to questions from some Members of Parliament, was taking a clear and unequivocal stance with regard to Turkey. “We want a balanced approach”, he said. Sanctions were certainly an option, but in this case too their imposition was a matter for the Member States, acting through the European Council. The Commission, according to its Vice-President, wanted to ease tensions with Turkey and continue to engage in dialogue.
Reluctance to cede sovereignty to Brussels in the fields of security and defence policy
In the second part of the video conference, the participants in the IPC discussed the subject of ‘Paths towards a European Defence Union – strategic realignment of the EU’s security and defence policy’; the discussions were led by Dietmar Nietan (SPD), member of the Bundestag and head of the German delegation to the IPC. Dr Ronja Kempin, a political scientist from the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, delivered the keynote speech, in which she criticised the current efforts to strengthen the security and defence policy of the EU as “insufficient”. Sovereignty over the defence of European interests must not only be considered in the abstract, Dr Kempin argued, but must “finally be implemented as a matter of urgency”. On paper, she conceded, much had been achieved, the European Defence Fund being one example. A look at political practice, however, revealed “that the implementation of measures is still a struggle”. The Member States, she said, showed very little willingness to give up any sovereignty to Brussels in the field of security and defence policy. It must be the task of members of national parliaments, Dr Kempin urged, to push their governments in that direction.
Half-full and half-empty glasses
While several parliamentarians were more or less in agreement with the political scientist’s appraisal of the situation, Charles Fries, representing the European External Action Service, gave a different assessment. Dr Kempin, he said, regarded the glass as half empty, whereas he saw it as half full, and he referred to tangible progress that had been achieved in recent years, such as PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation), which encompassed 46 projects and was based on 20 commitments by which all participating Member States had agreed to be legally bound, such as closer cooperation in the planning and development of capabilities. Mr Fries also cited the European Defence Fund and the European Peace Facility. In his view, the Defence Fund, with seven billion euros to co-finance arms projects, was a historic breakthrough in itself.
More parliamentary scrutiny needed
“The real picture looks less rosy”, was the response of MEP Nathalie Loiseau, who expressed disappointment with the Agreement on the European Peace Facility concluded by the Council. It was not enough, she said, to make fine speeches about the sovereignty of Europe unless the requisite resources were made available. For years the European Council had been stating that defence policy was a matter for the Member States and that the European Parliament should keep out of it. Yet there was a need for more parliamentary scrutiny, said Ms Loiseau, and she called on the European Parliament and national parliaments to become more involved in this field.
Not all Europeans are pursuing the idea of a European army; this was made clear by Bastiaan van Apeldoorn, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Dutch Senate. He believed that a majority both within the population and across the political spectrum in his country would reject the idea. Professor van Appeldoorn therefore made it clear that he would not be acting on the proposal and encouraging his Government to relinquish more sovereignty to the EU. (hau/09.04.2020)