Octavian Manea

Octavian Manea

Gustav Gressel, Acting Director of Wider Europe Programme, European Council on Foreign Relations: “We are in the very early stages of a long-term ideological battle. The anti-Western revolt has solidified.”

Q:Has the populist anti-EU revolt failed or consolidated its momentum after the latest European Parliament elections?

A:I am slightly sceptical that we can take the European Parliament elections as a benchmark for measuring the satisfaction and dissatisfaction that existed before this event. In the past, elections to the EP were ‘trial or revenge’ elections in which the electorate could punish their governments but also vote for parties that they would not necessarily vote for in national elections. That is not the case any longer. The EP vote now actually reflects the real thinking of the voters and not just the potential for protest. Regarding the big battle against the populists and anti-Westernists, this is a very long-term battle. There is a new ideological division within Europe and between European states, between different stages of identity, culture, lifestyles, cleavages between different societies in Europe.

I don’t believe that we have won just because the populists don’t have a clear majority. This is a long-term struggle, just like the one againts the communist ideology. From the beginning of Marxism as an ideology and the formation of Marxist parties (either radical socialists or communists) to actually winning the battle in 1989, almost 150 years passed. We are again in the very early stages of a long-term ideological battle.

The core ideological profile of the current anti-Westernists started to form and blossom in the 2000s. And if you look at the mainstream parties, Fidesz probably is the most prominent example. It was a normal conservative party in the 1990s.

It was not this pro-Russian, hysterical party spinning anti-Jewish conspiracy theories that it is today. I don’t think that Fidesz will be the only one. This kind of revolution in identity politics that we are witnessing on both left and right will push other parties onto this path. The leftright distinction is no longer applicable in the twenty-first century. An important ideological battle is happening today with the Social Democrats in Germany. They used to be a serious mainstream government party. They are not doing well in the polls, they are nervous, and now you have all sorts of radical positions within the party. At a time of enormous nervousness and decline, we don’t know the course of the Social Democrats over the long term.

You have people that would champion a return to the extreme left or to the anti-Western camp within the party. It is feasible that they could be for the Social Democrats what Fidesz is to the conservative camp. In Austria the general consensus is anti-Western. In Italy the societal and political consensus among the elite is heavily inclined towards anti-Westernism. Salvini’s success in the elections is not something that should take anyone by surprise. He is putting ideological, societal, political things on the table that have been talked about previously by the more mainstream parties with a different vocabulary, in a less confrontational way, in a less blunt way, but ideologically the society was pre-prepared. Salvini is using the effect of the political discussion that others have prepared for them.

The anti-Western revolt and the divisions have solidified. On top of that, we also have East-West, North-South splits and divisions. We live in a time of identity politics. And people on both the left and the right want to politicise everything – lifestyle, traffic, nutrition. This wasn’t the case in the 1990s or the early 2000s. The whole climate debate is being conducted in a way like prescribing lifestyle. Soon you will have an enormous clash of pacts on lifestyle. You emphasise and bring these differences to a much more prominent level of attention and you will start to rally people around them. Ultimately, I think that the East- West, North-South divisions will get stronger and more political over the next few years.

Q:As you pointed out in your 2015 report, “there is an overlap of ideology and interests between many European political parties and the Russian government”. Bearing in mind the latest Salvini scandal (alleged financial support from Russia), how do you assess Russia’s ability today to harness, cultivate and channel the anti-Western revolt, the identity politics revolution, as well as the nationalist/sovereignist energies of some of the European parties?

A: Very early on, the Russians made their bet that identitarian politics on the right will be a growing sector, will be accessible to them, and that they will position themselves towards that sector, marketing-wise. That doesn’t mean that in reality Russia fits that ideology. If the Russians talked to Europeans they would appear Islamophobic, but Russia is actually the only European country where sharia law is part of the constitutional system (at least in the North Caucasus).

This is almost a contradiction, but they market themselves and they immerse themselves in a way that pleases the identitarians in such a way that they perceive Russia as an alternative hegemon, an alternative empire. If you look at the simplistic messaging of the right-wing in Germany or Austria it could be summed up in the Pegida slogan – ‘Merkel to Siberia, Putin to Berlin’. They think that only Russia can provide protection, the example and expertise for hardcore identitarian governments needed to solve the West’s internal crisis. The Russians don’t need to do much, just to do good PR and watch the Europeans fight among themselves

Q: The traditional image of Germany was that of being reluctant to exert its power. By leading and shaping the future Commission, is Germany ready to embrace a different historical paradigm?

A: Germany can’t exert leadership in the usual way because it’s Germany. It needs to find other ways to exert it. The problem is that the way Germany did this in the past was to create institutions that would increase predictability for all the other European states, and give them the opportunity to include themselves into the consensus. This model – the Helmut Kohl kind of leadership in Europe – has eroded. Since Schroeder and Merkel, Germany has become more unilateralist.

On top of the feeling that Helmut Kohl went too far with the euro, with Maastricht and Amsterdam, the institutional setup does not benefit Germany the way the single European market and EEC benefited Germany during the Cold War. The cost-benefit balance between the costs borne for integration and the benefit of influencing common European decisions is not in Germany’s favour anymore. This kind of feeling is the reason for this increased unilateralist behaviour. The problem is that the unilateralist approach has a huge impact in terms of insecurity in the rest of Europe (both in the East and the West).

The other problem is that the Germans haven’t really come to terms with the fact that we have a state of rule of law in Hungary and Poland that would have prevented them joining the EU if this had been the state of Hungarian and Polish democracy in 2004. We actually need to accept that the institutional setup is a failure or has serious existential flaws, and we need to reform it.

This reform has to encompass an increase of centralised oversight over member states, not only in the financial sector but also on many domestic issues (starting from Schengen, to democratic standards). Having said that, the Germans would be very much in line with the Poles and Hungarians, they would resist such a temptation, because they think that the Commission’s meddling in German domestic affairs has already gone too far. Germany didn’t prepare the population for such a shift. Hence they are stuck in a system that doesn’t work, and they don’t know how to fix it.

Q: Bearing Ursula von der Leyen’s controversial record in leading/managing German defence in mind, is she the right person to lead the EU?

A: Von der Leyen is a compromise because she is personal. She was accepted because she is not a typical German. She is a very passionate European, but on the other hand she had a very good relationship with Mattis when she was a defence minister. In all the NATO summits, they really managed to bypass Trump for the benefit of Europe. That was recognised in Eastern Europe and in Poland, and hence they know that she will not go for this kind of unilateralist, anti-American posture. She is acceptable to the Eastern Europeans and she is also acceptable for the Western Europeans. She is from the liberal progressive part of the conservative party.

Read more:

1. Radosław Sikorski, Polish MEP, EPP Group: “Josep Borrell needs to establish the credibility of the office of High Representative”

2. Tomáš Valášek, director of Carnegie Europe: “Central Europe has acquired a reputation in Brussels for being unconstructive, for always saying no.”

3. Clotilde Armand, Romanian MEP, Renew Group: “Europe cannot be strong if the East is left behind.”

4. Jana Puglierin, Head of the Alfred von Oppenheim Centre for European Policy Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations: “The whole German political model is called into question.”

Tomáš Valášek, director of Carnegie Europe: “Central Europe has acquired a reputation in Brussels for being unconstructive, for always saying no.”

Q: The CEE countries were completely by-passed in the most influential jobs – the leadership of the Commission, European Central Bank, the European Council, or the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The political & geographical symbolism cannot be ignored. Is the balance of influence shifting towards the Eurozone core? Will this emerging reality alienate and create frictions with New Europe?

A: It could – and left to its own devices the absence of Eastern Europeans from top jobs will fuel criticism of the EU in Central Europe and Euroscepticism among the ranks of the supporters of Lech Kaczyński or Viktor Orbán. At the same time, it also depends on how we, Eastern Europeans respond. There is a number of reasons why we have been left out from the top jobs. Part of it is still this tendency to look down on Eastern Europe, to consider it unequal, somewhat lesser. But there are also some good reasons to have been left out.

We have acquired a reputation in Brussels and certain capitals for being unconstructive, for always saying no, for not coming up with new policy ideas. It is a reputation that isn’t completely undeserved. You will find too few constructive policy proposals co-sponsored by Slovak and Danish economy or defence ministers. There is also a sense in Eastern Europe that the EU is still something that we need to respond to and to react to, rather than to try to shape it ourselves. My hope is that this move will be seen also as a healthy, constructive kick in the butt, one in which the response in CEE will be to up our game and start doing a better job of playing the European game – meaning building alliances across the geographical divides, not always spending time with each other, and starting to come up with ideas about how to modernise the EU budget, how to achieve carbon neutrality.

All of these are things that we have tremendous interest in the success of, we have ideas about, but actually we have failed to weigh in constructively at the top levels.

Q:In the past Germany was reluctant to exert its power. By leading and shaping the future Commission, has Germany become ready to lead?

A:Traditionally, Germany has been criticised both for its lack of leadership within Europe and for its lack of leadership globally. It is usually pointed out that Germany spends too little on defence, that it didn’t take part in the Libya mission, that it opposed the Iraq operation, and that its armed forces are far too poorly equipped and unprepared for a country of its size. This is the debate that Donald Trump likes to have.

This debate is partly true, but in many ways unfair, in the sense that Germany has come a long way from 10-15 years ago. Until the Balkan wars, Germany had a policy of never using its forces abroad. It actually went from no interventions abroad, to intervening in a non-combat way, to actually fighting in Afghanistan. In terms of its external role, Germany has been unfairly criticised.

It has come a long way from the Germany of the early or mid-1990s. In terms of its leadership within the EU, the story is somewhat different. The criticism here is a bit more on the mark. One is the unwillingness to invest domestically. There is a strong economic argument that Germany should be spending a lot more money on its infrastructure, on its own development, on promoting consumption at home and abroad.

This is a very important part of Europe’s recovery from the crisis in 2010-11. At the same time, Germany is obsessed with the idea of surpluses, and therefore it keeps a really tight lid on spending. In addition, there is the argument that Germany has been too shy in supporting the institutional reforms of the EU, which is partly right but partly wrong. I tend to sympathise with those who say that a Eurozone budget, for example, is a solution that bears little relationship to the 2010/11 eurozone crisis. I just don’t see how the member states would ever surrender their right to control the exact form of a bailout in the case of a future economic meltdown like Greece.

Q:Does the nomination of Josep Borrell tell us anything about the direction of the EU’s Foreign Affairs & Security Policy and its forthcoming (geographical) priorities? Will they be comprehensive enough to focus substantially also on the East? Or will this be another potential friction point with the CEE countries?

A:The first point to make is that the appointment had nothing to do with Mr. Borrell’s views. This is the classic institutional game of musical chairs, in which someone was needed from the South and the Socialist camp. He was not made High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy because of his views on foreign policy. He was made High Representative because he is Spanish and Socialist.

That is the answer to many in Europe who tend to look for continuity, another Socialist in the job, and see a pro- Russian conspiracy. But it isn’t. There is a classic bureaucratic explanation. Having said that, coming from the South, a Socialist is not very likely to be very supportive of the Baltic line on Russia. The Spanish foreign policy has always been far more focused on Latin America, far more friendly towards Cuba than the Czech Republic. The big unknown is to what extent he will define his role as setting the EU agenda, putting his personal issues onto the EU agenda – or to what extent he will try to be a foreign minister for all the EU countries.

Mrs. Mogherini was competent in many regards, but I do think that when it came to Latin America, to Cuba, to Russian disinformation, her leftist, Southern roots, have shown through. She spoke more as a southerner and a leftist rather than as a foreign minister for all Europeans.

Q: Is Europe/EU ready to embrace the reality of the return of great-power competition?

A: I don’t think we should accept the premise that the world is doomed to unrestrained great-power competition. It should remain the case that we continue to fight for a multilateral system in which the big powers voluntarily restrain their actions and behaviour, not always throwing around their weight. In the end, who knows who the next US president might be. China has shown itself to be flexible, even though there is nothing inherently multilateral and cooperative in its behaviour.

In that sense China is not like the EU, which by definition – being itself an entity where 28 member states have agreed to pool their power and to limit their sovereignty – has no other choice but to be a multilateral global power. If we start playing only by the rules of power, of unrestrained competition, I strongly believe the EU itself might fall apart very quickly. We are fated to be a multilateral, cooperative power.

China isn’t. It can play either way, cooperative or competitive. But under the right conditions, they have shown themselves to be open to collaboration, to sharing power, even to leadership on some environmental issues. I don’t think we should accept the idea that we are doomed to unrestrained great-power competition and we should start behaving like China or the United States. I still think that our preference has to be for maintaining the multilateral nature of global collaboration.

Q:Arguably, a symptom of the return of the power competition is also the JCPOA issue. How deep can the trans-Atlantic rift go on the Iranian deal?

A: I said from the very beginning when the US withdrew from the JCPOA that it would be a terrible blow for Euro-Atlantic relations. We in Europe tend to view the Iran deal as intrinsically important, not just in the sense of curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but also as being important for the EU’s foreign policy identity. It is one of the first and biggest real successes of our foreign policy where we led the way.

We failed to do so in the Balkans. The Americans had to come in, provide the leadership, and we followed up. But in the case of Iran, the Europeans have led the negotiations and the Americans came late. In the story that we tell about ourselves in Europe, it was the deal where we finally came to a point where we became a real foreign policy power and a real actor. For this deal to be symbolically destroyed by President Trump was taken very personally here in Europe.

But overall, there is very little we can do as Europeans to stop the deal from collapsing if the Americans put their minds to it. The business that Iran is able to conduct with the wider world is diminishing rapidly, and European companies themselves are withdrawing from doing business with Iran for fear of secondary sanctions by the US. At the end of the day it is far more likely that the deal will collapse. The mood in Europe has changed from one of outrage and indignation towards resignation that the deal will collapse, and there is very little we can do about it other than waiting for the next US president.

Read more:

1. Radosław Sikorski, Polish MEP, EPP Group: “Josep Borrell needs to establish the credibility of the office of High Representative”

2. Clotilde Armand, Romanian MEP, Renew Group: “Europe cannot be strong if the East is left behind.”

3. Gustav Gressel, Acting Director, Wider Europe Programme European Council on Foreign Relations: “We are in the very early stages of a long-term ideological battle. The anti-Western revolt has solidified.”

4. Jana Puglierin, Head of the Alfred von Oppenheim Centre for European Policy Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations: “The whole German political model is called into question.”

MEP Radosław Sikorski, EPP: “Josep Borrell needs to establish the credibility of the office of High Representative”

Q: Traditionally, Germany has projected a sense of reluctance to the exercise of power – the image of the ‘unready hegemon’. By leading and shaping the future Commission, has Germany become ready to lead? Is this a change of historical paradigm? You were one of the voices that, in 2011, said “I fear Germany’s power less than her inactivity”.

A: The view that Germany has been reluctant to use its power is controversial. For example, some of our Polish nationalists refer to the European Union as the German Reich. Even government officials talk about Germany’s over-using its size in the European Union. My own take is that Germany is, of course, the largest shareholder in this business, but it doesn’t have a controlling stake. Germany has about 20%, and after the UK’s departure, Germany will have 25%, to France’s 16% and Poland’s 7%.

“The US has an enduring interest in preventing Europe from falling under a potentially hostile hegemon”

Interview with Elbridge Colby, Director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security. He was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development from 2017 to 2018, during which time he served as the lead official in the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the DOD’s principal representative in the development of the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS).