End of Warsaw Pact dealt blow to fragile order in Europe - French govt official

Europe is beset by crisis and the standoff with Russia over Ukriane is testing the unity of European Union, as the states are growing tired of the financial troubles. Will the EU hold together? What will help the union to stay firm? Why the economic might of Europe goes through the uneasy days? We ask these questions to former French Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: There will be no peace in Europe if there isn’t good understanding between Western Europe and Russia - these are your words. Do you feel peace in Europe is under threat right now?

Jean-Pierre Chevenement: It is obvious that the peace depends on goodwill between the countries in Western Europe and the countries in Eastern Europe, first among those being Russia, which is the biggest in terms of area, in terms of population. The material and ideological bases of the Cold War no longer exist. However, there can be sources of tension – When the USSR imploded a space was left unoccupied in the countries formerly members of the Warsaw Pact.

Now, new security arrangements must be found –the Ministry of Foreign Affairs just held a meeting on this subject in Moscow.

Today it’s impossible to imagine security and trust in Europe, in light of, naturally, the Ukrainian crisis. But the Ukrainian crisis is not the only one. There is also what we call frozen conflicts, which erupted after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And then there are nearby conflicts – Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, the challenge of jihadist terrorism, which concerns all of us, and foremost the Muslim societies, which are its primary victims. So there are topics for discussion and, above all, the need to find security arrangements that are based on trust and a certain balance.

SS: Let's talk about NATO: NATO has been building up military strength on its borders with Russia. A planned Rapid reaction force will include 30 thousand personnel, very soon. What is NATO doing this for? Is it actually ready to use this force, at some point?

JPC: You know, France's proposition was to create a European confederation. It was a proposition of President Mittérand. It was not followed up, and, as I was telling you, a space was left empty by the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the Warsaw pact, NATO seemed to be, for certain countries of central and Western Europe, a way to ensure their security, but apart from that they joined the European Union to gain credits and a market that gave them the opportunity to develop. So all this created a situation where, in favor of the Ukrainian crisis, certain tensions can come up. Let's say that fears are expressed and are, often, exaggerated. I think that nobody has the desire to resort to war. However, there are maneuvers; there are movements here and there, on both sides...

SS: This is exactly what I wanted to say – there are exercises in the Baltic Sea, here’s war games going on in Eastern Europe, U.S. paratroopers training Ukraine’s military. Does NATO expect no reaction from Russia to all this? Because, once again, all of this happening on Russia’s doorstep.

JPC: Yes, but it is not happening in Russia. Everyone does what they want. But the most important thing is that there is no aggressive attitude and that everyone respects the sovereignty of one's neighbor. This is very important. NATO, as you know, is an alliance between the United States and a certain number of countries, most of them in Europe, to which we must add Turkey. But within NATO, it is the rule of unanimity that triumphs. For instance, Turkey could have refused the usage of its air bases during the war in Iraq in 2003. Also, France and Germany spoke out against extending NATO to Ukraine and Georgia in 2008, at the Bucharest conference. So things must be put into perspective, and we must acknowledge that NATO gives a certain political autonomy, to the countries that want it, of course. Even if, we all know that it is an American general who is the commander in chief.

SS: Can you imagine, for example, Russia carrying out military games in Mexico? Just like that ? And the US not reacting?

JPC: They did it in Cuba, at another point, which was actually unwise. But today – no, of course.

SS: But...The US would worry, of course. So why do we refuse the right for Russia to worry, when there are war games at its borders?

JPC: I agree that Poland and other Baltic countries have a historical border with Russia. In any case, we cannot change places of various countries. So there is a history that is what it is, that sometimes creates memories and apprehensions, well-founded or not. I'd like to, if you permit, remind that there are less than 50 000 American soldiers in Europe currently. And the interest of the United States is to move them towards Asia. We call this 'swiveling'. Most of American ships have left the Atlantic to go to the Pacific. These are well-known facts. So I say this, without playing down the fact that the Atlantic Alliance is based on commitments towards mutual security and that certain countries see this as a reason to feel safe.

SS: The French military intelligence chief M. Gomart has noted that NATO completely relies on U.S. intelligence, disregarding the work of others, like France. Is this true? If yes, than why is that the case? Does this mean the U.S. runs the show in the alliance?

JPC: No, but General Gomart has insisted on the fact that we must enforce the means of the French secret services, but also those of other countries, so that NATO be not only nourished by information coming from US sources. Let's say that there has always been certain vigilance in this type of affairs. So we want to know exactly what happens.

SS: But you are not under the impression that NATO bases itself only on American intelligence?

JPC: Each country, in theory, trusts its own services before trusting those of others. But we can use information that we gathered, true or false, to support propaganda campaigns. We have seen this in the past. I am thinking of the war in Iraq, for example. It is obvious that this information, which Mr. Colin Powell presented, were not in fact true. So we must always stay a little vigilant. I think that it is absolutely necessary to have an independent expertise.

SS: If I remember correctly, you were against France’s return to NATO’s Military Command in 2009 (after a 4-decade long rift). What do you think of France’s role in NATO today?

JPC: Yes, this was my opinion on the fact, but France at the time of Mr. Sarkozy’s presidency has returned NATO's military organization. We are full-fledged members of the Alliance, as for the military organization, we are not members of the committee for nuclear planning, for example. France remains independent because our strategic force depends solely on us.

And, as I said earlier, inside of NATO there is still a margin of independence. For example, if a country doesn't want the expansion of NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia, it can speak out and will be heard. Germany and France did so at the Bucharest conference in 2008, they declared their position. So we must keep this in mind.

SS: Not so long ago, Jean-Claude Juncker has proposed creating a European army, common for the union. What do you think? Isn’t NATO enough?

JPC: That is a very old project, you know, but it failed back in 1954. No, honestly, I am very skeptical because, you know, an army implies a spirit of defense, a national spirit. It implies a common direction, and if it were necessary to react in a case of emergency, for example, in Mali, when jihadists almost seized Bamako, in their pickup trucks, etc., it was necessary to react within the hour, and the president of the French republic could make decisions, quickly. Europe – I say this but I am not exactly revealing a secret here – Europe would not have been able to make a decision so quickly. It would have probably taken several months or even several years. So the pickup trucks would have gotten to where they were headed.

SS: Let us talk about the agreements in Minsk - Not long ago, the president of Belarus said a that the peace process will be impossible without American involvement. What do you think? Is it true that peace in Ukraine is not possible without American involvement? If this is the case, why weren't they present in Minsk?

JPC: This is an interesting subject that you bring forward. I think that France and Germany wanted the Ukrainian crisis to be extinguished as fast as possible and, in consequence, exerted mediation, and it was this that enabled the Minsk agreements. And, to my knowledge, the position of the United States is to say that these agreements must be applied. They do not disapprove of the Minsk agreements.

SS: Why do you think that President Hollande did not invite President Obama to Minsk? Did he fear than an American presence would bear rotten fruit?

JPC: I think that the Americans did not want to be there. They are an independent country. They did not want to take part in this exercise. This being said, it is first and foremost a European affair. I would say that this crisis, with all that it entails, concerns primarily European countries. Russia, Ukraine, and Western European countries, mainly Germany, France, Italy, and others. So it is normal that there was a European collaboration. And as I may have told you, in Europe as well, in the European Union there are 28 members. It is hard to work together in a group of 28. So a narrower format, such as the Normandy format, is also more operational.

SS: Let us talk about sanctions. Certain members, certain European countries that are suffering from the Euro crisis are against these sanctions between Russia and Brussels. Do you see pressure from within resulting in the ease of these measures, is it possible?

JPC: Let us say that all European countries suffer from these sanctions, not only Russia, but also countries like Germany, France, etc., encounter difficulties and it is good for nobody. So we must go as fast as possible towards the lifting of these sanctions. The surest path to that is the application of the Minsk agreements.

SS: But what must be done for the relations between Russia and Europe to be like they were before? Because, on the other hand, everybody wants these sanctions to be lifted, both Russia and Europe, as you said, but on the other hand, we see that the situation in Ukraine is improving. So what must happen for the sanctions to be lifted and for the relationship to become normal once more?

JPC: I think that there is above all an issue of trust.

SS: Between whom and whom?

JPC: Between Russia, Ukraine, but also the Western European countries, and undoubtedly the United States as well, because the US also have a public opinion. And everybody knows that there is a significant Ukrainian minority there. So, naturally, we are in the midst of a flurry of opinions. For trust to be reestablished, principles must be respected- the principle of a country's integrity, the principle of self-determination. There is obviously a special situation that exists in Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But we must not recreate the Soviet Union, that's not the point. And Mr Putin doesn't say that he will recreate the Soviet Union. So we start from the idea that each country must be respected, that the territorial integrity of each country obviously must be guaranteed, and that a statute must be defined to avoid confrontation between the NATO countries and Russia.

So we must recreate this trust and progressively, step by step, go back to credible arrangements, above all guaranteed by the respect of a certain number of principles, the adherence to which is essential for a peaceful international life.

SS: You know, I’ve spoken to renowned political figures like Noam Chomsky, Mikhail Gorbachev, and they share the view that it was NATO’s eastward expansion that’s caused the crisis between Russia and the West and Ukraine today. What do you think about this?

JPC: I read Mikhail Gorbachev's speech, November 25th.. Sorry, November 9th, 2014, in honor of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And indeed, this was the explanation that he gives. But we must also understand that there was nothing left after the USSR disappeared, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved, and what we call the CEEC countries (Central and Eastern European Countries) wanted a protector.

SS: A protector against whom, since the Soviet Union no longer existed? Since NATO was created as a force that acted against the Soviet Union?

JPC: History exists, and before the Soviet Union, there was the tsarist empire, so there are memories, it is inevitable..

SS: So all this is still directed against Russia?

JPC: Not necessarily, because a guarantee of security is not necessarily aggressive, and let me remind you that there was a pact between NATO and Russia in 1997, which was transformed in 2002, it has another name, it was recently suspended but there are still contacts between the personnel to avoid accidents, which can always happen. So I think that the existence of military organizations does not prevent measures of trust.

SS: So you think that NATO’s eastward expansion has nothing to do with the Ukrainian crisis?

JPC:I think that Russia got agitated only towards 2007, when the Baltic countries joined NATO. These are small countries, and Russia was worried when countries that were part of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), that were part of the former Soviet Union, like Ukraine or Georgia, were solicited to join NATO. But let me highlight that at that time, in 2008, at the conference in Bucharest, countries like Germany and France said “No, NATO should not expand too far East”. So there are forces of balance, of reason.

SS: Speaking of France's decision to not send the Mistral warships to Russia, the Russian parliament speaker said that it was a result of pressure or even an ultimatum from the U.S. Can this be true?

JPC: Listen, I do not know if a decision was made. I heard what Mr. Putin said, that it was an affair that concerned France. Now we have to wait to see what the French authorities will say.

SS: Do you think that the hesitation to not send the naval warships to Russia has to do with the fact that the US can put pressure on France, to not send them?

JPC: I do not think that it is mainly the US -- there are other European countries that misunderstood what these ships are. These ships are big ships which can serve as hospital ships, for the evacuation of civilians, when they are threatened in a country. Of course they can also serve to transport helicopters, but we do not sell the helicopters with the ships. We only sell a shell that is not armed. So me, I support sticking to contracts. It is a principle.

SS: Do you believe that this contract will be carried out?

JPC:I have no idea. I have not been informed regarding what will be the position of the French authorities.

SS: But in your opinion?

JPC:: Listen, I think President Putin has said words that must be examined – he spoke about compensation, also, and I do not know what he meant by this, but maybe he should not have spoken about it.. We spoke too much of all this. Once the contract was signed, maybe it would have been wiser to carry it out without chitchat. But what’s done is done, so the problem should be taken as is, and not be over-dramatized.

SS: The IMF is getting ready for a possible Greek default - which can in turn cause the Greeks to leave the Eurozone. In Athens, the new government sees this as something possible, normal - would a scenario like that be a catastrophe for the Eurozone, or not?

JPC:You know, on the subject of a single currency, I have a very unique position – I think it was a misconception, from the beginning. Since a single currency puts extremely different countries under the same umbrella.

SS: You have said that the Euro needs to be transformed - from a single currency into a common currency - what do you mean?

JPC: To a common currency, this means a European currency, but with national subdivisions that would be given value internally. And the common currency would have value in international exchanges. This is my position. But this is not the position of my government, or that of other European governments. In any case, not yet. If, by accident, Greece would be driven to leave the single currency, I think we should help Greece because, at least at first, there will be a devaluation of the Greek currency. This is at once a bad thing, but can also be a good thing. It is a bad thing because, for the Greeks, it will render more expensive the price of their imported goods, but a good thing because, on a long-term basis, their exports will be favored. For example, their agricultural trade balance can become in surplus once more, whereasit is currently in deficit. They even import lemons from Chile, because it is cheaper. This is a bit silly because Greece could produce lemons, if their currency was less expensive. But the currency of Greece is too expensive for the Greek economy. So if this should happen, the EU should be reasonable enough to help Greece to overcome this difficult time. And if this event could be avoided, I am in favor of accepting a form of 'perpetual debt', revolving, as we say, meaning a debt that doesn't have a fixed term, but which would be renewed periodically. This is my position, but it is not that of my government.

SS: Speaking of a “Greek-cident”, there is also talk of Great Britain redefining its relationship with the EU - do you feel the union as it stands is in trouble?

JPC: We must distinguish these things – because Great Britain is part of the European Union, but not of the Eurozone. So the problem, for Great Britain, is knowing whether they want to stay in the EU. There are elections coming up, and we will see if Mr Cameron will win. If he wins, he will have to make proposals, there will be a discussion, and then, as he said, there will be a referendum. Is this desirable? I think not. I think that all of these problems should be dealt with in a more amicable manner. But this is only my point of view. I think that Great Britain is a country close to France. We have an old alliance with Great Britain, as well as with Russia, so we do not want to separate ourselves nor from Russia, nor from Great Britain.

SS: So you do not think that the EU should be a bit restructured?

JPC: I think that the Eurozone deserves to be restructured; the system of single currency should be reformed. I think that this is an intellectual debate that has not taken place. But can we bring together 19 countries, very different in terms of economic level, very different in terms of cultural benchmarks, their languages, the functioning of their democracies, since each country has its own history, and democracy lives in the scope of each nation. Can we bring them together in a very deliberate manner under the umbrella of a single currency? I think that this was a design flaw. There is like an original sin in the Eurozone.

SS: Did I understand correctly that you think that the way forward is not tighter integration, but rather to listen to the opinion of each member a bit more intently?

JPC: You know, a tighter integration would mean that there are countries that are ready to pay the price. But when I hear what the German authorities say, what the German population says, they are not ready to pay more than what they have already paid. Each year, Germany pays 25 billion euros to the European budget, which is a small budget, 1% of their GDP. And France pays 20 billion, which is a lot. But the French do not realize it. So this can continue for quite a while, but if we must go towards tighter integration, as you say, there must be massive transfers, which would represent several points of GDP. And this, I think, for Germany, is unacceptable, since Germany strives to preserve their competitiveness. It is a country which exports half of its production. So I will go back to what I said before -there is a design flaw from the start, we made the bet that Europe is a nation but in fact it is not one nation, it is 30-odd nations.

SS: Minister, thank you very much for this interview.

JPC: Thank you.