Ex-Czech FM: Europeans don't want to see Ukraine as EU member

Europe and Russia are almost a year into a conflict – there are no cannons roaring between the two, but economic sanctions are dealing blows to both sides. At the same time, there are greater threats arising in the world – threats that should be faced together. The reality of radical Islam is putting every home and every citizen of Europe and Russia and any other country in the world under threat. The global economy is not feeling well either, so will Europe be able to find a compromise with Moscow that will allow both to concentrate on fighting the common troubles? We ask this question to Cyril Svoboda, former foreign minister of the Czech Republic and head of the Diplomatic Academy in Prague.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Cyril Svoboda, former foreign minister of the Czech Republic, head of the Diplomatic Academy in Prague, welcome to the show, its great pleasure to have you with us today. So, Mr. Svoboda, making the news recently is that Czech President, Miloš Zeman who banned the U.S. ambassador from Prague castle after Ambassador Schapiro scorned his decision. Now, U.S. diplomat’s behavior has driven much criticism even among Americans, actually, and one political analyst said “It’s as if though U.S. thinks of European states as its vassals” – do you think the U.S. thinks it can lecture foreign leaders?

Cyril Svoboda:So, in my view, there’s just one problem. The problem is that it was done through media. Normally, according to the Vienna Convention, it is better to communicate through normal channels, as normal documents like letters or note, or some other normal diplomatic documents. In my view, the mistake was that it was done through the public, through the electronic media.

SS: So now, I’m glad that I can communicate with you directly, so the things that I am going to ask you are not going to be lost in translation. I believe you have said that a U.S. army base could be created in Ukraine; there are currently U.S. paratroopers that are training Ukrainian military. Why do you think is America so eager to situate its forces on Russia’s doorsteps – just you personal take?

CS: In my view the problem is that in Ukraine there’s a global conflict, the conflict is between the two interests; on interest is interest of the EU to enlarge itself, and the second interest is the interest of Russia to support and to have influence on the territory where there is Russian-speaking minority, Russian-speaking people. In my view we need to find a way of how to find a compromise between Russia, Ukraine and EU and the U.S. It is not very helpful, that there is, maybe, more military presence on the Ukraine territory, but I do prefer to find a compromise and to stick to the Minsk process – because in my view, the Minsk process is the way to solve the situation in Ukraine.

SS: Now, America’s planned missile defense shield could partially be hosted on Czech territory. Russia’s made clear it would see this as a threat to its own security. What kind of trust or cooperation can exist with Russia, when the missile defense system is in place?

CS: You know, we are NATO member states, so we are allies with the U.S., so that’s why it is normal if there is some military presence on the territory of the states who are members of NATO, so that’s normal. On the same way, we have to find a way how to negotiate with Russia, because there are some other global challenges – I mean, the radical Islamism….

SS: We can actually get to radical Islamism a little bit later in the program, because I want to talk about that as well – but as far as the missile shield is concerned, you know, you’re saying “we have to find a way to negotiate with Russia” – but there are some things that are not negotiable, such as missile defense systems on Russian border. So what do you do in this situation?

CS: We are not going to establish anything against Russia, so if there’s something – it is just for the defense of my country. I am now stressing that there’s time of negotiations, there’s a time of finding a way to find a compromise; there’s no time for widening of the gap between Russia and Europe and U.S., because, as I said, we need each other.

SS: Sure, I couldn’t agree with you more, but you know what the Russian official stance on that is, right? “Yeah, let’s negotiate, but if you need to protect yourself on my borders, who are you protecting yourself against?” As a Czech diplomat, could you tell me that? Who are you protecting yourself from?

CS: The main threat is the radical Islamism, it is the main risk for Czech Republic, and we have to defend my country against any possible attack, which is caused by the radical Islamism – in my view, it is the main threat, we are facing.

SS: Your president is also very outspoken about relations with Moscow, and he has repeatedly criticized sanctions and the EU’s policy against Russia. But then, in the U.S. media, we see he stance dismissed as Russian propaganda. Why is that? Can’t a person have an honest, sort of independent second opinion on the Ukrainian crisis these days?

CS: You will see, in July, the EU will discuss the question of sanctions. For us, what is really important is to keep unity inside the EU and you know that security and foreign policies are based on the unanimity; if the European Council is to pass any resolution, he needs unanimity among the EU member states – and this is part of the strategy. I’m not in the negotiating team, so I guess that it is primary responsibility for Germany, because Germany is playing a very important role – and France – in the process of negotiation between Russia and Ukraine, so this may be part of the strategy.

SS: As an observer, you surely have noticed that Czech export of engineering equipment to Russia have been hampered, while Czech apple prices have dropped by 30% - how costly have sanctions against Russia and Moscow’s trade embargo in response been for the Czech Republic?

CS: Yes, your question is very right and very important, because the question is of the political position, and the political position is stressed by the price you are ready to pay for it. Russia has very strong political position, because Russia says “our position is very important, we are ready to pay very high price for our position” and the same question is for the EU. So, what is the real price to be paid by the EU for keeping its position? And sanctions are part of this process. So, it is up to the government, we need to find a compromise inside EU. You know the position of my country, the President and the government…

SS: I do, and you’re saying it’s up to the governments to sort of find a compromise, or up to the governments to decide if they see the price to pay very high, which it obviously is – or, at least, economically, for both sides. But then you have the Czech PM, Bohuslav Sobotka, who said that the “trade war and some new political and economic iron curtain would be equally bad for Russia and the EU.” You have Slovakia that agrees with that statement, Hungary agrees, even Poland agrees with that. So, when you say that governments have to figure out what to do with that, do you have no choice, but to tow to EU’s line? I am talking about particular governments that I have just listed.

CS: We know from the history that sometimes economic sanctions were not very effective, so we have the examples. But we are in the process of negotiations, and in my view it would be a mistake of the EU to suddenly change its position from 100%. We need to find some positive attitude, or the positive change from Russian and Ukrainian side. I am recommending more flexibility for the process of negotiations, but my recommendation is not to lift up the sanctions for nothing – because we need some positive answer coming from our partner and of course, Ukraine.

SS: The Czech Republic, as an EU member, has supported the EU-Ukrainian association agreement. Does the Czech government envision Ukraine as an eventual EU member?

CS: It’s very difficult, because I think Ukraine is not very prepared to be welcomed as an EU member state, and I think that even if the question is put on the agenda, there will be some referendum in the EU, and it will be extremely difficult… It may be the beginning of a very long process, I think that it is too much to say today that Ukraine could be full-fledged EU member state. If it is a case, we are in the begging of a very-very long process.

SS: But, as an experienced diplomat, would you say people in EU were realizing what you were saying right now back then, when they were backing the Ukrainian-EU deal?

CS: EU is a democratic organization, and definitely, if there’s a question of not only Ukraine, but Turkey or some other country, it will be a question for the people in some EU member state, and it will be extremely difficult to welcome any EU member state, because Europe is now in difficult times – Europe will survive, of course – but opinion of the people today is not to enlarge the EU.

SS: I want to talk to you a bit about the common threats that Europe and Russia actually face. We’ve touched upon it in the beginning of the program. You believe Russia and the West need to unite efforts against ISIS. Do we need an end to the crisis in Ukraine to actually get cooperation going, or perhaps cooperation on matters such as ISIS would actually allow easing on the tensions in the Ukrainian front?

CS: You are right, this is very important, because we need today to stop the war in Ukraine as soon as possible because Ukraine is in a very bad economic situation, to finance the reconstruction or initiate the process of reconciliation in Ukraine – it is extremely difficult, it will be extremely costly, not only economically, but also politically, it is very delicate and very complex problem; but we need to cooperate with Russia to face the threat of radical Islamism. You know, we need legitimacy and legality of any international decision, we need resolution of UNSC and Russia, of course, is very important for passing a resolution in UN – that’s why I’m calling for finding a way to communicate, to cooperate with Russia, because the radical Islamism is not only a threat for Europe but also for Russia.

SS: Sure, we all agree on that this is a common threat, that Russia and the West, and the whole world, actually, shares, but my question was do you think Russia and the West can actually unite and cooperate on ISIS by settling the Ukrainian crisis or the Ukrainian crisis has to be somewhat resolved for the two parts of the world to come together and fight ISIS?

CS: I think, the first step is to stop the war in Ukraine, because if it’s not the case, it will be very difficult to find a common position with Russia. We need to stop the war in Ukraine – that, I think, is the step number of one, because it will be easier to find a common position with Russia vis-à-vis the new threat. But, having had wide gap and still widening gap between Russia and Europe, it will be extremely difficult to harmonize the position with Russia vis-à-vis the new type of threats – and we need Security Council.

SS: How far do you think Islamic State wants to expand its caliphate?

C)I do not believe that this conflict is a clash of civilizations, because we can see that there are some conflicts inside the Muslim countries, we can see today conflict in Yemen and conflict in Libya – so there’s huge heterogeneity inside the Islamic world. So, this is not a clash of civilizations, but a conflict that exists, that conflict will be also in Europe. What will be answer to attacks in Europe – it will be radicalization of political scene. We will see very soon that some radical forces from the extreme right or from extreme left will win new elections, so I think, we will see very deep radicalization of the political scene and it will be very dangerous for internal climate and for internal environment in Europe.

SS: But I feel like not only Europe will be radicalized in terms of nationalism, but Islamic state has threatened to flood Europe with migrants and called on all of its supporters to carry out attacks.

CS: Yes, you are right.

SS: Now, do you believe Europe needs tighter controls? What do believe – border controls? Are you saying there are not enough tight controls?

CS: Yes. So, of course, your question is also very important. Now we see the problem with the illegal migration in Europe, and the illegal migration in Europe is also organized by some mafia clans or mafia organization – it is very, very dangerous, but it is impossible not only technically but also politically to erect or to build up the wall around European frontiers. It is not possible. That’s very important for Europe to find a new definition of security policy, the new definition of migration, new definition of asylum status and as there are new challenges today, to stick together, because de-facto solidarity inside Europe is also very delicate question – you know, because of the question of quotas; primarily the illegal migration is to Italy, Spain, France, to the southern part of Europe, and now it is also the question for my country, for other countries to demonstrate de-facto solidarity and to welcome some immigrants on the territory of our states…

SS: But can I ask you something, though? Quotas put aside, what’s the point of the tighter controls, if the terrorists are actually homegrown? Europe just recently witnessed a way of terror attacks, perpetrated by its own citizens…

CS: Yes… But you know, Europe is fantastic continent, composed of 48 countries. Europe is aging and we will need labor force coming from outside of Europe. The paradox is that we need people coming from outside of Europe, and at the same time we have to protect Europe against illegal migration. In my country the largest minority is those who came from Ukraine and many small and medium-sized companies in my country are doing their job well just because of the labor force coming from Ukraine. So, there’s a paradox in Europe – two challenges: from one side, to welcome young people from outside, because we need new labor force and at the same time to protect Europe against illegal migration. So, that’s very complex.

SS: More than 800 people drowned last week when a migrant boat capsized in the Mediterranean. Your PM recently said that “the only way to stop the massive flow of migrants from African states is by fixing the problems of their states”. I mean, it’s really easier said than done, don’t you think?

CS: Yes. It is very easy to say, of course, that we have to stop…

SS: Can Europe realistically do that? Can it fix the problems of the African states?

CS: There are ten points for the ongoing summit of EU so to find a way… but it is very easy to be said, but very difficult to be realized, because, of course, there are some possibilities of controlling the seas around Europa, Mediterranean seas primarily, but the absolute control is just “mission impossible” and to stop migration to Europe is also “mission impossible”.

SS: But I was actually referring to your PM saying that the problem will be taken care of if the European states would actually help the African states to fix their problems, so there would be no migrant flow to Europe…

CS: Yes.

SS: Can European countries actually help African states to fix their problems? This is kind of unrealistic, no?

CS: That’s the way, I do agree. But what kind of state do we have in Libya?

SS: Exactly, can you help them fix their problems?

CS: That’s why I said that it was very easy to be said, but very difficult to be realized. We also see what is going on now in Syria. So, my suggestion is that we need to find conditions to support President Assad, so that’s my position, because we need to stop the war in Syria. Of course we need to help the governments around the Northern part of Africa. But immigrants, they are coming from the countries where it is very strong instability – the non-existing states. What type of state do we have in Libya?

SS: Thank you so much for this wonderful interview. That was Cyril Svoboda, distinguished Czech politician, former Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic, discussing Europe’s answers to interior and exterior troubles it is facing today. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.