Time for EU to stop freeriding on America’s defense policy – former Austrian Chancellor

Donald Trump’s victory in the American presidential race has sent ripples of panic across the Atlantic: European leaders have cautiously welcomed their new partner, while right-wing alternative parties are cheering his win. As alternative forces gain ground in Europe and divisions pile up in the EU bloc, will Trump’s victory usher in a new era for Western states? And after European leaders dismissed Trump in the run-up to the American vote, how will they find a way to deal with him now? We ask Austria’s former Chancellor and Foreign Minister, member of the Valdai Discussion Club – Wolfgang Schüssel.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Wolfgang Schüssel, former Chancellor and Foreign Minister of Austria, welcome to the show - great to have you with us. Now, Mr. Schüssel, the German Defence Minister has called the results of the U.S. vote a “huge shock”, the Italian Foreign Minister called the result ‘unexpected’, French Foreign Minister said Trump’s personality ‘raises questions’. Trump’s victory - is it a shock for you as well, or are you happy with it?

Wolfgang Schüssel: The result is a result. It's a surprising result, I think, for everybody - for the candidates, for Trump himself, Clinton, for the Democratic and Republican establishment, and I think it was a real surprise... on the other hand, there are some lessons to be drawn. The first lesson is don't trust pollsters, people don’t always tell you the truth if they're asked something, their real political opinion. Second, we should forget what conventional wisdom of spin doctors, campaign managers tell us and we should listen to the real concerns of real people on the streets, their expectations, their hopes, their concerns, their fears. I think there are some quite interesting lessons to be learned.

SS: European Parliament President Martin Schulz called Trump a ‘problem for the EU’ saying it will be more difficult for the EU to work with the U.S. - why will it be difficult to talk to Trump?

WS: I don't comment on Martin Schulz, Martin Schulz is always the first person commenting everything, and this is his personal opinion. I think Europe has to deal and has to negotiate and has to find good partnership with an American President....

SS: But you think it will be difficult to talk to Trump, more difficult than it would have been to talk to Hillary?

WS: Hillary Clinton was known, this is, maybe, the real difference - Hillary Clinton was for several years a Foreign Minister, she was Senator, she has a network in Europe, Trump has none - Trump has no personal contacts, so the first important thing is to get in contact with him, but I think it will take some time. At first he has to find a professional team, then, of course, his main priority is the domestic policy, he's not so much interested in foreign policy, if you read his comments during the election campaign, there was not much about foreign policy. I think the most important thing is - keep cool, try to get in contact with Donald Trump and his teammates and I think, we should stick to our interests and should explain why we are and where we are.

SS: I agree that he's more concerned about his domestic policies, but he still has his opinion on everything that goes on in Europe and he is a big Brexit supporter, and a Eurosceptic. He called Brexit “a great thing” - does this make his presidency bad news for the EU? I mean, considering the close partnership that EU and the U.S. had for decades and decades?

WS: I think this was a real mistake in this campaign and I think, normally, the Americans are always interested, or were always interested to keep Britain inside the EU to have a real good friend and partner inside the Union and to influence the policy of the European Union. If Great Britain is really out of the EU  - this is not over at the moment, there are still some chapters to be written - but I think, if Britain is not inside the EU, I think America would lose a good, very good contact. So, I think, it was a mistake.

SS: In the run-up to the vote, European leaders didn’t shy back when talking about Donald Trump - the French president has said that Trump makes him 'retch'. German Foreign Minister called him a ‘hate preacher’, and the Swedish PM said he’d rather have seen Clinton win. How are EU’s top politicians going to do business with Trump now, after all these things they said about him?

WS: First of all, most politicians you mentioned were Social-Democrats, center-left, and I think it's not good to try to influence an election from outside, so whoever wins is our partner. There is a partnership, a very good and important partnership between Europe and America and this will remain our core interest, on both sides of the Atlantic. I think, it is not fair and not wise to comment too early and too negatively and with sentences which are not... you can like Trump or not, you can be in favor of Hillary Clinton or not, but elections are elections and it's up to the American people to vote and to elect their president, not our business.

SS: Yeah, but whoever is President of America directly affects the rest of the world and especially Europe, and like we've said, Trump is heralding an isolationist approach to U.S. foreign policy, will the EU now have to take on a bigger role in international affairs?

WS: There are some lessons, also, for Europe to learn. The first lesson is, we should concentrate on our interests, so we are not the free riders on American security policy, defence policy, we have to invest more in our internal and external security and protection of our external borders, the fight against terrorists, to stabilise peace and stabilise regions around us... Russia and Europe are in the same position. We have not a ring of friends around us, but a ring of fire. I think the most important thing is how can we create more stable conditions in our surroundings, in our environment. America can help and America can assist and hopefully it will do that, but it's up to Europe to learn all these lessons.

SS: But will the EU be able to have its own independent foreign policy line? It's no secret that Washington exerts pressure on certain issues over Brussels on questions like sanctions, and the Middle East. Will the EU be able to tow a more independent line now with Trump in the White House?

WS: Whoever is in the White House, Europe has to create its own independent foreign policy, security, and defence policy. There's no doubt about it. This is not a contradiction on partnership, we are seeking partnership with America, but also good relations with other global players like Russia, China and Japan or Brazil, India, etc. The most important thing is that Europe should concentrate on real issues, and there are some risks: you mentioned some, what is the future of the Iran deal, which was concluded in Vienna - remember, with the participation of America, of Russia and really important players. What is the fate the International Treaty on Climate Change? How can we stabilise this situation at hotspots around us? I think, there are a lot of risks, in my opinion the world is not going in the kind of "global" order and we can say it's in the kind of a global disorder at the moment. I think, everybody should be ambitious to keep peace and stability. The good word: "realpolitik" - is again on the table.

SS:You brought up several times the defence policy and Trump has repeatedly voiced his displeasure with the European-U.S. military relationship - he’s said ‘NATO may be obsolete’. If the new president chooses to distance America from its NATO commitments, will that force the EU to finally put together its own common army?

WS: First of all, I doubt a little bit that President Trump, knowing and being informed what are the real problems around us, would really withdraw or diminish the role of NATO. Austria is not a member of NATO but we are partners of NATO. The relationship within NATO and with the partners of NATO is important and will be important. This is in American interests, this is an overarching interest of the members of NATO and I think this will remain. Whoever is President will have to take into account the American interests and this is one of the core interests. On the other hand, I think it is also interesting to see, there is some criticism that Europe is not doing enough. If you look at the military expenditures during the last decade, during the last 15 years since 2000, you'll see an enormous arms race in America, also Russia, especially in China - not in Europe! The European countries decreased their expenditures and this is not good. I think there's a point, and I do not believe that military solutions are the best way - the best way is always a diplomatic solution, but Europe has to invest a little bit more in our common defence. Not, so to say, the far-reaching vision of the European Army - this is far away, but in coordination, in cooperation, in exchange of news, of intelligence, in armament - etc, so there's a lot of cooperation possible, much more than today.

SS:The leader of the the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party, Mr. Strache, said that Trump’s victory is a sign that “sleazy establishment is being punished by voters”. Will this election surprise along with the rise of the right in Europe shake the elites up, transform the establishment - or will they be able to resist any change?

WS: Look, these are first comments, sometimes they are a little bit strange: I mean, sometimes you get an impression that Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilder or Heinz-Christian Strache were on the ballot. This is not true. If you look in detail  to the American elections, this is also quite interesting to see how close it was. I've seen a dozen of American states with a difference of less than 2% in the popular vote - and don't forget that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Of course, the Electoral Vote is a completely different thing, but it was a very close race. It will be a close race everywhere. There are some tendencies to criticise governments, tendencies... the German word: 'wutbürger', is now introduced in English - I've seen it in the New York Times, the new American 'wutbürgers', people who are voting according to their rage against the establishment. I think the establishment, or the parties - all of these guys are part of this establishment, no doubt, even Donald Trump was part of the establishment. Everybody who's interested in good politics should listen to the concerns of the real people on the streets, this is the real lesson to be learned.

SS: Austrian ex-president Heinz Fischer told our channel in an interview that dangerous and radical nationalist movements are on the rise in Austria. Is the idea of a liberal, left-leaning, euro-integrated Austria giving way to a nationalist, right-wing vision?

WS: First of all,  I think, in Austria, the Freedom Party is an old party. In other European states, member-states of the EU, you have relatively new parties on the right and left. You have left populist parties - Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain, etc. The Freedom Party was, by the way, the first party asking and urging Austria to become member of the European community. Today, it’s much more Eurosceptic. This is quite interesting to see: there’s a big shift. That is true that the Freedom Party is a populist party and it’s in opposition, and of course, it’s the right of the opposition to criticise the government, but they have around, let’s say, 22%, 27%, 30% - this is not the majority, 70% or more than 70% of the people have different opinions. This is part of democracy, we have to live with that.

SS:The current chancellor Christian Kern is thinking of banning a right-wing Identitarian movement - because of their fascist-style tactics. A Neo-Nazi sent a death threat to a presidential candidate - are these just isolated incidents, not a  trend?

WS: It’s the identity… Identiterians…

SS:Yeah, that’s a hard word to pronounce, I know.

WS:It’s terrible to pronounce and terrible to know that some… only few people, so this is not a big issue. Forget it, this is not a political force, neo-nazism, again, is not something we should be really concerned on the political scene. This is the job of the police and judges to prosecute them, this is not a political force in Austria, not at all. All of the parties in Austria are democratic parties, center-left, center-right, and we, the People’s Party, in the center, but I think, whoever will become President in December will be a stable, pro-European, with a country that is absolutely interested in good partnership, so don’t be concerned about Austria.

SS: But generally, looking at Europe, I see that nationalist forces are exploiting the refugee crisis, using anti-immigration rhetoric to score points. At the same time we now have Brussels saying that it “has a grip on the flow” of refugees. Does this mean the migrant crisis is over?

WS: No. The migrant crisis is not over. We had last year an extraordinary situation, when around 3 million people entered Europe, some legally, but more than 1.5 million entered illegally through European borders and most refugees, most migrants came to Germany, to Austria, to Sweden, so these three countries, de-facto, took more than 90% of all these migrants and refugees. This is a real challenge for us and it was a real political problem, because people were afraid that for some weeks government lost control - this is a very dangerous thing, government should never give the impression that we are not running the country, we are losing control. This is not over, and according to the closure of the Balkan routes, and according to the deal between EU and Turkey, more or less mediated by Angela Merkel - this is done, but we still have real problems with the migrants flows via the Mediterranean sea, and this is by far not over. If you look at the demographic situation in Africa, for the next decades to come Africa will double its population, and if only 50 mn people think to cross the sea to come to Europe it will be an unmanageable problem. I think what we have to do is to create an external border police. This is now done, within 5 months, in a very good speed, the EU decided to create such a force. We have to negotiate with the countries in the region to have repatriation treaties, etc. I think, this is one of the big challenges for Europe. By the way, it was also a big problem in America, during the American elections, and this is one of the big issues for today and tomorrow.

SS: Austria’s current chancellor Christian Kern is saying it won’t be easing its border controls. More than a year after the refugee crisis hit, why are states still forced to undertake unilateral steps to ensure their security?

WS: I think the best thing is to create a common European answer. There was a problem one year ago, or more than year ago, that it was not possible to find a joint European answer. This is now done in several areas - like I already mentioned, the creation of external border and coastal police which is now working. But, so to say, treaties with the third countries - Egypt, Libya, Maghreb countries with are still to be negotiated, and it is up to the European Union to do it. If the Union is not able to do it, then, of course, bilateral agreements are necessary, but I hope there will be a European answer to it. It is only a second best solution - national borders, national border controls, fences, whatever.

SS: Hungary came under fire for rejecting the EU’s mandatory migrant quotas, but across Europe only around 5 thousand refugees have actually been relocated, with tens of thousands more stranded . Does this mean no EU state is upholding its obligations?

WS:To be honest, some criticism of Hungary was unfair, because Viktor Orban and the Hungarian government had to protect the interests of Hungary. There was no European answer at that moment and you should not forget that the EU Council, the Prime Ministers, decided on the voluntary situation, voluntary solution for distribution of refugees, and three weeks later, Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Asselborn forced the Interior ministers to accept an obligatory quota system, which was refused by the Visegrad countries  - I think it’s not good to have on one day a voluntary proposal and three weeks later a completely different obligatory proposal. This is now over. At the moment, obligatory quota is not possible. But what is needed is that there’s a coherent border protection of all the European states, especially the coastal border - if it is functioning, then I’m sure, in the end, we could find a voluntary solution, according to the economic situation, according to some other sensitive problems. I think, in the end, it’s possible.

SS: Your former president Heinz Fischer told our channel that Europeans feel there’s too much integration going on in the EU. Will the popular backlash against the integration stop the attempts to bring EU states closer together?

WS: I think he’s right. European integration as such is not challenged. If you look at the polls, what people, average citizens, expect from the European Union is more coordination in foreign policy, more coordination and more coherent policies for integration of refugees, of border protection, etc, trade protection of the euro currency. This is part of the European business. What is rejected is, let’s formulate it: the United States of Europe - a kind of European government, European parliament, where the nation-states de-facto disappear or have a kind of subordinate function. This idea, this far-reaching vision of some Europhile forces - this is criticised, and this is no longer possible. The ever closer Union, in all areas, from the lamps to the education system, from climate change to norms, etc - I think, it should be really concentrated and focused on real, important issues where a nation-state is too small to solve it, and let the smaller problems, when Europe as such is too big to solve it,  on the other hand.

SS: I want to bring a bit of Russia into our conversation.    After a recent EU summit, the bloc’s President Donald Tusk said ‘Russia’s strategy is to weaken the EU’ - saying members accused Moscow of hostility, cyber-attacks, meddling into political processes in the EU - by fuelling far-right and Eurosceptic parties. Why is Russia the villain when something goes wrong -  like, the American media is blaming Russia for electing Trump, same thing overseas - why is that?

WS: Look, in my opinion, it’s always strange to assume that there’s a kind of conspiracy… Honestly, nobody can influence more than 100 mn Americans to vote either for Clinton or for Trump. By the way, nobody knows exactly what Hillary Clinton would have done if she was elected or what Donald Trump really intends to do. Each American President, after election, tried to find good partnership with the relevant partners: with Europe, with Russia. Don’t forget Obama’s attempt to find a ‘Reset’ button in relationship, think about G.W. Bush who, at the very beginning of his presidency, tried to get good contacts with Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. The same will happen with the 45th American President. It depends on what are the interests…We have a basis, this is the Minsk agreement for how to solve the Ukrainian crisis. There’s some room to negotiate, there are some models on the table - this could be the South Tyrol autonomy problem as a model for the Eastern part of Ukraine, it could be a Hong Kong model for the Crimea - whatever, the models and the solutions are on the table. If you want the solution, it’s possible. What is needed is a kind of a reconstruction, joint reconstruction of the Eastern part of Ukraine, including Donetsk and Lugansk, and the Eastern part which is under the control of Kiev - from all sides, from Europe, from America, from Russia. It is the first element, and the next element, of course, is cybersecurity. Cybersecurity is a big concern for everybody, and I know there are… I’m seeing a lot of it in Germany, we have hundreds of thousands of attacks in the last months against companies, against institutions, etc. To believe that someone, either in Kremlin, or in China, or in America or elsewhere, is, so to say, responsible for all these attacks - this is crazy! This is not the case. A lot of people, individuals, groups, criminals were trying these things. I think, what is needed is joint and coherent action on the global scene to fight these things.

SS: Thank you so much for this interview. It was great talking to you. We were speaking to Wolfgang Schüssel, the former Chancellor and Foreign Minister of Austria, discussing how the election in the U.S. may influence the politics of the European Union. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.