Vessela Tcherneva: It is very difficult to talk about a political division between the western and eastern part of the EU
The EU will increasingly link its foreign policy to security, says European Council on Foreign Relations expert in an interview with The Bridge of Friendship
European strategic autonomy is a concept of developing the EU as a sovereign entity that has been spurred by the disturbance in transatlantic relations during Donald Trump’s administration in the US (2017-2021), explains Vessela Tcherneva from the European Council on Foreign Relations – Sofia. The expert notes how European strategic autonomy has already been transformed from a theoretical concept into concrete policy packages. Their development has been catalysed by the war in Ukraine, Tcherneva added.
What does “the birth of geopolitical Europe” – a phrase used by European foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, mean? It shows that Europeans are looking for a new way of thinking about themselves – developing their defences and emphasising security in their international relations, not just promoting democracy and “values”. The EU’s ambitions from now on will be linked to energy security, the threat of new waves of migration, etc., says Tcherneva.
She doesn’t think the division between the west and east of the EU is relevant in the current circumstances. There is no division between East and West in Russia, energy security or financial policies. According to Tcherneva, the resistance of Western European sovereignists is stronger than that of Eastern Europeans, so the West-East divide is not pure in this respect either.
Read the previous parts of the interview with Vessela Tcherneva:
Vessela Tcherneva: Bulgaria and Romania should modernize with Western European support
Vessela Tcherneva: Poland is coming to the fore in the EU, but in the long run it will not displace France and Germany
Vessela Tcherneva: Packaging Bulgaria and Romania together is an opportunity, not an inconvenience
The European Union has developed a concept called European Strategic Autonomy. Before the war in Ukraine, this concept was actually based on economic and security cooperation with Russia. What has changed in the European Union in the last year since this war started?
Yes. European strategic autonomy is a concept that we at the European Council on Foreign Relations have also been working on over the last few years. First of all, it has been about how the EU can be a sovereign entity that can take decisions about its security independently. This concept was launched following the election of Trump as President, because it was clear that neither in NATO could the Trump administration in the US be a partner, nor could or wanted to be a partner in terms of trade with Europe. It became clear that Europe must have its own means, strategies and tools to manage its security, including migration, trade disputes and so on. It must develop its own system of sanctions.
Perhaps it is precisely in this area of sanctions that we see that the EU has come a long way. We have now seen, with regard to Russia, but also with regard to other countries, that this instrument of, shall we say, soft power or soft defence is increasingly being used. At the same time, relations with the United States have improved qualitatively since Biden took over. But for Europe, trade equality continues to be task number one. At the moment, European leaders are discussing this in Washington, but this is also one of the great strengths of the Swedish Presidency, which has now begun, namely that European strategic autonomy has been transformed from a rather theoretical concept into a few policy packages that have a very concrete dimension. Their development has been largely catalysed, of course, by the war in Ukraine.
Josep Borrell, who is the EU’s representative for foreign and security policy, has used the phrase ‘the birth of a geopolitical Europe’ in the last year. Can we say what is the direction or what is the strategy that will lead to the ‘birth of a geopolitical Europe’? Who are the European Union’s allies at the moment? What policies will lead to this awakening or to the emergence of a “geopolitical Europe”, i.e. a geopolitical power in the world, like the others?
I think this expression actually has a meaning also in terms of our own vision of ourselves. That is, how and in what way the European Union sees itself and to what extent it sees itself as a geopolitical actor. For many years in a row, the European Union, and especially the central Europeans, the Germans and others, have believed that it is enough for Europe to be an economic giant, to be a stable, strong common market and an innovative economy, to have great influence in the world through its economic policies, through setting economic and technological standards, without having to invest in security, rather using the Euro-Atlantic toolbox to guarantee its security. And, in fact, the birth of a geopolitical Europe means, in my view, that Europe is increasingly starting to see itself as a security actor as well. I mean, here we will see, I think, the arming of European armies, more coordination with NATO, more coordination between Member States, but it also means looking at our relations with third countries precisely through the prism of security rather than through the prism of, say, human rights or democratisation efforts in the rest of the world. In other words, Europe will, of course, try to change the world around it so that it is better for the European Union to prosper. But it will do so first in terms of its own security and then in terms of all the other determinants of that security. Geopolitics and the EU includes looking at EU enlargement through a geopolitical prism. That is why Bosnia and Herzegovina was granted candidate status a few weeks ago, to look at the Eastern Partnership countries through a geopolitical prism. That is why candidate status was granted to Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova and so on. We have to see from now on what the European Union’s ambitions will be in geopolitical terms. These are, of course, linked to energy security and the threats of new waves of migration and so on. However, I think that, above all, we are really seeing a change in the thinking of Europeans and European leaders.
The European Union is marked by a contradiction between the western and eastern parts of the European Union, and we have seen over the years the continuous efforts of Western European countries to change some balances in the eastern part of the European Union, for example, through the fight against corruption or through the Green Pact, and therefore the resistance of local forces in these countries, especially in Poland and Hungary. But, in fact, there is also such resistance in Romania and Bulgaria. What do you think will happen in this respect between the West and the East of the European Union in the coming period this year?
Maybe we should discuss which division we are talking about, because in political terms, for example, or in terms of Russia, I would not say that the division is East-West. There are countries in Eastern Europe that are more strongly anti-Russian than others. Also in Western Europe, in terms of energy and energy security, the division is not East-West. On, for example, fiscal policies and the EU’s ability to borrow from world markets to stimulate its own growth, the divide is also not East-West. Perhaps you could tell me a little bit about what you mean.
I mean that there are attempts “to modernise” the Eastern part of the EU. They go under this slogan in countries in our part of the world in Europe, for example, by fighting corruption, by modernising the energy sector. And these attempts are somewhat encouraged by the European Commission in particular or Western Europe. They are part of the European projects and development programmes, and at the same time we see exactly what I was saying, a sovereignist resistance along all these lines, and it is also a question of contradiction between techno-populism and sovereignists.
Yes. There are sovereignists in Western Europe as well. And their resistance to the Europeanisation of different areas and different policies is even stronger than in the eastern part of the European Union. I mean, it’s not just a question of a split in terms of modernisation – Poland and the Czech Republic will probably stop being beneficiary countries in the next two to three years. They will become net donors to the European Union, unlike countries like Portugal, Cyprus and so on. Again, this is not pure division. I would say that, apart from our common heritage of 30 years ago, which is comparable but not identical, we can now hardly speak of an East-West divide within the European Union.
Photo: A large chunk of the Eastern part of the EU (source: Pixabay, CC0)
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