The Eagle’s Gaze

European Commission candidates’s foreign policies: Schulz softer, Verhofstadt harder on Ukraine

May 22, 2014

The European Elections are approaching and the Commision President candidates closed their general campaign with two final debates at the State of the Union Conference in Florence and at the Eurovision Debate in Brussels, during which the challengers unveiled their different policies over a number of issues. European foreign policy and the Ukranian crisis have been of the main themes.


In Florence the speakers were Martin Schulz, PSE candidate and current president of the European Parliament, Jean-Claude Junker, PPE candidate and former prime minister of Luxembourg, Jose Bové, candidate of the Green Party and Guy Verhofstadt, former prime minister of Belgium and candidate of the Liberal Party. The latter was the hands-down winner of the contest, followed by a cautious Schulz, a Bové too much focused on his green electorate and a silent and stuttering Junker. In Brussels, the four were joined by the enfant terrible Alexis Tsipras, and Ska Keller took Bové’s place as representiative of the Green Party.



In both the conferences, all of them put much enfasis on condemning  the violation of international law by the Russian Federation with Crimea annexation, yet the opinions on what to do now differed one from another.


Verhofstadt used the hardest words on the issue. Besides labeling Putin’s Russia as a dictatorship, he asserted that Europe should get tougher with Putin by hitting his inner circle and the oligarchs’ assets in the Eu territory, a hardline already suggested by some american lawmakers and partially put into practice by the United States.


According to him what is at stake in Ukraine is a clash of political systems, one good the other evil. “It’s not a geopolitical fight between Putin end Europe, it’s about the will of these people to live in a normal, decent country without corruption. It’s about that.” he said in Florence. And in order to support this natural will, Europe should issue bolder sanctions tackling the Kremlin’s elite. Taking for granted that, in a first moment, the protests spread out in support of these values, it is blatant that the situation now is far more complicated and geopolitics do matter together with a dozen of other factors. The liberal candidate also didn’t notice the contradiction between tackling the russian oligharchs, who could hardly have responsibility in the crisis, and supporting an acting government in Kiev mainly made of other oligarchs, some of them well-known corrupt. Furthermore, retaliations against private citizens, in many cases external to the Crimean events, could create problems according to international law. The candidate’s speeches were feautured by a great deal of cold war rethoric. He even quoted a letter from Gary Kasparov, the world famous chess champion strong oppositor of Putin, reminding the apparitions that soviet dissidents used to make during past american presidential campaigns. The bolder sanctions Verhofstadt called for are more or less those already imposed by Obama. These measures, someway softer than classic economic sanctions, were justified for being quicker than the others. But the truth is that overall economic sanctions risk to backfire, sparking a fire that could hardly benefit the growth of the european economies still in the middle of the crisis, a goal scheduled first in his agenda. Targeting private yet powerful citizens on the other hand allows to sting Russia and its political elite without heavy risks of embargos and dangerous showdowns.


Junker,  who did not exclude the use of economic sanctions against Russia if things are to worsen, proposed a “european solidarity” whose purpose would be to help  european countries with closer ties to Russia to suffer less for collateral damages against Moscow. A project not easy to develop in the community since stronger states have already proved to be deaf at other solidarity requests. He also underscored the importance for the EU to stay a soft power avoiding any military confrontation.


A softer line was endorsed by Martin Schulz. Despite arguing that sanctions have been  the right choice so far, the socialist candidate called for more diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis. Schulz, a german, is more careful on the energy issue and the economic partnership with Russia, vital for his country and many others like Italy, currently lead by democratic prime minister and Schulz-backing Matteo Renzi. “Tough sanctions mean we should tell our citizens: higher gas prices, higher energy prices, and no investments of european companies in Russia. But we should also look for diplomatic solutions which always start with one thing, to look at the shared and common interests” he said. Germany is indeed the world’s first importer of russian gas through the specifically built Nord Stream, a situation of high dependence quite different from that of Belgium, where Verhostadt has long served as Prime Minister. In the current crisis Germany policy towards Putin has followed divergent paths. On the one hand Angela Merkel harshly condemned the events but on the other she issued sanctions half-heartedly under american pressure. Moreover, the country was recently embarassed by the hug between Putin and former canchelor and current Nord-Stream CEO Shroeder, underscoring once again the divergences between national interests and alliance obligations.




Although Schulz called for diplomacy to take further action, he also praised the european diplomatic institutions for the efforts made so far, the same institutions that showed, according to many, a general impotence and lack of crisis menagement skills.


Indeed Verhofstadt, Bové and Junker had several concerns over this weakness. Targets of criticisms were the old policy paper on neighbour relations published in 2003 and still in use, and the absence of integration of the different national foreign policies. Verhofstadt openly attacked lady Ashton, European Foreign Minister, for being totally ineffective in the Ukranian crisis and unable to lead a coherent strategic agenda. The opposite, Martin Schulz took her defense exalting her good work in the cases of Moldova, Georgia and even Ukraine, saying that she is only blamed for the failings, in large part dependent on national foreign ministers, and never praised for the achievements.


In Florence, where Ukraine was debated the most, the possessiveness of states over foreign affairs was commonly indicted as the main cause of uncoherent diplomatic response by the Union.


A tightly related issue raised by the speakers was the absence of any integration in defense and thus the absence of a real military deterrent to prevent, in this case, russian aggression. All of them agreed on the need  for a common, efficient army after France refused to proceed towards a military integration back in 1954. However, time looks still early for such radical changes. As a matter of fact, in recent years the use of force by european single states escalated instead of decreasing. France, for example, started three wars in four years and is not likely to abandon this “grandeur” attitude soon.


In Brussels Tsipras, as usual, distanced himself from the mainstream. The radical left greek candidate was the only one who supported a sanctions-free line. “Talking and dialogue” are his guidelines to recover Europe’s wounds. Furthermore, he was the only one to pick up the “fascists” controversy. He refers to the  far-right activists who played the military role in the Majdan and now face pro-Russian protesters in the east of the country. Their role was constantly diminished by Kiev and the West until the Odessa tragedy, where 40 people were burnt alive in a union building by pro Kiev extremists after clashes. The West has not been able to break its double standards and awkward silence yet. Coherently with his pacifist creed, he finally condemned any military intervention on both sides. Even though Tsipras in not likely to win, he will probably receive the votes of  many euroskeptics, anti-Trojka, and lefties.


Keller and Bové enjoy the minor established constituency  but they scored some points in the debates gaining much success on the social media. Their ideas were generally in line with those of the moderate candidates: avoid military confrontations, issue sanctions, strengthen diplomacy. They focused especially on energy, a green strong point. They promised, if elected, to exploit the use of renewable resources, diminishing the role oil fossil fuels, at the centre of Eu-Russia tensions.


In broad brush terms, all candidates’ views on foreign policy looked quite shallow and rather incomplete, criticisms and proposals still missed specific projects of reform and they failed to show clear differences one from another, not only about Ukraine but also about other topics. At least, they targeted some areas where the Commission’s intervention is essential.


However, their very election as Commission President is now brought into question. Angela Merkel, the strongest leader in the Union, has recently stated that “the decision will not be made on the Tuesday or Wednesday following the elections” and “the negotiations will last for several weeks”. In other words she and the other presidents will reserve the right to propose a different candidate in case the winner does not fit their standards. The declaration was not unexpected. But now the German Canchelor has revealed her plan casting doubts on the effectiveness of this election, widely promoted as the first to choose democratically the Commission President. Indeed, heads of states could once again privately negotiate another president and pass over the will of the voters. The candidates were united in asserting that the Parliament would revolt if states interfered in the process but this is just one over many possibilities. Merkel has been supporting Junker, a member of her own european party. Nonetheless, she could also end up proposing new names, especially in case of stalement within the Parliament.


Whoever will take the chair of Commission President will have to harmonize the principle of indipendence with the role of major states, Germany first. The candidates will need to show a great deal of character and political ability first to get the support of the Parliament and then to pursue the reforms presented in their platforms despite the interferences and resistances of the 28.

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