“It’s Presumptuous to Talk about European Sovereignty”
What should the EU’s role in the world be? It should aim for confident realism, argues Christoph Heusgen, who will take over the leadership of the Munich Security Conference at the close of this year’s MSC in February.
Ambassador Heusgen, we’d like to discuss the idea of European sovereignty. When did you first hear that term, and what was the context?
Christoph Heusgen: I don't remember exactly when, but the underlying idea has been around since the early 1990s, since the Maastricht Treaty, which was when responsibility for common foreign and security policy was included in the European treaties. The idea became more concrete with each new EU treaty, from Maastricht to Amsterdam to Lisbon.
How would you express the underlying concept?
European integration was initially about the economy. Then gradually this expanded to incorporate other policy areas, including foreign and security policy. But EU member states have always had different viewpoints about the role of the United States as the dominant security factor in Europe. France has traditionally laid great importance on what might be called European independence or autonomy, sovereignty in other words. European integration was a big issue for the Germans too, but never at the expense of the transatlantic relationship.
What’s your own position on this?
I believe we have to do everything, especially as Germans, to keep transatlantic relations alive. We need America's commitment to Europe. This commitment is a protective umbrella for Germany: Otherwise it would not have been able to exist after World War 2, and later on it made German reunification possible. The importance of the NATO alliance was emphasized in the coalition agreement setting up the new German “traffic light” government led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Nevertheless, as Europeans, we have to keep working to make progress in security and defense policy. In some crises and in some operations, Europe is going to have to do without the United States, given that it is withdrawing from some international commitments. What I am opposed to is the idea of “European sovereignty,” especially as it relates to security and defense policy. The phrase is misleading, making claims we cannot deliver on in the foreseeable future. We can’t secure Kabul airport to evacuate our citizens without the Americans, let alone undertake major military operations. This is why I think it’s presumptuous to talk about European sovereignty.
You once called for Germany and the EU “to step out of the US’s shadow.” But this would need some degree of military independence at least. What would that look like?
We already have the legal basis in the EU treaties to do this. It has been almost 20 years since the EU first agreed to set up combat groups. But the “EU battlegroups” are still paper tigers. Instead of working on more new European treaties, we need to get serious about establishing a European reaction force that could undertake missions at short notice, like the Americans in Kabul.
Germany’s coalition parties talked about “Europe’s strategic sovereignty” rather than European sovereignty in a narrow sense. Does that make any difference?
You’d have to ask whoever wrote the coalition agreement what exactly they mean by “strategic sovereignty.” Everything we do in foreign and European policy has to be strategic. In other words, it has to be long term and broad spectrum. That means coordinating several different policy areas, not just viewing foreign and security policy in military terms. I’ll give you an example: Myself and Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference and, inter alia, formerly the German ambassador to the US, wrote an op-ed calling for a merger of Germany’s foreign office with the ministry for economic cooperation and development. This would mean we could operate strategically in a context of global competition. We should be able to use our policy instruments in a strategically coordinated way.
For the past few years, you have observed Europe, and its presence in the world, from the other side of the Atlantic, as Germany’s UN ambassador. Do you think the EU speaks with a single voice?
I was impressed with how well the EU is performing in New York. There is a very strong ambassador in place, intensive communications between member state ambassadors, and excellent coordination in many areas of UN policy. But there is one area where Europe's performance and image can be improved, and that is foreign and security policy. I’d like to see words followed up with actions.
In what way?
This applies above all to our French friends, who are pioneers of European integration in many areas, and who coined the term “European sovereignty,” and who also have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. I think that if there are common European policy positions, France should represent these on the Security Council. For this, you would also have to agree that European members would speak with a single voice in the Security Council. African countries do this, and the EU should be doing it as well.
The president of the European Council, Charles Michel, has used a somewhat different formulation about the EU’s role. He says Europe should become “more independent.” But more independent from whom? And how?
I understand independence to mean that Europe has a stronger voice in global competition. Take climate issues, for example. It is simply not possible to have an independent climate policy. You’re always dependent on what other players are doing. But if you take “independent” to mean that the EU should speak more with one voice, on climate, on competition, or on foreign and security policy, then I would very much welcome that.
Apart from that, how do you think Europe is positioned, in institutional terms?
Basically, I think the process of integration should continue as it has done in recent decades. It may still be possible to have constitutional changes that would reweight things between the various EU institutions, or between “Brussels” and the member states. But we shouldn’t be under any illusions. It will not be easy to arrive at far-reaching changes, when we have 27 states, as well as the broad areas of responsibility that the EU has now. We should keep working on that, but we should also use the legal instruments we already have. Because the existing European treaties offer a lot of tools.
What does that mean, concretely?
The treaties allow a former head of state or government, rather than an ex-foreign minister, to be chosen as the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Doing this would mean an office holder with greater personal experience and authority to bear in representing common foreign and security policy, and who could really take a lead in crisis management. I also think in the European External Action Service—the EU’s diplomatic service–diplomats drawn from the member states should play a more prominent role. That would create even stronger links between the member states and the EU. And with regard to all of this, we should look to the example of the nuclear agreement with Iran, which I think is one of the great European successes. Three EU members, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, along with the EU High Representative, managed to put together a very wide-ranging, well-founded treaty. We saw the EU and its members states working shoulder to shoulder. We need to follow this kind of example more often. “Team Europe,” is what they call that in Brussels. I like that term.
You say it’s a question of strengthening Europe's voice in global competition. But where do you see Europe's place? At the side of the United States, as it traditionally has been?
In my view, it’s not so much about this or that attachment in particular, it’s more that we Europeans have to have the self-confidence to say: “What we stand for is Europe, our Europe.” It is always important to think back to where Europe comes from, for us Germans more than anyone. Europe arose on the ruins left by the so-called Third Reich. Today we have made Europe a continent where conflicts are fought out at the European Court of Justice, not on battlefields. And this is also what we should be working for outside the EU: the rule of law, the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, rules-based international order.
But is that something the EU can really achieve without partners?
No, we should see to it that we ally with as many partners as we possibly can. And, of course, the US is the most important and strongest partner in this context. But we do have to be realistic. There is a good chance the Republicans will win the Congressional elections this fall, and we can by no means rule out Donald Trump, or someone like him, winning the 2024 presidential election. We have to be prepared for that. As Europeans, we always have an interest in working with the Americans regardless of whether a US government thinks its interest is in cooperating with us. But our foreign policy ultimately has to be guided by the principles on which the EU is based.
How should Europe deal with autocratic states or leaders when they breach international law? Is it enough to make appeals? Do we need something more than just stating our values and principles?
First of all, it is important that we adhere to our own principles within the EU itself. This is why we have such a serious problem with two member states, Hungary and Poland, which are questioning the EU’s most basic principle—that states’ actions comply with European treaties. Of course, our behavior in the world also has to be shaped by our values. If the actions of other states are not in keeping with those values, our reaction will depend on the particular situation. When Russia invaded Ukraine, for example, we had to impose sanctions. It would have been wrong just to make verbal appeals. And we did that, working closely with the United States.
Do you think the EU is adequately equipped to deal with multifaceted attacks from countries like Russia, including hybrid attacks?
It is true that Moscow’s actions go further than the kind of open military confrontation we saw in Ukraine. Russia’s provocations include murder, like the one committed in the Kleine Tiergarten, a public park here in Berlin, and hacker attacks, including one against the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. The EU and NATO are getting better at preparing for threats like cyberwarfare, but we need to work on this continuously. Then there is social media, where RT (Russia Today) and other state-controlled media try to influence European public opinion, not to mention the thousands of trolls working for Moscow. We pride ourselves on our freedom of expression and freedom of the press. But we have to take appropriate measures when this freedom is used to undermine our sovereignty and our political structures. Both Russia and China have an interest in undermining what we stand for: democracy, pluralism, and the rule of law.
Is this because Beijing and Moscow fear their own populations?
Of course. For those in power there it is unacceptable when people make demands like: “We also want to have real, free elections, we also want rights of freedom of expression, we want a strong civil society.” Russia has repeatedly attempted to attack our democracy, seeking to provoke us into going beyond the rule of law. If it succeeds, it can then accuse us of not upholding the values to which we claim to adhere.
You mean the way that Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus is using migrants as weapons, for example?
Yes, that is one of the most perfidious things that Russia and Belarus are pressurizing Europe with. In effect, Belarus has very little state sovereignty left. If the Belarusian regime takes an action like that, it is because it is tolerated by Moscow, and it may even be done at the Russian government’s behest. This is how those two countries seek to divide and undermine the EU. And so now we see a debate within the EU between people who want closed borders and people who say: “We have to take our humanitarian principles into account, we can’t watch people die.” Russia and Belarus have no qualms about playing with the lives of desperate people; they are making use of them to pick a fight with us.
You have always been strongly committed to multilateralism. It is well known that Germany finds it hard to formulate its own foreign policy goals and interests. Do you think multilateralism can be an instrument to achieve these goals? Or is there a risk that multilateralism will obscure those interests, and become an end in itself?
That's almost like a question for a political scientist. But I do think there is overlap here. Multilateralism is in some ways an end in itself for us, but it isn’t just that. If multilateralism means organizing a world community on the basis of rule-based cooperation between states and institutions, then multilateralism is the principle that has made Germany and the EU great. Which would mean multilateralism that could be understood as one of Germany’s interests. It is in our interest that the world adheres to rules based on the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, all of which are anchored within Germany’s constitution, the Basic Law. Because it isn’t just a question of our citizens’ economic well-being, but also of freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and human rights in general.
Countries like China don’t accept those principles, instead seeing them as “Western” values. If multilateralism as an idea is not working, shouldn’t we pull back, turn the focus inward, and concentrate on ourselves?
No, I think that would be a mistake, since it would ultimately mean accepting China’s reasoning. For China, state sovereignty is the most important thing, claiming that what Beijing does on its own territory is no one else’s business. This is something we share, inasmuch as we refuse to interfere with another country’s state sovereignty or territorial integrity, which is what Russia did in Ukraine. At the same time—and this is particularly important for Germany in light of the Holocaust—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the second pillar of our policy. These human rights are not something “Western,” they signify respect for every life, respect for freedom of the individual, and the possibility of expressing oneself freely. We cannot accept Chinese-style logic, like “Asians are different from Europeans.” Of course, community has different importance in different societies. But I don't think locking up a million members of an ethnic minority in re-education and labor camps is an “Asian value.” This is why we have to work for global respect for human rights, and we have done that regularly at the UN. And we must object to what China is doing to the Uighurs or the Tibetans, for example. This is not about meddling in internal affairs, it is about defending universal values.
The interview was conducted by Martin Bialecki, Henning Hoff, and Joachim Staron.
Christoph Heusgen was Chancellor Angela Merkel’s long-time national security advisor (2005-2017) and German ambassador to the UN (2017-2021).