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Jun 23, 2022

“Ukraine Will Be One of the Key Priorities”

Prague takes over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in July. Jaroslav Kurfürst, the Czech Republic’s Special Envoy for the Eastern Partnership in charge of preparing the presidency, talks to IPQ about the impact Russia’s attack on Ukraine has had on the EU.

Czech diplomat Jaroslav Kurfürst

Ambassador Kurfürst, what impact is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine having on the European Union?

Jaroslav Kurfürst: This Russian aggression, of course, has an impact that goes far beyond Europe. It even resonates in places you would not have expected—take Africa and questions related to food security. But if you look at the European Union, there has clearly been a strong political impact. It has led to greater EU cohesion, to greater unity within the EU. And I think this cohesion is now being translated into a new acknowledgment of its political strength: the more cohesive and more united Europe is, the stronger it becomes as a geopolitical player.

This is a discovery for many countries, that the EU can play that role. It’s important that there is no single dissenting voice as to who is the aggressor and who is the victim. All the EU countries understand that this illegal war of aggression is also about the post-Cold War order, about democracy, about liberal values, about the rules-based international order – the EU member states are very clear that we have to defend these values.

This unity is extremely important. Of course, there are many challenges. The EU will have to give the right strategic answer to the questions such as how to deal with the EU applications of Ukraine, but also Georgia, Moldova. How to continue with the countries of the Western Balkans. These questions are about the EU itself—how it will look like in the future. But it’s clear that the Russian aggression rewrote all of the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy. We have to admit that our policy was problematic. As the EU, we were encouraging European aspirations and enforcing our norms, standards, and values to associated Eastern partners, but excluded the accession. This locked these countries in a sort of geopolitical prison and increased the temptation for Russian imperialism to grasp as much territory from these countries as possible.

This unity you've described, how deep is it really? Hungary, for instance, blocked a Russian oil embargo for weeks. Do you think this will be overcome?

Of course, within the EU different geographies lead to different approaches. Landlocked countries like Hungary, which so far have relied on pipelines, have more difficulty switching to different supply routes, especially on oil and gas. In that respect there is certainly part of the Hungarian position that can be described as a legitimate concern. We Czechs have had our own legitimate concerns. I hope—and strongly believe—that the situation will be overcome, and Hungary will change its position. But either way, cohesion will continue to be tested. The issue of candidate status will be key. So far, the EU sanctions policy and unequivocal support for Ukraine is something for which the EU is gaining credit and trust at least in Central and Eastern Europe.

One of the lessons to be drawn is that Germany’s Russia policy right until the beginning of the war was wrong. Why do you think that Berlin didn’t listen to its Eastern European neighbors who had warned for a long time about the nature of Putin’s regime?

Well, wishful thinking on Germany’s part is certainly one part of the answer: it's more comfortable to treat the world the way you would like to see it. Another part of the answer is pragmatism. Germany wanted to do business as usual, to develop the relationship with Russia, increase the imports of gas and so on. And Germany did so until the moment when it was not possible anymore: that was the beginning of the aggression. Now we are seeing an acknowledgement of past miscalculations when it came to dealing with Vladimir Putin and Russia, which is leading to new policies, with “Zeitenwende” as the headline. This new policy is, however, visibly uncomfortable for Berlin. There is a reluctance to be consequential and to take some of the tough decisions. As the biggest economy and the strongest player in the EU, Germany is required by many to lead—but Germany is responding with hesitation. It is looking to where the mainstream position is in the EU and then joins it. In other words, for now, Germany can be described as a power that is still a little bit confused, showing discomfort. It is moving in the right direction and trying to behave in a responsible way but it should be aware that hesitation often leads to missing strategic momentum with all the consequences for this serious situation.

You already mentioned that the question of EU membership for Ukraine and others will be a key question. What role will it play in the Czech Republic's rotating European Council presidency?

For Ukrainians the membership of the EU is the goal. We have to understand that the story started when President Yanukovych did not sign the association agreement in 2013 causing Euromaidan, resulting in violence by pro-Russian forces, more protests, and the escape of Yanukovych, the annexation of Crimea, and the war in the East. This is part of the same storyline. This is a war where people are dying for the European prospects of Ukraine. Czechia takes over from France only in July, so in a national capacity at the June council, we will support giving Ukraine the candidate status. We cannot continue with the untenable policy of keeping Ukraine in the sort of a geopolitical prison, or impasse I have described.

Then there will be the need for Ukraine’s reconstruction. It would be hard to imagine that the EU, which will be leading the reconstruction effort, will invest EU taxpayers’ money in a sort of buffer zone or a country that again can be the subject of another Russian aggression. The investment in a future potential EU member makes sense, as does giving Ukraine candidate status.

Assuming this will be granted, the role of the Czech EU presidency will then be to guide the process toward the beginning of accession talks. But from that moment onward I don't believe that shortcuts are possible and political interference in the process can apply. We need to have proper accession talks, very credible accession talks. Ukrainians should be ready for a long, painful process, and Ukraine should fulfill all the required criteria. The Czech presidency will of course have a moderating role, but we can implement or organize some events which frame the discussion in a positive way toward the Ukrainian move, toward the beginning of the accession talks.

Ukraine’s request to join the EU is sparking urgency in other states that have been waiting for years to get candidate status, or move closer to EU membership, for example, the states of the Western BalkansAlbania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbiabut also Georgia and Moldova. Is there any chance that the current circumstances will lead to a general speeding up of the accession processes?

We have to distinguish between candidate status, accession talks, and membership. These are very different decisions and stages. The candidate status opens the possibility to dream this European dream, which can be given to countries that are in compliance with Article 49 of the Treaty on the European Union and the Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union to which Article 49 refers. In my personal opinion, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova should be part of this.

The upcoming political debate around this will be very sensitive because these three countries are very vulnerable to Russian imperialism, let’s say. But then there are the accession talks and here we say: each country is in its own boat and has to paddle. We really have to make sure that all the countries that are in the accession talks meet all the technical criteria, all the economic and all the political criteria, but are also credible in their adherence to the European values. Once we are sure that these countries are there, there should not be any deviation from the final goal, and this is enlargement. And to be honest, it makes no sense to apply any artificial geographical division among the Western Balkan countries versus the Eastern European countries with EU aspirations.

Nonetheless, doesn’t the EU need a new enlargement policy?

I know that there are some innovative ideas about new enlargement policies floating around in some think tanks and being promoted by analysts and politicians. We can structure the process in different ways, but one thing is unavoidable: that at the end of that process should be the EU membership, and thus enlargement. This is, I think, the bottom line. The process should be credible for both sides.

Do you think this is what French President Emmanuel Macron had in mind when he spoke in Strasbourg about proposing “a European political community”?

Well, it is a new initiative, and we need to learn more about it. If this vision is not replacing the enlargement process, it is worth discussing. If it would mean a sort of second-grade membership, I don't think it will be attractive for anyone. It would be an old idea in a new costume. If we just create a new name for a sort of pre-accession state of the relationship with the EU, then it will not stop Russian imperialism instigated by the ambiguity of the EU toward the Eastern European countries. It would not help with providing stability in the east of our continent and it would not help with increasing the EU’s credibility, also on a global stage.

Macron also advocated changes to the EU treaties, to allow more majority decisions…

Again, I will share my personal view. In this changed geopolitical situation, discussions about the future shape and inner workings of the EU are absolutely legitimate and necessary. Treaty change is a very complicated issue, but history tells us that before each major enlargement the EU had to discuss whether and how it is able to digest this enlargement and sometimes adapt. Eventual enlargement would change the EU—not only its geopolitical situation, but also institutionally, the decision-making processes and so on. And all this should be discussed thoroughly.

When a country takes over the EU presidency, it usually aspires to have a fully-fledged program, setting themes and agendas, only to experience that its well-laid plans are being overtaken by events. That happened to the Germans in the first half of 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic struck, and it happened to the French in the first half of this year when Russia invaded Ukraine. What is your expectation for the Czech presidency?

(laughs) We will follow the French and German examples as you described them. Indeed, we made a lot of plans; I had a fully worked-out concept for the Eastern Partnership, for instance. Now, of course, we need to rewrite everything. And as we move, there are so many unknowns that we will have to be flexible.

Ukraine will be one of the key priorities for the Czech presidency. To give this agenda the structure, we are working on a five-points: there are issues of immediate needs like the continuation of work on humanitarian questions. Then there is a longer-term process of reconstruction with many elements and on both we are ready to help and moderate the discussion. The third point is the EU accession track, the fourth is our readiness to organize a summit, which would demonstrate the political cohesion of the EU and eventually other participant countries behind Ukraine. And the fifth point is resilience.

Besides Ukraine, energy security will certainly play an important role, also the strengthening of the EU’s defense capabilities, cyber security, and the EU economy’s strategic resilience—and also those of our democratic institutions. These are the key issues. And in terms of foreign affairs, the Western Balkans and Indo-Pacific should be added to the most visible Eastern European file. All said, we are ready to deal with anything that history choses to happen during our presidency.

Do you think that the failed Russia policy tells us something about the EU’s future relationship with Chinaare there perhaps some mistakes not to be repeated? The Czech Republic has its own experience in this regard …

Yes, I think that the biggest lesson learned is the EU’s acknowledgement that there's a high price to be paid for economic dependence on one actor; it quickly translates into vulnerability, which weakens the EU and also individual members. The Czech experience with China was that at some point we opened up very much to the promises of Chinese investment—but they proved to be not credible. China has to give us more answers in strategic terms, also when it comes to the present crisis. For now, at least, their narratives are not helpful and constructive, spreading Russian propaganda and manipulations of reality. So yes, definitely, avoiding strategic dependencies is the big lesson learnt.

Russia’s war has also revived NATO. How do you see the EU and NATO working together in the future?

The two organizations are now cooperating in an unprecedented way, and there is a clear division of labor. Putin’s war gave NATO stronger wings, so to speak. With Sweden and Finland two EU members applying to join NATO, the two organizations will become even more connected. But it is this division of roles that is very important because, for example, NATO cannot use the economic tools the EU has at its disposal, which have been used to forge a strong sanctions policy against Russia. And NATO’s special role is providing a credible strategic deterrent, which the EU lacks. So, that is a win-win situation of cooperation between the two organizations. I believe that all member states in both organizations are newly appreciating that. The EU will of course try to generate more military capabilities of member states, and this is something that is very necessary also for NATO, so it will strengthen NATO. There is a stronger synergy between the two organizations than there ever has been.

This is, of course, also the consequence of a US administration that is very much engaged in Europe again. President Joe Biden is possibly the most pro-transatlantic US president we will have for a long time. How worried are you that with a different administration in 2025, this will reverse?

I don't want to speculate about future US administrations, it's too far into the future. But as Europeans, we have to have a very intensive dialogue with all the US political and intellectual currents. This dialogue should encompass the strategic perception of threats. And I believe, in the current situation, Europe is able to convince Americans that this transatlantic unity is in the common interest of allies on both shores of the Atlantic.

The biggest bone of contention—and we saw it during the Trump administration—was the lack of European capabilities, military capabilities, and the feeling of the United States that they are paying for European security and that the Europeans are free riders. I think that this will change dramatically because there will be a strong increase in defense expenditures across Europe. And then there will be the discussion about the strategic perception of China. Many things are of course in the hands of the Chinese leadership—how it will behave in this new geopolitically sensitive situation. But I believe this unity and cohesion we see in the Euro-Atlantic space is there and I believe it will be sustained.

For now, we have a post-Trump America, at least for the next two years. Can you already imagine an EU relationship with a post-Putin Russia?

It would be nice to see a post-Putin Russia, but I must admit I personally do not see one clearly on the horizon. It could be surprisingly close, but it could also be far away. Until we reach this point it will be good to reshape EU policy toward Russia. We have to learn how to deal with an aggressive, revisionist power, how to contain its influence and deter it from further aggressive behavior. We have to build strategic independence and look at how we can support the democratic elements in Russian society. We have to strengthen the resilience of our Eastern neighborhood, of course. Only when Russia changes can we discuss the next phase of the relationship. For me personally, our litmus test will be Ukraine—how Russia will behave toward Ukraine. That's key.

The interview was conducted by Henning Hoff, Joachim Staron, and Anne-Sophie Humer-Hager.