Is anybody in Warsaw really willing to die for France? At first glance: no. But in fact the feeling and understanding of threats from Russia, China and Islamic terrorism are common for all the 27 EU countries – says Bernard Guetta in an interview with Jakub Dymek.
Jakub Dymek: I want to begin our conversation with the question of the Polish-Belarussian border humanitarian crisis and the question of European values. In one of your recent columns published on your website you claim that “Mr. Lukashenko, irony aside, has already won his bet by making Poland and the Union fall as far as he has”. What does this failure mean?
Bernard Guetta: What we tend to see as European values, people globally understand as universal values: personal freedoms and respect for individual liberties, habeas corpus, the right to political participation. And I believe people strive for these values not only in Europe or in reference to Europe, but around the globe and we have to understand these values as such: universal.
That said, let’s come back to the border crisis in Poland. Who’s responsible? Mr. Lukashenko, obviously. He is the one who lied that they can cross to Europe safely by coming to Belarus and crossing the Polish border. Polish authorities obviously faced a real dilemma: to either open the borders and let Mr. Lukashenko generate a new border crisis or behave like completely inhuman people. They’ve made the second choice. The EU made a very difficult decision to support Polish authorities. The EU decided to say nothing about the inhuman attitude of the Polish authorities.
And this is what you mean by Europe’s fall?
If you see a child starving and refuse to give them food and water you don’t just disrespect European values, but humanitarian values. Even a dictator can – sometimes for all the wrong reasons – behave like a human being, even without believing in any European values at all. This’s why I make this difference. But what can I tell you? I’m ashamed about this situation. I don’t know if the whole of Europe is, but I certainly am. But at the same time I understand perfectly well the mechanism and logic why Polish authorities didn’t want to open the borders.
Scene at the Poland-Belarus border:
Water cannons being used against refugees pic.twitter.com/82l6680HCI
— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) November 16, 2021
So did Lukashenko and Belarus succeed in demonstrating European hypocrisy?
Not at all. I think it was clear for everybody, everywhere in the world, that Mr. Lukashenko was trying to create problems for both Poland and the EU. But did he manage to discredit the EU and Poland as hypocritical? No.
We have to understand that no wall will stop people fleeing from war, terror and poverty.
And even if we build walls, what will we do, when hundreds of thousands of people, a million people face that wall? What we have to do is build completely different relations with African and Middle Eastern countries. We have to support economic development in those places. Not only out of charity or compassion, but also out of necessity. We have to drastically reduce our investments in China and relocate them to Africa. We also have to replace some of the Chinese investment in Africa. By doing so, we will at the same time fight against poverty, climate change and the Chinese dictatorship. And at the same time, it will allow us to combat and reduce the impact of forced migration to Europe. This would be the smart attitude.
I’ve noticed that the EU has a new priority now, have you?
What is it?
Industrial development in Africa – precisely for the reasons I’ve mentioned above. It won’t happen overnight of course. It won’t happen for years, perhaps. But this is a real goal worth pursuing.
Is the EU as determined in its investments in global development as China is? Because we have plenty of evidence for Beijing’s commitment.
We are hearing more and more cries for help from places where people are sick and tired of Chinese investment. They want European help – small countries like Montenegro are just one of the examples. Chinese involvement created as many problems as it did solutions. There surely will be competition between China and Europe in this regard, but also between China and Russia, America and the EU at the same time.
I do think that European authorities – both at institutional and country levels – understand the necessity of investment in Africa and building codependence and cooperation.
I’m not as pessimistic when it comes to this. For three or four years now, we understand as Europeans that we have to act as a political power in this world. It will be difficult, because until recently it was a complete taboo to talk, for example, about common defense. About common investment, about common borrowing of money. And now these taboos disappeared.
Which is ironically one of the benefits of the so-called populist era, because with the destruction of the old truths, some old barriers and old taboos were also destroyed. This particular political realignment – where things previously deemed impossible and undesirable now are totally within the realm of possibility – is quite a positive development in itself.
Sure, but not because of populism in itself, but thanks to the thriple threat of Mr. Trump, Mr. Putin and Mr. Daesh – so to speak – that is the pseudo-islamic terrorist caliphate. 27 European capitals understood that now what we have to do is build a political union. And now the situation is completely different. Will we succeed? It is a different question, but I remain optimistic. During this process, everyone could fail – it just as well might be Russia or China who fails or America or the EU. Nothing is preordained.
Russia’s more assertive position and the Kremlin’s willingness to confront the West have certainly changed attitudes toward common defense in Europe. But let me ask a little bit cynically – is anyone in France willing to die for Poland, Slovakia, Czechia, Ukraine…
May I also ask you a question? Is anybody in Warsaw really willing to die for France or anyone in Vilnius for Portugal? At first glance: no. But in fact the feeling and understanding of threats from Russia, China and Islamic terrorism are common for all the 27 EU countries, so I finally can answer your question: yes.
So has the status quo changed?
It certainly did. But on the other hand, I’m not so frightened about Mr. Putin. For his regime this is the beginning of an end, certainly of a long, brutal, deadly decline. Why is this the beginning of an end? Because nobody under the age of 40 remembers Communism and the Soviet empire, therefore has no nostalgia for that empire. People in cities – not only in Moscow, but in cities all over Russia – they want to live as you do in Warsaw, and as I do in Paris. They share European aspirations – cultural, economical, psychological. For all intents and purposes, they’re European. Because Russia is a European country.
So the political basis of Mr. Putin’s power is shrinking. The economic basis for his power is already very poor. The coming years will change everything. It will be increasingly difficult for Mr. Putin to stay in power without repression. Russia’s becoming more repressive already, because it’s weaker, not stronger. One way or another – maybe after a war in Ukraine, who knows? – this Russia will eventually fail. And Putin, just like Yeltsin 20 years ago, will be forced to go.
You’ve said recently that Biden’s administration cannot wait to leave Eastern Europe once and for all and finally focus on the rivalry with China. Why is that?
You know, it’s not only President Biden, it’s the whole of America – both the elites and the vast majority of the population – who want this. The United States, from the workers to the academic elite, understands two things. They don’t want any more ‘forever wars’ and they understand that the real competition, the real threat to American dominance, comes from China. Russia is nothing in comparison.
Challenges to the USA are not in Europe, nor are they in Russia. They’re in Asia.
If Mr. Putin invades Ukraine tomorrow, will it actually change anything for the Americans? I don’t think so. It would be an overstatement to say that nothing will change, but certainly not a lot. But if at the same time China decides to invade Taiwan, this changes a lot of things for Americans.
Because of how both the US and Chinese economies are codependent?
To some extent. But think of the military and symbolic power of China actually attacking Taiwan, how this changes the balance of power! The question of the balance of power between the USA and Russia is a joke. Because there’s no balance, America’s dominance over Russia is as big as America’s dominance over Spain or the Netherlands. In terms of power, Russia is basically the Netherlands with nukes, but perhaps without the willingness and ability to use the nukes, it is in reality even less.
We have a strange situation where Mr. Putin is only willing to speak to Biden, on par with the American President. But what does it lead to? An American comeback to Europe, which is from the Kremlin’s point of view absolutely unnecessary. It’s illogical. Because we were on the brink of a situation where the European continent was divided between two powers only—the EU and Moscow. They have wanted this for so long! And now they have it—Americans and Chinese literally gave this to them. And yet they don’t see, don’t understand how big of an advantage that gave them. Those in Russia who really push for Americans to come back not only belong to the previous century mentally, but they’re also weakening themselves. It’s nothing if not political stupidity.
Paradoxically, it is also what Poland wanted for quite a long time. It is precisely for that reason – to increase the American military presence on the eastern flank of NATO – that Poland maintained such cozy and close relations with President Trump.
Yes, ironically Poland might just get what it wanted thanks to Mr. Putin. Mr. Putin of all people! You’re right. But I don’t see how this potential increase of American forces in Europe will become a long-term reality. Unless Mr. Putin invades Ukraine today, there’s very small chance for that to actually happen.
I was talking to a Polish PiS politician with whom we’re on a first name basis, because we’ve known each other for so long. And what he says also is: “yes, we have to build a European common defense”. “But please – he continues – do not mention it out loud, because it will push the Americans out of our continent and we do not want that!”. Today Polish authorities don’t oppose building an European military capacity. Who opposes this in Central and Eastern Europe: Slovakia, Czechia, Romania? No. Everybody understands that European defense will be – if it isn’t already – a necessity.
Do you see that as a sea change?
Yes, we have a different Europe today! Look how little China changed, Russia changed, the US changed in their attitudes and systems and how big of a contrast the change in Europe is. More united, decisive and sovereign. Who would’ve thought?
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