The European Union “is prepared to use all tools at its disposal” to change the behaviour of Turkey, according to Charles Michel, the president of the European Council.
In this wide-ranging interview, the Belgian politician says he remains “cautious” vis-a-vis Ankara’s intentions, and he notes that the challenges of authoritarian states to the Western alliance are constantly growing. He highlights the European Union’s many strengths and says that the bloc should not be oblivious to them.
Michel participated in a special event in Athens to mark the occasion of the 40-year anniversary of Greece’s accession to the European Community on Thursday, and he sent a message of hope and common resolution for the creation of a new economic and social paradigm in Europe.
Are you optimistic that the new round of sanctions on Belarus will work where the previous ones failed – in altering the behaviour of the regime? Are you confident there will be sectoral economic sanctions, given the resistance of the bloc’s biggest economies?
What happened was totally unacceptable and it was critical to react very fast. As you observed, we were able very quickly to arrive at a common, very firm position. This is a very serious matter, it is about the safety of civil aviation. Another very important point is that like-minded partners like the United States and the United Kingdom imposed similar sanctions. And we opened the door to sectoral economic measures – but targeted ones, which will not hurt civil society. The measures must target the regime, not the population – and they must respect the legal framework.
We recognise that the EU and its like-minded partners are being tested more and more by authoritarian regimes. That is why it is crucial in the G7 meeting in a few weeks in the UK to examine how we can be stronger in promoting our fundamental values, like international cooperation, multilateralism, respect for the rule of law, for international agreements, and so on. I will ask Boris Johnson to put this on the agenda. These principles are under increasing pressure and the EU has a leading role in defending them.
When can we expect the new sanctions on Belarus to be finalised? Was the possibility of Russian involvement in the incident discussed at the summit? Would Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko have done something so outrageous without notifying Vladimir Putin?
Some of the new measures, for example on the airspace, are already being implemented. We want the new sanctions to be implemented as soon as legally possible. On the Russian connection: It is clear that there are ties between the two regimes, which we need to properly understand. But on Monday evening we also had the chance to have an in-depth debate on Russia itself – for the first time in years. Usually, we just talk about the fact that the Minsk agreement is not being implemented and we extend the sanctions. But I had promised my colleagues that we would have this strategic discussion, and it was a very useful one. We all agreed that we need to stop just reacting to Russian provocations and illegal actions. We should develop a more proactive approach, defining the interests we want to defend and the tools that we should use to do this. For example, we should strengthen our role in the Eastern Partnership countries – that’s why I have been trying to help support democratic institutions in Georgia. For the same reason I will visit Ukraine in August, for the second time. We want to send a clear message that we want the Minsk agreement to be implemented, that we support the territorial integrity of Ukraine and fundamental democratic values.
So – to be clear – is there at present no indication of Russian involvement in the Ryanair affair? After the summit, Mario Draghi said, “We are a strong continent… 70% of foreign direct investment into Russia is European… we shouldn’t be weak” in dealing with that country. Do you agree? Has Europe been weak when facing Russia?
On your first question, we have asked for an international inquiry, in coordination with the United States, to shed light on all aspects of this affair. On what Mario Draghi said: Of course I agree! We shouldn’t be intimidated by Russia. We are a strong economy, with strong values and many tools at our disposal. We often forget this, and we shouldn’t.
We must take steps to increase our geopolitical influence, so that it becomes commensurate to our economic influence. This will take time. But in the past 18 months we have made a lot of progress. Take climate change, where we played a leading role, even at a time when the US was having doubts; or on the taxation of multinationals, where we started the discussion for greater fairness a few years ago and now the U.S. is opening the door so we can move forward; on Covid, where our approach is becoming the vision of the global community: investing in research, backing COVAX, offering guarantees for the supply chains, exporting vaccines… We have a tendency in Europe to minimize our achievements. I am trying to fight against this kind of thinking.
How do you respond to critics who say the EU punches beneath its weight globally because member-states’ economic interests trump a common approach?
I am more and more convinced that this generation of European leaders understands that the common European approach is the best way to promote their national economic interests. An example I remember very well was the negotiations on the EU budget and the recovery fund. The first instinct of some member-states was to try and protect their national economic interests. In a matter of a few weeks, their view changed – they realised that the best way to support their economies was to make Europe stronger and more resilient.
Almost two months after your visit to Ankara, and a month before the issue of Turkey comes before the European Council again, do you see any signs of improvement in the internal situation? Has Turkey become a more constructive partner in foreign policy?
I remain cautious. We had the opportunity to express a very strong, united position to the Turkish authorities. We had prepared in close coordination with the 27 member-states and especially with Greece and Cyprus. We sent a very clear message: We are ready for a more positive agenda, but this is conditional, proportional and reversible. This means that it will only be implemented if there is progress in different areas – especially in Greek-Turkish relations, on the Cyprus settlement, on human rights. It will depend on Turkey’s behaviour.
Is there an interim assessment you can make of that behaviour since early April?
I do not intend to make any assessment before the end of June. But in the past we have observed that Turkey can take one step forward followed by two steps back. So we are not naive. Turkey is a neighbour, it is a NATO member, but it is fundamental for the EU to make sure that the country adopts a more positive stance towards the common European interest – among others in places like Libya, Syria and the Caucasus. Turkey’s stance in these conflicts in the past was not in line with Europe’s interest. We are ready to use all the tools at our disposal to influence Turkey’s behaviour.
The president of the European Council visited Greece last week to take part in the celebrations for the 40-year anniversary of Greece’s accession to the European Community. We asked what his message was to the Greek people, who were hit by the pandemic just as the country was emerging from its long, deep financial crisis.
“For me, there is an emotional side to this visit,” he notes. “My education has been influenced by Greece. So I’m very excited to be present in this celebration [the interview took place a day before the visit]. My message is one of hope. Greece – like the other 26 member-states – we all have the same vision for the future. We want to take advantage of the opportunities created by the challenges of climate change and the digital agenda. We want to work together to achieve these goals, to implement reforms that were already necessary before the pandemic so as to make our societies more resilient. We need a new economic and social paradigm, one not based on the abuse of natural resources or of big data.”
Michel makes special reference to Greece’s young people, who “through programs like Erasmus can open their horizons and take their destiny into their own hands.” He also mentions Tilos, “the first island to be powered 100 percent by renewable energy sources,” as an example for the transformation that needs to take place all over Europe.
These ambitious plans, however, require public investment on a very large scale, which the Stability and Growth Pact tended to discourage in the past, did it not? “We have learned from past mistakes. When I was prime minister of Belgium, I realised there was a need for immediate investments in the digital sector and the green transition. But they have to be the right investments. There will never be free money; it has to be repaid by future generations. So the responsibility [for these investment programs] is huge, both on a national and on the European level.”
On the EU Covid certificate, the Council president praises the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis for leading the charge on establishing such a tool. “I supported this initiative from the beginning, even when some were hesitating,” he says. The certificate “is necessary to reopen our societies and reclaim our freedoms. We must be cautious, of course: We will closely monitor the variants. We don’t know what will happen in the coming months – but we are cautiously optimistic. That was the feeling in the room in the European Council. Even with the certificate, there will be difficulties. But it’s very important that we maintain a common approach, as much as possible. The Commission must now table specific proposals for the opening of intra-EU travel. I hope they clarify the situation and lead to a harmonisation of policies among the member-states.”
EU leaders also discussed the issue of vaccinating the developing world at the recent summit. Is Europe doing enough to contribute to this? Was it not part of the problem, as it ordered doses far in excess of the needs of its population, contributing to the scarcity of supplies available to poorer countries?
If there is one area that has been committed from the start to international solidarity, that is undoubtedly Europe. We started the COVAX mechanism – and we are the biggest contributors to it. We are the only democracy that did not block exports – we exported 50 percent of the doses produced in Europe. This was not easy to explain to our public opinion. Israel, the U.S., the UK – they did not export. We also acted to boost the manufacturing capacity of poorer countries. Some months ago, I visited a number of African countries and spoke to their leaders, in Kenya, Rwanda, the DRC, Senegal and others, to make sure that specific partnerships are set in motion in this direction. And I’m very pleased that the Commission announced a few days ago that it was committing 1 billion euros towards making these partnerships a reality.
Is it morally acceptable for Europe to begin vaccinating teenagers when healthcare workers in many parts of the world still don’t have access to vaccines?
This is first of all a scientific debate. We must listen to the scientists. A lot remains unknown about Covid-19 – whether we should vaccinate children, whether booster shots will be needed… In any case, vaccinations in developing countries have to be accelerated, and for that reason we just committed to donating at least 100 million doses by the end of the year.
Michel does not want to comment further on the infamous Sofagate incident that took place during the Ankara visit. “Everything has been said about this; I do not intend to add another word,” he says.
He notes however that his collaboration with Ursula von der Leyen and High Representative Josep Borrell is “very close and we have proved that over the last 18 months. We are absolutely committed to collaborating on promoting the common European interest.”
(A version of this article was originally published by the Kathimerini newspaper and is reproduced by permission.)