Defending Europe Against Russia

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former secretary general of NATO, has some advice for European governments: invest more in defense in light of the threat posed by Russia.

“I think more and more people understand that Russia has changed from being a strategic power to being a strategic challenge,” said Rasmussen.

Rasmussen, who is also a former prime minister of Denmark, called on European governments to “maintain a firm stance vis-à-vis Russia.” He said that “as much as [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants to be seen as a strong man…he respects a demonstration of power and that’s exactly what we should do.”

In the face of this challenge, Europeans must remain united, he said, because “only then will Mr. Putin understand confrontation doesn’t pay; he will have to cooperate.”

Rasmussen spoke at a conference at the Atlantic Council on October 6.

On October 7, in a development that exemplifies the strategic challenge posed by Russia, the US government officially held Moscow accountable for cyber hacking that it said is intended to interfere in the US presidential election.

In addition to the cyber threats, “Russian aggression against Ukraine has created a completely new security environment in Europe and we have to adapt to that,” Rasmussen said. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March of 2014 and has since supported separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Rasmussen asserted the need for a greater commitment to territorial defense. Specifically, he called on NATO member states to live up to the pledge from the Wales Summit to invest 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) in defense. Only five of NATO’s twenty-eight member states—Estonia, Greece, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States—meet the two percent requirement.

Rasmussen joined Miroslav Lajčák, Slovakia’s minister of foreign and European affairs; Ana Palacio, a former foreign minister of Spain; and Peter Westmacott, a former British ambassador to the United States, in a panel discussion that was part of the Atlantic Council’s “Stronger With Allies” conference. Teri Schultz, a freelance journalist, moderated the discussion.

Westmacott, who also serves as a distinguished ambassadorial fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative, said the United Kingdom will not back down from its 2 percent defense commitment.

Brexit: A wake-up call

In a referendum on June 23, British voters decided in favor of taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union (EU). British Prime Minister Theresa May has since said that she will initiate a formal exit process by the end of March 2017.

The United Kingdom is leaving the EU, not Europe, said Westmacott, asserting that the United Kingdom continues to take its defense commitments seriously. “We’re not giving up on diplomacy, we’re not giving up on defense, we’re not giving up on foreign policy,” he said.

Rasmussen pointed out that NATO will now be the “prime international organization for the UK.” He said that “the UK has so far contributed to a global perspective in EU policies. We will not be lacking that global perspective.” Consequently, he said that when it comes to security and defense, “NATO is the only show in town.”

Palacio echoed this sentiment, adding: “We have to say loud and clear that NATO is what unites us and that we have to stand by it.”

The outcome of the Brexit referendum constituted a “wake-up call for Europe as a whole to get its act together,” said Westmacott.

The EU needs to focus on transparency, accountability, and efficiency when considering what needs to change to accommodate the way forward after Brexit, he added.

According to Palacio, with the amalgamation of social, political, and economic challenges, “we have to review what Europe is for.”

Noting that the legitimacy of the EU is functional, she said this legitimacy is based on implicit benefits to the individual. “The institutions right now have a big task and a big challenge to find things that make them look good with the citizens,” she added.

Reclaiming and maintaining public trust in the EU has been a topic of concern since the Brexit vote. According to Westmacott, the results of the referendum were in part about the United Kingdom’s participation in Europe, but a number of other factors were in play. Distrust toward political elites, anxiety about inequalities, and frustration with globalization led to widespread disenchantment, he said.

These symptoms are widespread across EU member states, according to Palacio.

Rasmussen said that “the EU needs to carry through profound reforms,” such as welfare reforms, labor reforms, and the strengthening of border controls. Taking a step in this direction, the EU launched a joint border guard at the border between Bulgaria and Turkey on October 6.

In the wake of the Brexit referendum, EU reforms and a strengthened transatlantic relationship will prove essential for European security, according to Rasmussen. Lajčák said that at the EU Summit in Bratislava, Slovakia, in September, EU member states focused on the need to “strengthen common unity and defense policy.”

The EU’s importance

In his keynote address, David O’Sullivan, the EU’s ambassador to the United States, asserted the continued importance of the EU, claiming that the United States and NATO have much to gain from a strong EU.

“Agreement between the United States and Europe is a necessary condition to actually influence events, which is why I think this partnership is very important,” he said.

O’Sullivan said that when there are challenges and the EU needs to prove its worth is when its role is most important. He described the Union as a forum for amalgamating differing views into a united opinion, and member states need to convince their citizens that this is done with their best interests in mind.

Against this backdrop, O’Sullivan said negotiating the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU will take some time, but the United States and the EU must remain the backbone of transatlantic security, guided by mutual values.

“We’re going to have to let this evolve,” said O’Sullivan. “We’re going to have to live with this uncertainty for some time and it should not distract us [from the fact] that we have some very important business to be getting on with.”

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.

Image: From left: Teri Schultz moderated a discussion with Miroslav Lajčák, Slovakia’s minister of foreign and European affairs; Ana Palacio, a former foreign minister of Spain; Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former secretary general of NATO; and Peter Westmacott, a former British ambassador to the United States. (Atlantic Council)