October 17, 2021 Interviews

The EU must put its own interests and those of its members first

In an extensive interview for Novi list, Tonino Picula talks about the Report on EU-US relations, foreign policy priorities, as well as the transformative potential of social democracy in Croatia and beyond.

The European Parliament has adopted your report on relations with the United States, which states that the United States remains a major partner of the Union, but also mentions that the EU must build its "strategic autonomy". What does that actually mean?

The concept of strategic autonomy was first highlighted in 2016 in a document called the EU’s Global Strategy when the EU’s need to take greater responsibility for its own security was emphasized. Strategic autonomy was initially understood primarily as its defense aspect, i.e. strengthening the EU defense industry, reducing fragmentation in the sector and developing its military capabilities to the level of being able to conduct missions and operations autonomously if circumstances so require. However, strategic autonomy has meanwhile developed into an attempt to permeate different sectoral policies. It should be said that there is no political consensus on the definition, goals or means of strategic autonomy. Nevertheless, we can define it as the EU's ability to act autonomously, to rely on its own resources in strategic areas and to work with partners if necessary and if it wants to. In essence, this means that the EU should be able to pursue a more ambitious foreign policy primarily in line with its interests, values ??and goals, relying on a range of instruments, such as trade, development aid, energy, security of supply or digital technology. One of the key objectives of strategic autonomy is to reduce dependence on external actors in key sectors, which would ultimately make the EU less vulnerable. These trends existed before the pandemic, but it exacerbated them.

Can you explain the procedure for adopting such a document - who did you all have to talk to, how many meetings did you have, who is the main author of the conclusions in the document that the EP voted on and gave full support? On the other hand, who were the opponents of this "paper" and how do you interpret their motives?

The procedure for adopting such a document begins when the conference of presidents of all parliamentary groups confirms that the work of the rapporteur on a specific report can start in the competent committee. In the case of the Report on the Future of EU-US Relations, the committee responsible is the Committee on Foreign Affairs, and the Trade Committee worked on the opinion that was subsequently attached to the final report. Given that I was previously appointed Standing Rapporteur of the European Parliament for the United States, I had the honor and confidence to propose conclusions and lead the rest of the process until the plenary vote. The whole process began at the beginning of the year with the creation of the first draft conclusions, which I presented twice to the Committee on Foreign Affairs. In the meantime, MPs had the option of submitting amendments to the draft text and we received more than 400 amendments. Then, based on my draft and proposed amendments, I presented the text of 40 compromise amendments that I negotiated with the shadow rapporteurs who worked on the document on behalf of other political groups. Through three rounds of negotiations, we agreed on the final compromise text, which we voted on in July in the Committee on Foreign Affairs. Given the importance of the topic, interest in the report has been consistently high. I had a large number of meetings and online meetings with fellow parliamentarians, embassies, other European and American institutions, and at the end of September I traveled on an official trip to the United States. Last week in Strasbourg, the report was a key debate of the plenary session, and in the meantime, as rapporteur, I worked on the plenary amendments to adapt the text to the new circumstances over the summer. Here I am thinking first of all of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the AUKUS agreement. I am extremely pleased that I have managed to reach and maintain a political consensus among all pro-European political groups, so that as many as 550 colleagues supported the final text and all the proposed amendments. The rest of 155 colleagues were divided into those who were reticent about the text and a smaller part who were against. These are mostly members of the extreme political options, which I consider to some extent a confirmation of the value of the text itself. I think that a total of 113 adopted recommendations provide a quality basis on which we can build a more equal future for transatlantic relations.

America is going from Trump’s controversial policy to Biden’s new policy which is actually quite lost, wandering… While its economic and fiscal solutions follow the trail of left-wing policies, on the other hand it is marked by defeat over its withdrawal from Afghanistan. How do you currently see US foreign policy, but also domestic, where a major recession and crisis is predicted, which could spill over into the entire world?

When we talk about American foreign policy, it should be said that Obama's turn towards Asia, Trump's aggressive unilateralism and Biden's latest unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan and the conclusion of the AUKUS pact are just the most visible manifestations of a process with deep domestic structural incentives. Four stand out in particular. First, there is an intense focus of Americans on domestic priorities. President Biden is determined to push through his transformation agenda. However, that plan is fraught with uncertainty due to a very thin majority of Democrats in both houses of Congress ahead of next year’s midterm elections. In addition, Democrats are divided on which parts of the presidential agenda to prioritize. Second, the growing influence of the so-called ideas. "Restraint" in foreign policy. Namely, there is a clear perception of the growing concern of the American public about the price of American "leadership" in the world. Third, political polarization in the U.S. is even deepening making inter-party bargaining an almost impossible mission. The fourth element is the obsession with China. Balancing power with Beijing is becoming an organizational principle of American foreign policy to which everything else is subordinated. In short, the White House’s current agenda could be summed up as three C’s: the coronavirus, the climate, and China.

On the other hand, how do you personally see the role of the EU - around this "strategic autonomy" - what do you think it should mean? There are always questions about whether to form a European army and the like…

As I said, the EU should be able to pursue a more ambitious foreign policy primarily in line with its interests, values and goals, relying on a range of instruments, such as trade, development aid, energy, security of supply or digital technology.

The EU has ended the battle with COVID-19 disease quite well, it is recovering relatively well economically. What is your assessment?

The fact is that in the second quarter of this year, the GDP of the European Union jumped as much as 13.2 percent compared to the same period in 2020. Since the start of the pandemic, almost 798,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the EU. I think that it is still not the time to relax, especially in countries like Croatia, which are among the most exposed members of the Union in terms of both falling GDP and the number of deaths. Last year, the EU reacted relatively slowly to the pandemic, both in terms of the initial lack of solidarity in dealing with the pandemic and in terms of adopting economic aid measures. It’s been a couple of months, but it has shown Brussels’ sluggishness in making decisions that should be more expeditious. In the end, the recovery of the European center will be strong and will pull members from the periphery, such as Croatia, but I fear it will be lost for several more years in the convergence process.

But, on the other hand, the problem is the intention of some countries to withdraw from the now known European community. How do you see the events in Poland? In this context, how can Brexit be assessed today?

It has been shown that many Eastern European members without a stronger democratic and liberal tradition have fallen under the combined influence of local authoritarian political elites in the last decade, often with the support of the Union's geopolitical rivals who respond to instability in the bloc. On the other hand, Western European members, which are the main investors in Eastern European economies, are reluctant to apply the pressure mechanism as long as their investments are sufficiently secured. The progression of authoritarian populist regimes in the EU is a consequence of the political calculation of Brussels as well as the gaps and ambiguities in the existing rules. However, it is post-Brexit Britain that is the most convincing warning of what could happen to a member that decides to leave the Union. I don’t just mean the consequences but also the process of going out. As for Brexit, British GDP recovered 5.5 percent in the second quarter compared to the same quarter last year, while, I repeat, European GDP grew at a rate of 13.2 percent in the same period. Brexit’s key premise that labor migration should be restricted while insisting on free migration of goods and financial services has led to empty shelves and billing at gas stations.

Do you think that populism still prevails in Europe, or does the recovery of the Social Democrats and the left give little hope for the return of "serious politics"?

If we look at the political map of the EU, populists rule in most of the "new" members, while in the west and north, with the exception of Italy, we have liberal and left-wing parties. The formation of the German government, for which the mandate is definitely held by the SPD's Scholz, will be a clear signal in which direction the European ship will tilt. The Greens are imposing themselves on the SPD as a natural partner in this situation, thanks to their result, and their long-term work on promoting the agenda of new left-wing policies has paid off. The SPD and the rest of the older European Social Democratic parties are slowly but surely filling that gap in knowledge and shaping communication with new left-wing voters. Realistically, the challenges of the 21st century can only be solved by the more sensitive left while most other political options lead faster or slower to perpetuating geopolitical conflicts, turning their heads away from climate change and growing differences between the richest and others.

You have been in Brussels for a relatively long time, how do you see the position of Croatia from that perspective? Prime Minister Plenković likes to brag about his successes in communicating with the European Commission. What is your assessment, does Croatia on average get more benefits than other countries, or is it just the PR of our Prime Minister? Maybe it’s just proof that we’re weaker and poorer than the others so we need extra help? Also, what is your assessment, will Croatia manage to absorb the money available to it at all?

Croatia certainly has its place in the European Union, but it is already a bit tedious to repeat that due to insufficiently long service we do not meet the potential that membership brings us. If we connect the most recent events with a historical perspective, Croatia received the relatively largest amount from the Recovery and Resilience Fund. But this is primarily due to the fact that we are the second least developed member of the Union, with one of the slowest economies and with little potential for transformation. Such an assessment is also stated in the reports of the European Commission. If the HDZ has spent almost 24 years in power since 1990, should we thank them for the fact that Croatia has remained so underdeveloped that it has acquired the right to so much money from the Recovery and Resilience Fund?

HDZ and the Government of the Republic of Croatia are doing very well in all polls, while the opposition is rapidly dissipating and falling apart. How do you see this trend? Can there be consolidation of the left, but also of the right, and why is it needed, if so?

This could, however, only be a current assessment based on the latest opinion polls. However, looking at the past six months, left-wing parties are growing, while the HDZ holds a stable position. I would not waste words on the Croatian right because every action for more than a few months declassifies it for various internal and external reasons. Looking at the left, it is certain that a takeover of power, which is the reason for political action, will require an agreement on joint strategies that could consolidate leadership and the situation on the ground by the next election cycle as they are able to conduct effective and clear campaigns. There is no doubt that Croatia deserves a long break from the HDZ.

You were also a candidate for the presidency of the SDP and you are a doyen in the party, how do you see today's events? You said somewhere that you would not like it to happen that when you come from Brussels you no longer have a party to return to, which I consider a critical comment. But that has already happened de facto. The SDP is already divided, at least in Parliament.

It seems to me that the SDP has caught up at one point with many chronic problems that weren’t known before and could not be solved earlier. Experience shows that a serious political party can find itself in a marginal position due to significantly changed social circumstances to which it did not adapt in time or due to a series of internal conflicts resembling a civil war which, as we know, is the most devastating of all conflicts. In the European context, the name for such destruction - pasokization - has even been coined after the unfortunate fate of a former large national party in Greece. However, the SDP does not have to experience such a fate because I believe that not all options for its recovery have been exhausted.

Not an unimportant question: who is to blame for this?

It is also not unimportant in answering that question to avoid an ad hoc involvement in a conflict that has already exhausted my party so much.

In your opinion, what is the future of social democracy in Croatia? Are you thinking of getting involved more actively, and in which wing of the SDP?

The future of social democracy in Croatia depends on the political persuasiveness of those options that will incorporate its values into its political offer. Faced with corruption compromised by Croatia's main political rival - the HDZ - the Social Democrats must be very careful not to adopt toxic patterns of behavior from those it wants to defeat politically. Unfortunately, lately we have often seen examples of abuse of public office in our ranks that we have regularly condemned when appearing elsewhere. As far as I am concerned, the SDP has been the framework of my political activity for thirty years and it will remain so.

What are the issues that the SDP actually failed to respond to, that it managed to lead to this situation? What to change, where have policies and attitudes gone? Has social democracy exhausted itself as an idea?

I don’t think social democracy is depleted as an idea, although there have been commentators who have argued that because of radically changed patterns of living, social dynamics, and technological revolutions, social democracy cannot survive the 20th century. However, it will be in circulation as long as there is a need to politically articulate support for those who are in any way deprived in society. Of course, this help goes beyond mere charity, because the role of social democracy is also transformative. For example, the current pandemic has highlighted the need for solidarity and the definition of public policies in health care, but also more broadly based on solidarity between the healthy and the sick, but also the rich and the poor. Furthermore, whole new generations of precarious and platform workers are seeking their political representation. Climate change is looking for new answers for sustainable development. So there is a lot of room in which the Social Democrats can and should redefine their policies. In this sense, the problem of the SDP is not only whether and to what extent it failed to notice key social problems, but the real question is how proactive it was in offering solutions. If you are mechanically and completely predictable on the modern political scene, then you are also unconvincing. Social democracy succeeded when it addressed an authentic political offer, when it managed to correct the deficits of the system in favor of those labor-dependent groups that have no real power other than the right to vote and the desire for change.

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