Germany and the V4 states cannot afford not to cooperate closely

Donald Trump’s victory reminds us that it is high time for Europe to take responsibility for its own defence

Jörg Winterbauer
16 December 2016

Visegrad Insight in partnership with Eastern Europe Network of Fellows of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation is pleased to present articles by Jörg WinterbauerZsuzsanna Végh and Vít Dostál created on the occasion of ‘Germany and the Visegrad States: Potentials and Challenges of Cooperation’ conference in Warsaw, 25-27 November 2016. 

The victory of Donald Trump in the US elections has made it abundantly clear that it is not enough for Europe to let the US take the main responsibility for the defence of the “old continent“.

We don’t know where the US under Trump is going as of now there are only uncertain signs. But what we know for sure is that the Americans are less and less willing to pay for the defence of Europe — either with Trump or with other future presidents.

During his campaign in spring, Mr. Trump, who obviously has an extraordinary instinct for discerning the will of the average American, called Nato “obsolete“. This summer he stated that allies that don’t “reasonably reimburse” the U.S. for the costs of defence should expect to be told, “Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.” Later Trump spoke more positively about Nato — still, Trump stands for a policy of isolation.

Besides, for some countries in Eastern Europe, Trump’s declared intent to improve relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin is considered a cause for concern.

Politicians of the European Union have sensed this contemporary shift in the zeitgeist and have been speaking more about a common defence strategy since Donald Trump’s election. The subject has also been of considerable interest in the V4 states: in August, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán even made a call for the creation of a European Army, a viewpoint shared by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the President of the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS). Europe should become a “superpower“, Kaczynski stated in June, soon after Brexit.[1]

In 2014, the GDP of the European Union was about 14 trillion dollars, which was more than the GDP of the USA. As an economic superpower, Europe has a great deal of potential to defend itself, but still it depends on the United States. The main problem is a lack of unity and cooperation, which would be necessary to make quick, unified decisions.

The dependence on the US might not only have dangerous security consequences—regarding the uncertainty of how long the United States is going to be willing to defend us—but there are also unwanted ideological ramifications. With the USA potentially leaning in an antidemocratic, racist direction, it will be important for Europe to be more independent and stand up for our values.

We don’t even have to think of distant, unlikely scenarios. In the recent past, there have been numerous examples where dependency on the US has led to political mistakes and missteps for many countries of Europe; all because they obediently followed the leadership from across the Atlantic.

The Polish left wing SLD government, for instance, accepted CIA torture sites in Poland.[2]

So too, all four of the Visegrad states participated in the Iraq War. The war later turned out to be a blunder, consequences of which we are still having to deal with today. The so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS) is a product of the destabilization of the region. As a potent reminder, one of the major reasons given for the Iraq War, the weapons of mass destruction, were never found.

The USA has already moved partly away from the values they historically have stood for. With Donald Trump supporting torture (“I like waterboarding a lot, but I don’t think it is tough enough “), things are not likely to improve from a liberal perspective.

Please don’t get me wrong: despite all the problems and mistakes made in the last years, close ties to the US has been extremely beneficial for Europe since the end of World War II, especially for Germany, and continued good relations with the US are still extremely valuable. The EU should not do anything to deteriorate the relations with the USA under Donald Trump. Also, a total independence of the US and their nuclear weapons is not realistically within reach.

Still, Europe needs to be prepared for the moment where it might be left to fend for itself, starting to decrease its dependence now seems like a prudent course of action. Likewise, we have to keep in mind that the interest of the United States is not always necessarily the interest of Europe.

Within a couple of years, the world has come to a state most of us could not have imagined ten or even five years ago: there is a war going on right next to the border of the EU, Putin’s Russia seems more and more aggressive, the migration crisis has created new challenges for Europe, and the USA are not as predictable as we were used to. In this situation, Germany and the Visegrad states cannot afford not to cooperate closely

The benefits of the freedom that we still have in Germany as well as in Poland and the other V4-states to say what we think and to live the way we want to, are still huge in comparison to many other countries, and we need to protect these values.

Sure, things are not perfect. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel broke European agreements, allowing refugees to come to Germany nearly uncontrolled. With this behaviour, she gave many Europeans a feeling of insecurity which in turn garnered support for European far-right parties and even contributed to Brexit.

In Poland, the government does not want to accept the separation of powers and fights constantly with the constitutional court. Moreover, public television has become little more than a propaganda channel for the ruling PiS. In Hungary, similar authoritarian tendencies can be observed.

Nonetheless, the common values that the people of the five countries believe in are stronger than the problems that divide them.To stay with the example of Poland: despite numerous unnecessary problems the PiS-government created, certain borders have not been crossed and most likely won’t be crossed. Critical journalists and politicians of the opposition are not being thrown into prison and the private media is still working freely. Poland is not like Turkey — even though several liberal Polish commentators like to make the comparison.

Still, mutual trust has been damaged by numerous actions from both sides. Now it is high time to rebuild this trust, which is the base for a common security strategy, as there is probably no field in which trust plays a role as important as in cooperation for security.

The V4 states, being situated at the border of the European Union (except for the Czech Republic), should have an especially strong interest to have good relations with their Western European partners, particularly the economically and politically most influential country: Germany.

Also important to mention is that the V4, despite the efforts to appear as a unit, have very different policies. A common position in the migration crisis is not enough. Whereas Hungary, Czech Republic and also Slovakia are trying to have close relations to Russia, Poland very clearly condemns the Russian aggression in Ukraine and supports sanctions against the Russian Federation. For example, Hungary plans to let the Russian state owned Rosatom build two new reactors for its nuclear power plant Paks, and heightens, in this way, its enormous dependence on Russian energy deliveries, as the nuclear fuel rods will have to be delivered by Russia.

In order to cooperate closely and fruitfully, mutual trust between the V4 countries and Germany should be restored by certain specific measures: Germany should increase consideration for the concerns of its eastern partners. A good example for how these have been ignored is the project of Nord Stream 2, which Poland and Slovakia strongly opposed. With regards to the migration crisis, more consultation with the Visegrad states should have been necessary.

Admittingly, a large contributor to mutual distrust and anger was made by the Polish government when they cancelled the 3 billion helicopter deal with Airbus at the last minute. The defence ministers of Germany and France, Ursula von der Leyen and Jean-Yves Le Drian respectively, protested against that decision with an angry letter, stating that it “questions our propositions of a partnership, not only for our three states, but also for the defence of Europe.“

Jörg Winterbauer is Die Welt Correspondent in Warsaw

The publication of the article was possible thanks to financial support from the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation.

This article was published in Visegrad Insight 1 (10) 2017