Interview by Axel Krause
Many Washingtonian commuters, bikers, joggers and strollers coming down Massachusetts Avenue may not realize that the elegant stone building at 1779 is the headquarters of one of the world’s highest-ranking think tanks – the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, founded in 1910 by the wealthy altruist mogul Andrew Carnegie.
Fewer yet may know that one of its most important affiliates is widely regarded as an essential go-to source for European policy located in a similarly prominent neighborhood of Brussels – Carnegie Europe. We recently dropped by for an interview with its director.
Tomas Valasek, is a Slovak with degrees from George Washington and Georgia universities and for nearly four years his country’s ambassador to NATO; he has focused much of his research on security and defense, trans-Atlantic relations and Eastern Europe. Earlier, he was president of the Central European Policy Institute of Bratislava and director of foreign policy and defense at the influential Centre for European Reform in London.
A highly-skilled biker and fast-talker, with deep knowledge and experience with the former Communist nations of Eastern Europe, his comments on their current, complex, differing existential situation – in some ways unchanged since the Berlin Wall came down – sheds light on the ongoing crisis of leadership and integration within the European Union.
Axel Krause: What is the main focus of Carnegie Europe since you took over?
Tomáš Valášek: Being a European window on the bigger, global Carnegie universe, now with offices in Moscow, Peking, Beirut, New Delhi, and, of course, Washington, Brussels and most recently, Palo Alto, bringing here a lot of Carnegie research that interest European policymakers.
Krause: How much time do you spend on European issues per se?
Valášek: About half. The research and publishing focus this year has been on European Union’s democratic deficits, on Iran, and Turkey, and other projects are coming up.
Krause: The New York Times last week published a piece concluding that ‘though Germany is reunited, the Berlin Wall is still there – in the minds, actions and lives of East Germans, quoting the divided city’s last mayor as declaring that Chancellor Angela Merkel is still regarded by many there as a traitor. So is a multi-dimensional wall still there in Germany and in the countries of Eastern, former Communist Europe and even in Austria?
Valášek: It’s still there. Absolutely, the mental wall. I follow the Central European countries you mention (Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic) closely…and so what is its basis? More than anything else, it’s economics, the pocketbooks. When you have low salaries, often ony one- third of those in Germany, and that most of the profits accrue to Western-owned companies in sectors like automaking and steel; corporations, owners in Germany, France, Italy, the question raised is: hey, wait a minute; aren’t we being taken for a ride here? Even if they would have been in worse shape without them. But it means being stuck with making stuff, not actually financing, designing stuff.
Krause: Understandable. But how do you explain the anti-democratic governmental crackdowns in Hungary for example and in Poland; attacking the media, opposition, so-called dissident leaders, the judiciary, women’s rights, notably abortion, etc.? And their political resistance to European integration?
Valášek: Economics is only one, major reason. There are two others – cultural, and historical. Let’s remember that even before the Cold War there was a tradition of the Western countries looking down on them, creating a sense of inferiority; a feeling of being lesser, versus better, and that attitude is still there. On both sides. A feeling in the West, for example, that Central Europeans still have a greater attraction for authoritarianism…liking stereotypes.
Krause: When it comes to sanctions against Russia, mainly over what they did in Crimea and the Ukraine, what is your reaction to a feeling in many Western circles that the basic orientation we have been discussing is also tied to a certain affinity with the ex-Soviet Union and Putin in particular?
Valášek: You must understand there are huge differences among EU countries (on this issue)…and with no correlation with geography, or having, or not, been part of the Soviet bloc. Poland and, of course, the Baltic states and Romania are almost intrinsically opposed to any rapprochement with Russia. On the other hand you have Bulgaria, Slovenia, Hungary sympathizing for the Russian cause. By the same token, older, southern-tier countries like Cyprus and Italy are closer to a softer line on Russia with even Germany’s Merkel being for the softer line. And so it is clear that there is no agreement within the EU. It is a structural issue.
Krause: What in your view has happened to Hungary that I recall in the mid-1970’s was a Soviet-led testing ground for capitalist methods?
Valášek: First, understand that each (eastern) country is different. All with different traditions. Communism with different faces. They were not stupid. And it’s important to recall that like Czechoslavakia before the Communists came in, some had democratic-like institutions.
Krause: But would you not agree that Hungary, and its(conservative, or right-wing-populist-tilting) allies, in the EU blocks the others from moving forward in many areas?
Valášek: I would agree with the notion that there is this like-minded group within the EU, but membership is not on an East-West basis. You will find Hungary lined up with southern countries like Cyprus, Greece, Italy…just as, on the other side, you will find Britain lined up with Germany. The problem remains – there is no consensus on dealing with Russia; nor signs, either, of softening the line on Russia.
Krause: What is your assessment of right-wing, populist, anti-EU movements throughout Europe even extending from Poland into Italy, a founding EU and NATO member, facing a key parliamentary election March 4?
Valášek: There is a general, widespread, pan-European trend of opposition to elites running things, not knowing what they’re doing, reflecting the idea that markets will take care of things…but takes into account the (tarnished) Goldman-Sachs image, extending throughout the EU and beyond. They extend from the anti-Wall Street movement in New York to the right-wing, Marine Le Pen movement in France. What’s happening in Central Europe is a search for a third way, (beyond capitalism and socialism) a post-post Communist identity. A uniquely Central European approach, extending to its historical roots; Poland, for example, and its heavily Christian (Roman Catholic) roots. Some (like the New York Times, claiming recently that Poland was digging itself deeper into a “dark hole”) losing all sense of proportion, overstating the case for liberalization of abortion, for example.
Krause: But cracking down on the media and the Polish and Hungarian judicial systems?
Valášek: Democracies don’t do this. But let’s not get too hysterical about the governments there, and recognize their reality which I respect. Yet I certainly disagree over their opposition to abortion, and I do have a huge problem with their (repressive) approach to the media.
Krause: What is your assessment of the emergence of a future multiple-speed Europe?
Valášek: There are still differences over policy between France and Germany.(frequently presented as the locomotive driving the idea of a relatively small, core EU) They talk of future “European” not “EU” defense. But do those advocating a multi-speed Europe really know what they want specifically? Or is it that they just prefer a smaller Europe of those who dress in dark suits, trust each other and speak French….this is what you hear in (some diplomatic quarters in) France. As some would argue, multi-speed Europe means a divided Europe…of policy islands like the existing Schengen (regarding borders) and the Eurozone.(regarding a common currency.) which are different from a core (single, aligned) EU.
Krause: We in the Anglo-American Press Association of Paris recently had a meeting with President Emmanuel Macron’s spokesman, asking him what were the goals for Macron’s meetings with President Trump during his state visit to Washington planned for April. Would you agree that he might succeed, on behalf of the EU, in changing Trump’s opposition to the Paris climate and Iran nuclear accords and to multilateralism in general, issues on which they disagree?
Valášek: First you must understand that there are a group of countries that have never cared much about US involvement in things they really care about, like security. Mainly the southern countries, including France who often do not feel they really need the US for some kinds of actions, and (from the US perspective) far from the Russian border. Who feel that, for example, they can easily control, handle the seas around us. And some have a choice of not working with the Americans and, frankly, are delighted, for political reasons, that Trump comes across as being such a buffoon.
Krause: So how will the trans-Atlantic relationship play out?
Valášek: Some will continue pushing for greater cooperation, others less so. The most important countries, like Germany, will continue believing and working for an indispensible relationship. But it is tough making a convincing case for the alliance, given Trump’s attitudes on Article 5 (of the NATO accords regarding mutual defense) amid his wide unpopularity in Europe. With regard to Trump, (for Europe) there seems to be only one solution – wait, ride it out.