Anders Fogh Rasmussen: We achieved our vision of creating a new Europe

“Brussels should concentrate on the problems facing Europe rather than criticising Poland” – is the opinion of former NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

“Rzeczpospolita”: In 2002, when you were the Danish prime minister and Denmark held the EU presidency, the decision was taken to greatly expand the community by admitting ten additional countries including Poland. Now Poland is being sharply criticised by some countries of the old Union. Was this great enlargement and Poland's admission a mistake?

Anders Fogh Rasmussen: On the contrary. That was the right decision at the right time. Thanks to the enlargement of not only the European Union, but also the earlier enlargement of NATO to include Poland among others, we achieved our vision of creating a new Europe – a complete, free and peaceful one. If we had not done so, perhaps that would never have succeeded. If we had waited until now, owing to Russia, opposition to enlargement might have prevailed.

Is that because Vladimir Putin was not sufficiently strong?

I would say instead that at that time he was still pro-Western. He changed his mind in 2005 following the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

Officially, Moscow is not opposed to the enlargement of the EU, only of NATO.

Frankly speaking, at present Putin is simply anti-Western. It is true that previously he had concentrated on NATO, an artificial foe, because it had never posed an actual threat to Russia. Neither had any member state ever considered attacking Russia. But he needed an artificial enemy to bolster his position domestically.

What comes to your mind when you hear that Poland and Hungary were insufficiently mature in terms of European values to become EU members, but only now has that become apparent?

I do not buy into such arguments. First of all, from my own experience, I have found in the case of NATO that new member states rarely cause problems. Usually, new members actually facilitate their solution. In my day, the situation was much the same in the EU.

Secondly. I know what you have in mind. You are referring to the misgivings the European Commission has expressed over the national policies of Poland and Hungary. It is worth recalling their criticism of Austria in 2000, so that not only pertains to new members.  I believe the EU should approach criticism of internal policies with caution. Of course, all the countries should uphold democratic standards and the rule of law. However, the European Commission should primarily concentrate on the major problems facing Europe rather than criticising the situation in individual countries. Where is the borderline between non-interference in internal affairs and a concern for values?

Where is the boundary between the non-interference into internal affairs and the care of values?

Maintaining equilibrium is advisable, but the EU's point of departure should be major tasks. Of course, if some country does not observe the principles on which the EU was built, this is the reason to raise that issue. But in my view, history has shown that it is a fruitless effort.

So, you are not disenchanted with the EU's major enlargement, decided on in Copenhagen in December 2002.

I am very satisfied with it.

And you're not saying that just because we are conversing in Poland?

I say the same thing regardless of where I am. I am asked whether the enlargement did not provoke Russia, and I always reply the same way: no. In Poland and other countries there was a strong yearning to join NATO and later the EU. Every state has the inherent right to decide who it wants to cooperate with. It is not up to Putin to make such decisions.

That major enlargement was not that easy. Some were opposed to it. There were scenarios which called for first admitting three new countries but excluding Poland. Who was against a major enlargement and what arguments did they use?

I can say that Denmark was always in favour of including all applicants in a single throw. From a present-day point of view, one can see we were right. I recall that in the 1990s there were ideas not to include the three Baltic states in the enlargement's first phase. But ultimately, we decided to admit them all. There was an idea to divide the countries into leading states and those lagging behind. But in 1992, what have become known as the Copenhagen Criteria were accepted – criteria which countries applying for membership would have to fulfil. That was not the case with all the countries, but those that did not meet those criteria worked hard to comply. This accelerated the reform process and ultimately the criteria were met. We would never have abandoned those provisions, but ultimately, they were fulfilled. That goes to show how the prospect of membership activated the proper processes both as regards democracy as well as the economy.

Support for the EU's further eastward enlargement is quite poor. I have in mind Ukraine, whose president you serve as an adviser. Do you believe Ukraine in the EU is fiction?

That depends on Ukraine's ability to reform itself. I believe the proper approach is to say all countries, Ukraine included, have the right to decide whether to apply for membership. We cannot deprive anyone of that right. If some country, for instance Ukraine or Georgia, wants to become a member, we should say: fine, we are getting the process under way and begin negotiating chapter after chapter. At the end of it, a decision can be taken. We cannot rule out the EU membership of Ukraine or any other state a priori.

The EU Commissioner, formerly French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici, believes Ukraine's possible membership could be envisaged several decades from now.

But even he has not ruled out such a possibility, and that is the most important thing. The sooner Kiev carries out reforms, the sooner such a scenario will become more realistic. I have in mind corruption. They have already taken some essential steps, but a great deal more remains to be done.

Living standards in Ukraine are low, and the wages – the lowest in Europe. EU membership will possibly be a question for future generations. Do you tell President Poroshenko what needs to be done to spark hope amongst young Ukrainians?

In the first place, Ukraine has lost a lot of time by not carrying out necessary reforms. Towards the end of the Cold War, Poland and Ukraine were more or less at the same level. Now, Poland is economically four times stronger, I suppose. The Ukrainians have lost a lot of time, but over the past three years they have carried out more reforms than over the preceding quarter of a century. Let us take a look at the three Baltic states. During the Second World War, they were illegally annexed by the USSR and for over four decades constituted its integral part. If you had asked me in the 1960s whether the Baltic states would become independent and subsequently join the EU and NATO, I would have replied: I doubt it. That is now Ukraine's situation.

As NATO's former secretary general, are you asked in Ukraine about the prospect of alliance membership? Do you discuss that with Poroshenko?

That is also discussed. But I believe Kiev has concluded that at present, that is not the most urgent matter, that it should be set aside for the time being and not decided on yet. That is the right approach. I have no doubt that if one asked Ukrainians about it, a significant majority would be in favour of membership. But it is wise not to make a big issue of it at present and gradually carry out reforms to fulfil the conditions.

Will Poroshenko have enough time to think through these great issues? Perhaps he will deal only with minor ones, and his term in office will end.

The presidential election is due to take place in 2019. I have not spoken with Poroshenko as to whether he plans to stand for re-election, but I hope so. He would then have one more five-year term.

His chances are probably not too great, are they?

But what might the alternative be?

We do not know. The popularity of presiding politicians in Ukraine is not impressive.

Poroshenko has carried out many unpopular reforms. One cannot expect people to support that. But on election day, they must decide whether to bank on a president they know who has good relations with the West, or if they want to decide on a new experiment.

Do you believe Vladimir Putin will take yet another aggressive step, for instance to test the operability of NATO's Article 5 mandating the duty to defend an attacked member country? That was suggested by former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, currently the leader of the Russian opposition. In his view, such a test might be carried out in Estonia.

Since next year a presidential election is due to take place in Russia, I should not be surprised if Putin stepped up his nationalist rhetoric, possibly taking some military measures to bolster his domestic support. But I do not believe he would want to test Article 5. He knows if he did, there would be an immediate NATO response.

Are you sure? At NATO's mini-summit in Brussels, President Trump made no mention of Article 5, although he had been expected to.

I think he should have done. I am disappointed that he did not. However, my impression is that if the world or Europe were faced with a Russian attack on one of the NATO states, member countries, including the USA, would immediately respond. Otherwise, NATO would suffer a melt-down.

The reaction might not be swift enough. By the time the ambassadors of the member states assembled and made a decision and the troops arrived, it could well be too late.

Normally, that does take some time. But we have created rapid-reaction forces that can be deployed within hours, and there are also battalions along the eastern flank. If Russia wants to test things, it can do so, but that would lead to a confrontation also with the United States. Putin would lose that battle.

Maybe America will be so engrossed in Donald Trump's possible impeachment that it will have no time to concern itself with Article 5?

The president would make the decision with the backing of his security people. I have no doubt that that would occur immediately.

You became NATO chief a year after the war in Georgia. Don't you think most NATO states did not understand that Russia constituted a real threat in the region?

You are right. We underestimated Putin, and that included me. If we had known then what we know now, our position would have been stiffer. When I began serving in August 2009, I was involved in developing a strategic partnership with Russia. We were doing that a year after the attack on Georgia, because we had hoped that was only a passing episode and we would be able to include Russia in a partnership. It is worth recalling that at that time Dmitry Medvedev was the Russian president and seemed a bit more oriented to the West. At the 2010 NATO-Russia summit, we decided to develop a strategic partnership with Russia. We regarded Russia as a partner until February 2014, when it attacked Ukraine.

Did you appreciate what Russia was really like when it annexed Crimea?

Precisely. From the end of the Cold War until February 2014, we believed Russia to be a partner. And that was the reason we raised what we called a peace-time dividend by cutting back expenditure on armaments. Now we must increase defence spending, because Putin has created a completely new situation.

SOURCE: “Rzeczpospolita”





Denmark's prime minister in 2001–2009 and NATO secretary general in 2009–2014. After leaving politics, he set up the Rasmussen Global consulting firm. He advises President Poroshenko on foreign-policy matters.