In a scene that could have featured in a Cold War spy movie, the interception, late last month by a Belarusian MiG-29 fighter, of a Ryanair flight and its forced landing in Minsk to arrest dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, not only sent shockwaves across Europe, but also brought into sharp focus the security challenges the European Union faces on its Eastern borders. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was heavily criticised by both European leaders and US President Joe Biden for ordering the hijacking of the passenger plane, which was on an internal EU flight.
However, the Chair of Parliament’s Sub-Committee on Security and Defence (SEDE), Nathalie Loiseau, warns, “Authoritarian regimes want to weaken liberal democracies and take advantage of our weaknesses and divisions. Terrorism and hybrid threats know no boundaries and strike directly into our territories and our interests.”
The former French diplomat points out that even before the current pandemic, the EU was surrounded by crises, including in Syria, Libya, Ukraine and the Sahel region of Africa, all of which have direct consequences on Europe. According to Loiseau, instability on the international stage was further exacerbated by the Trump Presidency, as the US was no longer exercising its global leadership, and the EU was considered “the enemy”. Another cause of serious concern is Turkey’s increasing military involvement in Libya, Syria, East Mediterranean, and the South Caucasus. Further afield, the growing military build-up of China is also a matter of security concern for the SEDE chair.
“Authoritarian regimes want to weaken liberal democracies and take advantage of our weaknesses and divisions”
As Europe heads into the second year of dealing with the Coronavirus, according to Loiseau, the pandemic has highlighted strategic “dependencies”, brought about by the push for globalisation, which has now made Europe vulnerable in key areas. “The need for strategic autonomy, which had until last year been used in highlighting security and defence issues, became evident when we realised the extent to which we were relying on third countries for essential medicine or medical equipment,” says Loiseau.
The perception of China in particular changed during the pandemic. From being a reliable trading partner of vital goods, to a regime that did its utmost to silence whistle blowers when the outbreak began in Wuhan, demonstrating a deliberate absence of transparency on the source of the virus. She explains, “Arrogant public diplomacy, disinformation efforts and sanctions against MEPs; the Chinese authorities did nothing to win hearts in Europe and pushed a climate of lack of trust. Today, discussions about 5G in Europe are very different to what they were 18 months ago.”
Given the current security challenges Europe is facing, the French deputy welcomes the progress the EU is making in improving defence cooperation and capabilities. Identifying three key policies, she says, “Since 2016, a number of new instruments have been created, which could be real game changers: with the Permanent Structured Cooperation, Member States decide on a voluntary basis to cooperate together on projects and commit themselves to provide the necessary means to improve their capabilities.
Meanwhile, the European Defence Fund (EDF), for the first time, is receiving money directly from the EU budget to support R&D projects to develop new military capabilities. As regards our missions and operations abroad, they need to be properly financed and accompanied by a capacity to provide equipment to the armies we are training. This is the purpose of the European Peace Facility which should be implemented in the next few weeks.”
“Arrogant public diplomacy, disinformation efforts and sanctions against MEPs; the Chinese authorities did nothing to win hearts in Europe and pushed a climate of lack of trust. Today, discussions about 5G in Europe are very different to what they were 18 months ago”
However, Loiseau admits the amount of funds dedicated to the EDF in the current EU Multiannual Financial Framework budget was smaller than expected. Though she stresses that it was a promising start and an incentive to stop the fragmentation of the European defence sector. As the EU currently focuses on the security challenges posed on its Eastern borders by Russia, Loiseau is keen to also raise awareness about the need for Europe to tackle security issues in the Sahel region of Africa.
She says, “Jihadist terrorists, drugs, arms and human trafficking all take advantage of fragile states in the area and have direct consequences for Europe. Violence and armed conflicts are widespread in the region and no single country can solve the issues it faces alone. Therefore, the EU must increase its efforts.” Her own country, France, currently has around 5,000 troops based in the region fighting Islamic groups, while the EU is running three Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions.
Loiseau acknowledges that bringing long-term stability to the region cannot be achieved through military means alone. She says, “An integrated approach mixing support for better governance, development assistance and military cooperation is indispensable, but we have to also improve our capacity. We will hardly be able to continue our efforts if there is no steady progress regarding political inclusiveness, democracy, good governance and respect for human rights.”
“The British government seems reluctant to face the consequences of the Brexit decision, which it was eager to promote. Tensions in Northern Ireland are high and the UK authorities, instead of looking for pragmatic solutions, blame the EU”
As vice-chair of Parliament’s delegation to Nato, she sees the recent election victory of Joe Biden as US President, as a “welcome relief after the very bumpy Trump presidency”. She welcomes recent statements from President Biden and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken valuing the role of the EU on the international stage and calling for stronger European involvement in Nato.
Pointing out Biden’s push to revive the Irani nuclear deal and the resumption of EU-US security dialogue, she says, “We need to discuss how to deal with Russia, China and new threats. This provides a golden opportunity to deal with previous misunderstandings about the concept of European strategic autonomy.” However, despite close relations and even if the US remains Europe’s strongest ally, Loiseau accepts differences will continue to exist, due to different priorities. She warns, “We must stop complaining about what the US does or doesn’t do, when we should be ready to do our part in promoting peace and the rules-based international order.”
During the pandemic, the EU has faced an unprecedented surge in disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks. As a member of Parliament’s Special Committee on Disinformation, Loiseau says, “For Europe, this is becoming the moment of truth. We cannot ignore that our democracies are targeted by organised malicious attacks, which aim at dividing and weakening us. Now is the time when we must improve our common response. This requires cooperation between public and private, civilian, and military stakeholders.” Loiseau also wants to see better cooperation between public authorities and social media platforms to tackle the growing problems of disinformation and cybersecurity. She explains, “Self-regulation isn’t enough; we must bring transparency to what takes place online. We must also significantly raise the costs for perpetrators of hybrid attacks, which so far have been much too often a sort of low-cost warfare.”
When she is not tackling security and defence challenges, the former French Europe Minister says she monitors the twists and turns of Brexit, describing the current political situation between the EU and the UK as “disturbing and concerning.” She says, “The British government seems reluctant to face the consequences of the Brexit decision, which it was eager to promote. Tensions in Northern Ireland are high and the UK authorities, instead of looking for pragmatic solutions, blames the EU and the agreement they negotiated and signed.” Following the recent tensions in the fishing waters around the Island of Jersey and the threat of Royal Navy ships being sent to deal with French trawler boats, Loiseau says, “On fisheries, the UK isn’t delivering what it committed to, creating undue obstacles for European fishermen who have been fishing in the same waters for centuries. This cannot go on like that without a proportionate reaction of the EU, which is foreseen in the provisions of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).”
Despite growing tensions and the war of words between Westminster and Brussels, Loiseau is keen to stress, “I deeply regret that the British democracy, which I have always admired, is currently distancing itself from keeping its word and respecting international law.” She adds, “I also regret that despite common threats, the British government chose not to include foreign policy, security and defence in the scope of the TCA. I sincerely hope that this mistake will be fixed in the future. We may have differences with the UK, but London is still in Europe and the world hasn’t become a safer place.”
Despite Brexit, Loiseau does not expect to see any more countries leaving the EU nor does she consider Euroscepticism as a growing threat across Europe. Instead she comments, “I see populist leaders who try to blame Europe and follow narratives which can only serve Europe’s rivals, but I don’t see them being successful. In Italy and in France, far-right activists don’t dare anymore to praise Brexit and to ask for the end of the EU or the Euro.” She attributes this to the COVID-19 crisis, which, despite creating numerous challenges, also clearly demonstrated that an EU-wide response to tackling the pandemic was the only effective way forwards.
But she did accept things needed to improve within the EU saying, “a better Europe is both possible and necessary.” Though the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe has no written agenda, Loiseau says, “It’s a golden opportunity to listen to the European citizens: what are their aspirations, their fears, their criticisms and their proposals?”
“I see populist leaders who try to blame Europe and follow narratives which can only serve Europe’s rivals, but I don’t see them being successful”
Looking ahead to next year’s French presidential election, when asked about Marine Le Pen and the threat she poses to President Macron, Loiseau admits the near collapse of centre-right and centre-left parties in France is extremely “worrisome”. She explains, “Instead of trying to reinvent themselves, they bash the government daily and forget that the real danger comes from the far-right. I entered politics to fight against Marine Le Pen and her party, because I felt they would draw my country into decline and turmoil if they came to power.”
Loiseau was particularly critical of the far-right leader, saying, “Who are Le Pen’s models abroad? Russian President Vladimir Putin and former US President Donald Trump. This is not the kind of leader I want for my country.” She firmly backed Emmanuel Macron and his alliance of parties, saying, “He strongly believes in the potential of France to grow, to innovate and to carry a vision, enshrined in the French motto ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’. Encouraging private initiatives while providing at the same time public policies which support the most vulnerable people and correct inequalities, defending French values while welcoming foreign talents, being passionately proud of the French identity and being relentlessly European.” She concluded by saying, “The EU doesn’t subtract anything from our sovereignty; it only adds to it. This is what defines the vision of Emmanuel Macron, which I clearly support.”