He is celebrating 33 years in the service of European Union institutions. The Greek-born Margaritis Schinas, 60, explains that the European Commission has managed to unite in a single portfolio, which he heads, the “promotion of the European way of life.” This, he says, is a combination of the “Europe that protects,” like the one outlined by French President Emmanuel Macron in his famous speech at the Sorbonne about security, health and migration management, and the “Europe of opportunities” based on mobility, values, education, youth and culture.
With new global challenges coming from China, Russia’s imperialist war in Ukraine, an incipient trade dispute with the United States, and the never-ending immigration debate – which repeatedly brings up the issue of whether Europe is headed to become an armored fortress with walls paid for with EU money – Schinas points out that despite the increase in global and hybrid threats to the European lifestyle, the EU’s democratic model will end up spreading despite autocracies’ efforts to the contrary.
Question. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy keeps saying that Ukrainians are fighting for the European way of life, for European values. Is that a reality or a symbol?
Answer. There is one objective thing: until the 1970s, what we now call European democracy had to do with just a few countries. With the fall of the dictatorships in the south, it expanded, and with the fall of the Berlin Wall this model has been dominant in Europe for centuries, from the Baltic to Bucharest. And from there it continues to expand. And this expansion of the democratic model of the society that we represent is a great advantage, a historic victory. But those on the other side see it as a real threat, because it means the end of authoritarianism. In Russia, in Turkey, in Tehran. They see it as a threat perhaps more dangerous than weapons.
Q. The autocracies are reacting, but where is the EU’s security focus?
A. For the first time in many decades, the Union has become more of a provider of security than a consumer. We are doing unprecedented things by helping Ukraine. We no longer ask others to give us cybersecurity, we are building it ourselves. Same with the fight against organized crime, or the protection of critical infrastructure. But now we must move on to the next stage: from a Europe that protects to a Europe of defense that protects. One where we do not spend weeks and months arguing whether or not to send tanks; and where the money we have to organize our defense industry does not become a mere exercise in research, but actually leads to European tank, helicopter, ammunition and weapons systems.
Q. Isn’t the EU too dependent on the United States for security and defense?
A. More so on defense, less on security. In terms of internal security we have very good industrial and operational capacities, structures and cooperation legislation. And we speak with the US as partners, not by asking but by working together in defense. And NATO also helps offset this dependency.
We Europeans have left the days of innocence behind us
Q. One of the EU’s security problems has been its reliance on Russia. Isn’t that now being replaced by a dependence on the US, which recently introduced the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which the EU considers unfair competition?
A. Little by little, Europe is occupying this strategic place in the world as an anchor of stability and reason. We must preserve our capacity, our threshold, with regard to the world stage. And this requires maintaining our strategic alliances with the West, with the United States. But with the United States, on a basis of friendship, of discussing everything and avoiding gray areas that could harm us, such as the issue of the IRA.
Q. And what about China?
A. China is a strategic competitor, a world force that must be dealt with at all levels, at the level of competition or politics and at the level of economic cooperation, being clear about the fact that this cooperation must never touch our strategic interests or our strategic industries. And Russia, which with the illegal war in Ukraine has destroyed the few bridges that were there, is forcing us to start, but this will happen only when the war is over.
Q. And does that mean that the future of EU relations with Russia requires that Russian President Vladimir Putin be no longer there?
A. The future of EU relations with Russia depends on the end of the war and an outcome that rewards the rights of the victim, not the illegality of the aggressor. I hope that one day soon Russia will share the European way of life. A democratic Russia would be the ultimate guarantee of security in Europe.
Q. Would it be convenient to consider an exception to the EU’s spending rules, so that weapons purchases do not count in the deficit?
A. The review of the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact is currently being debated at Ecofin [which brings together finance ministers from member states]. That is where it has to be dealt with. But seeing the consequences of all these threats that we have suffered, of the war pandemic, has made us more focused on how to react. We Europeans have left the days of innocence behind us. We are highly exposed to global, symmetric and hybrid threats. We have experienced them, for example, with the instrumentalization of immigration.
Q. This will lead to a review of the European rules on migration. Can the post-World War II rules, designed for a peaceful continent, still be applied?
A. In the instrumentalization of immigration and other hybrid threats, we have reacted with clarity, speed and accuracy, both on the Turkish border in February 2020 and in the Belarus crisis of 2021. We have done what was necessary to protect the borders, to speak with countries of origin and transit that, in one way or another, contributed to the instrumentalization, and we threatened the airlines with sanctions. My ambition is for Europe to be just as successful, not only as a firefighter, but also as an architect. It is necessary to build a global solution, a European framework for migration anchored in European law that is applicable to all and that allows us to work in an orderly manner and not rush from one crisis to the next.
Q. What would be the key?
A. The new immigration and asylum pact has been on the table since 2020. I like to present it as a three-story house. The first is relations with third countries: we will never be able to manage immigration internally if we do not work with our neighbors, the countries of origin and transit, on more investment and opportunities, but also on more cooperation. The second is border management: it is unfair to entrust this responsibility only to countries that are geographically on the EU’s external border. And the third floor is solidarity, where each member state assumes part of the pressure on Europe.
Q. The pact hasn't taken off yet.
A. We have an agreement on 60% of this package. I hope that during the Spanish presidency [Spain’s six-month term begins in July] we will have the final agreement. I do not want Europeans to vote in the EU elections in May 2024 without this agreement, it would be a gift to the populists. We cannot allow them to say that Europe could not solve a problem as big as war.
Q. The debate about fences and walls has been revived. Will the time come when these will be paid for with European money?
A. I prefer to stick to my proposal of the house with three floors. It so happens that many want to take the elevator and go to the floor that interests them the most. Those who want walls say that this would not require solidarity or agreements with third countries. Those who want solidarity argue that, given that, the rest does not matter. The key is to do it all at once.
Q. Many things have been attempted and so far they have not succeeded in getting countries of origin to cooperate more with return policies.
A. Yes, but it’s not just a problem for those countries, it’s also our problem, because there are still many obstacles within the member states that hinder these returns. And it is necessary to give third countries not only obligations, but also incentives. Europe has to mobilize everything it has – trade preferences, Erasmus [student exchanges], investments to make their lives better – not for the elites, but for the people who will be able to have a better life in their own country instead of putting themselves in the hands of the traffickers. And in return we can ask them for more cooperation, to strengthen their asylum procedures, their borders.
Q. Zelenskiy said it is his intention to open accession negotiations this year. Is this ambition realistic?
A. Ukraine has earned its right to become a member of the European Union and it will be. After the war is over you cannot tell the Ukrainians, who are the only country where people have died to have European flags and who are fighting like heroes, ‘sorry, now we have to talk about tomatoes and bananas.’ We have seven million Ukrainians who are already part of our lives, our hospitals, our schools. Thus, Ukraine is already a member in some areas such as health, education and housing. I don’t know if it will be this year or next year, there is no specific calendar, but there is a moral commitment that makes this process irreversible.
Q. But whether it is delayed or accelerated, it may lead to frustration in member states and in Ukraine.
A. Without a doubt. We have seen it in the past, delays create disappointment. But Europe has gone from representing 10% or 12% of the world population in the last century, to a projected 5% in 2050. It will be good for Europe to have a partner like Ukraine, a country of 40 million qualified people who will have already benefited our labor market. This is also an advantage for us, not only for them.
Q. Do you think that corruption is being used, or can be used, as a hybrid weapon?
A. Very likely. Both in its traditional aspect and in one involving many acts of trying to influence others. We are fighting it in all aspects. But following the scandal in the European Parliament [involving alleged bribes of EU lawmakers by Morocco and Qatar], which has affected the EU as a whole, the European Parliament has what I would call a historic opportunity to clarify its procedures and show the public an image of a spotless house of European democracy.
Q. There has even been information that has put you in the spotlight because of the Qatar scandal.
A. Yes, because [one of my responsibilities is] sport and I represented the European Commission at the opening of the World Cup, but I did it as a representative of the Commission, always defending the Commission’s positions and according to the Commission’s rules. I did not do it on a personal level.
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