RIGA - Europe must be ready to use all the leverage at its disposal to put pressure on countries like Hungary, which are moving away from European values and standards, Ian Bond, Director of Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Reform and former British Ambassador to Latvia, said in an interview with LETA during the Riga Conference.
Basically, the problem is that there are still too many political leaders in the West who are willing to use Russia's "help" to gain political power, said Bond, referring to Russia's ability to influence political processes in other countries in its own interests.
The ex-diplomat said that its embarrassing to see Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban visiting Beijing, meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and constantly attempting to weaken EU sanctions, while everyone else is trying to toughen them.
This Orban's policy is based not just on his conviction that this is the best way to retain power by obtaining cheap gas from Russia, Moscow's assistance with nuclear energy projects, etc. The problem is that Europe has not managed to marginalize such political leaders who want to cooperate with Russia for the sake of their short-term political interests, even if they contradict the interests of Europe and their countries' citizens, the expert said.
Bond noted that the EU has a number of mechanisms that could be activated against such countries as Hungary. The most significant of them is the conditionality mechanism, which means that if Hungary fails to achieve progress on the rule of law, it will not get access to all EU funds it would otherwise be entitled to.
Orban may travel to Moscow or Beijing in hope to get money, but a significant portion of Hungary's GDP comes from the EU, and perhaps and even larger portion is earned by using access to the EU's single market and investments from other European countries, the expert said.
"The problem was that even though we knew Hungary had problems with the rule of law, it took years for the EU to start putting pressure on Budapest by withholding funding or similar instruments. We must be ready to use such leverage against countries that move away from European values and standards," said Bond.
He does not believe that Europe is currently passing up an opportunity to play a more significant role on the global stage. The expert stressed that the moment when the EU has to decide whether to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova will be very important.
"If the EU starts negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova with the serious conviction that, for example, in 10 years' time, these countries will become EU members, this would also lead to a very serious change in the European security environment," said the Director of Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Reform.
He noted that the current member states are less resistant to further EU enlargement than they were in the past. However, smaller countries may have to accept that they will not have a veto on future decisions on foreign policy or, for example, taxation. It is likely that everything will be decided by majority votes in the future. All countries may have to accept that they cannot have their own commissioner all the time.
"It is already difficult to find 27 relevant jobs for 27 commissioners. We may have to switch to a smaller Commission with each country having a commissioner for part of the term," Bond suggested.
"It is very important that EU leaders do not get distracted from the main objective - to eradicate the grey areas in Europe which Russia has been exploiting for the past 20 years or more, and extending our values, norms and our security to the democracies in Eastern Europe that want to be part of this community of states," the expert said.
He also believes it is very important that NATO does not announce that Ukraine can join the Alliance only when the war is over.
"Otherwise, it will send a clear signal to Putin that as long as he keeps waging this war, Ukraine will not see NATO. We have to be smart. However, many leaders are concerned that if we admit Ukraine with an unresolved conflict, we could be dragged into a war by accident," said Bond.
He stressed that Putin, however, has been very careful not to directly confront NATO. At the very beginning of the war, people in Putin's circle threatened to strike NATO weapons convoys in Poland, but this never happened.
"NATO's Article 5 is an extremely important security guarantee, and Putin does not want to risk a full-scale war against the whole of NATO. However, it seems that we need to be a bit bolder in our relations with Ukraine, as this would send a clear signal that Ukraine's security is as important to us as Latvia's, Poland's or Finland's. Such a signal of confidence about Ukraine is very important," said Bond.
Asked about the impact of the latest Middle East crisis on the war in Ukraine, Bond pointed out that while the Hamas attack was horrific and claimed an extraordinary number of lives, it did not expose Israel to existential risks.
"But the war Russia is waging against Ukraine is existential, and Ukraine is definitely the weaker side, so our support is vital to give Ukraine a chance to survive and win in the end," the expert stressed and expressed concern that both politicians and the media, which have been focusing attention on Ukraine for a year and a half, are now suddenly not paying enough attention to it anymore. "Ukrainians will have to be very active in their information campaign to ensure that people continue to think about what is happening in the country," Bond said.