MEP Petras Austrevicius: “EU expansion will never be as smooth as that in 2004 which saw nine new countries, including the three Baltic States, accepted”

  • 2024-01-18
  • Linas Jegelevicius

The heinous October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel and its, what some say, disproportionate response will prompt international organisations, including the United Nations, to overhaul  not only their existing security concepts but also change the current international security agreements and arrangements, redefining the term of terrorism and prompting adoption of new terrorism prevention policies, Petras Austrevicius, a Renew Europe euro-parliamentarian (MEP) and Chair of the EU delegation for relations with Afghanistan, accentuated to The Baltic Times Magazine at the outset of our interview in the middle of October.

The conflagration in the Middle East overshadows the war in Ukraine, which rings alarm bells about war fatigue in the West, resulting in lesser financing for the war-ravaged country. Is this worrying to you?

I don’t think that the dire situation in the Middle East overshadows the war in Ukraine, even now, but it may distract attention for sure. And if this happened, it would be a big mistake by the West, which, indeed, may find itself in a tug of war with the warring sides trying to get the West’s full attention. Any inadequate response to the crises in the capitals – be it Washington DC or Brussels, or elsewhere – would just strew new landmines in the fields. However, drawing a comparison between the two wars would be improper – we just cannot compare warfare encompassing a zone of a couple dozen kilometres with that raging in the territory of a couple thousand kilometres. However, the pain is immeasurable by kilometres. As much as both wars are horrible, yet I believe the war in Ukraine is the first and utmost determinant for security in Europe. And it has been for nearly two years now, so I reckon it is in core interests of Europe to bring it to an end – with a victory by Ukraine. Recently, in a meeting in Brussels, Ukraine’s former President Petro Oleksiyovych Poroshenko (he served as the fifth president of Ukraine from 2014 to 2019 – L. J.) said to me that only Ukraine’s EU and NATO memberships can guarantee the country’s victory and long-standing peace in Europe. I cannot agree with him more, however, let’s not be naïve: even with the memberships, the aggressor (Russia – L. J.) whose bellicosity is programmed in the genes, won’t turn into a peaceful neighbour – far from it.

Over the nearly two years since the war in Ukraine began, all talk justly about the country’s valour in fighting the intruder. However, can you, off the top of your head, think of any mistakes committed by Ukraine and the West over the course?

Similarly to the Hamas attack, in 2022, with Russia concentrating its troops on the Russian-Ukrainian border, which was a clear sign of what could follow next, many, however, misread it, downplaying it. After it broke out, despite the huge effort to aid Ukraine, the political mentality of some European leaders and some decision-makers in Brussels remained the same: “Let’s see, let’s wait, let’s not harm Russia’s interests and et cetera.” That certainly played into the aggressor’s hand!

I am proud of the three Baltic States, including Lithuania, who, driven by their bloody historic experience with the neighbour (Russia – L.J.) came forward instantly, helping Ukraine by all possible means. Namely the NATO and EU membership of the Eastern European and Central European nations contributed hugely to change of the way of thinking in the entities. What we clearly need to do is to anticipate possible threats and tackle them faster and collectively when they do. 

You’re the main rapporteur from the EP’s Foreign Affairs Committee on EU Integration and Expansion. In early October, the European Union's 27 national leaders met to look for ways to avoid a new migration crisis and address a longer-term existential challenge of bringing new countries into their bloc, potentially as big and troubled as Ukraine. Do you believe the EU expansion, which envisions accepting another five or so new countries in the bloc, is realistic? Some EU leaders are apparently against it?

I’ll start from a far a bit. Many say that the EU expansion in 2004, when Lithuania was admitted, among nine other countries, was a big EU expansion success story, which is hard to repeat. Indeed, it was. But looking forward, the enlargement will most likely never be as smooth as then – the EU membership quests of the Balkan countries stalled; and Ukraine is a separate complex case on the EU membership path. In fact, speaking of the Balkans, some of the countries there just haven’t advanced in the bid, but fallen back, struggling to rein in wide corruption, passing legislation not in compliance with EU legislation. Let’s leave alone the rising tensions (in the Balkans) due to the old intricate grievances. Besides, the new member acceptance process is encumbered by veto right – all 28 member states have to vote unanimously to get the new members in, which is – let’s be honest – little plausible now.

Can we soon expect annulment of the veto right and move to a majority-vote scheme when adopting EU legislation, at least its fundamental pieces?

I think this is inevitable. The current qualified majority voting rules in effect since 2014 need an overhaul. The EU legislation adoption vote threshold has to be lower, at, say, two-thirds. The exception could perhaps be applied to some very sensitive issues, like defence, security, foreign relations, relations with third countries, to which three-fourths of the qualified majority could be applied.

The European Parliament is expected to weigh in on the issue in early 2024. The decision-making process will not be easy, as it may require changes to the agreements between the member states and the European Union as the entity. Needless to say, such changes in some member states must be carried out only through referendums, which, in turn, can be lengthy and unpredictable. All understand that some member states, like, say, Hungary, does not support changes to the existing qualified majority voting system, as the veto right guarantees it the trump card. Without the new system in effect – and adopting it may take three or more years - the new EU expansion agreement is hardly possible, although it would be ideal if both processes went in parallel. 

In 2020, the European Union paid the final instalment of a €6 billion fund to Turkey as part of the 2016 deal on hosting refugees. With the unrelenting Europe-bound migrant waves, many can justly wonder if the deal did not fail? Does the European Union have a means to tackle undocumented migration? How?

I’d say the Turkey-EU agreement (The EU-Turkey deal was struck in March 2016 to try to ease Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War Two, which saw more than a million people arrive in Europe in 2015 – L. J.) did work – most Syrian refugees settled in Turkey. Those who analyse migration observe this trend: the nearer migrants hunker down to their homeland, like the Syrians in Turkey, the greater the likelihood they will go back to it at some point later. But the case of Tunis, which has been allotted nearly 1 billion euros of EU money to host refugees, is starkly different – the Tunisian president does not even want to allow EU experts to enter the country to assess the country’s readiness. 

Looking forward, in tackling migration, we need to think about establishing migrant centres in the so-called third countries – first of all in Northern Africa and maybe even further south, where migrants from as far as Seychelles, over 500 kilometres away, end up. 

Improving the Northern Africa economies, eradicating corruption and providing more jobs and more opportunities in life in the continent (Africa – L .J.) would certainly help decrease the migrant flows.

Sweden has said clearly that its migrant integration policy failed. Did it fail in the European Union?

It is all about the quantity. The numbers of undocumented migrants we’re seeing now were nowhere at that level just 10 years ago. Consequently, the respective quality of migrant integration. Before, integration was much better and more natural. But now, with the numbers in the hundreds of thousands, immigration islands have emerged, even in the countries that always were migrant-friendly, complicating their integration. What is characteristic to the recent waves of migration is the strong element of radicalism in most of the migrants’ countries of origin, and, let’s admit, among some of the migrants too, which brings new security challenges to the receiving countries.

In the case of Lithuania, we’ve been dealing with a very atypical situation on the Lithuanian and Belarusian border – the authoritarian (Belarusian) regime uses migrants as a form of hybrid warfare.  Even in the European Parliament, some of my ideologically biased colleagues voted against the term, hybrid warfare, arguing that Lithuania ought to accept all the people and not restrain their rights in any way. I am not saying that everything we did while tackling the crisis was exemplary and right, however, considering that we dealt with a new kind of security situation, quite dangerous to us, we managed it quite well. I believe, as a country, we’ve learnt a lot from the situation, however – let me emphasise this – all the people who end up smuggled at the border should not be measured by the same token. 

What is characteristic to the 2018-2023 EP term?

It had to deal with a range of big crises, like the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and, now, in the Middle East, as well as the huge waves of undocumented migrants.  Apart from that, the EP goes into history for its far-reaching decisions in transiting the bloc’s economy, each member state, into a sustainable green economy. Without an exaggeration, the scope of that is tantamount to the industrial revolution in the 18th century. Once we’re done with it, the EU bloc, and the world, will be quite different – friendly to Mother Nature.