Javier Solana, former NATO secretary, “NATO needs a capable Europe, it’s a win-win situation for both”

Javier Solana | adapted from © Security & Defence Agenda (CC BY 2.0)

Where do you see a solution for the war Putin has started? Would a neutral status for Ukraine be a solution, and would that be realistic for Ukrainians who are dying under Russian bombs? Would Putin even accept a solution that respected Ukrainian territory?

What is absolutely clear is the world needs a deal in Ukraine. The world was just coming out of the pandemic and was making timid advances in front of the existential threat of climate change. We cannot afford to have another conflict of this kind, not to mention if other actors become involved.

I don’t think I am in a position to know what solution will put an end to the war in Ukraine. What I am absolutely sure about is that negotiation and diplomacy is the only way forward. My impression is that we, the public, know too much about what is going on in the negotiations. When negotiation outcomes are too public, it means that little progress is being made. I think at some point negotiations will have to be more discrete.

The EU has always been seen as a peace project, a successful reunification between former enemies, it even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. Now we see that the EU is starting to fund defence projects. Has its mission changed?

The European Union is first and foremost a peace project, founded after the Second World War to avoid future wars. The EU can act as a security provider, to help secure the countries that belong to it. Every EU member state has its armed forces and what we need to do is to make those forces as interoperable as possible. That is the direction we have to go in. 

We must not forget that we also have an existing NATO structure. Maybe this is the moment when NATO is not ready to act where the EU has reason to act. The more sophisticated we act as Europeans, the more sophisticated NATO will be as an alliance. NATO needs a capable Europe, so it’s a win-win situation for both organisations when Europe takes responsibility for its own strategic interests.

There is a recurring mantra that we need strategic autonomy as Europe, our question is what kind of strategic autonomy does Europe need that it doesn’t already have?  

Strategic autonomy is not just about security or defence, in military terms. Strategic autonomy also means having the capacity to produce chips, for example, or having energy security.

Strategic security is a much broader term than just spending in defence.

New conflicts will be very different from traditional warfare. In that new scenario, we will find ourselves where it’s much more important to energy security, to have enough semiconductors or to have the latest technology.

Security is not just defence, security is a question of preventing and fighting crimes on the internet or providing funds for vaccines.

Is this European security and defence pillar a problem for France or the allies in NATO who do not see it as a win-win situation? Is this understood and agreed on the NATO side as well, or do you see it as a matter for discussion?

Some observers think that strategic autonomy goes against NATO or the USA. This is not and will not be the case. The USA has many obligations to the world, but strengthening the EU will undoubtedly be in its foreign policy interest. It is in its own interest to have a capable ally in the EU. The USA needs a strong EU for stability, for establishing peace in our neighbourhood. But remember, providing stability is very different from going to war, which is not the aim of the European Union.

How do you make this strategic autonomy realistic, and a real complement to NATO and EU actions? You have been on both sides, in NATO and in the position of an EU High Representative, do we lack certain bodies, meeting places, logistics? Or do we simply need a good foreign policy?

No, I don’t think we need more institutions or new bodies to unite Europeans. All we need is the goodwill of both organisations, NATO and the EU, to try to complement each other and try to be as constructive as possible so that we are more successful as partners. NATO and the EU are not against each other, but face different problems, which require different solutions.

How do you respond to claims that industry is the driving force in this field of current debate on security and defence policy?

The driving force, and this is obvious when you look at history, is technology. There is no doubt about it, technology is fundamental. Changes in technology move the economy forward. I think that this is an area where the European Union must act together and be able to take advantage of technology and make it useful for all.

The European Union is not an important producer of semiconductors and we rely on imports from outside our own borders to satisfy our demand for chips. For example, artificial intelligence undoubtedly requires chips. If we do not have chips, we have no chance of having any kind of strategic autonomy.

We talk about the possible defence of the EU while the conflict between two NATO allies – Greece and Turkey – is ongoing. Would EU military integration help resolve this?

I cannot imagine a military conflict between Turkey and Greece. The reality is that Greece is part of the European Union and part of NATO, and Turkey is part of NATO and has close cooperation with the EU, although it is not a member state. In case we need to ask Turkey to be a security actor, we could do that because Turkey is a member of NATO.

Another place of conflict, the Sahel, particularly Mali. How great is the danger that money earmarked for peace programmes will end up in the wrong hands?

We have to be careful. It is a very difficult, complicated matter. I think we have to learn from what we have already done. I will use Afghanistan as an example. The operation in Afghanistan took place with the approval of the United Nations. We left, and the situation is as bad today as it was at the beginning. We must learn the lesson that democracy cannot be built through external military force.

What advice would you give to the new NATO Secretary General? What would be your wish list?

My advice would be to work closely with the member states, to listen to everybody, to keep a cool head, especially when the situation is volatile. Because the Secretary General leads an organisation made up of many countries, you have to be very intelligent and patient. Patience is key.