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This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: Can EU unity on Ukraine hold?

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. This has been an odd few days for me with the announcement that I’m one of several British journalists who are now sanctioned by Russia, so banned from travelling there. A country that I’ve visited many times over the years is now, at least for a while, off-limits. In this week’s edition, we’re looking at the confrontation between Russia and its European neighbours and in particular at the positions of Germany and France. My guest is Ulrike Franke, senior policy fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations. The EU’s been very proud of its strong and united response to the war in Ukraine. But as the war grinds on and the economic pressure mounts, can European unity last? Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, announced a historic shift in his country’s foreign policy.

News clip
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz says that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has ushered in a “new era” in world history, noting that the events of the past week have raised serious questions over the ability of Western allies to deter “warmongers” like Vladimir Putin.

Gideon Rachman
Scholz announced a huge increase in German defence spending and he pledged full-throated support for Ukraine. But as the weeks and months have passed, Germany has come under increasing criticism for the slowness of its arms deliveries to Ukraine.

News clip
This week, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a rare public rebuke of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, saying this to one German news outlet.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaking in Ukrainian, translated into English
We need Chancellor Scholz to give us certainty that they will support Ukraine. He and his government must choose not to do a balancing act between Ukraine and the Russian Federation, but to choose which is their priority.

Gideon Rachman
In an effort to demonstrate German support, Olaf Scholz travelled last week to Ukraine in the company of Emmanuel Macron, president of France, and Mario Draghi, Italy’s prime minister. The three leaders came bearing a gift: a promise to support Ukraine’s bid to join the European Union.

News clip
The air raid sirens rang out as they arrived, a reminder that they were in an active war zone, something unthinkable a year ago. Later in the day, they sat down with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, bringing with them a message of EU solidarity.

Emmanuel Macron speaking in French, translated into English
All four of us support immediate EU candidate status for Ukraine.

Gideon Rachman
But the Scholz government also has to worry about the economic pressure on Germany of the war. Russia seems to be tightening the screw by restricting gas exports, causing Robert Habeck, Germany’s vice-chancellor, to urge his fellow citizens to save energy. His message was that every kilowatt now matters.

Robert Habeck
[Speaking in German]

Gideon Rachman
So when I spoke to Ulrike Franke, we started by discussing whether EU unity is now coming under strain.

Ulrike Franke
Yes, I think it is important to emphasise that, indeed, these first few weeks there has been quite a lot of unity and decisiveness. There was broad outrage over the aggression and over the start of the war and especially, you know, these atrocities that we’ve seen and that have been reported. And there have been quite some impressive changes in some countries as a result of this war, right? I mean, there are the €100bn being spent on German defence. There’s the acceptance of Ukrainian refugees throughout the EU, especially in countries that were much less welcoming to other refugees in 2015. And afterwards, we had the EU sanctions packages and now we have this recommendation of EU membership status for Ukraine by, you know, many of the most important actors. So overall, there is, or there was this picture of a Europe that is kind of engaged and waking up to a changed world and rather united. But as you kind of alluded to, there is a question of how long this will last? And of course, also these kinds of EU decisions paper over divergences and differences within the EU and among the countries. I actually have a little bit of polling data, could be interesting for your listeners because we just did a poll in 10 European countries. And when you, for example, ask things like who’s mainly responsible for the war? Is it Russia or is it Ukraine, the EU, Nato, etc? Of course, the large majority of Europeans say, you know, Russia is responsible. However, you have countries like Italy and Romania where almost a third — so 27 per cent for Italy and 21 per cent for Romania — say no, actually it’s the EU or the US or Ukraine that is responsible for the war. And similarly, you know, the biggest obstacle to peace, there are also in countries such as Italy and even France, you know, and quite a few people that say, you know, the biggest obstacle to peace actually is the western side. So it’s not that united to begin with. And I think actually, in a way, most important going forward is the danger of a fatigue, a war fatigue or a solidarity fatigue. Because if you ask Europeans, is your government paying enough or too much attention to Ukraine compared to other issues that are important for you? There are already, you know, quite a few people, almost half of the people that say, you know what, we are paying quite a bit, if not too much attention to the Ukraine war.

Gideon Rachman
And presumably, Vladimir Putin is well aware of that and perhaps may be now trying to ratchet up the pressure because we’ve seen over the past week, gas supplies to Germany, to Italy begin to be restricted quite significantly, perhaps with the implied suggestion that they could be turned off altogether. I mean, Russia would lose a lot of income if that happened. But the economic pressure on Germany going into the winter maybe in a few months time will be very high. So do you think Russia is now explicitly increasing the pressure?

Ulrike Franke
I think that’s what we’re seeing, yeah. I mean, in Germany, we definitely have a huge debate where every other day someone repeats the sentence, “Every kilowatt-hour saved counts”. So people are really called upon to take shorter showers, heat their homes less. I mean, luckily right now we’re in summer, so that’s less of an issue. But there really is this idea of we need to save energy, especially gas, right now to fill up the tanks. This is basically what’s being done at the moment. The reserves are being filled up for the winter because as it is now widely known, Germany in particular is highly dependent on Russian gas. And a lot is being done to counterbalance that, from things like letting coal plants run longer or using them more, which of course is something that’s extremely unpopular among the Greens, which incidentally are in power. So this is very tricky, but a lot is being done to counterbalance that. But nevertheless, this is a real issue and I think Putin is exerting pressure here, unsurprisingly. And this whole situation so far, it has played into his hands, right? Because even while the Europeans have indeed decided to import less or no oil from Russia, this has mainly contributed to rising oil prices, which in the end meant that Russian companies were making as much money, if not more than before. So this is really, really tricky. In the long run, I have to say, I guess the fact that all these European countries are now looking for alternatives, are really decreasing their dependency on Russia, that’s going to be good. But in the short run, it’s Russia that is able to exert pressure on the Europeans rather than the other way round. And that’s, you know, rather disheartening in this context.

Gideon Rachman
How prepared do you think the Europeans are for winter? I mean, I guess they’ve got a little bit of warning, but finding all that extra gas is going to be very difficult in the next few months, isn’t it?

Ulrike Franke
It is, yeah. I mean, luckily, it’s still a few months until the winter. I’m not terribly, terribly worried. I mean, this is not going to be easy, but I think a lot is being done. There is still a few months left. Luckily for now, I want to say Germany and other countries are still in the situation that they actually got money that they can spend on this problem. So you can buy liquefied gas, for example, from the US and elsewhere. And there is a willingness among the governments to make deals with Qatar and other countries with whom they maybe didn’t want to make deals beforehand. So I think a lot is being done as hopefully by winter we will have found a solution and the gas tanks will have been filled up sufficiently. But yeah, if this is a really hard winter or indeed if the gas supply is cut now already, this can still go pretty wrong. So this is all part of this new world that we’re living in, right? It’s not a world in which everything is always available and secured and easy to get. And I think we’re really entering a new phase here where, you know, normal people are feeling the pressure of geopolitical changes and geopolitical conflicts in a way that we really haven’t for quite a few decades.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. And turning specifically to how Germany is handling this crisis, Chancellor Scholz has been, on a rhetorical level, pretty strong. He announced the big change in German policy, but the Ukrainians are frustrated with Germany for not delivering weapons as fast as promised. What’s going on there?

Ulrike Franke
Yeah. So this is a really important question and the situation is slightly more nuanced and more complex than Twitter believes. And I’m saying this because, you know, every time I post an article saying, OK, Germany has committed to contribute that many howitzers or anti-aircraft tanks or whatever, people basically comment, “This decade?”, “Will this happen in 2025?”, “Is this going to happen any time soon?” So there’s this real, you know, feeling that Germany’s dragging its feet and not doing enough. And apparently, I have read, I can’t confirm whether this is true, but apparently there is now a Ukrainian verb similar to Scholz, which apparently means to continuously promise something without actually doing it. So that’s obviously, you know, terrible. However, when you look at commitment of support, Germany is actually the fourth-largest donor to Ukraine — so financial, humanitarian and military aid taken together. So it’s after the US, the EU institutions and the UK. But fourth-largest, that makes kind of sense given its size and doesn’t strike me as bad. The problem is that when it comes to the military aid, there is a huge difference between what has been committed and what has been delivered. So the Kiel Institute actually publishes quite good data on that and the latest data we have, which unfortunately is just until June 7, so may have changed a little bit since then, but the data they have, they basically say, of the stuff that Germany has committed, only 35 per cent has actually been delivered. And that’s a terrible rate. I mean, for most other countries it’s almost a hundred. And this would put Germany, by the way, on eighth place, you know, after countries like Latvia, Estonia, Canada, so much smaller countries. So what it has delivered so far are light weapons, anti-aircraft missiles, machine guns, ammunition, helmets, these kind of things. What it has promised are big things like 50 Gepards, anti-aircraft tanks, seven howitzers . . . (inaudible) thousands . . . surface-to-air missiles, things like that. And these things indeed have not reached Ukraine yet. And yes, partly this may be due to Germany being too bureaucratic, this just taking too long, all of that and, you know, very valid to criticise Germany for that. However, it has one other explanation and that is that, for example, with the Gepard tanks or Cheetah tanks, basically, the Ukrainians are being trained on how to use them. And this is really important because there really is no sense in just like putting these things on the frontline because they’re really difficult to handle. So Germany is training the Ukrainian soldiers and then will deliver the tanks then. These numbers don’t show you everything and it does make total sense to train people for using these heavy weapons before you deliver them. So I think this is correct and it’s unfair basically to criticise the German government for this specific element.

Gideon Rachman
Do you think there is a kind of lingering discomfort in Germany, you know, understandable perhaps, at the idea that German heavy weaponry, may be shooting down Russian planes or missiles and killing Russian soldiers?

Ulrike Franke
Oh, absolutely, there are so many issues there. First of all, Germans don’t like military things in general. I mean that sounds really generalising but I think that’s actually fair. I wouldn’t say that Germany is a kind of pacifist country. I don’t think that that’s right but it is anti-military in a way. And so both the population and the government just doesn’t really like to have any part in military conflict. So I think they’re deeply uncomfortable regarding these decisions to begin with, which also is why this is actually quite a big deal for Germany and this government in particular. Then there is this element of, you know, Germany only has so much stuff to give up. Maybe unsurprising to those of us who have been looking at the Bundeswehr for longer than starting February 24th. The Bundeswehr actually has shallow arsenals. Actually on many things, the Bundeswehr that doesn’t have enough equipment for its own soldiers. So giving up anything is really hard. And some of the stuff Germany has been giving up is older equipment that the Bundeswehr isn’t using any more, and that was basically given back to the manufacturer. But now we’re entering really things that if the Bundeswehr gives this up, it doesn’t have it itself. And that’s also tricky and a rather uncomfortable situation. And so, yeah, there are many reasons why this is difficult politically, practically. And so maybe this explains why Germany really hasn’t been leading in any of this. So, you know, there’s always this discussion of Germany as a leader in Europe and taking on this leadership role. And here, no. Germany basically has been a follower. And it’s the others that have basically asked Germany to do something. Then, two weeks later, Olaf Scholz made the announcement and said, yes, OK, we’re gonna do this. It’s not a great look, but there are lots of explanations of why that’s the case.

Gideon Rachman
And as you say, I mean, Olaf Scholz, it’s a very difficult start for him to become chancellor, you know, and I think it was 10 days later that the war breaks out. However, he has finally visited Kyiv and in the company of President Emmanuel Macron of France, Mario Draghi of Italy. How significant was that visit and what, if anything, came out of it?

Ulrike Franke
I think that visit was very significant and I think they really tried to send a signal. I think I mean, especially for my controllers, they really needed to come with something in their hands. They couldn’t have come just for the photo op. And actually, Scholz said exactly that, “I can’t just come for the photo op.” Because it had been such a long time that they hadn’t travelled, because they had been criticised both actually by the Ukrainians and Volodymyr Zelenskyy. So they really needed to bring something. And in a way there were two things that they could bring: more heavy weapons or promises of more heavy weapons, and this promise of EU membership status. And in a way they couldn’t bring the weapons or they are already doing what they can, in their view. So I almost want to say, yeah, they went for the EU membership status, which is a discussion in and of itself. But I think it actually really was important that they came, that they did the photo op, that they did the joint press conference and that they supported the EU candidacy status for Ukraine, which now the EU Commission has also recommended, and let’s see what happens. But other EU heads of government are also supporting.

Gideon Rachman
And of course all leaders operating against their own domestic political backgrounds. And Macron’s just got a bit more complicated with the French legislative elections, where now the biggest party in the French legislature other than his own, the main opposition party, will be the far-left, Melenchon’s party, which is basically, could one say, pro-Russian? At least certainly not following the EU line on this war.

Ulrike Franke
Well, yeah, so pro-Russian is tricky because of course, this new leftwing alliance is made up of several different parties and they have different international views. But some of them are, if not pro-Russian, they definitely have surprising views on international relations. I mean, Melenchon’s party, for example, is really advocating a non-aligned status basically for France. So at a time where Finland and Sweden is joining Nato, he would actually like France to leave it. So that’s rather surprising. And yes, there have been some really pro-Russian or rather pro-Putin statements beforehand. I don’t think this necessarily will influence Macron so much, given that, you know, he has been elected president and foreign policy is still very much done by the president. But yes, of course, this legislative election has shown him that he doesn’t have quite the support in the population as he would like, and especially when it comes to EU, European issues, which Macron, of course, is very strong on and he’s very pro-European. The French have always been, at best, lukewarm on Europe and the EU and then France’s role within. So yeah, this is going to make things certainly not easier, but I think internationally the most important thing is that Macron himself was re-elected and that it wasn’t Marine Le Pen or someone else. But it’s not a great situation for him domestically, certainly.

Gideon Rachman
But it strikes me that, you know, Macron is in a very interesting position vis-à-vis the Ukraine war, because obviously, as you say, he’s a very pro-EU president. His whole vision of France and France in the world is based around this idea of building up the EU, of eventually going to European strategic autonomy. And yet on this issue of Ukraine, he finds himself in danger of losing contact with large parts of the EU who are very suspicious of what he’s doing. You know, the Poles, the Balts, the Nordics are all being fairly critical of France. Do you think he can pull it back?

Ulrike Franke
It’s interesting because I feel in the same way that it really has become en vogue criticising Germany for the weapons deliveries or not delivering weapons, there is an element of people really liking to criticise Macron for pretty much everything he tries to do diplomatically and internationally. And some of it I can understand. And very big picture, I think there is a bit of a problem that he’s too much of a thinker and maybe not enough of a politician. Like he says things like, we shouldn’t humiliate Russia. I can understand or I can rationalise where he’s coming from and what he wants to say. But just, you know, politically speaking, in terms of political communication this, of course, is terrible and is seen as terrible by the eastern Europeans. But yeah, there certainly are many people really, I want to say, happy to criticise Macron for many things. Can he pull it off? I mean, I think he really has tried to co-ordinate with the other Europeans more than he gets credit for. I mean, he, or rather France, holds the EU’s rotating presidency. I mean, he really tried to help here and to work with the others. That being said, he also says things like he wants France to be a mediating power, which I honestly wonder like how that’s going to be because France isn’t neutral in any kind of way. It’s really difficult for me to see how France could take this position. And so I don’t think that France is being seen as the country that can really lead the EU on this particular issue. And I think Macron is probably rather disappointed about that and feels that that’s maybe unfair. But I can definitely see where the eastern Europeans are coming from when they express these feelings.

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Gideon Rachman
That was Ulrike Franke of the European Council on Foreign Relations ending this edition of The Rachman Review. Thanks for joining us and please listen again next week.

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