The European Union is the largest economy in the world in terms of GDP, the largest donor and provider of development aid in humanitarian assistance and a significant contributor to global security, said Miroslav Lajčák, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic.
“[The EU] spends almost 200 billion Euros a year on defense,” he explained, “which is more than Canada, Japan, and Russia together. It has, over the last two decades, engaged in more than 30 peacekeeping missions, 17 of them are still ongoing.”
Mr. Lajčák spoke at IPI on June 11th to discuss the EU’s responsibility as a regional and global actor, and Slovakia’s first-hand experience in the EU’s integration process.
Slovakia, which joined the EU in 2004 and adopted the Euro as its currency in 2009, is an EU success story, he said. A former communist country, Slovakia transitioned from a centrally planned economy to a market economy and continues to experience fast growth rates.
In discussing the recent Eurozone crisis, Mr. Lajčák said, “The European Union was caught unprepared by the crisis for several reasons. First, there was lack of responsibility by several member states who, in conducting their economic and financial policies, resulted in a crisis that became a European problem.”
“Second,” he continued, “the EU was not equipped with instruments to deal with the situation. It’s impossible to deal with monetary policy for seventeen countries [with] seventeen separate fiscal policies. Third, even in cases where we did have instruments, we did not respect them.”
He explained that the EU dealt with two challenges at the same time – to fix the immediate problems and make sure they are not repeated in the future.
The EU is now on the right track out from the crisis, he said. “The situation is far from being rosy, but we have the necessary instruments. We have strengthened the competencies of European institutions. We are ready to take European integration much further, particularly in the fiscal and banking area.”
Mr. Lajčák stated that the uniqueness of “EU soft power” and the attractiveness of the EU model allow it the ability to lead by example and inspire its partners. In his view, the European Union is a global standard setter, perceived by most countries as an honest broker and an impartial player that cares about principles of democracy, rule of law, and the protection and promotion of human rights.
He contended that the EU’s enlargement program is one of its most successful policies, highlighting the importance of having good neighboring relations, stable democratic institutions, and market economies, and a sound legal system – areas vitally important for the functioning of the countries themselves.
In regards to the Middle East, Mr. Lajčák said the Arab Spring caused the European Union to rethink its policies and programs when it came to the region. He stated that the EU acted in full support of the pleas of the citizens for more openness and greater democratization of their societies.
Asserting that the EU’s actions in the region should be guided by two principles, he said, “The democratic transition has to be homegrown and certainly not imposed from outside. And second, we should be ready to provide our support if so asked.”
Mr. Lajčák said that the EU’s engagement with the Middle East is defined by three M’s: money, mobility in partnership agreements, and market access for gradual economic integration with the extended EU economic zone, particularly in Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan.
The EU offers political and financial support to those countries that are strongly willing to support themselves, he said, and actively engages with other countries on issues such as the Iranian nuclear talks, development assistance in Afghanistan, training armed forces in Mali, and combating piracy in the Horn of Africa.
“If the European Union wants to successfully contribute to the stability and prosperity, we have to be able to listen to our partners,” he concluded, “and react to their requests and to their needs, rather than dictate for them and decide for them. We have to work as a team together with our partners.”
The discussion was moderated by François Carrel-Billiard, IPI Managing Director.