David McAllister: “The EU should be a global player, not just a payer”

The chairman of the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs on the role of the European Parliament and the European Union in world politics.
David McAllister in the European Parliament. Photo: Emilie Gomez, European Union 2022 - Source : EP

Mr. McAllister does the European Parliament have an impact on the EU’s foreign policy?

Yes, the European Parliament certainly has an impact.

However, foreign policy first and foremost still remains an area of intergovernmental decision-making. Member states take decisions unanimously. This means that Parliament’s formal decision-making prerogatives are limited. They are mostly confined to monitoring and giving advice.

There is one important exception: Parliament has decision-making powers, when it comes to the use of budgetary resources. The European Parliament scrutinises and holds the EU executive to account. It also has a role as co-legislator on budgetary matters, and needs to formally approve of international agreements.

But does Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, listen to you?

Josep Borrell is a regular guest in the European Parliament. He attends our committee meetings and the plenary sessions. Twice a year, we hold a high-level dialogue with him. Furthermore, the European Parliament has a complex network of contacts and relations with national parliaments and international parliamentary assemblies. We also engage in electoral observation missions, conflict mediation and activities in support of democracy. I would call that parliamentary diplomacy.

Is the money the European Union spends for, and in, third countries money well spent? Or should certain areas and programmes be reviewed?

In general, the European external activities are underfunded. That’s why we are already debating ways to increase those grants. For the simple reason that it is money well spent. The European Union is a global payer, it is by far the largest donor for development cooperation in the world, and we are proud of that. But we shouldn’t only be a global payer on development policy. We also need to be a global player on security and defence matters. We have to underline our soft power – which we undoubtedly have – with more hard power. This is why I am passionately working towards a strengthened European security and defence policy.

What would it take to move towards more hard power? Would it take qualified-majority voting in the Council, in other words, not all countries would need to agree on everything in foreign policy?

The European Union needs a joint strategy on how to deal with all the external challenges we are facing. We also have to optimise the way we operate in external affairs. For this reason, we should move from unanimous decision-making to qualified-majority voting (QMV) on foreign policy. The European Parliament has called for this for a long time, and the preconditions for the implementation of QMV are given: The passerelle clause in the Treaty on the European Union provides the potential for a faster, more efficient and more effective foreign security and defence policy. We do have everything we need to amend the legislative procedure in important areas, without the need for a formal Treaty amendment.

The problem remains the lack of political will among certain member states to make significant progress on this matter. I welcome the recent push by states like Belgium, Finland, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain and Germany to make substantial progress with regard to QMV – but this alone is not enough. The Council could send a vital impulse by switching certain decisions that do not directly relate to military or defence matters from unanimity to a qualified majority. Human rights would be a good place to start.

Still, the final goal is clear: the introduction of QMV in all matters relating to our common foreign and security policy.

Does the EU have enough instruments? Is the current toolbox sufficient?

The European Union will have to back up its diplomacy with power and strength, if it wants to be successful.

The ability to impose sanctions is one of our most important foreign policy tools – our swift reaction to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine underlined this. By now, we have adopted eleven sanctions packages that are historic in their scope. Sanctions are and must remain our diplomatic response to the violation of human rights and international law.

But what the EU needs is more hard power. This is why the adoption of the Strategic Compass in Versailles, shortly after the beginning of the Russian invasion in 2022 was so important.  The Compass sets out a roadmap towards a fully-fledged European Defence Union.

8th parliamentary term [13553]; Eurocorps; European Army Corps; Open Day 2017 (T) [13812]; Outside view; open doors day of the European Institutions [13383]; Flag; European Flag
EUROCORPS forces raise the flag of the European Union in Strasbourg. Photo: Christian Creutz, European Union 2017 - Source : EP

If the EU gets its own army, who should have the command over it? The High Representative? And would the European Parliament have to approve the sending of troops?

A European army might be a step to take in many years to come.

Right now, we are at the beginning of establishing the European Defence Union. This is like a jigsaw puzzle with 5,000 pieces – the first priority must be to set the frame for this.

In the meantime, we must work on joint defence procurement as well as on joint defence research. Our armies must not compete but cooperate on the procurement of their equipment, in order to make them more interoperable. We already have PESCO, the European Defence Agency and the European Defence, which will ultimately all contribute to the establishment of a European Defence Union.

Another major cornerstone is the Rapid Deployment Capacity, set out in the Strategic Compass. That force will be composed of 5,000 women and men and should be up and running in 2025.

What about NATO? Will it become superfluous?

No. Whatever we do to strengthen European security and defence, we should always do in in close cooperation and partnership with our NATO allies. European reforms on defence and security policy do not stand in competition with NATO or aim to duplicate existing NATO structures. Our goal is to strengthen the European pillar within NATO.

Tune in to the audio version of this interview, which is part of our new “EU Matters” podcast, available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

Some say we don’t need parallel structures, NATO is good enough. Is the transatlantic alliance not a better way to protect European security?

The EU’s security and defence policy should remain transatlantic and become more European at the same time. Nothing should be done twice, but nothing should be left undone. I welcome the close cooperation between NATO and the EU, which was underlined by our third Joined Declaration in January.

NATO is the cornerstone, the backbone of European security. It is the warden of freedom and liberty in Europe. That is why we will continue to have a close partnership with the United States. For decades, the US has made a vital contribution to our continent’s peace and freedom, and it will continue to be an important partner in tackling the challenges that lie ahead of us.

Does the European Union seek strategic autonomy, as French President Emmanuel Macron has proposed?

I prefer to use the term strategic sovereignty, but that’s more of a linguistic debate. A sovereign Europe, a strategic autonomous Europe also includes a more sovereign security and defence policy. However, we should formulate our strategic sovereignty in close cooperation and communication with our transatlantic allies.

Lately, we have witnessed a lot of new conflicts or the worsening of existing ones. There have been areas where the European Union has probably not had the impact it would like to have. How would you assess what Borrell and the European External Action Service (EEAS) have done over the past four years?

The EEAS has come a long way and made a huge step forward. Don’t forget it was only established in 2009.

The question is: Do we really want to continue what we are doing today? Or are we ready to take brave steps forward? I mentioned qualified majority voting. This isn’t the only answer to the challenges we are facing. In recent years I have witnessed that, if one country is able to block a decision-making process on a question that does not affect the core hub of national competencies (e.g. the adoption of sanctions), this has the potential to create serious difficulties.

Not only do the nember states, but also third countries outside the European Union know that if they successfully influence one country, the remaining 26 do not stand chance. We will see in the next few years, if we can make meaningful steps forward on European security and defence. This is the litmus test of the Strategic Compass.

NATO's Jens Stoltenberg attends joint AFET-SEDE Committee meeting in the European Parliament. Photo: Emilie Gomez, European Union 2022 - Source : EP

Qatargate was one of the big scandals in recent years. What lessons have you learned?

The readiness of a few members and staff who accepted bribes has significantly damaged public confidence in the European Parliament. It is our duty to seek remedies, to strengthen transparency in the interest of all citizens. I fully support any additional anti-corruption measures introduced by the leadership of the European Parliament. MEPs have been clear that we will work closely with Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee and the European Court of Auditors to uproot any form of corruption and malign foreign influence in our law-making processes. It took only a few individuals who committed these crimes, but the image of Parliament as a whole has suffered.

What about attempts to influence EU policy-making from third countries? What is being done against it?

Foreign interference in democratic processes represents a growing threat to the security of our Union. Qatargate was an example. We must strengthen our capabilities in the European Union to detect, expose and fight foreign interference, be it from state actors, be it coordinated computational propaganda, or strategic foreign investments in critical infrastructure.

We must also work to ensure that non-governmental organizations are not used to cover criminal operations. Another outrageous aspect of Qatargate was that fake NGOs were created by foreign actors to influence decision-making processes in the European Parliament. We will have to work on comprehensive financial pre-screenings of NGOs, before they are listed on the EU Transparency Register. This way, we can protect the huge majority of NGOs that are doing good, decent work and are also suffering under these criminal activities.

What meaningful role does the European Union play in the Middle East in promoting peace and understanding, in helping the Iranian people who are rising against their regime, or the Afghan people who are suffering from the Taliban regime?

The European Union remains committed to the peace process in the Middle East. We fully support the two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. Unfortunately, this region seems to have reached yet another serious impasse. No one expects peace talks anytime soon. The European Union has made clear that we are deeply concerned by the escalation of violence during the past months in Israel and Palestine. Israel has a right and an apparent need to defend itself, as was underlined by the numerous terror attacks in the country that have taken place this year alone. But at the same time, the Israeli government should not legalise new settler outposts in the West Bank. Settlements remain illegal under international law.

I welcome the recent agreement between the EU, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the League of Arab States in cooperation with Egypt and Jordan to launch an effort to reinvigorate the peace process during the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

During the G20 Summit in New Delhi, an agreement was signed between the EU, the United States, India, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the India – Middle East – Europe Economic Corridor. Photo: Government of India, September 2023.

Will it succeed?

I hope so, because this effort aims to ensure a peace-supporting package that will maximise peace dividends for the Palestinians and Israelis, once they reach a peace agreement. It seeks to produce detailed programmes and contributions conditional upon achieving a final status agreement that will ensure that all people of the region reap its benefits. To bring about peace in the Middle East may seem impossible to many, but I am convinced it is our duty to try again and again.

And what about Iran?

In the face of countless human rights abuses worldwide and heightened tensions on the international stage, the EU must use its diplomatic and economic influence to the best of its abilities. We endeavour to keep communication channels open with Iran. Josep Borrell met the Iranian foreign minister during the UN General Assembly in New York. He raised the most urgent issues affecting EU-Iran bilateral relations and conveyed our strong condemnation of the arbitrary detentions of EU citizens, including dual nationals. The High Representative urged Iran to release all EU citizens. He also expressed our unchanged concern about the blatant human rights abuses in Iran. He was unequivocally clear that Iran must ensure that the fundamental freedoms of its citizens are respected, thereby also reiterating the stance of all EU member states on the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s killing.

Recently, Borrell was very much under pressure in the European Parliament, from the left to the right, on the question of Iran. You called on him to change tack on various occasions regarding Iran, but so far without success. Is what he offers good enough?

I agree that the EU should implement additional restrictive measures against the Iranian regime, its subsidiary forces and all those responsible for the serious human rights violations against peaceful protesters. This should also include measures by the Council to designate the mullah regime and its subsidiary forces as a terrorist entity.

Indeed, the European Parliament has been more outspoken than the High Representative, who of course is acting on behalf of all 27 member states. We believe we have to be very clear in our condemnation of the mullah regime and its actions.

The interview was conducted by Michael Thaidigsmann. 

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