Munich Security Conference 2019 – Day #2

German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers a speech during the 53rd Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, Germany, 18 February 2017. [EPA/PHILIPP GUELLAND]

EURACTIV gives you a glimpse into the hot topics of this year’s Munich Security Conference and what is driving the conversation on foreign, defence and security policy. Day 2 in a nutshell.

A touch of legacy. In what could be one of her last speeches at the annual security gathering, German Chancellor Angela Merkel avoided hidden messages and technocratic speak. Instead, she launched an unexpectedly emotional plea for multilateralism, which received standing ovations. However, as Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports, one person remained seated: Ivanka Trump.

In her speech, Merkel called on China to participate in disarmament and criticised the US for possible punitive tariffs on German cars. Russia, on the other hand, got off surprisingly lightly. Merkel took a shot at President Trump and other critics of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, who argue that Gazprom’s project would only increase Europe’s dependency on Russian energy. Although she assured Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko of her commitment to continue the use of Ukrainian pipelines, she said that “a molecule of Russian gas is a molecule of Russian gas,” no matter which pipe is used in the end.

Iran tensions. US Vice President Mike Pence urged European allies once again to follow Washington’s lead and withdraw from the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, saying the regime there “openly advocates another Holocaust”.

“The time has come for our European partners to stand with us and with the Iranian people,” Pence said during the opening night of the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany. “The time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.”

Merkel disagreed, speaking right after him, and offered a staunch defence of the landmark agreement, saying it was worth preserving “the small anchor” that the pact represents, wcich allows the West to exert pressure on Tehran on other issues. This confirmed yet another rift between Europe and the United States on foreign policy issues.

“There was way too much Middle East and Iran in this speech. Not the current conversation in European security circles… with big Russia and China challenges looming, not to mention EU weakening,” a conference participant noted.

Crisp sense of humour. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov struck an expected tone and suggested the EU was missing out by not working with Russia. He repeated old criticism about a “NATO-centric” model chosen by the West following a “master-servant” scheme. “The Europeans have allowed themselves to be dragged into a pointless confrontation with Russia,” he said.

A question from a columnist with The Washington Post about Syria ended in a lecture about the Russian perspective on humanitarian law.

Lavrov refused to explain how Moscow, which took the role of policing in Syria, would protect the Syrian people from atrocities by the Assad government. Instead, he told the reporter off: “Whatever I say, you will write what you want.”

On the situation in Syria, he clarified that there was an agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran to clear the area of Idlib, the last opposition stronghold, in a military operation. Referring to the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia during the Balkans War, he said: “When Belgrade was bombed, a passenger train and a bridge, and a TV centre in Belgrade were considered fair game. We will not follow this interpretation of international humanitarian law.”

Do not love the bomb. As anticipated before, all discussions and concerns in MSC2019 corridors revolved around one major theme: arms control and nuclear deterrence. China rejects joining the INF ban agreement for nuclear medium-range missiles. My country is based on the military armaments for “strictly defensive needs,” said China’s director of foreign affairs office, Yang Jiechi. “We are against the multilateralisation of the INF Treaty.”

In a panel on nuclear arms control, Yunzhu Yao, a retired Chinese general, said there was still hope. “You still have more than five months to save the INF treaty,” she said, adding that “Europeans should take up a leadership role in nuclear disarmament.”

We do love you, Biden says. Former US vice president Joe Biden came to Munich with a special message from the US. In what was seen by some as a possible positioning for a presidential run in 2020, he spoke about the transatlantic bond. He assured that there is also a “different America” to the one Donald Trump represents.

“While I cannot speak today as an elected government official, I speak as a citizen,” Biden told the audience. “The America I see does not wish to turn our back to the world or our allies,” he said: “The America I see – and I mean this from the bottom of my heart – cherishes the free press, democracy, the rule of law.” He his speech with a pledge: “I promise you (…) we will be back. Don’t have any doubt about that.”

Climate hard talk. John Kerry, former US secretary of state, presented himself as fierce climate defender during a discussion on effects of climate change on security. He jumped up from his seat and told the audience the world is making a “mutual suicide pact” on climate change. “This should have been the first panel to be discussed this year!” he scolded a half-filled conference hall:

Chancellor Merkel, however, caused a different stir with her comments on the recent student climate marches, where she suggested Russia might be behind them. Her spokesman was quick to clarify that she approves of the student movement:

Award time. Prime Ministers of Greece and North Macedonia, Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev, received the Ewald-von-Kleist award that honours “outstanding contributions to international peace and conflict management” for achieving a breakthrough in the three-decade-long Macedonian name dispute last year with the Prespa Agreement. “History must not be written by those who invest in fear & divisions. It should be written by those who have the courage and strategic vision to rise to the occasion,” Tsipras said.

Awkward tensions. Presidents of Serbia and Kosovo, Aleksandar Vučić and Hashim Thaçi, agreed that the relations between the two will be much more difficult to normalise. But this conclusion was also the only agreement between the two leaders in a session that caused mixed feelings, as they spent most of the time trading accusations about the Kosovo war and current relations. “We are now in a state of a frozen conflict, which, I believe, means a regression – we need a compromise that would provide mutual recognition and enable Kosovo’s UN membership”, Thaçi emphasised.

Hinterzimmergespräche. Discussions in the conference hall are one thing, but the real hard talk is done in the background.  According to the masters of the schedule, Mogherini was among those with the longest lists of tasks to tick off. Also: Many Russian oligarchs were spotted, amongst them Oleg Deripaska, a person of interest in the Russian election-hacking investigation due to his business ties with former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.

Anti-MSC march. Security is tight around the conference venue: According to reports of Süddeutsche Zeitung, 4,400 police officers are deployed to protect the conference guests. While politicians were busy discussion security matters inside the Hotel Bayrischer Hof, the streets outside were taken by a large anti-conference protest. “We do not want your wars” some signs read, demanding global disarmament, while communist, pro-Russian and Catalan activists marched next to Kurdish politicians and pacifists.

Three times a charm. Feeling at home in his favourite German state Bavaria, EPP group’s Spitzenkandidat for EU elections, Manfred Weber, took part in a panel on Eastern European security, together with Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko and political scientist Ian Bremmer. The conversation, however, did not go as Weber might have hoped for as panellists and the audience tried to draw him out on how he could justify upholding EU values while hosting Hungary’s Fidesz party inside his group. Asked three times, he did not have a good answer. After the second question, he warned about kicking out Fidesz: “David Cameron took the Conservatives out of EPP, and now we have Brexit. My big fear is, if you split up Europe now, then you end up in a split European Union.” After the third, Weber dodged the question: “It is a fair question. And I ask you to talk with the same intensity about the same problems in other countries.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

Look out for our wrap-up from Day 3 on Monday morning. Discussions on Sunday will focus on the Middle East with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif scheduled to speak.

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