Munich Security Conference 2019 – Day #3

The 55th Munich Security Conference, in Munich, Germany, 15 February 2019. [EPA-EFE/RONALD WITTEK]

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 3 in a nutshell.

Rants and courtesies. The Near and Middle East were in the focus on the third and last day. One of the highlights was the appearance of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif.

As expected before, Zarif used his speech to criticise the United States, launching a blistering attack on US Vice President Mike Pence for his speech the day before, saying his allegations that Tehran was plotting a “new Holocaust” were “hateful” and “ignorant”. Zarif called the US “pathologically” fixed on Iran and generally “the biggest threat to the world”. The speech lived up to its expectations: a striking performance, conducted in fluent and idiomatic English.

On the Iran nuclear deal, Zarif also piled fresh pressure on the EU. It was in Europe’s interest to stick to the agreement, he told the conference audience.  Somewhat surprisingly, he said the recently created INSTEX trade mechanism by Britain, France and Germany to bypass US sanctions on Iran was inadequate – a comment that will raise European eyebrows.

As expected, Iran’s foreign minister accused Israel of warmongering and warned that its behaviour and that of the United States was increasing the chances of a clash in the region. The key receivers of his message, however, watched from afar: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi State Secretary Adel al-Jubair canceled their participation, the latter was meant to sit at the panel.

‘Recipe for suicide’. Speaking with yours truly about nuclear deterrence, arms control ambitions and the current INF Treaty debate, 2017 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Beatrice Fihn painted a rather grim picture for the future: Bringing a 1950s radioactive technology capable of wiping out cities into a high-tech environment is a recipe for suicide, she said. “Europeans have to own up to their role and complicity,” Fihn urged “We hear that the US should do this, Russia should do that, but what should we Europeans do?” Read the full interview here.

Ukraine war side-lined. While the fifth anniversary of the Maidan revolution and the start of the Ukrainian war is coming up this week, Europe’s forgotten war has been indeed disturbingly absent from conference talks.

“After two days of immersion in the reality of the Munich Security Conference, a lot of thoughts have come into my mind. Russian aggression against Ukraine is still perceived by many as a drama movie they watch from their comfortable sofa reality. Obviously, some find it more convenient and this, of course, is very annoying,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin wrote on Facebook after the conference.

And with a side jab, he pointed out that there is more talk than action as the number of security forums is growing. The diplomat wrote that “the good news is that there are more and more people who realise they cannot continue this way – something needs to be done with Russia.”

Accession hopes. According to our flies on the walls, both Ukraine and Georgia in the backroom talks were lobbying their expectations towards a possible NATO membership. Georgia’s prime minister Mamuka Bakhtadze spoke about Georgia´s expectations towards a possible NATO membership at a round table devoted to alliance enlargement prospects hosted by the Munich Security Conference. After meeting officials from the US, UK and Belgium, he pointed out that NATO membership remains the top priority of Georgia’s foreign policy. “A further NATO enlargement is the best option for increased security and peace in Europe and Georgia is ready to continue its efforts and provide a very solid basis for this,” he said, expressing the hope that Georgia will find ways to advance on its way to NATO membership.

Doomsday is coming. EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier roamed the conference corridors this weekend with a rather grim look on his face. “It feels like with his presence here in Munich he wants to haunt the Europeans and remind them that Brexit is a security concern too,” a non-European diplomat joked. On his way back to Brussels, Barnier tweeted the latest warning to the British side that time to finally find an agreement is running out.

Breakfast shout-out. During a breakfast panel, an exchange of words between US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell and former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt was yet another indication of shattered relationships. “I hope in your reports to Washington on European views you’re more sophisticated than you are here,” Bildt said.

The US delegation, which according to conference chief Wolfgang Ischinger, has this year been the largest to date. A total of 55 bipartisan members of the US Senate and the House of Representatives have been announced. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi leads a Congressional delegation to Brussels today, probably to try to calm European allies after Pence’s speech.


“Who will pick up the pieces?” After four days of security hard talk, participants were not entirely sure if they had found any answer to this question in the Bavarian capital. Or, as a report by the conference organisers put it, ‘all signs point towards the possibility that the US-led liberal world order could be doomed to falling apart’.

While a power competition is emerging among US, China and Russia, other countries are rather reluctant or even incapable to step up as guardians of the “liberal order,” the security conference report argued.

A new Pew Research Center poll, published in the report, suggests that Germans have more trust in Russia’s strongman President Vladimir Putin to handle world affairs than in Trump.

European are facing uncertainties at their own continent and are still somewhat undecided how to match words with actions on their continent’s defence and security policy. As the conference drew to a close, it is one thing that especially stands out: The rift between Europe and Trump (important: not America).

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

We’ll be taking a closer look on transatlantic uncertainties in today’s The Brief.

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