Munich Security Conference – Day #1

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier delivers the opening statement during the 56th Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, Germany, 14 February 2020. [EPA-EFE/PHILIPP GUELLAND]

As high-ranking security leaders gather in Bavaria for the annual Munich Security Conference this weekend, EURACTIV gives you a glimpse into what is driving the conversation on foreign, defence and security policy. Here’s Day 1 in a nutshell.

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GERMAN HARD TALK. The conference got off to a tough start as Germany’s President Frank Walter Steinmeier accused Washington, Beijing and Moscow of jeopardising the international order by stoking global mistrust and insecurity with a “great powers competition”. In his opening remarks, Steinmeier advocated for a more assertive German policy, echoing calls from many in Europe for more action on joint defence in recent years. However, few went as far as French President Macron, who continuously advocates for Europe to strive for strategic autonomy from Washington. More here.

Other German officials were also surprisingly outspoken. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, called on Germany and Europe to take on a greater international security role in light of evolving relations with the US.

“For too long, we, Europeans, have shut our eyes to the uncomfortable reality of what the withdrawal of the US from military engagement and from international treaties means for us,” Maas said, opening a discussion on the changing nature of the international order and multilateralism.

Maas then did step closer to the French vision, calling for the “construction of a European security and defence union” but only “as a strong, European pillar of NATO.”

Responding to an offer made earlier this week by Macron, he also said Germany is prepared to discuss a European strategy related to France’s nuclear weapon arsenal.

Various sources talking to EURACTIV in the corridors suggested that Germany’s suddenly outspoken foreign policy stance might also have to do with efforts to shift the perception of domestic instability. “Or, maybe, Brexit has worked miracles on the Germans,” one participant added.

US TALK ON 5G. It was probably a good thing it was US Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, to talk first at the conference. However, her remarks on China bluntly underlined bipartisan suspicion of Huawei in the United States. Pelosi backed Trump’s warning to European allies that letting Chinese telecom giant Huawei build their 5G next-generation communication network poses a grave security threat.

“Such an ill-conceived concession will only embolden [Chinese President Xi Jinping] as he undermines democratic values, human rights, economic independence and national security.”

“Why is it ok for China to use Western tech for years, but now the West can’t use Chinese tech?” a representative from China’s National People’s Congress asked from the audience. “Are your democratic systems really that fragile that they are endangered by Huawei?”

The US-Europe divide is expected to become much more evident on Saturday, especially on Europe’s defence spending commitments, when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence chief Mark Esper talk to NATO’s Jens Stoltenberg later in the day. Even more so as, according to French sources, President Macron makes a solo appearance at the same time and will publicly push for Europe to become more independent from the US.

GHOSTS OF BREXIT PAST. The EU and Britain have a shared interest in retaining close security ties after Brexit, German defence minister told Reuters before the event kicked off: “It is important to me that the UK remains involved for common security in Europe, even if it is no longer part of the EU,” said Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

However, Britain has so far not made further steps or offered extended comments on the future EU-UK security and defence relationship, two weeks after it left the bloc. The absence of senior UK officials here raised eyebrows, considering the UK’s position as one of Europe’s biggest defence powers and announcements of a post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’.

MIDDLE EAST INSECURITY. The turmoil in the region tops the agenda in most corridor talks in Munich. Conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger said he was “deeply troubled” by the “unforgivable failure” of the international community in the Syria conflict, and regretted the failure of the Libya peace plan recently secured in Berlin. A Libya conference follow-up meeting by foreign ministers meeting on Sunday is meant to once again assess the status quo.

The biggest clash is likely to come when US and Iranian representatives take the stage on Saturday, just weeks after the US targeted killing of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani left Europeans struggling to preserve the EU-brokered Iran nuclear deal.

“I think the Iranians have understood that this American president is willing to push to the edge,” said analyst James Davis. “The killing of Soleimani must have been a wake-up call for them. And he is willing to challenge them in the region. And both sides recognise that the potential for conflict is there. And maybe that’s what you need to restart something of a diplomatic process.”

EU PEACE PLAN? Trump’s Middle East peace plan will likely lead to conflicts at this year’s gathering. EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell criticised the plan for favouring Israel and called on EU foreign ministers to table their own ideas in the form of a common European strategy to promote peace, which they will have the chance to do when they meet in Brussels on Monday.

Borrell said he was concerned that the current US plan could lead to the annexation of the Jordan Valley and other parts of the West Bank and warned the EU would be forced to act against such serious violations of international law.

WOMEN IN SECURITY. Conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger has delightedly announced that this year, for the first time, more than 20% of the conference participants are women. “We have made great efforts to improve the gender balance, and we’ve succeeded,” he said. Perhaps, if one considers a 1 to 5 ratio a balance. Nevertheless, it has been greeted as a step in the right direction as gender parity in security policy is still far from reality. But it is indeed a success that for the first time discussions about women in peace and security were part of the main programme.

CORONA UPDATE. A panel on the current situation with the Coronavirus crisis will be held during the weekend with the World Health Organization’s Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is the first Chinese senior official to travel overseas since the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus and is slated to give a geopolitical speech at the Munich Conference. However, expect also some more on Beijing’s efforts to contain the flu-like virus.

In the meantime, organisers were proactive and handed out gadgets supposed to prevent any virus spread during the conference.

RAILWAY RAPPRACHEMENT. On the sidelines of the conference, Serbian and Kosovo officials, together with US special envoy Richard Grenell, have inked a US-brokered deal to restore a railway link between Belgrade and Pristina and to connect the two capitals. It was greeted as a “milestone” (Kosovo President Hashim Thaci on Twitter) and a step toward normalising bilateral relations. “We feel that this will bring us a better future and that we will ensure peace for decades to come,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said, while both thanked US President Trump for his leadership. According to a regional source, a breakthrough in the EU-facilitated Belgrade–Pristina dialogue “is not far off, even this year and would bring back EU diplomacy back on track in the region after the enlargement fiasco”.

DEFENCE SPENDING. Meanwhile, a new study has found global defence spending see its biggest jump in a decade in 2019, driven by the US and China. According to the ‘Military Balance’ report of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the 4% rise, compared to 2018, was fuelled by competition between major powers, new military technologies and rumbling warfare from Ukraine to Libya.

“Spending rose as economies recovered from the effects of the financial crisis, but increases have also been driven by sharpening threat perceptions,” IISS chief John Chipman said, launching the report at the Conference.

Both the US and China increased spending by 6.6%, the report said, to $684.6 billion and $181.1 billion respectively, while spending in Asia has grown more than 50% in a decade, rising from $275 billion in 2010 to $423bn in 2019. Beijing’s military modernisation programme – which includes developing new hard-to-detect hypersonic missiles — is alarming Washington and helping drive US defence spending, the IISS said in Munich.

Europe, eyeing Russia’s military modernisation projects with new hypersonic missile systems, raised its own spending by 4.2%. With that, the continent’s defence spending is back to 2008 levels, before the global financial crisis saw budgets slashed.

DEMO TIME. According to police reports, nine demonstrations against the conference have been registered for the weekend. The ‘Fridays for Future’ movement took to the streets on Friday and the big demonstration of the “Action Alliance against the NATO Security Conference” has been announced for Saturday – with 4,000 expected participants. Around 3,900 police officers have been deployed.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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