ECHO official: EU, US are not so different on the world stage

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There is no “difference on philosophy” between the European Union and United States, says Claus Sørensen, director-general of DG Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO). He says that the Prism intelligence-gathering operation is probably similar to what some of the bigger European member states are doing, though on a smaller and less obtrusive scale.

Claus Sørensen, a Danish career diplomat, has worked for the European institutions since 1990. Before becoming director-general of ECHO, he headed DG Communication.

He spoke to EURACTIV Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

Looking at the unfolding Prism scandal and allegations of US eavesdropping activities in the EU and its member states, I would like to ask you: is there a basic difference, a difference of philosophy, between EU and US action in the world? 

I’m not so sure that when it comes to the fundamental values, there is a lot of difference between the EU and the US. I believe that the United States has far bigger means, has much more weight, and also therefore has more serious responsibilities than the EU, which is only a union growing up. I mean, we are only a teenager, compared to the US, as a governance entity.

And that perhaps means that we are more transparent, more interactive. We are also more accustomed to live with contradictions and differences, because we are still constructing this union, into a kind of coherent political whole. And in this construction process we have to understand that people have very different points of view, more than you would expect to be the case in the US.

So I think with strength and mature governance comes responsibilities, but also some projection of power, which we don’t have yet. And you see in the military area, you see it in the policy area, you see it also in the intelligence areas. But what the Americans are doing is what some of the bigger European member states are, I believe, also doing, just on a much smaller on a less obtrusive way. So I’m not sure there is a difference on philosophy.

Let’s take Lebanon as an example. There are differences of approach which can lead to different scenarios, aren’t they?

Yes, there are different approaches, but there are differences also in the American political landscape, and there are differences inside Europe. There are people who think we made a mistake when we put Al-Fatah or Hezbollah in the corner. There are people who think we should have a dialogue, even if such and such organisation committed to terrorism. And there are people who say no, we need to take a very tough line, because that’s the only think they would understand.

These differences of opinion, you will find them on both sides of the Atlantic. The difference is that in Washington, when they have a majority, they actually implement the policy. If they have blacklisted Hezbollah, it actually makes it difficult to allow that their representatives in the IMF give green light to assistance for this organisation. Whereas in Europe, you may have some discussion whether Hezbollah are terrorist or non-terrorist, but that does not necessarily bind the voice of France, or Britain, or Germany, in the board of the IMF. Because we haven’t yet put in place a proper governance structure for these kinds of instructions to be given.

So the result is more muddy. That is what makes you think that perhaps the objectives of the US and the EU are different, but I’m not so sure, at the end of the day.

We all want a democratic development in Syria, we are all scared of parts of the rebels who are not abiding by basic human rights and international humanitarian law. And we all would like to see a good and solid government coming on the Palestinian side, not linked to terrorism. On the broad lines, there is wide convergence. But when it comes to the details, there are different nuances. But that’s my point of view.

The European External Action Service is not part of the Commission. How do you work with them – obviously you need to coordinate on a lot of issues?

I believe that whether you are in the same institution or in different institutions, you have to keep communications lines open, you have to share information, you have to help each other to do their work as best as possible.

A lot of people on both sides in the Commission and in EEAS are inspired by that approach. If we discuss issues, if we design a policy, I think everybody can find their place to carry out their action in conformity with their mandate. I have a humanitarian mandate, I want to know how the military situation is in Syria, how is the security situation, because that affects my assessment of needs. I need the others to give me knowledge and they need knowledge from me, as to how I see the humanitarian needs and challenges.

It’s really a plus-sum game, if we manage to talk together and have a common analysis. When it comes to accountability in spending the money, or who speaks in which circumstances, my position is very clear: we just stick to our mandate.

[Humanitarian Aid] Commissioner [Kristalina] Georgieva has a mandate on humanitarian assistance, she speaks on that. But of course, she makes use of knowledge coming from the foreign service, from development etc.

Commissioner Georgieva often rings the bell, saying that the situation is more dramatic than we think. People on the ground will not be reassured with your diplomatic explanations…

Of course not, but I believe there is a very important role for the EEAS to help us with better political analysts in order to prevent from risks in the future.

Let me give you an example. The upheaval in Mali was something that actually was foreseen in some parts in EEAS, but it was given the attention it needed at that moment. I think there is an important role for the EEEAs to engage into good analysis, to combine economic, ethnic, demographic facts, with security policy elements in a risk analysis, and then, deploy preventive diplomacy, and also making sure that the development efforts are dealing with the root causes of conflicts.

There the EEAS has a real role, but again, it’s a young institution, it has to grow over time to find its role. We have a role in dealing with humanitarian needs, once the disaster has struck and the conflict has happened. So I think you need both arms. 

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