British Conservative MEP and foreign affairs committee member Geoffrey Van Orden believes greater autonomy for Kosovo within Serbia would have been a better solution, strengthening reformists in Serbia and improving Western relations with Russia. He was speaking to EURACTIV in an interview.
Geoffrey Van Orden is a British Conservative MEP and a member of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee.
You have just returned from the NATO summit in Bucharest. There have been some setbacks there regarding the enlargement of the alliance. Could this affect EU enlargement?
NATO enlargement and EU enlargement are of course autonomous processes, but inevitably there is a linkage there. Quite often a country would join NATO when it also has the EU in its sights. I think the NATO summit was disappointing for most people. There are one or two who got something out of it. Putin of course stole the show, although he was not at the summit itself, he was at the subsequent NATO-Russia meeting and of course got a lot of attention from the media. The Greeks of course managed to block the accession of Macedonia. And President Sarkozy got quite a lot out of it as well.
He's been very keen to promote European Defence Policy, and now in exchange for US backing he made a promise [to send] a few extra troops to Afghanistan and made noises about rejoining the integrated military structure of the NATO alliance. But this is very much on his terms and I'm astonished that the Americans have gone so far now by having to endorse EU defence policy, which I think is detrimental to NATO and is not helpful.
Who are the losers: I'm not sure the Americans got what they wanted. Although there was a sort of agreement on missile defence, the summit declaration says that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO, but there is no timeframe on that, and the first step, the Membership Action Plan (MAP) which they expected to achieve, did not happen. I think this is disappointing from the American point of view, but also from the British point of view, since a promise of delivery of more combat troops was expected from other countries, and that really was not forthcoming.
Do you think that the denial of Membership Action Plans for Georgia and Ukraine brought about a division in the EU along the lines of 'old' and 'new' Europe?
First of all, I'm not a believer in some kind of distinct European identity that is different to other identities. I prefer to think of a Western alliance of free nations, which means that European nations and our transatlantic allies should be thinking as one. And this idea that there is some distinct European interest which is essentially different to that of the United States, I really reject that view.
Within that, there will also be individual nations who, for their own good reasons, have different views about some particular subject. I think it's unfortunate if Paris and Berlin want to cozy up to Moscow at the expense of Washington. I'm not saying this is necessarily the case, but some noises that were coming out weren't terribly helpful. We need solidarity given the threats and the challenges we are faced with, we need Western solidarity, not division. I think that some positions taken at Bucharest should not have gone that far. There are things that need to be sorted out before a summit meeting. I think it was insulting to the Macedonians to be led up to the golden path, only to find that the gate is closed.
Some analysts say that the Macedonians were misled into believing that with US backing they would win against the Greek demands.
Well, I don't want to put it that way. It's not a question of the US, I think that all the Europeans with the exception of Greece were broadly happy with Macedonia joining with Croatia and Albania.
How would you describe the situation in Serbia, which feels offended by the 'amputation' of part of its territory, and how could the EU help the reformists there?
I'm not happy personally about the outcome in Kosovo. I'm not sure that was the best we could come to and I think we should have tried harder to find a way to give Kosovo greater autonomy within Serbia. I'm not looking for ways to make relationships with Russia more difficult than they are. On the contrary, I want good relations with Russia and I think it's in Russia's strategic interest to have good relations with the West. I don't see a lot of point in just finding issues which are going to put Russia on a different side to ourselves, and this is one of them. And after all, we are not dealing with a Serbia ruled by Milosevic, we are dealing with a democratically elected government in Serbia, and it seems very strange, that now that we have a democratically elected government, that we kick them in the most sensitive place.
You were the EP rapporteur on Bulgaria and you noticed how important it was for Bulgaria and Romania to solve the visa problem with the EU. Why not repeat the same exercise now with the Western Balkans?
I have to say that I'm quite sensitive on this freedom of movement issue. I think we have to be very careful about this. I'm looking at this purely from the point of view of my country, the United Kingdom. The fact is that immigration into the UK has been catastrophically uncontrolled over the last ten years. And this has been very damaging to our nation in many respects.
I'm not talking here necessarily about people who came to the UK from other European countries. In fact more people have come from outside of Europe than from Europe. And those who came from European countries have been good, productive workers, who fit into our society perfectly well.
The trouble is that all this opening up of borders came at the time when we have this deluge of people from other parts, from South Asia, from the Middle East, from Africa. And I think it's there we see problems arising. I welcome the number of Bulgarians, for example, who came in the UK, they are relatively small and all reports I've heard have been good reports. So this is not the problem area, the fact is that the new countries bordering Eastern and Central Europe, their own borders are not as secure as they might be, and the influx that we get will get in our own country.
Are you more optimistic about the reunification of Cyprus following the opening of the Ledra crossing?
I'm more optimistic now that there is a new president of the Republic of Cyprus. People seem to forget that the Turkish Cypriots have tried to be quite helpful in this process. When four years ago there was an opportunity for a referendum on the United Nations-based plan to bring about the reunification of the island on certain terms, the Turkish Cypriots voted in favour, and the plan was rejected by the Greek Cypriots. And who do we punish? The Turkish Cypriots. The EU said at that time it would end the isolation of Northern Cyprus, and that has been blocked all along by the Republic of Cyprus.
I am delighted that the new President of the Republic of Cyprus is determined to make progress in overcoming the division of the island. The opening of the Ledra crossing is the right message, and let's hope the process doesn't stop there and that we can have these things sorted out, because it also affects the relations of the EU with Turkey.
What is at stake in Turkey where the secular establishment and the army seem to be using the Constitutional Court for attacks against the ruling AKP party?
The fact is that AKP has a strong democratic mandate. It's most unfortunate that the government has decided to rescind that article of the Constitution which bans the veil in schools, high schools, universities and government offices. I think this is a backward step and that it does not serve to reassure the people you are talking about, who are anxious about the direction in which the country is going.
I don't find this anxiety widespread. In general the AKP people are well regarded by the business community and the political class in Turkey. The fact is though that in the political base they do have many traditional elements who would like to give greater emphasis to the Islamic aspects of their party.
I would like to see all political parties in Turkey standing up for a secular democracy. I'm Christian, I believe and I respect other people's beliefs, but that's a separate matter from the government of a country. I think we have been encouraged over the eight or more years about the Western, secular direction that Turkey has been heading in and I wouldn't like to see anything that would divert them from that.
Eastern Europe has the lowest levels of corporate tax. Now we hear demands from the West to harmonise taxation. What is your opinion?
I do not want the European Union imposing tax rates on any of our countries. I think each of our countries should have the ability to maintain its competitive edge, and if it does that through the tax system, then fine. I don't want any harmonised taxation in Europe.
The EU interferes in too many aspects of our lives and I certainly don't want them interfering in the tax system. And so much of the legislation that comes out of the EU is unhelpful as far as business is concerned. And we should always remember that it is business, small businesses in particular, which are the motors of our economies. They are providing the employment, the growth and the prosperity. And we should be doing everything we can in order to assist businesses in an increasingly competitive world. Instead we are loading them with more rules and regulations and restrictions, more social policies. More and more people employed in the State sector were saying this all over, in the UK for example, this is not helpful, we should be going in a rather different direction.