Guy Verhofstadt (Dendermonde, Belgium, 68 years old) is brimming with energy. The last five weeks, Europe’s darkest in decades, have been one of relentless activity, but he feels he still has much to do and little time to waste. After a busy day in Madrid, the former Belgian Prime Minister (1999-2008) and leader for a decade of the liberal group (ALDE) in the European Parliament received EL PAÍS on Thursday. Verhofstadt, who in addition to being an MEP is co-president of the Conference on the Future of Europe, does not stop gesturing at any time and takes advantage of any moment, even while attending to the photographer’s requests, to stress that the EU has to toughen sanctions against Russia for the invasion of Ukraine.
Ask. you posted last week a tweet in which he assured that if Russia ends up being successful in Ukraine, another Eastern European country will be next. What makes you convinced of it?
Answer. A couple of months ago we all believed that [el presidente ruso, Vladímir] Putin would not go so far as to attack Ukraine. And we were wrong. The Minsk agreements and the guarantees that had been approved when Ukraine became independent (the Budapest Memorandum, signed in 1994 by Moscow, Washington and London) were in force, and none of this has been fulfilled. Ukraine’s fight is a fight for Europe, for the path they chose in 2014 with the association agreement with the EU, which had very clear support from the population, even among Russophones. I think the war really has nothing to do with protecting the language; what Putin is worried about is having another democratic and pro-European country on his borders. Therefore, if he has invaded Ukraine, I think it is possible that in time he could go, for example, to the Balts, countries with Russian-speaking minorities.
P. The ruble is recovering while EU countries pay some 700 million euros a day for imported Russian oil and gas. Are the sanctions imposed by the EU enough?
R. No, no, clearly not. We cannot continue to finance Putin’s war. We need to impose a temporary embargo on Russian gas, oil and coal now. And the sanctions must not only affect the oligarchs, who are working with their lawyers on how to circumvent them, but must include the second layer of the Russian elite, such as some mayors or officials. Our first reaction after the invasion was good, then the lack of unanimity stopped us.
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P. And what is the solution to end the dependency on Russian hydrocarbons overnight?
R. Prices would increase even more, but the cold weather is ending and the embargo would be lifted as soon as the war ended. If we really want to show solidarity, we have to be willing to suffer the consequences of sanctions. The US has vetoed the importation of Russian oil and has just announced that it will release one million barrels a day from its reserves onto the market. Meanwhile, we are talking about plans to end Russia’s energy dependency in five or 10 years, but that is useless now; what is needed is a temporary embargo and taking the necessary measures to alleviate the impact on European societies.
P. What kind of measures? The approval of another European recovery fund?
R. Probably yes. We must make permanent the fiscal capacity that was achieved with the response to the pandemic. It is necessary to be able to react to crises such as the current one or future ones with rapid investments in the affected sectors and mitigate the impact on citizens.
P. Surprisingly, Russia does not completely dominate the airspace and Ukrainian fighter pilots are still being able to fly. Can the West do more to keep this situation going?
R. Yes. I understand that you don’t want to impose a no-fly zone, because it would involve direct NATO involvement, but then we have to give them fighter planes and anti-aircraft missile systems so that they can defend Ukraine’s existence.
P. And apart from that, should we continue to supply more weapons?
R. Everything that Ukraine asks of us and needs in order to continue defending its integrity and European values.
P. Is it time to create a European armed forces?
R. The time has come long ago to organize a European defense, not against NATO, but as part of the Alliance. It is an urgent and priority matter. The annual military expenditure of the EU countries is around €240 billion and we are not prepared to protect ourselves from Russia, which has an investment of €65 billion. This is due, among other reasons, to duplications. And now we have a good relationship with [el presidente de EE UU, Joe] Biden, but it can happen, I hope not, that [Donald] Trump or someone like him back in power.
P. Are you in favor of creating a fast track for Ukraine to join the EU?
R. What I do not understand is that we have to wait for the Commission to issue an opinion on admission. They are lost months. I believe that formal negotiations must begin now. And it will be a process that will last years, because there will be a few necessary reforms to be carried out in a devastated country.
P. More than three million Ukrainians have crossed into EU countries fleeing the war. Will they be able to have a lasting solution?
R. The intention with which the European temporary protection directive is being applied is that people can return to their country when the war is over. I think it’s the right thing to do, we have to show solidarity with them now and wait until circumstances allow them to come back.
P. Russia and Belarus have been crushing political opposition for years. Can Brussels do more about it?
R. Pass more and more sanctions. And I think we have to be tough on the oligarchs, but have a more positive attitude towards Russia in general. There are millions of Europeans who speak Russian, it is a language that we must encourage. Let’s facilitate the arrival of Russian and Belarusian students, artists, scientists.
P. Hungary is being one of the most reluctant countries to tighten sanctions, in addition to not allowing weapons destined for Ukraine to pass through its territory. And some regulations promoted by the Executive of Viktor Orbán in recent years clearly go against the essential values of the European project. How relevant are the parliamentary elections this Sunday?
R. They are crucial. In the European family we are seeing how one of its members is creating an authoritarian regime and that is unacceptable. Let us trust that the elections will be free and fair.
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