The Ukrainian crisis comes as nations within the European Union prepare to cast their votes in the May European Parliament elections. Eurosceptic parties are raising their voices, and their popularity is rapidly growing, as citizens continue to grow tired of austerity and bureaucracy ruling Europe. Will the May elections change the stakes? To find this out, Sophie talks to Dutch politician and leader of the Eurosceptic Party for Freedom, Geert Wilders.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Geert Wilders, Dutch politician, leader of the Party for Freedom, it’s great to have you here on our show. So, we’re just going to get started and go ahead with Ukraine. Now, there is a blame game going on over Ukraine; the US and Europe are pointing fingers at Russia, while Moscow says it is the West that is to blame. Who do you think is responsible?
Geert Wilders: I think what the EU did was very irresponsible, because last year they promised Ukraine that they would have some kind of pre-accession treaty and maybe in the future become a member of the European Union, and we all know that it was a very delicate balance in Ukraine, with 50 percent looking eastwards, towards Russia, and 50 percent of the population looking westwards, towards the European Union. So I think it was very irresponsible what the EU did; they should have kept out of it. On the other hand, I must also say that Ukraine still is, even though Europe made a big mistake there, it is an autonomous sovereign country, and I also believe that not only the EU should have stayed out of it, but also Russia should really not interfere. The best thing to do is to de-escalate by taking the Russian minority in eastern Ukraine seriously; give them rights and make them really feel as important as the other half of Ukraine, and then, I also hope Russia will be able to retract and not interfere as well.
SS: But before you talk about de-escalation, you’ve mentioned that the EU is responsible, partially, for what’s going on right now, for the result that we have, which is a country on the brink of a civil war. But why do you think it was so supportive in the beginning? Do you think it lacked the understanding of the complexity of the situation on the ground?
GW: Unfortunately, the EU – and that’s very unwise – wants to expand; it wants to have all the Europhiles, and Brussels wants to have more and more members, and they forget that it’s not only about themselves. Everybody, even a child, could see that Ukraine was not a country where 99 percent of the people supported the idea of joining the EU. Half of the country is against it, was more and is more pro-Russian. So I believe that the EU indeed played a very irresponsible role, should have kept out of it. I saw even European politicians, members of parliament, even Dutch members of parliament, were standing on the square in Kiev and saying the wrong things, making the people believe that they would have all the support of the West, ignoring the fact that it was not to ease the situation within Ukraine itself. Europe was very irresponsible, but I also have to be honest, it still is a sovereign country, so I also believe that Russia should have respected the sovereignty of Ukraine and should have stayed out of the country, and I hope that without Europe interfering and without Russia interfering things can still de-escalate now, without sanctions, but with common sense, and I think one of the keys to the solution is to take the Russian minority in the east of the Ukraine, take them seriously. The EU should take two steps back and also Russia should do the same, and I hope that will be a peaceful outcome that way.
SS: So you’re talking about de-escalation and staying out of Ukraine’s affairs - so you do think the EU shouldn’t help Ukraine right now, in its current mess?
GW: The EU is responsible for the mess. Like I said, last November they promised Ukraine some kind of pre-accession treaty, some kind of membership. This was very irresponsible, and I believe Europe was more thinking about itself and expanding it and its territory than really thinking about the whole of Ukraine, let alone the stability in that region, and the stability in that region is not served by Russia on the one hand and the EU or NATO on the other hand; it’s only getting more tense. So it was very irresponsible what Europe did and I hope, once again, that it would de-escalate if Russia would take two steps back, the European Union would take a few steps back, and if we take…If the Ukrainian federal government takes the rights of the Russian minority seriously, then I hope that all parts will be able to de-escalate in a peaceful way, that is, I think, where we all will benefit the most.
SS: Are there are a lot of politicians in Europe that share your point of view? I mean, taking the blame, partially, for what is going on in Ukraine and also trying to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine?
GW: Yes, I think there are more. There is a gap, really, between the vox populi - the popular voice - and what the governments say. I mean, once again, I’m not only blaming the EU, I’m blaming both Russia and the EU. But I have to be honest, the European Union made a terrible move in the begging of November last year, and they at least partially started a lot of the troubles, and that analysis is shared by more parties in the EU for sure.
SS: But now the EU is introducing more sanctions against Russia – are they achieving anything at all, in your opinion?
GW: You know, I’m not the biggest believer in sanctions. It’s not good for anybody – it’s not good for Europe, it’s not good for Russia, it’s not good for Ukraine. So I think we should to try to, once again, de-escalate. I mean, if the Russian army would invade Ukraine, which I believe would be a terrible mistake, then, of course, you could talk about sanctions. But now, sanctions could be even counter-productive, at least if you make forward more economical sanctions. I think that Europe should also take part of the blame, because they made big mistakes, but also Russia should take part of the blame, they also made mistakes, and if the two parts agree on that, and focus on Ukraine, and also, once again, take the Russian minority - which is an enormous minority in eastern Ukraine - take them seriously, give them serious rights, then I hope that more sanctions will be not only counter-productive, but will also be unnecessary. I hope it’s not too late, but we should try at least.
SS: Alright, but like you’ve said, Russia hasn’t invaded Ukraine yet – so as of right now, what kind of effect are European politicians hoping for with the sanctions?
GW: Well, in the Netherlands, there is a majority, I have to say, of the parties that support the Dutch government and support the point of view of the EU. My party might be different; once again, we are not only blaming Russia, but we are also looking at the EU, and we believe that only to have more sanctions is counter-productive. And you are right, even though what happened in the Crimea region was not what we supported – what Russia did there, but Russia has not invaded eastern Ukraine yet and I hope they won’t, and in order to do that sanctions are, I believe today, counter-productive, at least what the Americans and what others want to do – just to step up the sanctions, to have more sanctions today. I don’t really think that will help. I think to “de-escalate” is the word that will help and threatening with sanctions and other things, in either way, most of the time really has no positive effect.
SS: Now, the Netherlands is the EU’s largest gas producer. Can it cover for any loss of Russian gas imports to Europe?
GW: Well, we have, certainly, gas in the Netherlands, which I believe should be first used for the Netherlands itself, which is very logic[al], of course. It’s our gas and I believe we should use it, but also, of course, export it and sell it, and that is also a good thing for our economy. I don’t know if we could step up to the level that Russia is providing now to parts of Central and Eastern Europe, but once again, I hope it will not come that far, that the situation will escalate. I hope it will de-escalate, and more sanctions today, certainly more economic sanctions today, would not only be bad for Russia, it would also be bad for the EU, for our part of Europe, and I think this is something that we should not want today.
SS: We see the resurgence of Cold War-style relations between the US and Russia – is the EU ready to follow suit?
GW: Well, I hope that’s not the case. I hope that we will still have good relations with Russia, as we do with the US. I, myself, am very much in favor; I’m transatlanticist more than a fan of the EU, so I cherish the role that even the Dutch have within NATO. I subscribe to very good relations with the US, but I also believe we should have good relations with Russia. Russia is a very important part of the world, a very large and strong country. Of course, we can disagree on things, we can disagree on many things with Russia, with the US, with many other parts of the world, but another Cold War is something that I believe would be a very bad thing that nobody is waiting for; that will have bad results not only politically but also economically, which will have more tensions all over the border between NATO in Eastern Europe and Russia. I hope, really, and I’m not naïve, but I hope that we can prevent another Cold War in Europe.
SS: I want to talk about the rising Euroscepticism. Prominent US politician and author Pat Buchanan, I’m sure you know who he is, he recently said that nationalism is on the rise, while globalization is a the thing of the past. Do you share his point of view?
GW: Yes, I think it [is]. But I call it myself “patriotism” – I’m a patriot, I believe there should be a lot of patriots. I believe a lot of Russians are patriots as well and we should be proud of our own country. You know what happened in the last decades, its that our national sovereignty in the EU collapsed, there came a European superstate, of all European elections that nobody in Holland or in Belgium or in the UK, nobody not only knows them, but nobody voted for them, and they are in charge now of almost all the law-making process in our own country. We lost our identity; we lost our national sovereignty to the EU, an institution that really a lot of people in the West don’t like so much anymore. I have nothing against Europe, but I have a lot against the EU as an organization. We want to regain control over our own borders, over our own money, over our own budget – all rights that we have given to the bureaucrats in Brussels, and we want them back. Everybody knows that Spanish people are different from Swedish people, my own Dutch people are not the same as Portuguese – and it’s a good thing, there is not a “European” people, that doesn’t exist – I mean, several countries exist. I believe we should cooperate in an economical way, with an internal market and trade between one another, even can benefit from that, but we should stop with the political project called the “European Union,” because that’s a big failure, to be honest.
SS: But you’re not the only one actually voicing this concern - there is France that is being actually very worried about the immigration problems. Switzerland is tightening its borders, also Britain is sounding alarm. Do you think it’s something that’s going to pass, or is it something that is going to escalate into something bigger?
GW: Well, it's not going to pass – I mean, let’s be honest, all the Europhiles, all these pro-European parties, they ignore the problem, they say that it’s ridiculous and they ignore it, and they will not act on it. And you see the parties like mine, but also in the UK and France – we will probably if not win the elections in the end of May for the EU Parliament, we will be number one or number two on the national elections. Millions of people in Europe, and that’s why the elections in May are so historical for Europe – because for the first time, millions of people are going to cast their vote against the EU. People who want less EU will be in control of their own money, of their own budget, of their own borders, of their own lawmaking, and those parties - and that’s another reason why the elections will be crucial and historical – will also hopefully be able to work together in the EU Parliament to sound a different voice, to cast a different vote in the EU Parliament, and that will not only have an enormous effect on the European politics, but also on the national politics. A lot of things will really change; people are fed up with big fat bureaucrats in Brussels, whom nobody elected, doing the most crazy things that are not good for our country. Let me give you one example. We have, in my country, the Netherlands, but in many other western European countries, we have had raising of taxes, we have had austerity programs of billions of Euros, and we send that money to Greece, to Cyprus, to Portugal, to weaker European countries, and at the same time, people in Holland, they had less money in the pockets and we send that money abroad. People are fed up with that. With 700,000 unemployed people in the Netherlands, we don’t want more immigrants from other countries to come here. We want jobs to be there for our own people, I think it’s very logic[al] as well.
SS: Also, once the economic growth picks up, won’t the Euroscepticism weaken?
GW: Listen, I believe….for instance, I want my country to leave the European Union. I would like us to be a second Switzerland. You know the country of Switzerland – it’s in the heart of Europe, but is not a member of the EU. And, if we could still have access to the internal market, without being a member of the EU, I think we commissioned a report by an independent bureau, and it showed that only the Netherlands would have 10 percent more economical growth; people would have more money in their pockets, there would be more jobs in the Netherlands if Holland would leave the EU. Still, we could trade with the other countries of the EU, but we could also have more free trade agreements with other parts of Europe, where there is more economical growth than Europe today. Look at Asia, look at Latin America, look at Africa – there is more economical growth in those regions than in Europe itself. For instance, Switzerland – it already has for a few years a free trade agreement with Japan, it signed a free trade agreement with China last year. Europe has neither one of them; Europe is still fighting between one another on whether should we have a trade agreement with Japan and China, and on which conditions. So, you are far more flexible outside of the EU and like Switzerland, a very strong economical country, we can deal better economically when we are in charge of our country, again, when it comes to national sovereignty – so, yes, we would like to leave the EU and be stronger as a national country.
SS: So are you saying that the EU has exhausted itself in its current form? Because what I remember, the Netherlands was actually a pretty poor country 20-30 years ago, and the European community has helped it become very stable and very rich…
GW: Listen, when Europe started, the EU started in the 50s, you know, 1957, it started in a good way, and I wish it should have stayed like that, because it started with economical cooperation and I believe in economical cooperation. I believe in free trade – everybody, every country can benefit from trading with one another. But then, after the 50s, in the 60s and 70s and 80s and later, it became a political project. Instead of economical cooperation and free trade it changed into a kind of European superstate, where politicians try to make foreign policy; you see what happened in Ukraine, what a mess they made about it. They try with one currency, with the Eurozone, they try to be stronger economically, and it was a disaster. The Western countries, the northern part of Europe, paid for the southern part of Europe, and our economy did not grow in the last year. The Netherlands had more economical growth before we entered the Eurozone than after we were part of the Eurozone. And the EU didn’t bring peace either; once again, the example of Ukraine, where they made a big mess of it, but also in the former wars of Yugoslavia – look at Bosnia, Europe did nothing, it was the others, like America, that came to help. So the EU was not good for our sovereignty, was not good for our economy, is bad for foreign policy. I believe we can be far better off outside the Eurozone and outside the European Union. More and more, not a majority today, but more and more people in any European country share this view. So I really believe that the elections later, in a month's time, will be historic in our continent Europe.
SS: The Eurosceptic movement is fragmented, and every Eurosceptic party has different goals. Can you form a single block in the EU Parliament?
GW: I really hope so. I’m a positive guy, so I really hope that we’ll be able to do so. Look at the groups in the EU Parliament – there are parties working together that have more differences than we have. Look, for instance, at the Christian Democrats in Holland, or the Christian democrats from Angela Merkel – the Bundeskanzler for Germany. They work together with the party of Mr. Berlusconi, and I have nothing against that, but they have far more differences than we have with so many other parties. So, I believe that its our responsibility to try to work together. I’m confident that we can work together; we should overstep our differences, and, hey, I’m not looking for merging of the parties. I don’t want us to get together in one party, I just want to cooperate in political fraction, in the political group in the EU Parliament. I believe that in any institution, certainly, when it claims to be democratic, you need a balance of power, you need counter-falling powers, you need not Europhiles, but you also need Eurosceptic parties. The party of Mrs. Le Pen, the party of Mr. Farage, UKIP, the party in Austria, the FPÖ, Sweden – we all have one thing in common. We want to have more powers to our national capitals instead of Brussels, we want more sovereignty and we want to be stronger economically, and we want to have our own foreign policy, not the foreign policy dictated by commissions, whether its in Ukraine or anything else, that we have not elected. It’s crazy that we have commissioners in charge that nobody elected in the Netherlands – it’s like a coup d’état, almost. We should get our powers back, and I believe that we will be able to work together, but I can only prove it, of course, after the elections. Not today.
SS: But here’s another thing – a moderate pro-EU stance will most probably still dominate the polls, so won’t the anti-EU threat encourage them to work closer to resist your influence?
GW: The pro-Europeans are already afraid. They are getting nervous; they see that we are getting popular day by day, that millions of Europeans will vote against the Europhiles. Perhaps you remember ten years ago, we had referendum in France and in the Netherlands and in Ireland about the European constitution that then came into effect and the Europhiles tried to scare people, to make them afraid; they said “Well, without the EU you will lose your job, we will get war, the lights will go out, we’ll have big problems,” and nothing of that happened in reality, and people are not fooled by their threats anymore. So I think we should work together, I think we will not bring them any closer than they are today. It's one bunch – whether you are in EU Parliament today a liberal or a Christian Democrat, or a Social Democrat – it’s all the same. They all want more money, more Brussels, more foreign policy, more problems, and more transfer of rights from the national states to Brussels. And there is now a group of politicians and a group of parties, and millions of European citizens who want something else, and whatever they do, they will not be able to change it. It’s like a room being closed for decades and now somebody opens the window and a fresh wind is entering the window, which is very good for the atmosphere in that room, and they will not be able to change the course of history, I promise you that.
SS: Mr. Wilders, it was great talking to you. We were talking to Geert Wilders, Dutch politician, leader of the Party for Freedom. We were talking about whether the EU should help Ukrainians’ current mess and also what’s in store for the EU after this May's elections in the EU Parliament. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, I’ll see you next time.