Helmut Scholz of the European Left comments on effects of war in Ukraine upon EU’s energy policy and insufficiently developed regions.

Helmut Scholz has been a member of the European parliament for Die Linke since 2009 and is a member of the Committee on International Trade. He is also a member of the Working Group on the Conference on the Future of Europe, which was a citizen-led series of debates and discussions that ran from April 2021 to May 2022 and enabled people from across Europe to share their ideas and help shape our common future. Its final report can be read here.

Cross-border talks discussed with Mr. Scholz about the changes that war in Ukraine spurs in the EU policies, with a specific accent on the situation in Central and Southeastern Europe and its problems with energy transition. Helmut Scholz is also asked what a left-wing approach to the discourse of anti-corruption might look like.

The full transcription of the video is available below:

Vladimir Mitev: Welcome to another episode of Cross-Border Talks. We continue our efforts to reflect on how the war in Ukraine influences the European Union, the various regions of it, and the various issues that are somehow related with the EU’s future. And we are today joined for discussion by a member of the European Parliament, Mr. Scholz, who is going to be presented by Malgorzata.

Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Our guest is a member of the GUE-NGL group in the European Parliament, that is, the Left group in the European Parliament. He comes from Germany, from the Die Linke, or the Left party. In the European Parliament, he is working, among others, in the delegations for relations with Belarus and the delegation to the EU-Moldova Parliamentary Association Committee. He also works in the Committee on Constitutional Affairs and International Trade. So, Mr. Scholz, welcome to the program and thank you for being with us.

Helmut Scholz: Good morning, and thank you for having been invited to this exchange of views.

Everybody is now watching with anxiety, with grief, what is going on in Ukraine. Everybody is worried about the civilian population of Ukraine. And a lot of people, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, are asking themselves the question: what next? And before we ask the question of what next, I wanted us to come back in time. Two months before the invasion against Ukraine started. Vladimir Putin talked before the invasion to Emmanuel Macron. He also talked to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. We can say that there was a big effort on the part of European leaders to safeguard peace. Nevertheless, this effort failed. Does it mean that the European Union or top European countries are no longer important actors on a big international scene? What went wrong? Why did Europe not secure peace in Ukraine?

We are facing a very complicated situation. The European Union is in the direct neighborhood with Ukraine and Moldova and Belarus and in a certain way, of course, also with the Russian Federation. So the European Union as a peace Nobel Prize winner has in its core interest to find a relationship with the neighboring countries, which is characterized by the streaming for cooperation, for peace.

As you mentioned, the current brutal war situation in Ukraine, the invasion of the Russian Federation at the command of President Putin is characterized by a pre-history and we have to look more deeply into this prehistory. The European Union has contributed in the years 2014, 2015 for negotiating the Minsk agreements. France and Germany are the guarantee powers for the Minsk agreements, and unfortunately were not able to persuade both sides to implement the concrete facts of the Minsk agreement. So in a certain way, Germany and France failed as the guarantee powers for the situation as it has developed since 2014.

In a certain understanding, of course, the European Union is characterized also by the internal split on how to deal in the relationship with the Russian Federation in particular, but also with all the other Eastern neighborhood countries. And we have to look into the reasons why it is so and what are the interests, what are the limits for occurring a more clear and constructive positioning of the European Union in the conflict.

So I would not say that the EU doesn’t play any role anymore, even with a new situation with the war in Ukraine. But instead all of the European Union member states and in particular Germany and France, are challenged to find new pathways to return to the negotiation table, because I am convinced that only political and diplomatic dialogue can contribute to a ceasefire and to return to negotiations about the future relationship also with the Russian Federation. That may sound a little bit naive, but I don’t think that a military confrontation, which includes maybe even more European actors, would resolve the current situation.

You said there is an internal split between European Union members in view of their politics towards the Russian Federation. We can see it clearly when the Central European state leaders such as presidents of Poland, the Baltic states, but also Slovakia, are asking to accept Ukraine into the European Union by a fast track or they advocate arms sending, while the Western countries seem more reluctant to act in this manner. So what is the solution to this internal split? Is there a chance for a common policy of the European Union towards the conflict?

We are inside the European Union and you know that very well in Poland, too, that there are rules and standards which are accompanied by the enlargement of the European Union. If a country requests to join the European Union, then they have to introduce a whole procedure of implementing the acquis communautaire. The common values, the common rules, the common standards which are accompanied in the internal market in all aspects of the social, political and economic life of the applying countries. And this is, of course, true also for Ukraine, for Moldova or other countries like Georgia, who has just recently in the follow up of the aggression of Putin against Ukraine requested to become members of the European Union.

And to be very clear, I think the experience of the Central and Eastern European member states of the European Union, who joined the EU in 2004 after a long period of preparation from the mid-90s, already is accompanied by a deep change of the economic, social and political structures. And so I’m in favor of the fact that any country can ask to become a member of the European Union if the population of the citizens in these countries are in full transparency and full knowledge about what it means for their state constitutional structure and self-understanding to join. Because I don’t want to have member states of the first and second class categories.

If you have only an economic enlargement of the internal market, of the single market of the European Union on the new states, without the ability to take part in the writing and the decision making processes, what does it mean for them? And so if they are not also bringing additional views, concerns, initiatives, proposals, and how to shape the future development of the European Union, it will not be a full fledged membership. 

So the structure in the internal and the single market will of course have a deep impact on the realities, in particular of the social realities in these new countries applying for membership. I think we need a full-fledged process and reduced to say inclusion into the internal market. And the single market means finally that the existing structure of the European Union will be widened. But there is a limited possibility for the countries to participate in the whole process of European integration that is taking place. 

So I think this is that we have to take into account and that was probably also a part of the of the thinking that an enhanced membership would go into the full-fledged understanding – so that the enhanced partnership is an economic enlargement of the European Union to these countries and not the political, social and other criteria of our daily lives policies.

Here, I think, lies the big responsibility of the European Union: to be more clear and more transparent. And of course, also for the leadership in these countries to communicate among their own population: that European integration is a long long process of nearing each other, of understanding how to mutually implement such a new phase of integrating Ukraine or Moldova into the European Union. 

I know that in Moldova there is an ongoing debate because they are preparing for it. For the European Union to integrate Moldova will be much easier than Ukraine, because Moldova, with very small population figures, is of course not as problematic as a huge country like Ukraine, which is at least the same size as Poland. And that means a totally different political and legal structuring of the integration process.

Now, let us have a look at another point that divides European countries. It is the question of Russian oil and gas. Polish politicians, including Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, are calling on the European Union to stop importing any Russian resources. And is this a real solution or is this a real perspective? And if it once comes to being, then what is the replacement for Russia and gas?

In a sarcastic way, I could formulate that Putin’s aggression has contributed to a much more heated and much more conscious political debate inside the European Union, but, of course, also in particular in Germany, (which I can judge a little bit better than maybe the situation in Spain or Italy or Poland) that we need to replace the the the CO2 emission responsible energy sources like coal, gas and oil by so-called regenerative energy production and energy sources. 

But that is an ongoing process. And unfortunately we are just now in the situation of war, we have to to fulfill the commitment to replace the old energies by new energies. And so the demand of cutting down any gas supplies, oil supplies or coal supplies from the Russian Federation into the European Union, including to Germany, is accompanied by a second task. And we should not forget the question of climate change and to contribute to the green agenda of the European Union.

At the same time as we are just now saying that energy production at the basis of gas and coal is no longer a way of how we can allow ourselves to produce energy for the future. So I wouldn’t say that we should forget the short and long term aims of replacing these energies by the situation just now. We have to cut down the supply chains from the Russian Federation and substitute them from somewhere else. The LNG, the liquid natural gas supplies from the United States are based on gas, which is produced in the fracking method and that is, of course even more environmentally harmful than maybe the gas as we are getting it now from the Russian Federation.

We have to rethink in which way we want to overcome the situation just now. And therefore, inside the European Union, we want to stop dependence from the Russian Federation on gas. But that is a natural process which we have to do anyway, with and without war. We should not not use the war as an excuse for not substituting this old energy production from gas and coal by just looking for other sources of the same resources!

Because the question we are discussing in the EU is what is sustainable energy production, what are sustainable energy sources? We need a consequent, a really decisive change of this energy production towards renewable energy sources. Not to search to import additional huge amounts of gas from Algeria or Saudi Arabia. 

We have started the discussion into the direction how we are organizing this replacement. Now there is the war situation and the danger for the industrial production – the supply of heat for the households. The risk that power for the households is cut in an emergency situation is aggravated by the aggression that could endanger the stability in the economic but also in the political understanding within the European Union. And here you have a different judgment than Poland, which still has its own coal producing energy, heat and power, in contrast to Germany, where we have introduced already years ago a transition away from coal, away from gas and from nuclear power. The long term transition period needs, of course, certain use of gas. 

Germany has chosen in the last years – and maybe that was a mistake – to rely on the traditional gas supply from the Russian Federation instead of looking for new partners. We wanted to to change this energy production in a more future-oriented, substantial way to go away from gas and coal. And so we are somewhere in a complicated situation in Germany with this transitional period.

We now have to look for gas supplies because we are sharing the idea that there are probably sanctions on the oil, coal and gas supply chains from the Russian Federation to Germany and to the European Union. This gas from the Russian Federation through Nord Stream, also going to Ukraine via Germany and Austria. This is a huge complexity of aspects we have to take into consideration. Therefore, we are saying: “Yes, we can cut down for the moment the supply chains of coal from the Russian Federation into the European Union,” because we can replace it easily with other sources for keeping the steel production, for example, or the other industrial production lines. But in the mid-term and long term perspective, I would say also all EU member states, including Poland, Slovakia, Romania, who are on the forefront on the eastern border towards the Russian Federation, are also challenged to replace the existing old energy sources by regenerative, renewable energy production possibilities. 

And here, I think, is the problem we have to discuss further inside the European Union: how to realize this huge, huge and challenging task. And you probably have heard that just now there was published the third report this year of the International Climate Convention, IPCC, which said we have two years remaining to reach the goal in the century that the temperature is not going higher than 1.5 grade. If we don’t reach this aim, we will have catastrophic, catastrophic impact on our lives and particularly of the lives of future generations. And we have to take this task seriously.

I think, therefore, we have to do our utmost to stop this war, to find ways, also with the Russian Federation, to concentrate on the real task we are facing. We have to change our way of production, consumption, and way of life. And here we have to collect all means, to stop climate change, to to stop the further loss of biodiversity, because that is our future.

The war is the most stupid and the most brutal way of not dealing with this task. The big task is not thinking any more in this old 20th century terms of national powers and national interest. No, we have a common interest to survive and to contribute as thinking human beings to address the problems for today and for the future.

Just one brief question from my part before I pass the microphone to my colleague. You mentioned the discussions that are ongoing in Germany about energy and the transition towards renewable sources of energy. How about atomic energy? Is it possible that Germany will be reopening the nuclear power plants?

For the moment, there is no real signal that Germany will reopen its own old-fashioned nuclear plants because we have shut them down. It will be, even for the owners of these nuclear plants, quite difficult to invest more than €1 billion, which is necessary for reopening these. 

We have in Germany a heated debate about the nuclear plants linked to the question of where to put the nuclear waste. It is clear that the nuclear waste cannot be exported somewhere else where it seems that there are more safe places. We can’t say we are producing energy on the basis of nuclear power plants and exporting the waste. If we are having these plants at our ground, we have also to take care about that for the future. I think this is a question each country has to solve if they are using atom in the energy mix.

Concerning the EU’s energy policies and thinking of the member states, I think we have to come with the ongoing debate about the future integration challenges into the situation that we need a European energy mix. It is quite old-fashioned to think that energy questions could be solved at the national level. So nuclear energy can contribute just now to organize a certain supply. But that must be understood in the European understanding. Instead of constructing more nuclear power plants, I would say we should use the existing ones for the transitional period which I have described, and then also together go to closing down this nuclear power plant. 

We have to accelerate the research task in the questions of what is the storage problem of energy, which is produced by renewable energies so that we are finding new ways to distribute energy to the continent, be it in industry, be it in households. And so we have a lack of a set of brave and constructive approaches to deal with new efforts to contribute to produce energy in the interests of all that is linked also, of course, with the interests of the private corporations who are producing the energy. 

And so we are here in a complexity of economic questions, which we have to discuss in a political understanding in the European Union. But to be short, I see a huge responsibility of the European Union to try to transform its energy policy at the competence of the EU in this way. To have European energy – not only an energy market, but an energy policy which is jointly discussed, jointly shaped and jointly decided. We need structures responsible for the future energy production.

That is partly linked to the question of the war. Do we rely on new dependencies, including from the US or do we have the chance and the ability to have our own energy produced in a renewable way? 

And that, I think is a huge question, and that is a question which also the Russian Federation for itself has to think about, because they also can’t afford themselves anymore to be a cheap supplier of gas somewhere else. That is an old fashioned economic model. And the melting down of the permafrost soil in the high north of the Russian Federation must be stopped because that is even more dangerous problem for all of us. If this melting process is continuing or increasing in the in the future, then there will be an emission of methane and CO2, which is much more intense than what we have currently measured.

So here we have to cooperate. Here we have to find common solutions because here we also have a joint interdependence between the energy production here and the energy production in the Russian Federation. So, I mean, we have to look beyond the borders. We have to look into the future challenges and here to find ways how we can renew a political dialogue. Maybe such a change of the focus of the rivalry between the European Union, in particular, of course, between Ukraine and other countries and the Russian Federation could be a perspective for finding a way out of the current war.

Okay, Mr. Scholz, we told you that we search for a better understand the changing position of the EU in the world. But before that, I take inspiration from what you said about the great transition of energy, and maybe in many ways a transition of mentality as well. There are also parts of the EU which are somehow considered laggards. I refer, for example, to Bulgaria and Romania, which are usually standing at the lowest position in various rankings on social indicators, etc. So I can’t help asking you, first of all, what is going to change with this war in Ukraine and the changes which it causes to the EU. What is going to change with regards to these people or nations of the periphery, internal periphery, let’s say, of the EU?

 Let me just give an example. The switch to the market of energy, for household consumers in Romania and for private entities in both Bulgaria and Romania led to huge rise in prices. And as you know, these are regions which are not so wealthy. So that is just one example that possibly certain engaged effort is necessary for making this transition specifically in our part of the EU. So what, what is our what is going to change for our region, let’s say, of the eastern periphery of the EU?

As I said already, the current situation has a prehistory. And the prehistory is, of course, characterized by a deep transition period inside the Russian Federation as such, but also central and eastern member states or neighboring countries like Ukraine and Georgia, Armenia, Belarus. The transition period in these countries has not stopped yet. It has been more or less completed in Eastern and Central European countries when they become members of the European Union and so definitely passed from the conditions before 1989 and to the current conditions of a market economy. This transition also characterizes how we are shaping our European values and European rule of law. As you know from your own experience in Poland, it’s a very, very painful process and needs a lot of effort by all political and social stakeholders and players in politics and economics. 

I would say that the experience of the countries you have mentioned is that they have, of course, also lived with their own perception of the historical developments inside the societies itself, but also in the relationship to Russia. And that is, of course, shaping a lot, from my point of view, the current political debate in this country. To a certain extent, this is not known and not understood in a lot of the Western European member countries of the European Union. So the task of, I would say, the Eastern and Central European member states of the European Union would be to try to explain in which ways they want to refocus the complexities of the past and the current situation. And that, I think, is a permanent discussion and debate. 

There are some achievements, if you can call it in this way, of democratization. Let’s take the whole debate about LGBTQ. About the about the feminist developments. About the right of women to decide upon their own body. So the whole question of how the individual freedoms in a more balanced way in a society must be discussed permanently. And values are changing. I would say this debate about values, about the direction of policy is linked to these countries. 

I see huge possibilities here. But, of course, the responsibility of all political actors in the countries not to shape it in a confrontational way, be inside of the bilateral ways to do so to partner states and partner countries is, I think, at the stake.

Here I hope that the more complex debate we have within the European Union just now – about our aims, about the direction of policy making. This direction should be determined by the interests of people, of the members of the societies, both at the national level, and in a more pan-European understanding how we want to shape our coexistence, our co-living, our co-working. 

Here I think we can intensify, for example, also the relationship between Germany and Poland, because the experiences are different, the views on certain aspects are different. But why are we fearing to apply common standards that have worked out in the European Union on shaping the daily realities in our countries? This is the challenge, if I understood your question well. 

Thank you for that. There is another dimension to transition if I take your words for inspiration. The whole process of, let’s say, detachment from old Soviet societies or socialist societies and entering in the EU, it was called a transition and it is often related to the rise of certain corrupt elites. There is such type of discourse that there is a lot of corruption in our societies here in Central and South Eastern Europe. I know that you’re knowledgeable on the issues of constitution and rule of law. So I have a question here as well. Is there a left-wing perspective on anti-corruption and what would it sound like for our region? That could be an important question, because one has the feeling, at least in Bulgaria and maybe in other countries, that anti-corruption seems to be used instrumentally in a clash between a little bit more honest, more corporate type of businesses against more oligarchical businesses. But it is still in general, somehow a right wing perspective, right wing issue, if I may say this, judging from the Bulgarian experience. So what could be the left-wing usage of anti-corruption? And how could the left in these countries possibly have a vision for and participate in the anti-corruption process and discussions?

First of all, I would say the left has to go into the real debate in the countries. There is no way to avoid being an active player in the social struggles within the countries about also how we are organizing our state structure –  because corruption is destroying societies. As we have seen the oligarchy structure being it in Ukraine, being it and the Russian Federation, etc. – it is really destroying the functioning of these societies. And it is very complicated to find new approaches. 

We have to face that over in Poland and Bulgaria and Romania, Slovakia, with the murders of the journalist who wanted to to introduce some transparency, some clearance about what is going on in the country. 

I hope that the left can take the rule of law, shaped by the defined principles and values in the Fundamental Rights Charter of the European Union and in the treaties. We have criticized them for the neoliberal approaches. But nevertheless the rule of law is determining the level or the basis on which we have to construct a different approach to shape the political current development and in particular the future development of the European Union and within the Member States of the European Union. And here we have to apply it. 

The Left should be always there in Bulgaria, in Romania and wherever to say we have to be transparent and that these rules must be applied in the daily political and legal structure of functioning, of our societies, of our states. So I would say the left has to adapt in a certain way to this basis. Maybe for some forces it is not as easy because we are mixing the question of the economy and the restructuring of the state in a way of introducing common values as a determining factor of today and tomorrow. But we have to do this in a democratic understanding at the basis of the current fundament of the rule of law inside the European Union. 

I hope that the left, if it adresses this problem, these challenges, will be strengthened because people also want to have a clear understanding how the state and the political framing is functioning. Only this understanding gives me the chance to introduce my ways of thinking, my ways of changing reality in a constructive way. Wherever the rule of law principle is violated, like in Hungary or in Slovenia or in Poland, there is no freedom of expression, that there is no freedom of assembly, that there is no possibility to make this corruption point, and this is linked to intransparency, to the economic misuse of positions the one or the other stakeholder or one or the other corporation has in the whole structure of the state. Standing up for the rule of law  should give us more, more abilities and more possibilities to overcome this misbehavior in our countries. I think this is very important.

Thank you, Mr. Scholz. Thank you for being with us. Thank you for your remarks. I think that one important message that stems out of this conversation is that we need more European solidarity in many fields starting from energy politics and finishing with resolving questions like inequalities, like the different life conditions in the center of the European Union and in peripheral countries such as Romania and Bulgaria. And I think this is the most important message for today, especially that we don’t have much time. You mentioned the report on climate that leaves us just two years to solve essential problems. So solidarity is the answer and the necessity of today. We had Helmut Scholz, the member of European Parliament, from the Left party today in Cross-border Talks. Thank you for being with us and subscribing to our channel and seeing you again.

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