Karel De Gucht

Karel De Gucht

On the second day of the ninth Brussels Forum, saturday, Catherine Ashton, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy and vice president of European Commission, added her voice to the chorus of those condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine. “If they’re worried about extremism or worried about who the hell these people are”, she said of the Russians, “remember, that the [Ukrainian] Parliament is functioning.”

“If we believe in these institutions, is backing the very democratic institutions we say we really care about. Therefore, I don’t understand why, for Russia, they were not prepared to work with me, and hope they will be in the future, to support the democracy in Ukraine that is still functioning and which needs to be supported, along with the economy, for that country to develop in the way that I believe it should.”

Ashton spoke at Brussels Forum, an annual conference on transatlantic relations organized by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) and attended by heads of state, officials from the EU institutions and member states, U.S. officials, congressional representatives, parliamentarians, and academics.

In the last session of the day, Karel De Gucht, European commissioner for trade, and Michael Froman, the U.S. Trade representative, discussed the ongoing negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The men are the chief negotiators for their respective sides and were in general agreement on the importance of the potential agreement. De Gucht said, “The deal makes a lot of sense because it is ambitious. If it’s not ambitious, it makes no sense.”

He went on to explain that he sees tremendous advantages by creating one economic environment between the world’s two largest economies. “It doesn’t make sense to continue the way we do.”

Froman cautioned that the deal is not intended to completely homogenize the two economies. “The EU is not going to convert the United States, and the United States is not going to convert the EU,” he said. “But we can eliminate barriers to trade.”

Earlier in the day, during a session on the continued repercussions of the Arab Spring, Wendy Sherman, undersecretary for political affairs at the U.S. Department of State, said that it was important to keep the end goal in mind when deciding how and when to support emerging democracies. “The focus really ought to be on not Islamism versus secularism or even religiosity versus secularism,” she said. “It’s about whether we are putting systems in place that allow for pluralism and human rights and rule of law because it is that governing system that creates the platform for economic development.”

Pierre Vimont, executive secretary general of the European External Action Service said that Europe and the EU need to rethink foreign relations and immigration policies following the events of the past few years, and even the past few days. “But everybody agrees that, whether it be our Eastern Neighborhood or our Southern Neighborhood, we need to adapt a partnership to the new reality that is there,” he said. “We just can’t go on as we were going on before.”

At the first session of the afternoon, Carlos Pascual, special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs at the U.S. Department of State, said that now is a critical time to help Ukraine diversify its source of natural gas supplies.

“Ukraine is buying gas from Russia, and it’s important for us to work with that and encourage it to be a stable and transparent relationship,” he said. “What is critical here is to have that gas flow on commercial terms and be extracted from the political equation.”

On the same panel on global energy transitions and competitiveness, Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the committee on foreign affairs in Germany’s Bundestag, said he is skeptical that Russia will cut off natural gas supplies to the West. “Russia is more dependent on selling gas than we are on buying their gas,” he said.

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