On 14th March, 2022, Maros Sefcovic, Vice-President of the European Commission for Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight held a fireside chat with Julia Friedlander of the Atlantic Council GeoEconomics Center, to discuss transatlantic cooperation on strategic foresight, including prospects for a new international foresight network between the United States and the European Union.1 Naturally with such a format the conversation went back and forth at times: what follows is a summation of the main points covered.
Mr Sefcovic said that that the original purpose of the meeting had been to discuss co-operation on energy, and also how to avoid dependencies on key technologies and critical raw materials, but the current crisis meant that transatlantic bonds needed to be fostered even more to help Ukraine. There were three questions: how to support Ukraine; how to deal with Russia, and how to end “this senseless, useless war”.
It was important for Europe and the U.S. to be as connected as possible and for there to be
a strong transatlantic perspective on foresight so that “we can forge the world as we would like it to be.” They also needed to strengthen collaboration on supply chains, and co-operation on energy security, energy infrastructure and liquefied natural gas.
Mr Sefcovic pronounced that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a 9/11 moment for Europe, and a key moment in shaping relations for the rest of the century.
Ms Friedlander’s first question was central to the whole point of foresight: “Was it [the Ukraine invasion] on your radar?” Mr Sefcovic pointed out they were dealing with sensitive matters here – in other words foresight was overlapping with the area of intelligence – but subsequently stated that there had been co-ordination between the two continents since last Autumn / Winter. (Indeed we know from other publicly available sources that western intelligence had been monitoring the possibilities for months.2) He stressed the importance of transatlantic co-operation here so that both countries had the same thing on their radar screens: this would facilitate making foresight actionable, and facing politicians with inconvenient truths. There needed to be cross fertilisation with think tanks, including the Atlantic Council.
Ms Friedlander then moved the discussion to actions taken by the “alliance”, and the importance of avoiding retaliation. Mr Sefcovic said that Europe had taken the decision to reduce by two/thirds their dependence on Russia for fossil fuels. This meant acquiring 50-60 billion cubic metres of gas from elsewhere, and the aim was to have a secure supply of 90% of their requirements by next winter. Energy suppliers needed to make more investment and extend their operations. The green transition needed to be used to conserve more. The Germans’ decision not to avail themselves of the new Russian pipeline, Nord Stream 2, was important in the fight to help Ukraine.
He elaborated on how the EU’s approach to energy had changed. Normally the EU budget for 7 years was €1-1.2 trillion. In the last year, they had effectively doubled the budget by offering €800 billion worth of green bonds for greening, digitization and structural reform, nearly double the existing budget, and these had had been oversubscribed. However, he acknowledged that knowing how to raise money on the financial markets was not the answer by itself, and pointed out that it could not be spent on just anything, tranches of money would only be released as milestones were met. Ms Friedlander acknowledged that the U.S. was good at throwing money at problems, but not necessarily following through. Mr Sefcovic added that European countries had more space for autonomous actions as the EU. If you unbundled energy and other players rebundled it from the capital of a foreign country, this made you vulnerable.
Naturally, the situation in the Ukraine took up a substantial part of the discussion. Ms Friedlander admitted that, “No-one knows what is going to happen.” Mr Sefcovic said that they must look ahead to rebuilding the housing and infrastructure of the Ukraine, and conversations were already taking place with IMF. The danger of high inflation might slow economic growth, but this might help push countries in the direction of financial integration, and could herald a new era for the euro. In terms of freezing Russian central bank reserves, it was no good if just the U.S. did it, but the EU was a bigger player in this respect and had frozen more assets than the U.S.
Finally, as both a Slovakian and a parent (Slovakia shares a border with the Ukraine), Mr Sefcovic spoke movingly of the huge numbers of Ukrainian refugees moving westwards, particularly unaccompanied minors, and on the need to provide them with health services, education and work.
Ms Friedlander concluded that two important actions to take were to arm the Ukraine, and punish Russia financially. Mr Sefcovic said pointedly that the Russian action was not a strategic challenge but a strategic threat. The priority was to stop the war, and rebuild Ukraine.
From a foresight perspective, the intention to have stronger links in this area between Europe and the United States was welcome news, however unhappy the circumstances which had spurred them on at this time. In addition, the various possibilities of conflict in Ukraine had been correctly anticipated as far as possible, and this had enabled a response from the two continents that minimised the possibilities of escalation. Regarding long-term green investment in Europe, it was reassuring that the planned investment was not to be of the “scattergun” variety: the ongoing provision of resources would be conditional on results. Since the meeting, President Biden has announced that the U.S. will provide 15 billion cubic metres of liquefied natural gas to Europe before the end of the year (although this was only a fraction of the shortfall).
Peering into the longer term as futurists must do, however, the picture is not so cheering. At an Economist webinar three days before the Atlantic Council meeting, Patrick Foulis, the Business Affairs Editor, highlighted the disruption to energy, food and commodity markets caused by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. If Russian gas was cut off, Europe could survive on other sources of energy for six-nine months [but then what?] There would also be another shock to food prices in a few months, and distributive consequences in poor countries.3 All this is happening before we have recovered from the disruption caused to supply chains all over the world by a pandemic which is still raging.
While the international outlook remains grim, there was at least some comfort to be taken from the Atlantic Council meeting. The full conversation is available on the ESPAS website here.
Written by Tony Diggle, SAMI Associate and published playwright.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
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Image by Marlene Bitzer from Pixabay
- “Fireside Chat with Maros Sefcovic”, ESPAS (European Strategy and Policy Analysis System), 14th March, 2022. (https://espas.eu)
- BROWN, Larisa, “The new spying playbook: tell the public your secrets”, The Sunday Times, 27th February, 2022, p. 11.
3. “Ukraine at war: week three”, Economist Webinar, 11th March, 2022. (https://subscriberevents.economist.com) Only available to subscribers to the Economist.