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Guy Verhofstadt on Syria: 'We need a European army'

Caroline Schmitt
October 19, 2016

Strongly condemning the lack of international unity in ending the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, EU liberal Guy Verhofstadt told DW's "Conflict Zone" that Europe needs an army of its own.

Guy Verhofstadt bei Conflict Zone
Image: DW/M.Martin

Guy Verhofstadt on Conflict Zone

Senior European parliamentarian and former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has told DW's "Conflict Zone" that if the EU doesn't keep pressuring Russian President Vladimir Putin to fulfill commitments on eastern Ukraine, he will "take the whole of Ukraine."

Speaking before talks in Berlin on the crises in Ukraine and Syria earlier this week, the Liberal group leader in the European Parliament told DW's Michel Friedman: "We need a number of sanctions in the case of the Syrian question, because this cannot continue, what Russia is doing. […] If we are not tough against Putin what he is going to do is to take not only the east of Ukraine, but the whole of Ukraine." 

Syrien Trauer und Zerstörung in Aleppo
Eastern Aleppo is being held by rebels who oppose the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. The regime's military, backed by Russia, has heavily bombed the city in an attempt to wrest control from rebelsImage: Reuters/A. Ismail

German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Putin, French President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Berlin on Wednesday to discuss the latest developments in Syria and Ukraine. Referring to the situation in Aleppo, Merkel earlier told reporters she expects no miracles: "Things are stalled in many areas such as the ceasefire, political issues and humanitarian issues." Earlier this month, US Secretary of State John Kerry called Aleppo the largest humanitarian disaster since WWII. 

Russia has been heavily criticized by the EU for its relentless bombing assault on the city, which has caused "untold suffering" and "may amount to war crimes." French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Russia was engaged in "the logic of destruction, alongside the Assad regime."

New sanctions on Russia?

Despite Europe's strong criticism of Russia, the 28 EU foreign ministers chose not to impose new sanctions against Russia during a Monday meeting in Luxembourg. Russia is already under sanctions for its annexation of Crimea and its support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.

On "Conflict Zone," Verhofstadt admitted there was a general lack of strategy in Syria: "Europeans and Americans have failed in Syria. That is my analysis."

He urged the European Council to make a no-fly zone in Syria a priority: "And to do that not only themselves, [but] together with our American friends, because we don’t have a European defense community, we are not capable to do so. […] If we don’t have the guts and the courage to do it, that means that these people will be killed by Assad, and that these people will suffer." The option of a no-fly zone has been debated during recent meetings, but Western leaders have yet to implement it.

Is a European army the solution? 

Going one step further, Verhofstadt is also on record advocating a strong European Defense Union, in effect a European army: "It's clear that we need a strong European defense community inside NATO, because […] Mr. Obama has said it in Hanover a few months ago: that there are limits to what the American army will do in Europe."
A European army would not be contradictory to NATO, Verhofstadt said. 

Brexit battles

Guy Verhofstadt bei Conflict Zone
Michel Friedman interviews Guy Verhofstadt in this week's edition of "Conflict Zone"Image: DW

Verhofstadt is the chief negotiator for the European Parliament in talks on the UK's plan to leave the EU. A strong Brexit opponent, Verhofstadt said in a speech in July 2016: "The Brexiters do not have a clue what needs to be done. Cameron, Johnson and Farage behave like rats fleeing a sinking ship." Both Prime Minister David Cameron and UKIP leader Nigel Farage announced their resignation after the British referendum on June 23.

However, Verhofstadt applies the same criticism to his own ranks. He told Friedman he was "even more critical than Euro-skeptics." He warned the EU would disappear if reforms are not implemented. Criticizing Europe's institutions, he said a dysfunctional EU would automatically create populism and nationalism, leading to the rise of euroskeptic parties in many countries.

Verhofstadt became president of the Flemish liberal party at the age of 29. He was the Belgian prime minister from 1999 to 2008. Five years later, he entered the European Parliament as an MEP and has held the chairmanship of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group ever since. He is a strong supporter of EU federalism. In the run-up to the Brexit negotiations, Verhofstadt has continuously insisted that the European Parliament would refuse a deal giving the UK access to the single market unless London accepts the principle of the free movement of EU citizens.