"We are going through a paradigm shift"

An interview with Klaus Welle, Secretary General of the European Parliament
Klaus Welle

On October 31st, Fletcher hosted Klaus Welle, Secretary General of the European Parliament. Welle delivered a Charles Francis Adams lecture on the Ukraine war, describing its impact on the E.U. system and transatlantic relations.

Welle spoke with us after the lecture to share his perspective on European security challenges and reflect on his 13 years leading a vital E.U. institution.

The Fletcher School: You spoke today about Europe’s renewed commitment to defense. But even before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Europe had seen recent crises in the Western Balkans, the Donbas, and nearby Syria. Did Europe neglect defense when the need was already clear?

Klaus Welle: Until 1991, Europe was threatened by invasion from the Soviet Union. It's logical that when the USSR and the Warsaw Pact disappeared, Europeans hoped to reduce force posture. That process of reduction has probably gone too far. It's now understood that there is still a threat; Russia has attacked a sovereign country and threatened EU member states, calling for a return to 1997, before NATO and EU enlargement. That puts the European security order as established after 1991 into question. Therefore, I think it’s understood that there must be more investment in defense, and that the European Union must play a major role in that effort.

Russian energy embargoes may lead to a fuel price shock this winter. Are you concerned this will reduce support for Ukraine among the European public?

While individuals may change their views, European governments will not change their positions because of energy problems. Nobody's interested in becoming permanently dependent on Russian goods. There’s a push for speedy enlargement of renewable energy and a pursuit of new contracts on liquefied natural gas with the United States, Norway, and Algeria. We also must exchange energy more easily between different member states, so it's very good that the long-standing conflict between Spain and France about the energy grid has been given up.

French leaders have called for a “reset” in Franco-German relations. Do you believe relations between the EU’s largest powers are in a good place?

The German-Franco relationship is important not because Germany and France are similar, but because they're so different. If Germany and France can agree, then a large part of the continent is not far from compromise. The two countries have a historical obligation to come together and overcome their differences. I'm confident the new German government will develop fruitful cooperation with France.

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine occurred only a few months after a new German government came into power. How would you evaluate the new government’s performance so far?

I think that Germany has done more than it's been given credit for. When you look at support figures for Ukraine, the United States is number one, the European Union institutions are number two, Britain is number three, and Germany is number four. It’s true that defensive aid has sometimes taken longer than necessary, but that's partly because of our historical experience, which makes it more difficult for Germans to engage militarily.

You served as Secretary General across a 13-year period. How do you think that period will be remembered in European history?

I believe that things fundamentally change every generation—every 25 to 30 years. You see 25 years between the end of the First World War and the end of the Second World War. One generation later is 1968, a cultural turning point. After another generation comes 1991, the end of communist dictatorship for Central and Eastern Europeans. Now, 30 years later, I believe we are going through a paradigm shift. Post-1991, the basic idea was that the only thing that counts is price. I think that's over. We’ve now moved from price to security; that comes with serious consequences, which will change the face of the world.

During the talk, you categorized German chancellors in three categories: the forgotten, the visionaries, and the crisis managers. How would you categorize your own service as Secretary General of the European Parliament?

I believe I was a visionary, but during two years of COVID, I also had to be a crisis manager. Together with the president of the EU Parliament, the late David Sassoli, I had to organize continental democracy when members were stuck in their home countries. European citizens would not have pardoned us if we hadn’t been there when they needed the Parliament the most.

When you were remarkably young, you were already shaping German and European politics. Many of our students are the same age now as you were then. How does a young person develop the confidence and the ability to make an impact?

It's important to get involved in politics at a young age because you learn a lot, and the consequences of your mistakes are limited. You learn to lead a group and win the confidence of your colleagues. I always recommend that students get engaged in an NGO or political organization.

How does a graduate school like Fletcher prepare future leaders?

My mindset was shaped by Witten University in Germany, which wanted to educate “specialists for the general.” Details get outdated quickly, but familiarizing yourself with thought structure and critical thinking is most helpful.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.