A Female Diplomat on the Problems of European and World Politics

_ Vladimir Schweitzer, Doctor of History, Chief Researcher of the RAS Institute for European Studies. Moscow, 19 March 2018.

Review of Benita Ferrero-Waldner’s book Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way. The Experience of a Female European and Cosmopolitan

It is always interesting and illuminating to read the memoirs of a European diplomat, as they invariably contain the author’s assessment of past events, as well as an evaluation of current affairs and a view of the prospects for both Europe and the world as a whole. This is the position from which to approach the book Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way. The Experience of a Female European and Cosmopolitan by Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who over the course of 15 years was at the epicentre of European and global problems – both as an Austrian diplomat and as a high-ranking international official [1]. If further proof of her credentials were required, we could also mention her narrow defeat to Heinz Fischer in the 2004 Austrian presidential election.

Reading Ferrero-Waldner’s memoirs, one cannot help but notice the peculiarities of the author’s style. On the one hand, they provide a detailed account of the vicissitudes of her life journey – far more than a simple diplomatic and political career. On the other hand, the author talks in detail about the moments that defined international politics in the late 20th and the early 21st centuries. We learn first-hand, as it were, about the unprecedented situation that developed in 2000, when the EU imposed sanctions against Austria in response to the creation, in February of that year, of a “small coalition” government between the Austrian People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, led at the time by the controversial figure Joerg Haide. In the chapters that follow, Ferrero-Waldner takes the reader on a journey to the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and gives us insight into the nature of her diplomatic contacts with the leaders of Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Iraq.

Ferrero-Waldner’s assessments of the positions of the West, and the United States in particular, are more or less categorical. She reproaches both U.S. and European diplomats for their hasty actions in Libya and Iraq, which led to the removal of leaders Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. “Gaddafi was a dictator, but he kept order in the country and was prepared to cooperate with the West” [2]. Today, post-Gaddafi Libya is a divided and perilously unstable state. Tens of thousands of refugees traverse the country in hopes of reaching Europe, creating one of the most serious and difficult-to-solve crises of modern times. As for Saddam Hussein, Ferrero-Waldner believes that his removal from power could have been achieved without bloodshed. According to her, secret negotiations were under way that would have seen Hussein relinquishing his power and emigrating to Russia. UN mechanisms, the Security Council in particular, were not used to their full extent. And the European Union was wildly ineffective in its attempts to influence the decisions of the U.S. administration. The large-scale bombing of Iraq did nothing to resolve the problem, steering it instead in a new and still very unclear direction. In any event, the emergence of the so-called Islamic State from the ashes of Saddam’s Iraq can hardly be considered a mere coincidence.

Ferrero-Waldner believes that the Middle East conflict is still far from over. The blame for this lies primarily with the Americans, as Donald Trump’s strategies are more confrontational than peaceful. However, the European Union bears some of the responsibility as well. “The problem is that there is no consensus within Europe. Some EU members toe the U.S.–Israeli line, while others are interested in developing a special European–Arabic course” [3]. On the whole, the Middle East needs new European initiatives. We must clearly understand that the region is primarily a European – and not an American – problem, as Europe’s borders are far closer to the conflict zone than those of the United States.

As a European diplomat, Ferrero-Waldner constantly keeps her finger on the pulse of European politics. With a hint of bitterness, she notes that, in its current form, the European Union is hardly a model example of harmonious union that other continents can follow, nor is it held in particularly high regard within Europe itself. The European Union has been marred by crisis after crisis since 2008. The financial crisis and the economic recession turned into a crisis of confidence in EU policies and institutions. And now we have the migration crisis and the refugee problem. The fallout of Brexit, terrorist threats, the onslaught of extremist ideologies and the uncertainty of transatlantic relations – all these things are tragically unclear. According to Ferrero-Waldner, we could say that the European Union is weaker than it has ever been in history. “However, the European people cannot change this situation by themselves” [4].

Analysing the state of affairs in great detail, Ferrero-Waldner dwells in particular on the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union. According to the author, the most troublesome aspect of Brexit is not only the breakdown of traditional ties between the two sides, but also the spread of exit-itis to countries that are, to some degree, dissatisfied with the state of affairs in the European Union. It is no coincidence that the possibility of a Nexit and a Frexit have been brought up in the Netherlands and France, respectively. These days, everything is put to public vote. Future elections and referendums could fundamentally change the situation across Europe. As far as Ferrero-Waldner sees it, the traditional Berlin–Paris axis around which the European Union has been constructed needs to be reassessed. The Union’s southern and eastern countries are demanding a bigger say.

Ferrero-Waldner believes that the United Kingdom will derive no economic or political benefit from Brexit, and even brings the future of the country as a whole into question, pointing to the possible secession of Scotland and Northern Ireland in the coming years. This centrifugal force could make its way onto the continent, as we have already seen in the case of Catalonia. According to Ferrero-Waldner, EU leaders are searching for a way out of the crisis. It is clear that this will be impossible if structural reforms are not made within the European Union – reforms which involve expanding the decision-making process from the centre outwards. Member states should assume greater responsibility for both tactical decisions made in response to specific problems and the development of a common strategic course for the European Union moving forward. In Ferrero-Waldner’s opinion, the European Union should be transformed into a Federation of European States which would naturally include both the leading countries (as a minimum, the nine most economically and socially advanced countries) and those that need help achieving the same kind of economic and political results.

The European institutions of power (the European Commission and the European Parliament) are also in need of reform. The latter, as is customary in most democratic states, should be comprised of an upper and a lower chamber with clear legal functions. All European Commission members should be democratically elected. This goes for the president too, as the current system of appointing members has some obvious flaws, one being that some European Commissioners do not enjoy the proper authority in their home countries.


Ferrero-Waldner firmly believes that the European Union will have serious problems overcoming the crisis if it does not have permanent external allies. And it will be incredibly difficult to count on the United States under the current Trump administration, primarily because its program is at odds with the other branches of government within the country. Many U.S. politicians, particularly Democrats, talk fondly about European values nowadays. As for Trump, the European Union needs to find a “joint response” to his protectionist and nationalist concepts [5]. The European people need to understand that, despite their common interests, it is not necessary to automatically follow the course set by the U.S. administration.

In the opinion of Ferrero-Waldner, “new forms of cooperation with Russia need to be found” in order to fight such external aggressors as the Islamic State [6]. Such cooperation, however, has its own specific features, as the two sides have different values and historical motivations to find the best ways to overcome dangerous international situations. The author’s meetings with Vladimir Putin convinced her of this. Ferrero-Waldner first met Putin in April 2000 during her time as OSCE Chairperson-in-Office. The main topic of the meeting was the war in Chechnya. At the time, Putin was more occupied with the issue of preserving Russia’s territorial integrity and suppressing Islamic terrorism. And while Ferrero-Waldner acknowledged the legitimacy of this approach, she also stated that she would like to see greater attention paid to the humanitarian aspects of the armed conflict and the human rights of those suffering as a result. The pressing issue of cooperation between the European Union and Russia was also raised during the meeting. Putin said that in the short term it was necessary to allow “Europe to expand towards the Urals,” while “creating a continental market from Lisbon to Vladivostok” should be the long-term goal [7].

On the whole, the European Union had a very favourable relationship with Russia in the early 2000s. This was confirmed during Putin’s visit to Austria in February 2001 at the invitation of Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel. Ferrero-Waldner took part in the meetings that were conducted during that trip as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Austria. She notes that the Russian President’s excellent command of the German language helped the negotiations go smoothly. At one of the meetings, the issue of developing an EU–Russia economic zone was brought up. Putin said that he had no doubts about Austria’s commitment to its neutral status. At the same time, he was clearly upset by the fact that a number of Eastern European countries had been admitted to the European Union, believing that NATO could guarantee their security perfectly well without such a move being taken.

Ferrero-Waldner believes that, despite the affinity she feels towards the President of the Russian Federation, she cannot agree with Russia’s fierce opposition to the European Union’s plans for association with former Soviet republics, primarily Ukraine. However, she admits that the European Union could have handled the situation better, while Ukrainian politicians were often impulsive in their actions, obviously getting carried away with their desire to enter the Union. The situation became even more complicated in 2015 when the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia for, in the words of Ferrero-Waldner, the annexation of Crimea. And although she tried to act as a kind of peace broker at the time, assuming that the talks with Ukraine could not be halted under any circumstance, most EU leaders took a harsher stance towards Russia. On the whole, Ferrero-Waldner believes that mistakes were made on both sides following the events of 2014. Now, she believes, Crimea, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are all locked in frozen conflicts. Rebuilding relations with Russia will be extremely difficult without taking this into account. Russia sees all the former Soviet states as belonging to its sphere of influence and is unlikely to let go of this dominant idea in the near future. Like many other European diplomats, Ferrero-Waldner laments the lack of progress in implementing the Minsk Protocols, without which it is difficult to talk about restoring a climate of trust between the European Union and Russia. Her proposed solution also lacks originality: “a step-by-step removal of the sanctions in response to positive measures taken by the Russian side can lead to a genuine détente” [8]. Ferrero-Waldner proposes a possible roadmap for this process that involves Ukraine withdrawing from NATO and recognizing the autonomy of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics. These steps will help reduce tensions in Russia–Ukraine relations and make the implementation of the Minsk Protocols possible.


Benita Ferrero-Waldner’s memoirs once again confirm the altogether trivial notion that it is far easier to assess international relations from the standpoint of realism than to actually achieve success in international relations while occupying the relevant posts in governments and international organizations. On the other hand, it is hardly possible to complain about the ineffectiveness of such a position to a female diplomat from a small, neutral European state which was more of an associate than a key player in international events at the turn of the 21st century. One can only hope that European readers of Ferrero-Waldner’s book will draw the very significant conclusion: the road to happiness is neither short nor easy, but it can be travelled, moving closer to an achievable result one step at a time.


1. Benita Ferrero-Waldner served as Secretary-General for Foreign Affairs of Austria, Minister of Foreign Affairs, UN Chief of Protocol under Boutros Boutros-Ghali, OSCE Chairperson-in-Office (2000), European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy (2004–2009) and European Commissioner for Trade (2009–2010).

2. Ferrero-Waldner, Benita. Wo ein Wille, da ein Weg. Erfahrungen einer Europaerin und Kosmopolitin. Bohlau Verlag. 2017, Wien Koln Weimar. S.240.

3. Ibid, p. 180.

4. Ibid, p. 323.

5. Ibid, p. 331.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid, p. 247.

8. Ibid, p. 255.

Source: http://russiancouncil.ru/ 

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