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Martin Schulz: 'The European Union is in a dismal state'


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Martin Schulz: 'The European Union is in a dismal state'

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The European Union has not kept its promise: for a growing number of Europeans, it has become a synonym for failure, whether on the migration crisis, the economy and security. To discuss these issues, we met with the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, in Strasbourg.

President Schulz, thanks for being with us on The Global Conversation.

Martin Schulz: “My pleasure.”

Isabelle Kumar:In this interview, I will ask you to speak frankly about the state of Europe because we’re all worried… it seems like we’re watching a slow and painful suicide. Are we reaching the point of no return?

Martin Schulz: “Your description is absolutely right, the European Union is in a dismal state. Forces on the extremes are winning elections and referendums. If we throw into question the essence of the European project, we’re playing with the fate of the next generation, because the 21st century is one of global cooperation and competition between entire regions, not between small countries like mine, Germany: what is a population of 80 million compared to 1.4 billion in China? How can we survive alone in the 21st century? Those who claim that we should bring down Europe and re-nationalise are playing with the security and the future of an entire generation.”


Biography: Martin Schulz

  • Martin Schulz is the current President of the European Parliament
  • He began his political career when he joined the Social Democratic party at the age of 19
  • As a youngster he had hoped to become a professional footballer
  • There is speculation that Schulz is interested in running for the Chancellorship in the upcoming German elections

The British question

Isabelle Kumar: Talking about the European project and integration, one of the hot topics these days is of course Brexit. Do you think it’s really possible that Britain will decide to leave the EU?

Martin Schulz: “It’s indeed possible; opinion polls show both camps are neck and neck. While I hope it won’t happen, it’s not out of the question. But a Brexit would be a disaster both for the European Union and for Britain.”

Isabelle Kumar: Some say Britain doesn’t play by the EU’s rules and doesn’t want more integration. Why do you want Britain in the bloc?

Martin Schulz: “It’s a G7 country. A permanent member of the U.N. security council with veto power. It’s the second biggest economy in the EU single market. We need Britain.”

Isabelle Kumar: So we should just make do?

Martin Schulz: “Yes. Britain for its part must understand it’s a G7 country because it’s Europe’s second economy, and it’s the second economy because it’s fully part of this single market. So breaking up from that means reducing Britain’s significance, its influence and its economic power.”

Isabelle Kumar: So you’d agree to even more concessions for Britain?

Martin Schulz: “No, we’ve negotiated a package on which the British people will now be voting, so when you hear some people say ‘let’s vote No to get a better deal,’ that’s just not going to happen. We already have a deal, it’s now up to the British people to say yes or no.”

Isabelle Kumar: We asked our internet followers to send us some questions. We have one from Armin: if Britain votes to leave the EU on June 23, what would be the most crucial challenge to overcome?

Martin Schulz: “I think the eurozone must react right away. We have in the euro zone 19 member states, a single currency, but we have 19 different economic policies, labour policies, tax policies. We need to put some order into the euro zone, so whether Britain leaves or stays, I think the euro zone must cooperate more closely on policy.”

Isabelle Kumar: So you’re all set to deal with a Brexit?

Martin Schulz: “Unfortunately no. I think one of the problems of the euro zone is this macro-economic imbalance – in our jargon that means very uneven development within the euro zone. We must fix that, whether Britain stays or leaves. But I think if it left, that would force the other member states to realize: now is the time to act. And in any case, after June 23, we’ll need to discuss the future structure of the European Union.”

Isabelle Kumar: Could there be an amicable divorce?

Martin Schulz: “Divorce is always very difficult. I think it’s too early to speculate on what may happen after June 23. What I wish is that we don’t talk about that, and that we manage to convince most British people to vote to stay, because it’s a win-win situation, whereas a Brexit would cause everybody to lose.”

Isabelle Kumar: Let’s move from Brexit to Grexit. Greece is constantly making headlines these days. Do you think the new sacrifices that creditors are calling for from Greece will be enough to lift the country out of the crisis and keep it in the eurozone?

Martin Schulz: “Three very short answers. First of all, Monday we found what I think is a good way to solve the current problems. Secondly, I think we need debt relief, and it’s the first time we’ve discussed that…”

Isabelle Kumar: That went against the Commission and Germany…

Martin Schulz: “No, no, the Commission is not reluctant to discuss this, and even Germany is open to debate. I belong to a party that is a member of the German government, we totally support such a debate and the German finance minister has not opposed it. Thirdly, we need to stop with this idea that we could demand more sacrifices. We can no longer cut wages and pensions. What we need is recognition – recognition that Greece, in 2015, has reached a primary budget surplus. That means that the sacrifices we demanded from the Greeks are now bearing fruit.”

Isabelle Kumar: Do you think austerity measures on Greece went too far?

Martin Schulz: “You know certainly very well that I’ve never been a supporter of these austerity measures. Cleaning up a budget, rearranging sovereign debt is necessary, but if you don’t have economic growth or employment to raise national income, you’re never going to fix a budget in the long run.”

Turkey, Erdogan and human rights

Isabelle Kumar: Just as Greece is fighting to save its economy, it’s also on the frontline when it comes to the refugee crisis. I would like now to talk about the deal struck between the EU and Turkey. And on that we have a question from Niko Kulik, and it’s quite specific: ‘What will you sacrifice in order to have the deal with Turkey? Will you close your eyes on massive violations of human rights or push Turkey to start to obey them, even if the price is the deal failing?’

Martin Schulz: “What I did last week is that I stopped the plan for visa-free travel that the Commission put to the Parliament, because Turkey had in no way met the 72 criteria demanded in exchange. Among them is a reform of anti-terror legislation, a reform of data protection, and just as this man mentions, if Turkey continues on this path and says it won’t reform anti-terror laws, then we won’t begin these discussions on visa-free travel.”

Isabelle Kumar: So what do you think of President Erdogan when he tells you ‘we’ll go our way and you’ll go your way’? Is he a reliable partner, in the long run? You need his help after all, don’t you?

Martin Schulz: “We are partners who need mutual cooperation. I cannot imagine that Mr Erdogan would want to give up on this cooperation. We are ready to cooperate but Turkey has promised to carry out reforms so that we can get started with our share of the deal.”

Isabelle Kumar: You’re awaiting some concrete results?

Martin Schulz: “Despite having made promises, Turkey is now backtracking. This is a new situation so we need to discuss it, but if Turkey doesn’t introduce these reforms, then we, at the European Parliament, cannot pass the deal. If Mr Erdogan considers the deal is suspended – which I don’t think is the case because that would be a shame – we will find a solution in the spirit of mutual respect and mutual cooperation. But mutual respect, I want to be very clear about that, means that we respect Turkey but also that Turkey must respect our rules.”

Isabelle Kumar: But is Europe true to its principles on human rights, given the way Turkey deals with refugees?

Martin Schulz: “We speak out when we believe that Turkey is not respecting international law, but there is also something we need to be very clear about – that’s why I’m answering your question – I’ve been in Turkey, I visited several refugee camps in Turkey, and frankly I wish that in some of our own EU member states, refugees could be treated as they are in Turkey. So that is a criticism that is totally uncalled for. In its refugee camps, Turkey is doing its utmost to help refugees.”

Facing the Eurosceptics

Isabelle Kumar: One of the consequences of this refugee crisis is that we see fences popping up everywhere around Europe, to stop the influx. Is this now to be a part of our European landscape? What can be done about these fences?

Martin Schulz: “We need to protect our external borders under applicable rules, while treating each case individually. And then we need a system to relocate refugees within the 28 member states… If you have one million refugees, and you distribute them among 28 states with a total population of 500 million, you have no problem.”

Isabelle Kumar: That was plan A, which didn’t work…

Martin Schulz: “Well that’s because most member states are not doing their part in relocating – only a few countries are, such as Germany, Greece and Italy. And that creates problems. So the issue is not Europe. The issue is nationalism on the part of some governments. And going back to your first question: that’s exactly what leads Europe into crisis, when some governments don’t do their part in relocating refugees. They create these problems with their nationalistic stance, and then they say Europe is incapable of resolving this migration crisis. It’s a show of cynicism that is unprecedented.”

Isabelle Kumar: So back to my first question about fences. Are they going to remain for the time being, given that you don’t have a solution to the migration crisis?

Martin Schulz: “That’s a fair question. There is indeed clearly a majority, at least half the member states that say ‘it’s a German problem, we have nothing to do with that.’ That’s shameful, because the price is not paid by you, nor by me, it’s paid by the refugees.”

Isabelle Kumar: So, we’ve discussed the Eurosceptics, we’ve discussed the European landscape. This is all something you have to deal with: you now have to work with the Eurosceptics, because they’re part of the mainstream political landscape. How do you want to work with them?

Martin Schulz: “I wouldn’t say mainstream.”

Isabelle Kumar: They’ve left the margins and now they are really part of the picture…

Martin Schulz: “But it’s not Europe’s habit to be xenophobic, racist and anti-European.”

Isabelle Kumar: Is it becoming so?

Martin Schulz: “They are very loud, they make a lot of noise but they certainly don’t represent the majority. In the European Parliament you have 650 MEPs, let me repeat that figure, 650, who are pro-European. That means the overwhelming majority is pro-European. And I fight with all my strength the idea that just because you make the most noise you can be considered a majority.”

Isabelle Kumar: There are also Eurosceptic parties winning elections in Europe…

Martin Schulz: “No, they’re not winning elections.”

Isabelle Kumar: Are you worried about their success?

Martin Schulz: “We must not turn these electoral scores into a majority. It is worrisome that they have such a high number of voters. But if we bow to those who make the most noise, and if the silent majority doesn’t wake up, then you’re right, they will get their way and govern. So my strategy is, first, to say, you are not the majority, and secondly, let’s mobilise the majority against them.”

Isabelle Kumar: All these crises are linked. Doesn’t homegrown terrorism, where you have people turning against their fellow citizens, illustrate one of Europe’s biggest failures?

Martin Schulz: “Why is it a failure of Europe?”

Isabelle Kumar: Because these are Europeans turning against their fellow citizens.

Martin Schulz: “I don’t think it’s against you or against me. It’s against a system, it’s against a lifestyle. Europe is not responsible for the suburbs of Paris. The EU did not create Molenbeek. Perhaps these people have turned against the European way of life. By the way, Marine Le Pen does the same, she rejects the European model. It’s not just those people who are against Europe. We can’t say that everything that works in Europe is down to national governments, and what doesn’t work is down to Brussels. This is not a failure of the European Union but rather an attack against European society. There, I share your opinion but, again, this European society is being attacked on various fronts.”

Isabelle Kumar: We just celebrated Europe Day. It’s become a joke for some. George Kozi asks this question: ‘Why are you guys doing such a poor job at popularising all the good things about the EU?’

Martin Schulz: “I don’t understand this question. I work from morning to night to send a constructive message on Europe.”

Isabelle Kumar: Why is your message not heard?

Martin Schulz: “I don’t know. I can’t answer. It’s a question I find unfair because I think my message, my feelings are well known.”

Isabelle Kumar: So why are your arguments not heard?

Martin Schulz: “Again, I can’t answer that question because I think it doesn’t go to the core of the problem. The heart of the problem is that the European Union is not a federal state where the commission is a federal government, with me the president of a federal parliament. We are an association, a union of sovereign states with national governments. And the national governments, whether in France, in Britain especially, in Germany or in Italy, always have the same strategy. When it’s a success they say it’s theirs, and when it’s a failure they say it’s Europe’s – just like you did with your previous question about Europe’s failure. That’s one of our biggest hurdles when it comes to sending a positive message. For the past 20 years you’ve seen success be nationalised [confiscated by the member states] and failure blamed on Europe. And that’s maybe why I get asked this question.”

Isabelle Kumar: Moving to our last question. We’ve discussed the future of Europe. Now to your future. Your mandate is scheduled to end in 2017, coincidentally the year when federal elections are held in Germany and, we have a question from a member of our audience, Friedel Koch…

Martin Schulz: “Who?”

Isabelle Kumar: Friedel Koch… You know him?

Martin Schulz: “No, No.”

Isabelle Kumar: Well, he asks: are you ready to become the next German chancellor? And I’ve asked you to speak frankly…

Martin Schulz: “First of all, I owe you a compliment because I have rarely heard a non-German speaker pronounce Koch so well. Because it’s difficult! So… I am elected until January 2017. Speculating about something that will start in autumn of that year…”

Isabelle Kumar: It’s not that far off…

Martin Schulz: “Frankly, to answer your question, and we’re speaking very openly here – it’s my style – about Europe’s serious problems. I am the president of a European institution whose duty is to save this project, which is unique in the history of our continent. My place is here, to save this project.”

Isabelle Kumar: For now… so you’re not saying no?

Martin Schulz: “Listen, as a journalist you know this… a week is a long time in politics. Who can predict anything? I belong here. I’ve worked my entire political life in European politics.”

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