Martin Schulz, the recently elected President of the European Parliament has been speaking with euronews about the public’s perception of Europe, as well as its accomplishments and its failures.
With eurosceptics quick to question the value and cost of the EU, the 56-year-old German MEP faces one of the biggest challenges of his career. So what does he hope to achieve over the next two and a half years?
Rudolph Herbert, euronews: “My first question is: for two years the governments of the European Union have been struggling to find a solution to the debt crisis. Do you think the public’s perception of Europe has become a problem?”
“I don’t think this is the case but I do believe there are doubts concerning the effectiveness of the European Union and there is good reason for this. Take the European Council for instance, which is comprised of the heads of state and governments and is a part of the European Union. It has been headed by Van Rompuy for two years and we thought, this will solve the problems! But the problems haven’t been solved, on the contrary they have been delayed or decisions haven’t been made. The consequence of this is that there has been a huge loss of trust and this concerns us, the European Parliament and the Commission.”
euronews: “What should be done in order to regain the confidence of Europe’s citizens?”
“A simple rule should be observed. You should say what you do and you should do what you say! But then what happens? I’ll make it short – in spring 2010 it was said that there was no money for Greece but then three months later, we were told there was money but only temporarily. Three months later again it was permanent but without a contract amendment. Then three months after that, the contract was amended and that should have been the end of it; but every time a solution is agreed, it changes.”
euronews: “In the past the number of European citizens taking part in European elections has continuously decreased. Do you think this will change? How can it be fixed?”
“Yes, I believe, this will change. My opinion is different from those people who believe that the numbers will go down again at the next elections. I don’t believe that. Firstly, for the first time, Europe has become a pan-European topic of discussion. We are talking about European politics in all the countries at the same time. Up to now, this hasn’t happened and now because of a fear of the crisis and partly because of wrong decisions, there is a negative connotation of European elections. But for the very first time we are dealing with a real European public.
“Secondly, according to the Lisbon Treaty, for the next election of the President of the European Commission, the results of the European elections will be taken into consideration. Then, I assume that the parties, the major European parties, will compete with one, pan-European candidate for the election of the President of the Commission. Then people will be in competition with each other for the post, as will their respective programmes, which is something that has never happened in European elections until now.”
euronews: “Talking about the President, we have a President of the European Council and at the same time a President of the Council of the European Union. As you said yourself, we also have a President of the European Commission. Don’t you think, that it’s difficult for a lot of people to distinguish between them and to know who exactly is responsible for what in the Europe?”
“Yes, that really is the case. Many people just don’t understand and so we need more clarity and transparency. There is the suggestion, which has been made by Van Rompuy and Barroso, to merge the posts of the President of the Commission and of the President of the European Council. That would mean that the President of the Commission would also preside over the meetings of the political leaders and the heads of state and governments and I think it’s reasonable to consider it.
“As I said before, the President of the European Commission, who will be a kind of head of government in Europe, should be elected by the European Parliament because then the citizens know to whom their vote is going. So if you wanted a left-wing President of the Commission, you’d vote for a party on the left. If you wanted a right-wing one, you’d vote for a right-wing party. So you always know exactly what is happening with your vote.”
euronews: “About 80 percent or even more of the laws that are currently valid in the member states, are being passed by the European Parliament. Yet this Parliament is hardly recognised by the public. Why is that?”
“You’re right, the public perception of the European Parliament is disproportionate to our real competencies. I would say that it’s quite easy to explain. There is a national but not European public, who talk coherently about European politics and we have just talked about that. So, when a law is made here in Brussels it is discussed in Germany by the German Bundestag (Parliament), because Germany debates its implementation, the voters get the impression that they’ve made the law in Berlin. They didn’t know that the whole law already existed before. It is the duty of the President of the Parliament – my duty – to make sure, amongst other things, that our work becomes more visible and heard. I try hard to do that.”
euronews: “You also said that you wanted to strengthen the role of the European Parliament. How do you propose to do that?”
“By making it clear for the public that the place for controversial debates, as well as for clear decisions in Europe is within our parliament. I’ll give you an example – Viktor Orban and his government in Hungary, whatever your position is on this subject, it is clear that every country in Europe is talking about the current situation in Hungary.”
euronews: “What other goals do you have as President? What else do you want to accomplish?”
“I think, that over the next two and a half years, bringing the European Parliament into the spotlight will be a big accomplishment. If necessary, that could even happen through conflict, with the cooperation of other institutions. But my political experience also tells me that voters are particularly interested in controversial discussions.”
euronews: “You’ve been a member of the Parliament since 1994. Looking back, what in your opinion have been the most important achievements in Europe over the past few years?”
“I think enlargement. When the 10 states joined the European Union on 1 May 2004 – not including Malta and Cyprus – together with the countries of middle and eastern Europe, we had to overcome the artificial and decade-long separation of the continent which really belongs together, culturally and politically. That is an historical achievement which cannot be praised enough.
“I also think, though it may be controversial, that the introduction of the euro will protect Europe in the long term, especially in relation to the competitive pressure coming from other, rising regions of the world. Defending our social model also relies on a strong currency. That’s why I think that these two things; the enlargement and the euro, are the big achievements of Europe.”
euronews: “As for the failures, what do you think hasn’t worked?”
“To convince the citizens, that Europe doesn’t take anything away from them and that it actually gives them something. I’m happy to admit that I have myself believed for many years in the United States of Europe as a model, just as a European USA. Only lately have I understood that national identity and regional identity is very important to people. And this is no bad thing at all! What’s bad about having an Italian identity? What’s bad about having a Finnish identity? The many identities of our people are the richness and the wealth of Europe. Different cultures are the great heritage of our European continent.”