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Watch in full: Euronews interviews EU parliament chief David Sassoli

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Watch in full: Euronews interviews EU parliament chief David Sassoli
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In an exclusive interview with Euronews, the President of the European Parliament has insisted that current controversies facing the European Parliament are simply the normal functioning of democracy.

Elected in July, David Sassoli had a previous career as a well-known television journalist in his native Italy. He changed his career to European politics a decade ago. During his time as an MEP, he focused his attention and activity on ongoing issues such as migration.

Euronews' European Affairs Correspondent Elena Cavallone met him in Brussels at the European Parliament at a crucial moment for the Europe Union; the European Commission has delayed the beginning of its mandate due to the rejection by the European Parliament of three of the nominated commissioners. It's arguably an unusual confrontation between these two institutions.

European Parliament 'functioning well'

But Sassoli sees this as the European Parliament functioning well and taking its role seriously.

"Many candidates have been vetted and approved," he said. "Three candidates were rejected and now they have been replaced. So far, we've delayed the process by one month; that's not that much. But we need to start the legislature and allow the European Commission to work.

"I can say, with a bit of optimism, that they will be able to start their mandate on December 1st."

He doesn't see this as a stalemate or, as some have suggested, a power game.

"Why? The Parliament does its job, this is not a power game. It is an act of transparency and democracy. It was all transparent. The examination of potential conflicts of interest and the hearings took place publicly. When institutions take their responsibilities seriously, they represent the citizens' interests."

Europe 'still the common home'

The distance between the European institutions and its citizens is one of the main themes used by Eurosceptics. We have seen the populists surging in many countries. Most recently in the latest Spanish general election, where the nationalist party Vox doubled its seats. Why does Sassoli think these organisations had been making gains?

"They've increased, but they haven't managed to take over European institutions. During the electoral campaign for the European elections, they said they would destroy Europe. They said that it was better that every country lived on its own. But on the contrary, (European) citizens haven’t said that.

"Yes, these forces made gains in some countries, but in general the idea that Europe is still the common home is very strong."

However, the European Parliament has decided to separate far-right MEPs from the main body. Does Sassoli consider this isolating of MEPs who've been democratically elected to be a reasonable measure?

"It is simply democracy; this is how the parliament works: there are majorities and minorities. The pro-European parties have decided that nationalists must be kept at bay.

"That's because nationalism is a virus to a Europe that must remain strong and united."

On the subject of nationalism, the city of Dresden has declared a "Nazi emergency", while in Italy, 89-year-old holocaust survivor Liliana Segre, honoured as a senator for life, now needs bodyguards because of death threats. But Sassoli doesn't think that these are signs that European values are in crisis.

"We are responding to all of this with these values," he said. "If we didn't have European values, those who threaten the Senator would probably be empowered. Maybe they would feel stronger. But they are isolated - because our values make us stronger."

The pain of Brexit

Turning to the subject of Brexit, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has recently told Euronews that the British have only ever been part-time Europeans. Sassoli said he agreed with this.

"For us, of course, it's painful," he said. "We thought we would never get to this point, but we have to respect the decision of the British citizens. Of course, it is better to have an orderly Brexit than a disorderly one. We also said the same to Boris Johnson: an orderly exit is best for everyone.

"With the referendum on Brexit, they hoped to divide Europe but, in the end, they didn't manage this. Like the nationalists on the continent, who are also supporters of Brexit, they thought they were going to pull down the European Union.

"Instead, despite the fact that in the EU we discuss everything, that there is a discourse on everything, on Brexit there has always been unanimity.

"This is because we are talking about the protection of a space that must be welcoming for everyone and that can allow everyone to defend their own values and freedoms.

"I don't see any mistakes (by the European Union). We moved ahead with determination to protect the citizens of the EU. We are also taking care of the British citizens, who decided to leave us."

US President Donald Trump recently said that other countries, like Italy, would be much better off without the European Union.

Does Sassoli consider such statements as interference?

"I thought that the US administration had changed its attitude towards Europe. I was wrong. Perhaps as their election campaign begins, the United States is showing a tougher stance. I believe that European citizens have chosen - and are convinced - that they are better off within the Union, where we can protect ourselves better than being alone.

"There is no single issue that European countries can solve on their own: from agriculture to industry, to safety and energy. Which issues can European countries solve without the European Union?

Immigration

Sassoli believes that immigration is one of those issues where a common solution needs to be found.

"Politics is not just the art of imagining solutions," he said. "It is also the ability to find consensus to get results. Of course, on immigration, we still need to make progress. My belief is that this should be a European problem and not a problem for single member states."

Sassoli doesn't think the establishment of European-controlled safe zones in Libya, the starting point of much African migration to Europe, would work.

"The reform of the agreement between Italy and Libya must be done under the supervision of the United Nations. Those refugee camps in Libya should be managed by the United Nations. I believe this would be a great step forward.

"As far as Europe is concerned, we have seen that some countries, thanks to the trust inspired by the new Italian government, have begun a dialogue in Malta. Other countries have joined in and I believe that this is a good spirit to build something that is not just on a voluntary basis. We need a European immigration policy. I believe it is in everyone's interest.

"There is room for solidarity not only when it comes to the issue of migration: for example, there is also the issue of defence. In Finland, there are 1,200 kilometres of border. A country like Finland, which has less than 6 million inhabitants, has an army of 150,000 people to protect a large border that also works for our security.

Is NATO 'brain dead'?

The issue of defence brought the discussion to recent comments by France's President Macron. He said that the situation where Turkey has launched an offensive into northern Syria suggested the 'brain death' of NATO.

"Since 1953, there have been discussions on common European defence policy, but very few steps have been taken on it so far," said Sassoli. "I would like to see governments commit more to fill this gap and making sure that there is a common defence policy with the power of deterrence that carries out peacekeeping missions under the aegis of the European Union.

"But at the moment, it's risky to undermine what we currently have, hoping for something we do not have. I think that at this moment the Atlantic alliance and NATO are necessary."

After the European Union's condemnation of this offensive, Turkish President Erdogan threatened Europe with the opening of its borders and the possibility of flooding it with migrants. Sassoli doesn't agree with suggestions that Europe is being held hostage by Erdogan.

"Turkey is, of course, a gateway to Europe for the Middle East. There are so many things happening in so many countries. For example in Lebanon, where there are one and a half million refugees out of a total of three million inhabitants.

"Regarding the financing of refugee camps on the border with Syria, I think Europe has played its role. This money isn’t given to Erdogan, as nationalist propaganda would have us believe. Money is given to the organisations that manage those camps. But that money is running out and Erdogan says: 'I won't spend money on that.'

"If Europe funds them, these camps will continue to protect people. I believe that Europe must do its duty for these people who've escaped from war and want to return to their homes."

But the EU doesn't have a united line on Europe. Last week, for example, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn received the Turkish president with great ceremony. Sassoli conceded that the EU was keeping an eye on Hungary:

"The European Union has many flaws, but it cares about its democratic model and the rule of law. It is also able to oversee what happens in the internal life of the countries. We have seen it in Hungary, in Poland and we have seen that it has often made its voice heard on other forms of dissent. I believe this is very important and this is the mission of the European Union."

Berlin Wall anniversary

The discussion of a former Soviet satellite like Hungary brought the conversation around to the current thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sassoli, then in his early 30s, was there hitting the wall with a hammer as captured in photographs.

"We were very young and there was a big celebration. Contemporary Europe was born with the collapse of the wall. We are better off now than before this, not worse off, as the nationalists want us to believe.

"We have reconciled a geographical space with our political values, with democracy and freedom. We always need to pay attention to these processes. But I don't think anyone can say that it was better before, certainly not those young people who were celebrating at the time. That was a shameful barrier that divided a city and was also the symbol of the division of Europe."

Sassoli is not overly concerned by the current apparent European divisions.

"They are natural," he said. "Do you think they do not argue in the United States, for example? We discuss divisions in our own countries and we'll discuss them in the European Union. But the important thing is that all this happens in transparency. This is the strength of the democratic system."

Blocked accession talks

Turning to the division over the apparent block to further EU expansion, there has been tension between member states regarding the accession talks for Northern Macedonia and Albania. But Sassoli believes this is only temporary.

"The vast majority of governments, 25 to be precise, and all the European institutions, the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council have said yes to starting the accession process," he said. "There were three countries that said no. I believe they were wrong, I also told this to President Macron when I went to visit him.

"I hope that this issue can be solved quickly. How can we say no to those who want to be with us? Is it wise to make such a choice? I don't think so.

"I was in Skopje (in North Macedonia), I met the young from universities. I spoke with all of the parliamentary groups. I also gave a speech to the parliament of Northern Macedonia and I realised that they understood that we want them.

"Institutions and governments want them to begin their accession path and they hope that this will happen in the coming months."

Does Sassoli think that the current block to expansion was taken to support a part of public opinion that believes it's necessary to prioritise the strengthening of the EU 27?

"I believe that domestic issues always have too much pressure on European issues. National politicians should keep their national issues at bay. (These issues) have too much impact at European level."

Closing the gap

Sassoli also spoke of one method he favours to close the perceived gap between ordinary Europeans and its institutions: he wants European Union buildings including the parliament to open their doors to shelter homeless people:

"We are already distributing all the food that is leftover at Parliament. Now we need to find ways to open some premises. Of course, we also have to ensure security.

"We are looking at ways to be useful to the poor people of Brussels who will find themselves in serious difficulties in the coming months".

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