Martin Schulz is the President of the European Parliament. He was interviewed by Olivier Gergely. (Please note that the interview has been translated from German into English).
The idea of a democratic deficit, the existence of European demos and a European lingua franca:
European Ideas: Mr. President, European Parliament elections are often described as second-order in character. Turnout is basically constantly lower than in national elections and many voters do not vote on European issues but rather use the elections to punish-or in rare cases reward-their national government. Do you believe that creating a transnational list could reinforce the European dimension of EP elections or do you have other ideas to tackle the problem?
President Schulz: Indeed many EU-citizens don’t know that the European Parliament is in fact one of the most powerful parliaments of the world. The result is a low turnout. It is therefore crucial that the European parties choose a common candidate who consequently runs for the post of President of the Commission. After the election the candidate with a majority in Parliament becomes President of the Commission. This is in fact the current legal situation in the EU for the next European elections.
As a result, there will for the first time be a truly pan-European campaign in which the candidates will enter the race with different programmes. This will promote a European debate on European issues, in which voters will have the chance to see clearly different alternatives on EU policy. Nothing is less apolitical than the thesis “there is no other alternative for Europe”. European elections should rather be about the question “What kind of Europe do we want?” That’s the purpose of an election campaign. It should determine our future direction through contentious debate.
European Ideas: You have recently dismissed Wolfgang Schäuble’s idea of a directly-elected Commission president. Why?
President Schulz: Because the President of the European Commission has to arise from European Parliament elections, has to be responsible to Parliament and must rely on a majority there. As a result we have also in the European Parliament the differentiation between the "majority government" and the "opposition", which we already know from our national parliaments. This will change the debate on European issues and on the question which direction Europe should go. The political differences and alternatives will become clearer than before and this is certainly good for Europe.
European Ideas: Joseph Weiler, one of the most eminent scholars of European legal studies, argues that there cannot be a democracy if there is no demos. He means by this that the majoritarian principle of democracy is only accepted if a sense of identification and belonging among the members of the community exists. Don’t you think that there is rather a plurality of demoi in Europe rather than a European demos?
President Schulz: The EU is currently experiencing its worst crisis-and yet something positive has grown out of it in recent months: We have begun to interest us more for what is happening in our neighboring states. Suddenly we are talking about the retirement age elsewhere, about youth unemployment in other states and what that has to do with us. This has brought us much closer to a European public sphere. My impression is that German citizens follow elections in Greece, France and Italy more actively and with greater interest than some time ago. Accordingly also the media coverage has become more extensive.
European Ideas: English is clearly the most widely spoken foreign language throughout the European Union. However, it is clearly not Europe’s lingua franca as according to a special Eurobarometer study solely 38% of EU citizens think that they have sufficient skills to have a simple conversation in English. Isn’t Timothy Garton Ash right when he maintains that the heart of Europe’s democracy problem is not Brussels but Babel? Can there be a European public sphere without a European lingua franca?
President Schulz: ‘United in Diversity‘ is the motto of the EU. It points out that we Europeans share common values: democracy, freedom, solidarity and human rights. At the same time however, we are united in our diversity: different cultures and traditions enrich our community of values. Having different languages is part of our diversity. Therefore, I personally do not agree with Timothy Garton Ash. The declining interest in politics in the EU is less a language problem. A more serious problem is that the EU is seen as part of the problem rather than as a part of the solution to the current crisis.
The European Sovereign Debt Crisis:
European Ideas: For the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and many other Europhiles, every amalgamation of the European sovereign debt crisis with a Euro crisis is “superficial gossip”. Nonetheless, there seems to be a relatively large consensus among economists that creating a single currency for a very heterogeneous group of countries was a fatal mistake. Do you think that the sovereign debt crisis was not also partly caused by the creation of the monetary union without a fiscal union?
President Schulz: One of the lessons from the current crisis is that we need a political union and a truly integrated economic and monetary space in Europe. We are currently working on this and in December far-reaching decisions will be taken on this issue. We in the European Parliament will ensure that all decisions concerning the euro and its future will be legitimized by the Parliament. One thing is clear: The euro is the currency of the European Union. The European Parliament is the parliament of the European Union. Ergo, the parliament of the euro is the European Parliament.
However, let us not forget the role of banks in the current debt crisis. The taxpayers had to step in to save the banks and to prevent a meltdown of the financial system. Billions have been spent. And let us also not forget that the debts of the United States or even of Japan by far exceed the debts of the Eurozone. Nevertheless, both of those countries get cheaper loans and better assessments by rating agencies. This is absurd. Europe must speak with one voice and defend its currency if it does not want to disappear into obscurity.
European Ideas: Let’s turn to the current problems we are facing today: At the moment the speculative attacks on Spain and Italy are continuing, while even the Portuguese government is learning the hard way that its citizens will not accept all austerity measures linked to the bail-out and the troika is estimating that the Greek government’s deficit is bigger than expected and totals 20 billion euros. There appears to be no panacea to this crisis, but what solutions are you proposing?
President Schulz: The restructuring measures that started in Greece, Spain, Italy and elsewhere and demand great sacrifices of the people will continue. We need budget consolidations and structural reforms. But at the same time we also need in the short term feasible measures that stimulate growth, create jobs, fix the credit crunch and allow tax fairness. A microcredit system is one of many ways to be able to help quickly. It's about giving people work, giving them prospects for the future and to break the vicious circle of debt and speculation. The vital question for Europe has become whether we are able to find a convincing answer to the debt crisis and create the growth we need.
European Ideas: Some influential German figures such as the economist Hans-Werner Sinn argue that because of its 20th century history, Germany should not have a leading role in today’s Europe. Isn’t this rhetoric a mere cover for the fact that most proponents of this argument believe that Germany should not take on additional liabilities?
President Schulz: Of course Germany plays an important role in Europe. But so do France, Italy, Poland and others. The EU is the solution to the challenges of a globalized world, in which nation-states can only solve certain problems by pooling national sovereignty to ultimately regain political agency! However, especially we in Germany seem to forget that sometimes. Germany may be large in Europe but in the future arena of world politics it is only a flyweight. Maybe we could survive trans-continental competition a few more years. But where would we stand in the middle of this century during the coming Asia-Pacific era? Today Germany has 82 million inhabitants with a declining tendency. China has 1.3 billion with an increasing tendency. The world around us is changing rapidly. If we do not react, Europe will pale into insignificance. That's the challenge.
The European Union as a global actor:
European Ideas: Henry Kissinger is said to have once asked: “What is Europe’s phone number?”. Some EU officials answer this question by saying that Europe now has a single number, but if one calls one can hear Cathy Ashton’s voice saying “press one for the position of the Commission, two for Van Rompuy, three for the French position, four for the British position, five for the German one, etc.”. The cacophony of EU voices is making it difficult for Europe to be taken seriously on the global stage. Are you optimistic that this will change in the future?
President Schulz: I cannot agree with your statement that Europe is not taken seriously in foreign policy. If you consider that Europe's Common Foreign and Security Policy is a relatively young policy area for the EU, you must admit that a lot has been done in recent years. Think of the European External Action Service or the number of foreign and security policy missions that the EU has taken over. Of course, we are still not where we want to go and member states always have different emphases.
Europe must become more united if we want to be a global player and defend our interests instead of being crushed by the US and the Chinese giant in areas such as climate change, human rights and trade. I am optimistic that we will succeed.
European Ideas: Mr President, thank you for this interview.