By Brian Johnson - 18th January 2013
Should we now give up on the EU or change it? I think we should change it towards a better direction
In an exclusive interview with The Parliament Magazine, Martin Schulz explains parliament’s role in tackling the EU’s economic and political woes. Brian Johnson reports.
Last year was a very difficult one for the European Union, says Martin Schulz as he begins his second year as parliament’s president. The German socialist says that although the challenges for the EU are likely to “remain the same in 2013”, the European parliament has played a “concrete” role in developing solutions to these challenges.
Never a fan of the endless round of EU summits – when writing in The Parliament Magazine this time last year he accused EU governments of “stumbling from one crisis summit to another” – Schulz says that there is no escaping the fact that “EU heads of state and government have a lot of problems in finding unanimous solutions” to Europe’s economic and political woes.
The advantage of the European parliament he says “is that we with a majority vote can suggest solutions. What we did on issues such as the economic governance six pack, for example; that was a proposal of the European parliament and on policies like the financial transaction tax (FTT) which were adopted by an overwhelming majority in the parliament. A lot of regulations on financial speculation, on more rules covering the financial markets, were all proposed by the parliament. We are also moving forward on the legislation process for the banking union and on banking agencies. So we can see that the parliament, despite public perceptions, is delivering concrete solutions”. This, he argues, is one of parliament’s biggest problems – that its public face is very different from the real responsibilities and actions of its members.
“I could present a very long list of concrete actions by parliament in the frame of lawmaking,” says Schulz, adding with a smile, “A lot of the parliament’s recommendations are usually first of all neglected by EU heads of state, then a few years later they are adopted.” He cites the FTT issue as a prime example of member state bullheadedness. “In May last year, I suggested, on behalf of an overwhelming majority of parliament’s members, the FTT to the council. Chancellor Merkel said to me ‘but Mr Schulz, stop it, you know there is no majority’ on this. However, in June she adopted it on the basis of enhanced cooperation and she was courageous enough to say that she had convinced people to introduce the FTT.”
This proves that MEPs are doing their job, he argues, yet are not getting the credit they deserve. “This is the role of the parliament – to provide democratic accountability and to make [what we do] visible and audible. This is my main goal and I will not abandon the idea that as we get nearer to the European parliament elections the more important this issue becomes.” Schulz added that Irish taoiseach Enda Kenny shares his views. “I hope that the Irish council presidency’s six months will be a time of very strong and enhanced cooperation between the council and parliament.”
Late last year, Schulz visited Washington, meeting up with vice president Joe Biden and other senior US lawmakers to discuss, among other issues, the possibility of a free trade agreement between the two blocs. “Europe is a world region and so is the US. We have two democratic world regions that are partially in competition with other world regions that [sometimes] don’t respect issues such as fundamental and individual rights, social rights and environmental rights. Therefore, I think a free trade agreement is a chance for both sides to become economically stronger by strengthening each other and defending the idea that democracy, social welfare, economic growth and individual rights can be combined.”
Interviewed just days ahead of UK premier David Cameron’s speech on the UK’s relationship with the EU, Schulz said he belonged to those who wish the UK to stay a fully fledged member of the union, taking part in all its policies. “Already the rhetoric is very astonishing. I listened to what US assistant secretary for Europe Philip Gordon recently said. I hope that the British prime minister will listen carefully to what his American friends are advising him. I want to see the UK as a fully fledged and active member of an integrated Europe. But it’s up to the British people to decide about this.”
On the rise of eurosceptisism across Europe, Schulz is not necessarily unsympathetic to the issue of a growing disconnect between the European Union and its citizens. “The question is justified. There is an increase, but my advice is not to label all those who criticise the EU as eurosceptics. We are not effective enough, we are not socially just enough, we are not transparent enough, we are not democratic enough. Therefore, we need to reform. We must do better. However, the idea of Europe, of countries and nations across borders creating a common institution in which they find a fair deal, is uncontested by the overwhelming majority of EU citizens. But an increasing number are not linking this idea to the EU as it is. And I therefore have a question, Should we now give up on the EU or change it? I think we should change it towards a better direction.”
The full interview: