|The time of solidarity in the EU is not over, says EP President Martin Schulz|
Courtesy of the European Parliament
Ewa Boniecka: Your leadership of the European Parliament has coincided with a time of financial and political crisis in Europe. How do you see the road to recovery?
Martin Schulz: The current sovereign debt crisis poses a challenge like no other in the history of the European Union. If it is allowed to spiral out of control, it may destroy the EU as we know it. Growing poverty and unemployment in some countries are destroying confidence in politics and faith in European integration.
Fortunately, there are more and more signs that the worst is behind us. I believe that 2012 can become a breakthrough year in the fight against the crisis.
Greece and private investors recently signed a debt-restructuring agreement which paved the way for that country to receive the second, €130 billion, aid package from the EU and the International Monetary Fund. A disorderly Greek default, which would have disastrous consequences for the euro zone and the whole global economy, has been averted. There is still much to be done before Greece returns to financial health. I hope that a Greek government that emerges from the coming elections will continue reforms.
Secondly, yields on Italian and Spanish bonds have fallen, removing, at least for now, a threat that those countries may have problems with servicing their debt. The euro zone is also finishing work on the permanent bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism, which will serve as a firewall preventing the flames of the crisis from spreading.
So there are reasons to be optimistic, although there is no room for complacency.
What tools do you have at your disposal to strengthen the role of the European Parliament in preventing the EU from dividing into a “two-speed” union?
There are already areas in the EU where member states move at different speeds. Some countries do not belong to the Schengen Area and some are exempt from the obligation of one day adopting the euro currency. But these differences are not fundamental and they do not threaten the unity of the EU.
The overwhelming majority in the European Parliament is firmly against any new divisions in the EU. For example, I strongly oppose turning the euro zone into some kind of exclusive club.
The key to preserving the coherence of the EU is to keep what is known in Brussels as the community method of decision-making. This means strong involvement of the European Parliament and the European Commission; this means reconciling the interests of smaller and bigger countries, basing decisions on the principles of solidarity and democracy; this means placing the common good above the interests of the most powerful.
I must admit that I am worried by what I have observed in recent months and years. I notice the attempts of many politicians, many governments to weaken EU institutions and to shift power towards national governments. Recently, they are doing that under the pretext of fighting the crisis. They create new bodies – [like the] the European Stability Mechanism – outside the EU framework.
Defending the EU and its powers is perhaps my biggest task as the president of the European Parliament. I will fight for the European Parliament’s right to hold other institutions and governments accountable. Not just to increase the parliament’s power for power’s sake, but in order for the EU to serve its citizens better. If necessary, I am ready for confrontation on that with national leaders.
Is the fiscal treaty the only mechanism necessary for helping members of the euro zone to recover from the financial crisis?
I share the view of the majority in the European Parliament that the fiscal compact is not really necessary. Current EU laws on fiscal discipline are sufficient, especially after the adoption last year of the so-called six-pack that deepens mutual budget surveillance and provides for more automatic sanctions for those who break budget rules.
I also regret that the fiscal compact is not an EU treaty but an intergovernmental agreement. I very much hope that in the coming years the agreement will become part of EU legislation.
But if the treaty increases investor confidence in the euro zone, it can only be good. I understand that some countries, such as Germany, needed the treaty as an iron-clad guarantee that fiscal rules will never again be broken. They needed this guarantee to extend more aid to other countries in financial trouble.
The treaty does not change much for Poland, because its constitution already has a provision which prevents public debt from exceeding 60 percent of gross domestic product.
How do you see the position of countries that have not adopted the euro but have nevertheless signed the fiscal treaty, in securing their influence in the EU?
It is good that non-euro countries such as Poland have signed the treaty. I also hope that Poland will not abandon its efforts to join the euro zone. Despite the currency area’s current problems, it is still worth [it] to adopt the euro.
I am glad non-euro signatories of the treaty will be allowed to attend euro-zone summits in the majority of cases.
How is Poland going to be affected by changes to the mechanisms of the EU?
Not much, I think. All major decisions will still be made by bodies involving all EU member states – the European Council or ministerial meetings. The overwhelming majority of new laws will still be made [jointly] between all governments and the European Parliament.
As a social democrat, in what ways do you think socialist groups in the EU can influence the policy of the bloc, or is it the case that ideology no longer has any real meaning in the activities of the Union?
I am now the president of the whole European Parliament, so my role within the institution is different and I cannot speak on behalf of the group. But in general, the Socialists and Democrats are the second-biggest group in Parliament and as such it has a major influence on decision-making. For example, the Socialists had a big impact on all recent legislation related to the crisis and the economy, such as on clearer rules on trading derivatives, credit default swaps, bonuses at financial institutions, hedge funds, new financial supervision bodies and in many other areas. Thanks to the position of the Socialists, parliament significantly strengthened the regulation of financial markets to prevent [a repeat of the] excesses that led to the recent financial crisis. The Socialists have had clear successes in fighting financial speculation.
On a more general note, I do not agree that ideological colors are fading. On the contrary, they are gaining importance. European parties and European party politics are slowly emerging. Look at the French presidential elections. President Sarkozy is openly supported by his colleagues from the EPP.
What happened to our European dream of solidarity and unity? Is it over, or just pushed to one side for the time being?
I disagree that the time of solidarity is over. We should not idealize the past by perpetuating the myth of some golden age when everything was perfect. There have always been disputes over the EU budget and how to spend the money.
Solidarity in the EU does exist. Economically poorer regions do receive tens of billions of euro every year to build roads, clean up the environment and create jobs. Huge sums are spent on scientific research, education and innovation.
Germany is sometimes accused of lacking solidarity. But Germany provided €211 billion in guarantees for the European stability fund, or more than half of the country’s budget. This is not a negligible sum.
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