At a time of sharp divisions within the EU, it might seem surprising that Schäuble was greeted on Thursday (17 May) as a ‘great European’ and received the Charlemagne Prize, the major international statesmanship award granted by the German city of Aachen.
Past prizewinners include Jean-Claude Trichet in 2011 and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2008 for her ‘cautious and integrative policies’ during the German presidency of the EU.
Schäuble is considered to be one of the most pro-European members of Merkel's cabinet. He used his acceptance speech to give new impetus to a debate on strengthening the EU and a swift review of the EU treaties. “We’ve got to create a political union now. We need strong European institutions,“ he said.
He argued that Europeans should be able to directly elect the president of the Commission. “The political unity in Europe needs a face,” Schäuble said. “At the next European parliamentary elections the parties could enter a top candidate that in the event of an electoral victory could then be accepted by the leaders of the national governments as the Commission president.”
It is not the first time Schäuble has suggested such an idea. In an interview with the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2011, he also argued that Europe needed a directly-elected president. In October of last year, the Christian Democrats came forward with a ‘leading motion’ on the reform of the EU treaties which also included a directly-elected president of the Commission.
Schäuble used his speech in Aachen to argue in favour of the “further development” of the Commission into a “European government”. While he wants to reduce the power of the Council to a second chamber, he believes the European Parliament needs to be strengthened by the right to initiate legislation.
Treaty change still taboo
Since the Lisbon Treaty entered into force at the end of 2009, a new debate among the member states about a treaty change has largely been considered to be a taboo topic by European leaders.
The decade-long struggle over the ambitious EU Constitution, which failed in several referenda in 2005 and 2007, had thrown Europe into a deep crisis. But according to Schäuble, the debate about the direction Europe should take must start immediately.
He left no doubt on his position: political unity without developing into a European ‘super-state’. Schäuble sees deeper political and economic integration, as a consequence of the current eurozone crisis, but also listed the Common Foreign and Security Policy as a task for the EU.
Schaüble said a review of the treaties should start at the latest within five years. Merkel's intergovernmental fiscal pact needs to be incorporated into EU treaties within such a time frame.
Schäuble, who is tipped to be elected as the next head of the Eurogroup (the assembly of eurozone finance ministers), wants to take advantage of that time frame of five years to fundamentally change the Union's structure. Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, said that the review of the treaties might already start in 2015. He valued Schäuble's approach as a commitment to "European Unity".
Luxembourg's prime minister and head of the Eurogroup Jean-Claude Juncker praised Schäuble, saying the finance minister was a ‘German patriot’ and at the same time a ‘European patriot.’