Sergei Stanishev is leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Party of European Socialists. He spoke to EurActiv Slovakia's Chief Editor Zuzana Gabrizova.
What is the purpose of your visit in Slovakia these days?
In September we had the PES Congress and there is a new team elected, me as president, four vice-presidents, one of them from Slovakia, Katarína Neveďalová, the youngest vice-president of the PES and the new secretary-general.
We decided to start our activities by strengthening the links with the member parties of the PES and we start it from the Central and Eastern Europe, and this is our first visit to these countries after the Congress.
CEE countries are important for us and [Slovakia's] SMER is a very strong party, one of the strongest in our family with very high confidence of the citizens. We came here to discuss with [Prime Minister] Robert Fico our practical cooperation, preparation for the European elections and of course how the PES can be useful for SMER.
There was a pre-summit meeting of the PES leaders in Brussels on 13 December, what was the agenda and what were the conclusions?
We have regular meetings before each Council and we now have more and more because the political situation in Europe is changing. We have the ambition to be the party of change at the European level because we need change of the policy that is conducted until now by the conservatives and who are responsible for the austerity-only approach.
Europe needs growth, investments and new jobs and on this we have complete understanding with Robert Fico.
Last week we discussed the new architecture for the eurozone. One of the concrete ideas and our major priority as PES this year is to implement the European Youth Guarantee. It is something we have been fighting for for eight months now.
It has become now a recommendation from the Commission. Your prime minister strongly supported the inclusion of the implementation of the Youth Guarantee in the conclusions. Every young person after graduation, if he or she four months after graduation can't find a job on the market, should receive a chance in life though a subsidised job.
This is practical and this can make the EU the source of hope again. The next step would be to allocate enough money from the European budget for the European Youth Guarantee.
To what extent did the last week's European Council conclusions meet PES priorities?
This is just the beginning of the debate on how the eurozone integration should look like. Of course, we need strong integration if we want a strong eurozone, we need a strong European Union. But our concern is that a social Europe and social rights are not mentioned there at all and this is unacceptable from our perspective.
We need a strong social dimension in the integration process. Secondly we are concerned that there is a tendency to bypass the community method and the common institutions like the European Parliament.
In the end, the EP is the only democratic institution elected by the people and thirdly we are concerned of the risks of a two-speed Europe because this should be an inclusive process for us. Every country should be let to participate in the debate on the future shape of the integration.
The future of the EU hopefully will be debated in the course of preparation of the European election 2014. There is a push for the European political parties to select their candidate for the EC presidency well ahead of the European Parliament elections. How does PES plan to do this exactly?
We were the first and the only political party which had a clear democratic procedure long ago and now we have launched the practical process of the selection of the candidate. It will be a democratic process; each party will have to say their yes or no to any candidate.
The candidate will have to look for the support in the democratic decision of the member parties in order to be supported by all of us. We shall be the first to have a strong common candidate who will be uniting our vision about the future of Europe.
This is very positive because people have to have a stronger say on European issues. Now the European institutions are working behind closed doors and there is not enough democratic accountability.
Each candidate for the president of the European Commission who will have to receive support from the citizens will have to then report about what he or she is delivering. This is very important and I think this will make Europe more understandable to people.
PES has many member parties; does that mean that every member party can come up with a nominee for this selection process?
Yes, every party can come with a nominee, but the nominee has to receive the support of 15 % of the parties and then go on the campaign with the rest.
Isn't it a handicap that everybody already assumes that the PES candidate will be [Parliament President] Martin Schulz?
Martin Schulz is one of the natural candidates as I believe because he is one of the most prominent and visible figures in our political family and he has been a member of the European Parliament since 1994, and he has fought many battles as an MEP, as the leader of the group.
He is now doing what is very good [job] of president of the European Parliament; he is a making the Parliament a much more political institution which matters more than before, which cannot be bypassed, or ignored. He is a strong potential candidate.
So you still believe there will be a competition?
That depends on the parties. We cannot impose on them – you are not obliged to have a candidate. It is up to them.
Several months ago, Slovak media reported that Robert Fico is referred to as possible PES candidate. He denies interest in this position, but still can you confirm that his name was mentioned in this context?
Robert Fico is one of the most respected prime ministers and party leaders in our family because he is doing a good job in the country and I know that he has received a very high confidence from the people in Slovakia.
I know that the economic situation is not easy at all. Regarding the social situation, I am impressed how he handles the situation and manages to conduct policy of social protection during such a difficult crisis.
He is an informal leader of the group of the Friends of Cohesion and this is very important because the cohesion policy is changing Slovakia. I believe Robert will continue with his job as a prime minister for now.
Do you expect the chosen candidate, whoever it might be, to run a campaign in particular member states, in Slovakia for example, on behalf of the member parties?
Definitely. Every citizen in Europe, being French, Bulgarian or Slovak should know what the views are of the candidate and what the views are of the political party which supports the candidate. Very often Europe looks very abstract and without a real face people thin it is all about technocratic decisions in Brussels.
You should be aware that as well as there are different policies at the national level, social-democratic policies, conservative policies, there are different policies at the European level.
Europe which we see now - the Europe of austerity, the Europe that is punishing people, the Europe which is only concerned about the financial markets and their calm - is not the Europe which the Social Democrats support.
Yes, financial responsibility is important, but you cannot achieve coming out out the crisis without investments, without new jobs and without actually addressing the people's problems. It is not only about macro-economy, it’s about how average Europeans live and Europe should deliver on this.
From this perspective, again what I see in the work of Robert Fico that he is reconstructing the social model in Slovakia with progressive taxation [and a] new labour code. I have seen many governments working, but what Fico is doing is very impressive in a very focused, concentrated and responsible way. He is one of the best prime ministers in Europe, in my view.
You yourself said PES cannot impose anything on member parties. Don’t you fear that the concept of choosing a common candidate to run the election campaign could backfire if the national member parties won't be able to identify with him or her?
We are not a Committee which is imposing views on member parties, but we are a strong political family, which has common values, many common ideas on policies like the European Youth Guarantee.
Believe me, we know our responsibility in winning the confidence of the citizens on the European level. If we want to change Europe from what it is now, to bring back hope to the citizens, we need to have a clear candidate, with clear commitments and clear manifesto on why do we want to win the election in Europe and what we will do.
We want a Europe that is fairer, which is socially just and more democratic than it is now. For generations of Europeans, the EU was a project of hope. It has to be for the future as well.
One of our MEPs told me that this exercise of choosing the EC presidency candidate bears a risk of overshadowing the most important thing about the EP election, which is the election of the MEPs as direct representatives of the citizens.
There are always fears and risks, but what we shall do is very clear. We shall have our candidate, common agenda and what Europe we want to see, one of solidarity and social justice and at the same time in each country there will be specific issues which will be the focus of the campaign.
For example I can see that in Slovakia, the cohesion policy is very important so this will definitely be one of the issues, how to benefit from the EU even more.
In other countries there will be different issues. In Poland it will be whether and when it should join the eurozone. In other countries it might be the unemployment. We should not make a uniform campaign, but we have common things which will be leading and which are important for the whole union.
Do you expect other European political families will provide their candidates as well?
They will have to. They are pressed by the circumstances and by what we are doing because when we have our common candidate. It will be quite embarrassing not to have one.
There is a big difference because we are the first party which is making the process transparent and democratic, while the EPP [European People's Party] usually gather behind closed doors with the important people and start bargaining. It is not about that, it is about credibility and the candidate has to be a strong European with clear messages.
The EPP is stressing on the expert side of the candidate, looking for the best possible expert. In my view this is very wrong because you need a strong politician, a political figure who has strong positions and who doesn’t hide behind technocratic explanations.