Klaus Welle is the secretary-general of the European Parliament. He is a seasoned official and possibly the most influential of the EU assembly. For 10 years, Welle was secretary-general of the centre-right European People's Party group in the Parliament.
He spoke to EurActiv's managing editor, Daniela Vincenti.
Two years before the European elections in 2014, the European Parliament has looked at evolving trends and underlined, in the report “European Parliament 2025”, the rising complexity of world affairs: political multipolarity, multi-level governance, technological evolution and the increase in the number of actors in public policies. Do you think Europe needs to become more strategic to face the multipolar century?
Yes. I think the institutions need to think long-term. The world is changing so rapidly and we need to incorporate change into our organisational culture and our organisational perspectives.
For example, the decision we took to open the Parliament’s office in Washington was I think a very bold decision, but it was necessary because this relationship is no longer an executive relationship.
It’s a legislative relationship. The term “foreign policy” for this is wrong. It’s Weltinnenpolitik [global domestic policy], it’s financial services, it’s environment, it’s all the same issues that we deal with.
At the same time we see that this transatlantic relationship, which has always been very strong, is no longer enough. There are others that are challenging the system.
I think the crucial moment was at the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009, when the Chinese and others didn’t allow Obama to enter the room in the crucial night of negotiations.
Europe must be a pole of power otherwise we are becoming objects of history.
Why did the Parliament choose 2025 for it’s long-term strategy and why your own strategy? Isn’t Europe 2020 enough?
For me it’s really two different things. What do we have to do in management? We are working on projects. And for projects maybe the right frame is a two-and-half year work programme, because you have to think about budgets, implementation, the political support, etc. So that’s fine.
But we also have to think in structures and structures are not for two-and-half years. Structures are for 10-15 years. Because of these issues, which are more long-term, we have agreed on mid-term goals for the administration.
I thought this time we could go one step further, and so we did the “2025 exercise” which gives us a chance to have a look at major trends but then try to break them down into questions about administrative change.
I really wanted a thought-provoking process, ultimately as a planning tool, but also as a thought process, which helped the administration to focus better.
For example, on the multi-level governance: How does the European Parliament link to the national level? How do we link up with the developing global system?
What is more interesting is to go through the process yourself with your people, because this way people retain much more and take ownership of the process. It’s not reading another book.
So for me the interesting thing with this was to take the managers of the Parliament administration through the process.
The value was for my people to go through these drafts, and change and change and change, and raise another question. And then to say “OK, now we leave this abstract level and please you tell me, not I tell you, what kind of implications this may have on your work.” The process was much more important than the final report itself.
As you pointed out the strategic paper underlines that multi-level governance structures have led to the complex interweaving of political decision-making. The eurocrisis has shown that the EU community method was not fit to manage change and EU leaders had to revert to an intergovernmental agreement to adopt the fiscal compact. Is there a danger for EU decision-making processes in the long-term?
I think there are two different ways of looking at this intergovernmental decision-making. Some see it as the indication of where the system is going. Others would say it’s a transitional phase and I belong to this second school of thought.
My argument would be that issues which couldn’t even be debated at a European level one year before the crisis, like national budgets, they can suddenly be debated at a EU level. You might have intergovernmental decision-making first but then you end up with European legislation.
Is this a process which dwells in the intergovernmental system? Or is the intergovernmental stage a necessary transitional stage, which very quickly hands over the dossier to the community method? I think we can draw optimistic interpretations of things.
The fiscal compact was done in a way that is compatible with our institutions and even asking to integrate it within five years into the framework of the Treaties. Then you have the six-pack, the two-pack…
Of course the future will show us, but I think we might find out that these are transitional phases and that ultimately we are seeing a major step forward in European integration.
But do we have the time, the world is rapidly changing and aren’t those transitional phases delaying the process to do some sound crisis management quickly? Aren’t we missing the train of really becoming rapidly a power in the world?
I think something very strange is happening: because we are in the middle of this process we feel it’s going very slowly. But I would bet that historians will say one day that it happened at the speed of light.
What wasn’t possible 20 years with the Maastricht Treaty is suddenly possible. Why? Because it’s necessary. That has happened for financial supervision for banks and insurers.
An in the institutions: Who would have thought acceptable to have the Commission check national budgets?
My bet would be that in this situation of acute danger we are suffering because we go from summit to summit hoping for yet another financial solution. But when you will draw the line in five years time, you might find out that without Treaty change Europe has gone through a major phase of constitutional change and has become much, much more integrated.
Do you think we’re going towards a more federal Europe? Is it needed?
I remember the debate 20 years ago on the euro and what different economists were saying at the time. Many of those who were critical of the euro said it would not work without much more integration.
But many of those things were not politically possible at the time, as they were not accepted or acceptable. I think all those blind spots are now being addressed in the crisis and we are finding solutions because of necessity.
These are major steps forward in European integration.
The trends you identified in your paper—namely the fact that political decisions are no longer taken solely by the political elites of nation states but are influenced by a large number of actors—how would that impact on the work of the Parliament?
When we say “preparing for complexity”, my view is that we are quite well-prepared, because Parliament is an extremely complex institution.
Not only we have networks through our members locally, at the grassroots, everywhere in the European Union. But because all our members sit on an international parliamentary delegation, we also have contacts in every corner of the world.
We have MEP experts for remote areas of the world and at the same time they are experts in all the policy fields.
I think complexity can frighten uniform organisations, but we are an organisation which is extremely complex and where our members are participating in all kinds of networks, by definition. We have a competitive advantage.
Of course technology is something we will need to use very actively, as it facilitates mobility and our members are mobile, all the time. For them a less-stationary world is in principle a good development.
We have seen technology facilitates direct democracy and sometimes citizens can speak directly to the executive branch, bypassing parliaments. Do you think this is possibly a threat for parliaments?
Indeed Internet is becoming a serious challenger to decision making processes. People may feel that the traditional democratic structures are no longer able to provide adequate answers.
Parliaments that are traditionally middlemen must be careful not to be cut out. How can we do this? By being competitive, which means members need to have access to the latest technology themselves and need to be willing to use it and maintain links with the changing world. Secondly, we also need to strengthen our content competence.
If our members are the ones who have the knowledge and the content competence then they will be very important players in the future. That’s also one of the reasons we have tried to strengthen our own in-house content capacity so that we are not dependent on lobbyists and others.
Strengthening content capacity also means integrating more with national parliaments. The Lisbon Treaty has reinforced the role of national parliaments, but so far we don’t see much more collaboration than in the past. What’s your view on this?
We have invested in national parliaments. Just to give two examples. We are hosting representatives of national parliaments here in our own offices and secondly we have developed the software so that they can always exchange information on legislative processes.
The key issue nevertheless will be whether MPs and MEPs start to cooperate expert-to-expert. In the past, national parliaments dealt with EU issues through European affairs committees and the European Parliament dealt with national parliaments via the Constitutional affairs committee.
However, in order to really impact on legislation you need to have expert-to-expert exchanges--agriculture to agriculture committee, civil liberties to civil liberties committee.
That’s clearly the way forward but national parliaments are not yet fully there. Some are organising it this way, others are not.
The most active are in the Nordic countries, the Danes and the Swedes. They are putting a lot of pressure on the system. Others are adopting a more wait-and-see position.
Of course for them it also remains a challenge to efficiently control their own government, their own executive, where there are also very different models.
How long until we get to talk expert-to-expert. When do you see that happening?
We try to encourage this as much as possible through parliamentary committees inviting their homologues. That is clearly the organisational model. We could do more when national parliaments give these reasoned opinions on legislation, we could give them the chance at the beginning of the legislative process to explain their position in committees.
But for the moment national parliaments address their answer to the Commission. We could probably give them a better entry point to the Parliament.
We are two years before the European parliamentary elections. How to properly prepare in order to boost turnout?
The big change could be European political parties proposing their candidate for commission president. Last time, Barroso was the lead candidate of one party but the other ones didn’t have lead candidates. But this time they will.
That’s surely the case, if I am correctly informed, with the European Socialists, I hear similar things from the Liberals. Daniel Cohn-Bendit I read has even suggested that there should be some kind of joint primaries of the left.
So that’s the new element. Why is it interesting? First, because it’s giving choice. And choice matters because the Commission has the monopoly of initiative. If citizens can see that the elections are also the mechanism to determine who is heading the executive, with what kind of policy views, that’s making it much more interesting.
If it’s more interesting for citizens, I would guess it’s also more interesting for the media because normally media are not just comparing policy positions or papers. A lot is about personalities as they come with a clear message.
So I would expect that may not be fully developed in 2014, but over time, this becomes a very attractive format for the media and which provides European political parties with a lot of cost-free media attention.
Surely the candidate is important, but Europe has suffered a blow with the euro crisis. This has undermined the sense of ownership and the European identity. In the run-up to the election before campaigns start how to boost confidence in the European project?
This might sound a bit strange, but maybe the crisis is spreading this knowledge that we belong together and that we are interdependent within this European Union, an understanding that hasn’t existed before.
We have learned that even if there is a problem in a small EU country it can have major impacts on the others, not only on states, but also on the people.
We complained of the lack of a “European demos”. Strangely enough I think the crisis is helping to create such a European demos, even though not in a very pleasant way. Because we are learning we are all interdependent and even if a country is doing better, nobody is sheltered from risk. That’s a positive element.
People have probably realised that certain instruments were missing, but they also understood that without effective cooperation in the European Union it would be difficult to master this crisis situation.
Where do you see the Parliament in 2025? Do you see a different institutional setup in 13 years’ time?
The need to legitimate what is being decided here has very much grown through the crisis. Because it’s not just a piece of legislation, which then has to be implemented two or three years later. Now it’s about the core issues. It affects the economic and social situation of people in a massive way.
So if that’s true then we need to strengthen the legitimation of the system, which means giving people more choice.
Our system here of course is not like a national system. We have the Parliament, we have the Council of Ministers, we have the European Commission, and it’s not like in the national level where the Parliament and the executive are so closely linked that you can always expect them to go in the same direction.
In this sense, our system is only comparable with the US system where you can have the executive and then maybe, or probably, the House in the same direction and the Senate not, or more mixed leading to loads of negotiations.
Even if we make 95% of the legislation, we are still very much behind on the scrutiny of the executive. The system in the United States is much more developed considering the scrutiny of the executive by Congress, which has independent mechanisms to do it with the Government Accounting Office, the Congressional Budget Office, the Congressional Research Service, etc. They have a Government Oversight Committee. So they have developed many possibilities not only to legislate, but to hold the executive to account.
This is surely a political function that could still be developed for the European Parliament.
Do you think the Parliament and the Council could function as a two-chamber system – the Council being a sort of Bundersat or a Senat?
It has become already that. Even inside the Council they are coming to the conclusion that the Lisbon Treaty has divided the Council into three entities. The more executive functions were given to the European Council, now as a separate institution. Security and defence was given to the High Representative.
What is left of the Council of Ministers is basically legislation. So that means that 90% of the legislation is dealt with by the Parliament and the Council. But Parliament is the representation of 500 million citizens, directly elected, whereas the Council of Ministers represents the member states.
These are the two legitimate bodies that have to agree to pass a law. I think in the structures we have already a dual chamber system.
Last question: What is your personal wish for 2025 as a European heading one of the key institutions?
Being an equal partner in the global stage. Neither dominating nor being dominated.
Isnt’ t that a bit optimistic?
I think Europe has absolutely the potential. When you look more closely into China, when you look more closely into India, when you look more closely into Brazil, you see they are not short of problems at all. So I think it is not too optimistic at all. We just need have the willingness to be there.
…maintaining and even strengthening Europe’s soft power?
I think we need to develop all our functionalities. But as I’ve said, China is not just Shanghai and Beijing. China is also the northwest. There are many areas that are completely underdeveloped. They have to develop politically quite a bit. It’s not sure at all whether their system is stable.
So there is no reason, just because of the current crisis, to be depressed. If Europe wants to bring all its potential together, Europe will absolutely play in the first league. There is no question mark about it.