Turk: González report needs follow-up

Without a follow-up, the González report about the measures that the EU needs to urgently adopt to avoid backsliding into irrelevance would be "just another document," Žiga Turk, secretary-general of the Reflection Group on the Future of Europe, told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

Žiga Turk is a professor and chair of Construction Informatics at the Faculty of Civil and Geodetic Engineering at the University of Ljubljana. He is also secretary-general of the Reflection Group on the Future of Europe, chaired by Felipe González. 

Turk keeps an online diary on Blogactiv.

He was speaking to Georgi Gotev.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

Your position as secretary-general of the Reflection Group on the Future of Europe is nearing its end, and the report has already been made public. How would you assess these one-and-a-half years? Are you satisfied?

It would be unprofessional for a secretary-general to comment either on the results, discussions or differences that may have existed amongst members. Personally I can say that this was perhaps the most interesting year-and-a-half that I have ever spent. I was listening to and taking part in discussions between some of the wisest minds in Europe.

But these discussions took place in secret, causing disappointment. Felipe González said that one reason why he did not opt for a public debate was because the task was undertaken amid the worst economic crisis the Union has ever known and he did not want to overspend taxpayers' money. Do you regret not having communicated more?

Personally, I am very fond of the Internet, e-participation, e-democracy and of reaching out to the public through such modern media. So I would be lying if I said that I don't regret that this was not used at least a little bit more.

But I understand this, as through this outreach you could make another one of these public relations campaigns for Europe; for what I call 'Brussels Europe'.

The goal of the group was not to make a PR campaign for Europe, however, but to send some clear messages to the European Council about Europe's future challenges and how to meet them. It is these 27+1, the latter being [Council President Herman] Van Rompuy, who are the clients of this report. There are many other opportunities for various political institutions here in Brussels to reach out to the so-called 'citizen'.

There are indeed many institutions with such a capacity, but they did not help you to communicate. It was simply not the case.

The report was handed out [to Van Rompuy on 8 May] over the famous weekend when the euro and Greece's fates were decided and roughly a trillion euros were put on the table to restore the markets' confidence in Europe. I do not think that the report is yet receiving proper attention due to more urgent matters that the Council has to deal with.

But I can agree with you that had there been some outreach with various stakeholders becoming part of this effort, it would have been much more difficult to simply shelve the report.

Are the group members disappointed because of the general lack of interest in the report?

It is difficult for me to speak for the other members. They devoted a year and a half of their lives to this group. My impression is generally that they would like to see greater impact, more discussions, explaining, promoting…

On the other hand, however, it may not be too late. This is not a report about what to do in the next month. There are issues in the report that are quite time-proof. And when the dust settles around the current problems, I'm sure that it will be revisited. It has been read with great interest, although perhaps not in the public limelight.

But is there maybe another reason? Personally, I find the report rather diplomatic and not really surprising. In spite of statements made earlier, I don't find the report 'provocative' and in any case not significantly different from presentations given by Felipe González in the European Parliament months ago. Did the group make an effort to be diplomatic and not to hurt prevailing views in some capitals?

As you know, Felipe González was invited to the March European Council to present a preview of the report. In June there is a one-day Council devoted to pressing economic issues. There is a feeling that the leaders in Europe do not have the luxury to look at the long term. I think this is unfortunate. Never does there seem to be a time to step back from immediate problems and look at things from a long-term perspective. As a result, it is always in the short term that Europe is under the pressure to act – that it is to be reactive and not proactive. We are not setting up the ground work before it is too late and its effects start being felt.

As for 'being diplomatic' – actually, the report is quite blunt in its main message. And the message is this: there is a choice – reform quickly and decisively, or decline. And it is you, the members of the Council, that will have to do it, together for the common good of all of Europe, perhaps sacrificing some cheap political points you may score at home as defenders of the national interest.

Maybe the message is not in the title and not in the bold text, but for those who wish to see it, it is there. And I don't believe this is due to diplomacy. For example, Turkey's mention was not a diplomatic way of dealing with the issue.

The fact that the name Turkey appeared may appear provocative, as French President Sarkozy didn't want the Reflection Group to touch on the issue, or so the rumour goes. But I heard another rumour that there was a bolder message with regard to Turkey compared to the text adopted. [Which reads: "The EU must stay open to potential new members from Europe, assessing every candidacy on its own merits and their compliance with the membership criteria. These are in fact the 'true limits of Europe'. In line with this policy of engagement and inclusiveness, the Union must honour its commitments with regard to the current official candidates, including Turkey, and carry on with the negotiation process."] Can you confirm or deny this?

It would be unprofessional of me to comment on drafts which were in circulation within the group. But one could also argue that if a different composition of members were present when the final decision on that particular paragraph was decided on, there would be no mention of Turkey.

Speaking from my own personal perspective, I think the message should be that Europe is a Union and a civilisation that is based on certain values, and one of these values is sticking to its word. It is one of the 10 commandments. We cannot pretend to be a Christian club if we do not keep our word. And I am sure that this message would have been possible without an explicit mention of Turkey.

So I understand that the French representative [Nicole Notat] was not present at that particular meeting. But what I wanted to ask you is about the follow up. You say something has to be done. Who is in charge of the follow-up? Maybe your main ally is the European Parliament, which has become more assertive since the Lisbon Treaty entered into force. Moreover, people in Parliament perhaps work more on the long term. There are certainly many MEPs who will stay there for 20 years or more…

Nothing yet has been formally planned or is being set up as a follow up of the Group's report, which is unfortunate. From the perspective of the Secretariat, we have found out in this year and a half when preparing state-of-the art background information for the discussions that there is a very clear lack of long-term thinking towards the European Union's institutions and long-term strategic planning.

There is some in the [European Commission's Joint Research Centre] JRC in Seville, and BEPA [the Commission's Bureau of European Policy Advisers], but there is very little within the Council and European Parliament. And if the Secretariat were in the position to propose one of the recommendations in this report, it would be that Europe needs a strategic forward-thinking body within or in combination with the Commission, Council and Parliament.

The literature that we studied was American or Chinese or in some cases from member states, but from the EU institutions there was a very clear knowledge gap as to what kind of studies and analyses existed.

So if there is a follow up from this report, it should be this unit, a body that would do this in an organised and professional way. Then you would not leave the thinking about the long-term future to occasional ad-hoc groups. Use external experts, external input, wise men and women, but make the exercise formal and permanent – this is my proposal. 

Business companies have boards – people from outside the company who have the 'helicopter view' and know how to make sense. Reflection Group member Kalypso Nikolaidis speaks of agoras, which are another way for people to meet and reflect. Maybe there should be a kind of board overseeing if the decisive actions prescribed are actually taking place?

Somehow I think you need civil servants and experts who keep the light on here in Brussels, but they should reach out to whoever can contribute to certain issues. If I understand Professor Nikolaidis's idea about an agora, it's more about a mechanism to deepen democracy in Europe, deepen European identity and make a transition from democracy to what she calls demoicracy – the rule of the plurality of demos-es.

Without a follow-up, the Reflection Group report would be just another document. Indeed, the follow-up could come in different ways. To make the group permanent is one way. To spin it off into an institutional setting is another. To be taken forward by another institution is the third. But coming back to your question of where our allies are, I am not sure about the allies, but reform has to come from the place where the real power is: the European Council. This is the place where the national and European influences are coming together. Europe is not only Brussels, it is also the member states. And the member states are run by the members of the Council, not by the Commission and not by the European Parliament.

Then you won't have Parliament as your ally. The Parliament doesn't like the Council. Guy Verhofstadt recently called it 'The Monster'.

I would have every ally there is. I have very good friends in the Parliament and it's actually in the Parliament where some ideas to set up a long-term strategic unit live – there is even a budget line for that.

I want to be honest, however, and think of who the main client of this work should be. And under Article 15 of the Lisbon Treaty it is the Council that is given the task of giving the necessary impulse to the development of the Union in the long term and defining its general political priorities.

I have a different view: if your client for producing the report was the Council, the one to supervise the follow-up should be a different institution, and to me the Parliament looks most appropriate.

I could agree with that. It is important to set up a strategic unit up and not, in good Brussels tradition, fight over whose it should be. The more independent the unit is the better. Anyway, decisions are then taken elsewhere, and supervised by a third party. The Reflection Group was an independent group whose authority came from the prestige of its members and the quality of their work. The Council did set up the group, but it was not responsible for the results of its work.

I can easily imagine the Parliament or the Committee of the Regions or ECOSOC saying: 'You provided this nice report and we would like to monitor its follow-up, especially because there may be things in this report that the Council does not like'.

Let's look at all this from the citizen's perspective as well…

I think that Brussels is over-obsessed with 'the citizen': how to take care of the citizen, what to do for the citizen, what the citizen thinks and says. I think there is a subconscious fear that the citizen will at some point start believing that Brussels is not providing value for money, that the citizen would then stop cherishing the historic achievements of the European project and the people who maintain them in the corridors of Berlaymont and Justus Lipsius.

I don't think there is a need for that. What the citizen and people in Europe want, are solutions, things being done. They don't care if it is by the Council, Commission or Parliament, whether it is part of Europe 2020 or Project Europe 2030 or part of 20-20-20 by 2020. They want laws to be passed to make their businesses and private lives easier and their quality of life increased.

My personal view from this year and a half, spent partly in Brussels and failing to becoming an integral part of the Brussels bubble, is that after the great historic task of ensuring peace, prosperity and collaboration in Europe, too many people in Brussels are desperately looking around wondering: what is the next big historic project? Comparable to peace on the continent and its reunification after the fall of Berlin Wall – what could it be? Maybe we can save the planet? Yes, saving the planet from climate change is a worthy goal. Unfortunately the Reflection Group did not come up with the next grand idea, however.

My feeling is that maybe it's not time to make history any more. It may be more boring, and be a lot of hard work, but it's about making sure Europe is a good place to live, have kids, work, study and do business in. Europe must appear attractive to talent and capital from abroad. It's not historic, but it's what people expect. And given the huge challenges and historic transformations all around us, this is no small task in itself.