Freezing the European Union’s budget as demanded by some countries would be “very dangerous” as the EU needs greater investments to overcome the economic crisis, said European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek in an exclusive interview with EurActiv.
Jerzy Buzek was elected president of the European Parliament in July 2009. He is the first president from a new EU member state.
He was speaking to EurActiv Managing Editor Daniela Vincenti-Mitchener and EurActiv Publisher Christophe Leclercq.
To read a shortened version of the interview, please click here
You have one year to go. What do you want your legacy to be?
A completion of everything that we have started in the last 18 months. First of all, we must overcome the crisis in the European Union. It’s an unprecedented crisis. MEPs are doing everything in their power to help overcome this difficult situation. Employment remains the main challenge and threat: citizens are afraid of losing their jobs.
Secondly, we need to overcome social poverty. In the last two years, poverty has been growing inside as well as outside Europe, despite continued growth in the developing world. We must finish our work.
Thirdly, Europe needs to have better economic governance – not only monetary union but also a genuine economic union. In order to have a functioning EMU [Economic and Monetary Union] we need to connect solidarity with responsibility.
Solidarity is still valid as the first and most important EU principle, but without responsibility it does not work properly. We must be responsible in all the member states, in all segments of societies.
In recent months we have witnessed a widening divide. Germans have been more reticent to take on the burden of helping Greece or Portugal. Do you think solidarity is changing in the European Union?
No, I do not think solidarity is changing. What has changed are the conditions in which solidarity operates. In parallel, the individual responsibility of every member state is necessary as much as the individual responsibility of every citizen. We need it on a macro and micro scale. The intensity of solidarity and responsibility need to reflect the changing situation. We are all in this together.
At the same time we need more transparency in our financial and economic systems. Without transparency we cannot be sure of the situation in different member states.
Solidarity and responsibility could be much stronger and much more effective if we connect them with transparency for all players in the EU. That’s our task.
One of the major challenges ahead of us is Europe’s energy security and diversification of supply, as well the switch to a low-carbon economy. But we need around EUR one trillion of investment to secure the bloc’s energy needs in a sustainable way. Do we have the money? How far are we from an energy community?
Our citizens don’t understand geopolitics but they know when they don’t have heating or electricity in their flats, when they cannot use their TV or computer.
There are concrete dangers here, so building a European energy community is a must.
I launched the declaration on the creation of such a community on 5 May 2010 with Jacques Delors. If you consider legacies, this is also one crucial area for [European Commission] President [José Manuel] Barroso and [Energy] Commissioner [Günther] Oettinger.
One of the most crucial parts of the single market is the single market for energy: cross-border connections, common research, coordination of purchasing gas and electricity – so as to avoid tensions within the EU.
Regarding the energy community, we know that after decades of trying to build a single market, we are not completely there. Former commissioner Mario Monti has suggested in a report tips on how to complete it. If we haven’t fully succeeded with the single market, how much time will it take for the energy market? The investment needed will be huge. Considering the debate on the next EU multiannual financial framework and the reluctance of member states to increase the EU budget, what are the chances of an energy community seeing the light?
Three points for such a community are the most important. The first point is the coordination in purchasing gas. It depends on our own decisions and it is also connected with the Security of Gas Supply Directive passed by the European Parliament in September 2010.
The second point is the joint research and development of new technologies. We have started a strategic energy technology plan – the SET plan – of which I was the rapporteur three years ago. There are fantastic initiatives in this respect – solar, biomass, wind, coal, CCS [carbon capture and storage], nuclear power. Six initiatives, but we don’t have money for all them – you’re right.
The third point concerns cross-border connections. We need money from the EU level, so the European Parliament is fighting for another rather substantial budget – we have more responsibilities and we need to resources to fulfil them.
For example, the Treaty underlines energy solidarity and climate issues. The Lisbon Treaty has created many more EU-level responsibilities compared to the Nice Treaty. It is easier and more effective to use funds at EU level, as we ensure a European added value.
The cost of non-Europe is far greater than the cost of Europe. The European Parliament asked the European Commission to prepare a report on what European added value means.
Ninety-five percent of the EU budget – 95% – is used for boosting the economy.
The EU budget allocates only 5% for administrative costs. The rest is for boosting the economy. We spend funds on investments such as in the digital agenda, energy, transport – to unlock the potential of all the European regions – to build a single market, for the External Action Service.
That is why the EU budget is not comparable with those of member states.
We need something like €1 trillion over the next few years. We have a good European Energy Strategy, proposed by Commissioner Oettinger a few months ago. It goes in the right direction towards a European energy community. Now we need to implement it.
What is the most important factor for private investment? A clear legislative framework. Legal certainty leads to investment; we should implement the Third Energy Package without delay. It has been on the table since March 2009 – almost two years – and it’s not implemented fully yet.
Coming back to the budget, there are many strategies that need funding, but there is the possibility that a number of countries will want a stagnant budget and some will even push for a reduction. So some sacrifices may have to be made – what are the areas in which you could live with a smaller budget – agriculture, structural funds?
Last week, the Liberal group in the European Parliament came up with a proposal to abolish or restructure the European Economic and Social Committee or the Committee of the Regions. Would you be in favour of something like that, to show that there is also austerity/solidarity/responsibility in the European Union?
It’s a difficult question. On one side, we understand the need to save money, on the other side we know that our citizens don’t understand the European Union’s internal functioning very well. We need communication, which is as close as possible to them and their needs.
From this point of view, both the EESC and the CoR are very influential. They are constituted by a number of participants from all over Europe, representing different groups of communities and society such as local government, trade unions, entrepreneurs, SMEs, which connect to different needs.
Of course they are costly, but through their activities, they can help inform Europeans about the EU. Every contribution is necessary.
Most MEPs are elected on a regional basis now. Do you feel that there is enough added value in these regional representatives (CoR and EESC) as opposed to MEPs elected on a regional basis?
MEPs have a lot of responsibilities – they are not only connected with regional or social problems. Every member of the European Parliament is equal regardless of the election method.
The two committees are different from the European Parliament. We have different tasks, however our work is complementary. The European Parliament adopts binding legislation for 500 million Europeans.
Of course we can live without both committees. We can live without many other things in the European Union. But is this the right approach? Europeans can live without a TV set, but would they?
But then where do you save money? Obviously there is no downsizing of the European Parliament, although some MEPs are pushing to have only one site, Brussels. Would you be in favour, for example, of eliminating the so-called Strasbourg circus?
No. Strasbourg is a symbolic place. Symbols are important. We can also ask whether for some member states it is right to keep a monarchy. But for these countries that has an historical meaning and it is still an important part of public life and interest.
So, why would we eliminate Strasbourg? It is the very symbolic place of the European Union. It is indeed very important as it represents the essence of our main value: solidarity.
You need to save somewhere to reallocate resources where you actually need them. The Polish Presidency is coming up and you know that Warsaw will fight to maintain regional development and cohesion policy budgets, which have been for years the bulk of EU expenses. How do you see the reallocation of EU resources?
We should certainly think about rebuilding or restructuring our agricultural policy.
Nowadays there is a widespread agreement that agricultural policy has to be amended. We should probably spend more money on research and development policy and new technologies, so it’s necessary to develop this part.
Rural development is crucial – probably much more important than the amount of money we spend on it. So let us think about it seriously. However I wouldn’t like to say anything before the conclusions of internal debates within the EU that have only just started.
Let me say that we need most: we need competitiveness – it is what we agreed for the Europe 2020 strategy and our budget. What is the main task in our budget? It is creating jobs, because for citizens the most important thing is to have a job. How can we create jobs? We need to be competitive. Competitiveness for us means new technologies, innovation, new ideas. Structural funds for investment are the main instrument to re-launch competitiveness.
If we think about investment in ICT technologies all over Europe, Internet, energy investment, it’s very important for creating a single market. Investment in transport, roads, railways, unlocking the potential of regions and also life-long learning and education – our citizens will frequently change job or the nature of their job – so it’s necessary to have so-called ‘soft’ investment in human capital. All these points are necessary and structural funds are crucial from the point of view of competitiveness.
Freezing the budget is very dangerous from the point of view of our main task and goal, which is creating jobs. Very dangerous.
The European Parliament has gained significant power in recent years but its democratic clout has decreased tremendously, because voter turnout has decreased. The Lisbon Treaty has given a greater role to national parliaments to bridge also the democratic gap and create a larger debate. In the 18 months, however, we haven’t seen much of a change in the involvement of national parliaments. So what’s next for national parliaments and what is your vision for the 2014 election?
The Treaty of Lisbon as a matter of fact is a treaty of parliaments – not only the European Parliament but also national parliaments, because they are also more powerful than on the basis of the Nice Treaty.
First of all, they have a yellow and orange card possibility, it is a subsidiarity rule and they can check every piece of legislative proposal. They can protest and we should take it into account. So they are responsible for EU legislation for the first time in history – it’s very important, because we try to involve them in European legislation.
From the point of view of turnout for upcoming European elections, it’s better if national parliaments discuss EU legislation, not only at the level of implementation but much earlier during the preparatory phase and immediately after the tabling of the bill. They begin to scrutinise the legislation with us. National parliaments also have the task to inform our citizens that such a law is entering into force. The Lisbon Treaty grants new tasks, but also new responsibilities to national parliaments in relation to the EU.
Thus we have developed a permanent conference of speakers of parliaments, we meet regularly, we have the conference of parliamentary committees…
But that was there before…
Cooperation was always there, but after Lisbon the partnership between the EP and national parliaments has a completely different role.
There was a conference of speakers, but it was ‘softer’.
Yes. I would like to add that there are also joint parliamentary meetings and commttee meetings. On a very practical level, we have also created two dedicated email addresses: one is for subsidiarity complaints. The second one is for general remarks, not only subsidiarity problems.
It’s not possible to start a procedure which on the basis of subsidiarity should be the responsibility of national parliaments; we need to prove the greater advantage of action from the EU level.
There are a number of committees and that’s very useful for European and national parliamentarians, but how will you make sure that citizens understand that their national parliamentarians are involved? What about communication on these processes?
That depends on you, colleagues. The message must be clear, that’s the task of the politician. But we need a good messenger to deliver it – that rests in your hands.