There is nothing in the EU treaties that means Jean-Claude Juncker must be the next European Commission President, Sajjad Karim told EurActiv, before arguing that the rise of extreme parties in Europe was a message from voters demanding reform of the European Union.
Sajjad Karim, 43, was the first British Muslim to be elected to the European Parliament. He was elected as a Liberal Democrat before joining the Conservatives in 2007. He is the European Conservatives and Reformist (ECR) group’s candidate for European Parliament President.
He spoke with EurActiv’s deputy news editor James Crisp. A shorter version of this interview can be found here.
Why are you standing for European Parliament President?
Things in the EU cannot simply just carry on as they are. There has to be a fundamental change, and if that doesn’t happen I am afraid the EU is going to become even less relevant in voters’ lives and in the eyes of citizens.
Can that sort of reform programme be brought about by the same old faces, the same old ideas? No it can’t. And that’s why there is genuinely a need for people, who are not the old established names who have been around for years, to actually make an attempt to deliver what the voters of Europe have asked for.
But I am not naïve, I perfectly understand that there will be a coming together of forces of old in order to ensure that does not happen. But (myself) and my group can at least turn to the people and say, "We tried to do what you asked us to do."
You mentioned the same old faces. So do you think Jean-Claude Juncker should be the next President of the European Commission?
I am not going to make any comment on whether he should or he shouldn’t. If you look at the treaties, it says in very clear terms that the Council has to put forward a candidate taking into account the European Parliament election results, and after a period of consultation. No matter how I interpret that, it doesn’t interpret as Juncker must be the next president.
When I read that there is a difference of opinion on this point between national leaders, I don’t see that as a sign of disunity or despair at all. I actually think this period of consultation is going to leave us in a stronger position, because for far too long our national leaders have not provided any leadership on the European question, on Europe.
Do you think UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s opposition to Juncker has soured people’s view of the UK?
We have to react in a way that keeps in mind the medium to long term of the future of the EU. It is not in anybody’s interests – other than extremist forces – if we in the EU stop accommodating those countries that have a different point of view.
The Eurosceptic Alternativ für Deutschland has joined the ECR. That complicates Cameron’s relationship with Merkel doesn’t it?
The ECR today is not a group that has a British Conservative majority, and the decision to allow them to come in was by way of a vote. The majority voted to accept the AfD. On that basis, you have to accept it. There are dynamics that you mention, vis a vis Cameron and Merkel, but ultimately it’s a democratic decision within the constitutional workings of the group.
But the dynamics were moving towards an agenda for reform. So it’s an obstacle.
It could be an obstacle if our national leaders are going to concentrate purely on the short term. If they are going to concentrate on the medium to long-term, it doesn’t have to have the same weight attached to it.
What’s your view on the success of far-right parties in the elections?
There has been quite an increase in extremist-minded MEPs that have come into this place. They have been properly elected, but what I do not believe for a second is that people voted for them because they actually sign up for what they stand for. The reason that people voted for them was to send us a very powerful message to say, "Stop. We fundamentally reject the way in which you are carrying out politics at a European level."
The unfortunate thing here, and this will in the long run possibly be borne out by my candidacy, is that despite election results, despite there being a real opportunity to say let’s have a new face heading up the European Parliament, the forces of old will come together to maintain the status quo and then wonder five years later why the public are rejecting what we’ve done.
What do you mean by the forces of old?
Backroom deals. The largest group in this house is the European People’s Party. The onus is on them today to show a different type of leadership. The Socialists are not the only other group in this house. Reach out to the Socialists of course but look beyond that and truly come forward and try to forge a consensus that allows us to go to the European people in five years’ time and say, “You said this to us and this is what we have done.”
Part of that consensus would be to endorse your candidacy?
Come and unify behind my candidacy rather than just once again going into a room, close the doors excluding everybody except those that are in your small club, and do a deal. And then announce it to the people of Europe that this is something they are going to get even though they have asked for something fundamentally different.
How relevant is your Muslim faith given the rise of extremist parties?
I think there is an opportunity here for us collectively to reinstate our values. Not only inwardly to make ourselves feel strong about who we actually we but also outwardly as well. Europe has been dented and damaged by these election results in the way we are perceived outside of Europe. People are talking of Europe as having become inward looking, hostile, closed, and anti-immigrant and yet we are none of those things.
But I am asking for election based on my ten year work record in the EP, 20 years of elected public office and having served in this Parliament in a very constructive way at the highest of levels.
Do you think the European Parliament should be more diverse?
It’s a very diverse institution, with different nationalities, religions and opinions but I think your question is does it reflect the reality of European society? And no it doesn’t.
-The European Union and the Commission-
Do you believe in the European Parliament, the European Union?
Fundamentally. For my generation, there are two defining moments. I am now 43. One was the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the other was the coming down of the Berlin Wall. I made a choice in 2002 that I was going to try and pursue a political service in the EP rather than in my national parliament in the UK. I did that because in 2004, we were going to be bringing in Eastern European countries and genuinely reunifying Europe. I have said many times since I have been here that you will never see me standing for national parliament.
Over the years, the EP has gained more and more powers. Should that continue?
I’ve been involved in having to fight tooth and nail to get the powers we’ve rightly been given from the Commission. That’s something we will carry on with. This is the directly elected body of the European people and this is where the democratic legitimacy lies.
Does that hold true with the Council of Ministers? Are you looking to be equal partners?
With the Council of Ministers, I haven’t had the same experience I had with the Commission. I haven’t had to wrestle our powers away from them. With the Commission, they have tried everything, even through the back door if they possibly can, to block us getting the powers that are rightly ours.
-Brexit and UKIP-
Why is Britain the only member state going to have a referendum?
Because Britain is the one that for the last four decades has not had Europe as part of its domestic political dialogue. And that is why people in the UK today feel they have had no input in the way that the EU has developed.
The fault ultimately has to lie with our national politicians, because they simply have not, over many decades, made any effort to ensure that the people of the UK are properly informed when it comes to the EU. Had Europe been a part of the debate over our national elections, today there would be no need for this referendum.
It’s Farage who has brought the European politics to the fore in the UK.
Yes he has, but through an agenda of misinformation. So much of what he and his party has put out has actually been factually incorrect. Today in the UK, it’s so easy to say what you want about the EU, there’s nobody there to challenge it. And that’s where the national leaders have to step up to the mark and say, “actually this part of what this man has just said is completely incorrect."
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg tried to do that in the televised debates with Farage.
To try and overturn forty years in two debates was, I am afraid, a miscalculation of strategy
Do you think the referendum can lance the boil in the UK's relationship with the EU?
Yes, and I believe it will. The UK, despite the European elections result, and the one or two blips we’ve had in the past, is ultimately an outward looking, open, tolerant nation.
As people are getting more information and beginning to understand what EU membership actually means, people are arriving at the most obvious conclusion.
We have the Scottish referendum coming up as well. The Scottish position is that, while they want independence from the UK, they want to be in the EU. Hopefully Scotland will vote to remain in the UK. Then when we have an EU referendum, the people of Scotland will overwhelmingly vote to remain the EU, the people of Wales will vote to remain the EU, the people of Northern Ireland will vote to remain the EU.
The question is what will the people of England vote for? If at that stage, based upon an English vote, the entirety of the UK is put on a merry march out of the EU, then I am afraid a huge question mark will once again arise over the UK’s unity. Scotland is once again raising the whole independence question, Wales and Northern Ireland are deeply unhappy, and our position in other fora is weakened. Whether it’s the World Trade Organisation, whether it’s NATO, or more importantly, the United Nations.
We hold a seat on the UN Security Council as a United Kingdom. I don’t see a scenario in which the likes of China and Russia will allow that seat to be maintained by England alone. There’s a huge amount at stake, and our population needs to be educated about the consequences of this merry dance that Farage and his crew want to lead us on.