Top candidates for the European elections met at the Allianz forum in Berlin on Monday (3 March) under the heading "A Soul for Europe". In an interview with EurActiv.de after the event, MEP Jo Leinen spoke of Europe's importance as a community of values and why this year's election is unprecedented.
Jo Leinen is a German MEP for the Socialists & Democrats Group and a member of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety in the European Parliament. He spoke to EurActiv Germany's Ewald König.
Mr. Leinen, what was your main message at the Allianz Forum event in Berlin titled "A Soul for Europe"?
For me, it is the message that this centuries-old civilisation has been held together by Europeans with the values that they fought long and hard for – not with European institutions or European procedures.
As we have seen quite well in Ukraine, values like freedom, democracy, rule of law and fairness are the idea of Europe – not the trifles of everyday life, which can motivate either excitement or frustration.
Could the EU have done more in the case of Ukraine?
Of course hindsight is 20/20. The EU's hands have been tied over the last few weeks. Now more than ever, we must send a clear signal of solidarity indicating that we will not leave Ukraine to fend for itself - neither economically, nor politically.
But now, because of the European elections and the composition of the Commission thereafter, the European Union is less able to act than otherwise?
I hope the opposite is true. Calls for assistance in Ukraine are echoing from all sides now – not only from the foreign ministries, but also from the general public underpinned by a will of the citizens in Europe. That raises interest in the European elections. After all, the institutions keep on functioning. The Commission, the Council of Foreign Ministers and the European Council will still be intact until the end of the year.
What is your secret recipe for a super election campaign? Will Martin Schulz's candidacy lead to greater voter participation in the European elections? And above all, that populists and Eurosceptics will not be the only ones participating?
The "single" idea of Europe no longer exists. After WWII it was easy to agree on the idea of peace. Now it has become more diverse. While the idea of peace still remains – just look at Ukraine – there is the concept of being able to continue living a good life in Europe. In the 21st century we want to defend our values and our interests in an ever-shrinking world. Granted, that is a bit more complicated to explain but it is just as important as the idea for peace.
Will that be enough to increase voter participation?
In response to all the anti-Europeans I expect a mobilisation of pro-Europeans to balance it out. There is a majority in Europe that still supports this Europe and at least does not reject this European idea. But one must promise reforms, indicating that things will change for the better over the next five years – in the economy and in the social situation as well as in citizen's participation and transparency.
The promise of a better Europe is the bottom line in this European election.
What effect might Martin Schulz's popularity have?
For many years, we fought to have a face for Europe and that it would gain sharper contours through more personalisation and politicisation. This is exactly what happened with the top candidacies.
The top candidates were in the Allianz Forum today: Martin Schulz for the Social Democrats, Jean-Claude Juncker for the Christian Democrats, Guy Verhofstadt for the Liberals and Rebecca Harms for the Greens. This election will be completely different from the previous ones. The faces and more distinct profile for Europe's future, have given people a real alternative in casting their vote.
Do you think the fact that of all people, a German could become president of the Commission, is hard to stomach for some countries?
It is true, that it may not be easy for some EU member states. Still, this minefield must crossed. In the future, candidates will always come from one of the member states. After all, there is no abstract Europe but only the defined Europe of the member states. This is a good opportunity to get used to the idea of not looking at nationalities, and instead at the political agenda of each of the candidates.
On the other hand, a German assuming the Commission presidency means other important positions will not be filled by Germans...
Among the four important positions – Commission president, president of the European Council, High Representative for foreign affairs and Parliament president – it goes without saying that Germany can only fill one of these posts. But in the level below, the playing field is open to all.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has not yet clearly stated that the winner of the European elections will automatically become the Commission president. Should we be ready for surprises? What about a compromise candidate between Schulz and Juncker?
I, along with many others, would oppose that with all my strength. That would be against the essence of the Lisbon Treaty, which clearly intends to parliamentarise appointments to the Commission presidency. As a result, a candidate for Commission president must have gone through the European elections. A candidate who has not cleared this parliamentary hurdle, expressing his positions during the election campaign, will definitely not get my vote.
We are beginning a new chapter in European politics. The old method of choosing a president behind closed doors must be prevented at all costs. Those days must be over.
You have called it a disservice that the German Constitutional Court ruled to remove the 3% electoral threshold in European elections. Why?
The Court underestimates the role of the parliament as a legislative body and as a means of assembling the European executive. It seems to have compared the European level to the level of a city council, where it does not matter how many parties emerge. That is wrong.
We need to bundle interests. A fragmented European parliament is less able to make decisions than one in which political currents and interests are bundled into various political groups. Everything else hinders and complicates its work.