Rodrigues: Juncker must flex muscle with member states

Maria João Rodrigues

Maria João Rodrigues [European Parliament]

As the European Parliament adopts its first joint resolution on the Commission work programme to be presented in October, Portuguese MEP Maria João Rodrigues said Juncker must take leadership and restore political dynamism in the EU.

Maria João Rodrigues is a Portuguese MEP from the S&D group. She is the chief negotiator for the Parliament joint resolution on the Commission work programme 2016, adopted on Wednesday (16 September). The Commission will present and disucuss with MEPs the programme in Strasbourg on 29 October. Rodrigues is considered the mastermind of the EU’s Lisbon Agenda, adopted in 2000. 

Rodrigues spoke to EURACTIV’s Editor-in-Chief, Daniela Vincenti.

You are the S&D chief negotiator for the joint resolution on the Commission work programme 2016. Why has the Parliament decided to come up with this joint position, which if I am not mistaken is a premiere?

We are confronted with a crisis of many dimensions: financial, economic, social. Now there is also a humanitarian dimension with the refugee tragedy, and the fact that we are dealing with very unstable neighbourhoods around Europe. So in such a situation, there is a real challenge for the future of European integration. We have reached a point where the choice is clear. Either we try to protect European citizens by going back to national borders, which I think stands no chance of success, or we move forward to real European solutions.

So that pushed the Parliament for the first time ever to draft its stance on the work programme for 2016, before the Commission presents it. Are you trying to force the Commission to be a bit more ambitious, and take its right of initiative more seriously?

Absolutely. The reason is that in such a crisis situation, we need to have a stronger voice coming from the European institutions, starting in the European Parliament, as the body that directly represents EU citizens. We decided to take a clear and early position on the Commission’s work programme, because this is the most important document that sets out the priorities of the year to come. We think that we need to deepen European democracy, and create a much stronger interaction between the EP and the EC on the annual work programme.

In the resolution, it is clearly stated that the Parliament urges the European Commission to use its right of initiative to its full extent, in order to give the Union clear leadership. This seems to imply that this has not happened in the past. Is this a veiled criticism of the Commission’s leadership role?

Yes, this is the assessment by the Parliament over a quite a long period, starting with the previous mandate of the Commission. In a crisis situation, the Commission should not be paralysed by divisions within the Council.

We perceive the risk with this Commission, which appears more courageous than the Barroso II Commission, but still, there is a big risk of deadlock and divisions in the Council. Also, we still need to see tangible follow-up from the Juncker Commission on some of its declarations, especially in the social field. That is why the Parliament is so clear about that. We are really pushing the Commission to take the lead, and make full use of its right of initiative.

There is a serious need to restore political dynamism in the European Union. The Parliament represents European citizens, and will certainly not stop pushing the Commission to take full advantage of its right of initiative. This is the way to create stronger pressure to deal with the clearly exposed divisions in the Council, and arrive at workable European solutions.

Have successive crises undermined the community method, in favor of the intergovernmental method? Are you trying to isolate the Council?

From the viewpoint of my political group, S&D, there is one leader that we would like to clearly condemn and isolate: the prime minister of Hungary. When it comes to the other leaders and prime ministers, we prefer to involve them in an effort to build stronger European solidarity. We also understand the anxiety of the populations, but if we have a proper system to handle the refugees, we believe that these countries will come together and cooperate more strongly.

Our strongest idea to tackle the refugee crisis is a permanent relocation mechanism, activated in cases of emergency, which the Parliament will consider in a fast-track procedure. At the same time, we need stronger measures at external borders, by which we do not mean barbed wire, but against smugglers, safe corridors and greater support for non-EU countries, where refugees stay or transit.

But isn’t a permanent distribution or relocation mechanism a bit simplistic? The refugee and migrant crisis might change over time and need alternative solutions. Doesn’t such a mechanism provide for greater flexibility so that we can possibly also anticipate, for example, mass migration from Africa, whose population is likely to reach 4 billion by the end of the century?

The European Parliament will make a clear distinction between refugees on the one hand, and immigrants on the other. But in both cases, we are calling for a stronger response.

When it comes to refugees fleeing war or dictatorship, and particularly the Islamic State, we are dealing with a matter of extreme urgency, and we think that we should have this new and strengthened emergency relocation scheme, in order to make it possible for Europe to provide real assistance to refugees. This is our aim.

On the subject of immigration, people seeking better a economic future, of course Europe needs to be prepared to have a real EU migration policy which could be useful for Europe to deal with its own internal demographic problems. But this also means we need to have a clear cooperation framework with countries of origin.

This cooperation should be organised on a European basis, especially in the case of Africa. The internal tensions in Africa are huge. They may yet cause a big flood of immigration into Europe. But this should be dealt, first of all, with increased openness on the European side, to integrate more immigrants, but on the other side, with a much more effective cooperative policy for development in Africa.

By ‘much more effective’, are you saying that EU development policy needs to be improved?

Yes. Certainly we should be doing much more. You will see that even this month, the UN will adopt a very demanding and ambitious sustainable development agenda for the years to come, the Sustainable Development Goals.

All UN countries will be invited to implement this agenda, but doing so in Africa requires a lot of effort in terms of investment, supporting trade for development, providing expertise and technology. Europe should play a much more important role in this, and give real meaning to what is called the Europe-Africa Strategic Partnership, which has been a bit forgotten.

Let’s briefly turn to the eurozone crisis. The resolution calls for a strengthened EMU. Have we finally learned from our mistakes and are ready to be ambitious on further economic and monetary integration?

We understand that this crisis was connected not only to the problem of a lack of reforms, or a lack of fiscal discipline in some individual member states, but it has been so long and deep because of the major flaws in the way the eurozone operates. The architecture of the EMU is clearly incomplete. The Parliament now is pushing the Commission to present all the detailed proposals we need to reform this Economic and Monetary Union. Starting with those proposed in the 5 Presidents’ Report on completing the EMU.

Is the report ambitious enough?

We don’t think so. This is the position of my group. But the Parliament is saying “the Commission should not wait”.

Even if we have a humanitarian crisis, even if we are still dealing with the Greek crisis, where debt restructuring will need to be discussed, we should keep in mind that the problem is larger and deeper. The Commission should come up with the first set of proposals for EMU reform this year, ahead of the next meeting of the European Council.

These reforms have to do with giving the eurozone member states the real conditions to go back to economic growth and investment, which do not exist at the moment. A number of countries are simply lacking the capacity to invest in reforms and productivity improvements that would enable them to catch up again with the better-performing ones. That is why growth is so low in the eurozone as a whole, and that’s why we have so many divergences when it comes to growth rates, unemployment etc.

A number of proposals must be given top priority. Firstly, completing the Banking Union with a common deposit insurance scheme; secondly, fostering European economic demand by defining the right policy mix for the eurozone as a whole. This means that the eurozone needs to start discussing what is called the ‘aggregate fiscal stance’ and to see if the policy mix should be corrected. If some countries need to keep their budgets tight, others should expand so that we have stronger recovery in the eurozone as a whole. We need to start with this process right now.

The third thing is to develop a proper fiscal capacity for the eurozone, to complement national budgets. Because national budgets are committed to common discipline rules, they have their limits, while on the other hand, there is a clear investment gap in Europe (that’s) more severe in some countries, and less in others. But the benefits of the single currency will be much stronger if economic growth in the eurozone becomes more balanced. The final point is that political decisions around all of this should be democratic decisions. We believe that the European Parliament, as the EU’s democratic, representative institution, should take part in these decisions.

The Commission will probably outline this as a priority. But surely the Parliament wants to have a greater role in defining other priorities that might not be in Juncker’s top 10 list.

This is correct. I can give you another example that is also relevant, because it will change the action of the Commission if you compare it with last year.

Last year, we had important initiatives on investment, Energy Union, Digital Agenda, and we are in favour of these. But we think that European integration also needs a stronger social dimension.

The level of unemployment, the level of social inequality, the level of poverty, all remain very high. We have the outstanding problem of youth unemployment, and we believe that we need to address these social problems with stronger instruments. That’s why completing the EMU, including its social dimension, is so important.

We need to address the problems with a more effective investment plan, which is just starting now, as you know.

But we also need to make sure that the EU is committed to good social standards regarding access to education and training, action against unemployment, and basic working rights. This has been a weak pillar of the Commission’s agenda so far. But we believe that if we don’t take care of these problems, the risk is that member states, particularly in the eurozone, will restart a race to the bottom in terms of social standards, in order to remain competitive, by suppressing wage costs and social protections, and trying to outcompete each other in that way. This would bring more economic crisis, more social hardship – and we cannot accept this trend. 

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