Over the past weeks, Olli Rehn has put himself on the map as potential liberal candidate for the presidency of the European Commission. But now the man known as 'bailout commissioner' has to beat the most well-known liberal across Europe, Guy Verhofstadt. In an interview with EURACTIV, Rehn reveals his plan for a winning campaign.
Olli Rehn is European commissioner for economic and monetary affairs and nominee to become the frontrunner for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) in the campaign towards next May’s EU elections. He spoke to EURACTIV's Laurens Cerulus.
>>Read related article: I have a vision, says liberal nominee Olli Rehn
The liberal manifesto was released on Wednesday (18 December), and puts forward ‘simplifying EU rules’ is key point. In your policy field as commissioner, that hasn’t exactly been the case in the past few years of economic fire-fighting. Do you fear people won’t find it credible when you make such a promise?
The manifesto is essentially a programme to reform Europe. It’s a reform agenda on how we strengthen economic recovery and pursue job creation in Europe. We have saved Europe from the existential threat; now it is essential to stay on course concerning economic reform.
I believe that in order to liberate the entrepreneurial drive in Europe, we need better regulation and a well-functioning market. In those terms, I think we need to be better at simplifying rules and [drafting] better regulation.
More in general, Europe should be big on big things and small on small things. We have to be strong on economic governance so we facilitate sustainable growth and stability. But on micro-economic level we need to avoid excessive administrative burden, or heavy regulation.
Do you feel voters will reward you for your work as Commissioner?
Well, I’m always willing to discuss my track record and achievements. When I was given the portfolio for economic and monetary affairs, four years ago, I knew it would be a difficult time. But nobody could envision it would be even tougher than expected.
Over the past four years, we have done an extensive effort to avoid the economic situation in Europe from getting worse. Now, we are on the way to recovery.
But European elections shouldn’t only be about economic issues. And that’s why we as liberals also defend civil rights in the digital age, by pushing for data protection and privacy. Also, we have to be faithful to our European values, for example in countries east and south of Europe like Ukraine or post-Arab spring countries.
Do you think your candidacy will play well in crisis-hit countries, where – if people know you – they mostly see you as the ‘bailout commissioner’?
I have always considered myself as a bridge-builder between Southern and Northern countries – and even received criticism in Northern European countries for this. I believe that we cannot afford to have big cleavages inside Europe; we should build bridges.
[Concerning the bailout programmes], several countries are concluding their programmes. Ireland will do so in December, Spain in January. This shows that these programmes have delivered results: they now have a beginning and an end. It shows that countries in which they’re implemented, benefit from it.
In case you become the liberal common candidate: will you leave office as EU commissioner?
Within the Commission, we have discussed the rules related to the electoral campaign for individual commissioners. It is up to the Commission president to set these rules. In the past two elections, the legal absence had to start after the last plenary session of Parliament, which this year is [the third week of] April.
I have discussed it with the president [of the Commission], I’ve informed him of my plans. But I will take my decision in February and then follow the decision of the Commission president.
That means that, from February to April, you’d campaign while being a commissioner. Is there a danger for people to mistake your commission agenda as being politically motivated?
I don’t think so. Let’s have a campaign for the candidacy first and as of 1 February I’ll see how to go forward.
What are your chances against the other candidate, [the president of the ALDE group] Guy Verhofstadt?
I think it is fair to say that we both have a substantial support within the ALDE family. I let other people judge the differences between us. I am good friends with Guy and I respect him. He has plenty of political energy and experience.
Are you willing to speak out on federalism, or simply ‘more Europe’?
There are different conceptions of federalism. In the political debate, certain words become so lobbied that I’d rather prefer to speak about things with correct names instead.
People might argue that the Commission president has to inspire or put forward a vision – which is more the case with your opponent.
I have an idea; I have a vision. Namely that we now have to focus on economic recovery and on job creation. That starts with a European Union that’s big on big things and small on small things. And apart from that, Europe has to defend its values.
I think it is a fact of live that Europe has to unite in order to defend its values and its economy. In the past years, we have been able to unite several voices within Europe, and convey the same message at [international] talks and negotiations.
At the same time, I feel that in order to restore economic governance of Europe, we have to have better regulation. Less restrictive burdens and a better access to finance for our SMEs.
We can’t solve the EU’s problems by some kind of central planning. We need to have stronger governance within the EU [member states] as well.
Do you fear the European alliance between eurosceptics like Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen?
I am in politics because of hope, not because of fear. And now it is essential that European political families – and our own liberals and democrats – provide a vision for Europe. That is the way we get hope and we can show the people that there are better persons to run the European Union.
There has been much discussion on the parties pushing forward frontrunners for the EU Commission presidency position – and whether this will work. How confident are you that the next Commission president will be one of the parties’ common candidates?
[Referring to the process stipulated in article 17.7 of the Lisbon Treaty:] There may be no automaticity, but there is a strong connection. Europe is fundamentally a democracy and this is the way forward in the evolution of democracy in the EU.
What you’re likely to see after the elections is the European Council on the one hand, and the European Parliament and political families on the other, approaching each other – maybe even colliding. But it can be healthy democracy in Europe .
Still, it is crystal clear that the European Council will need a strong support from the Parliament. In my view, there needs to be a post-election coalition between three to four political families. That would deliver sufficient stability in policy making in the coming five years. Because we cannot afford to have too much institutional wrangling – we must focus on providing solutions for the European citizens. And that is why you need a large support.