Verheugen: Beware an institutional crisis after the EU elections

An institutional crisis of the kind the EU cannot afford would happen if the European elections put forward a candidate for Commission president who would not have the support of his own country, Günter Verheugen, former Commission vice president and enlargement commissioner, told EURACTIV Poland.

Günter Verheugen was member of the German federal parliament and deputy chairman of the parliamentary group Social Democratic Party of Germany. He served as minister of state in the department of foreign affairs from 1998 to 1999. In 1999 he left parliament and took the job of EU Commissioner. He now works as a lobbyist.

He spoke to EURACTIV Poland Senior Editor Maria Graczyk.

You advocate a deeper democratisation of Europe. Deep to the point of taking a step towards a direct democracy and the introduction of referendums? Or is it too risky?

I am not strictly against referenda as an instrument to organise more participation of the EU citizens. But it is not the most urgent problem and there are some tricky questions. What happens in case of a Europe-wide referendum in those member states where the majority of people do not support it? Can a majority of citizens in the EU overrule the majority in member states?

My starting point is different. I believe that “more Europe” in the sense of shifting more competencies from the national level to the EU level can only be envisaged, if we establish a fully-fledged parliamentary democracy.

The Constitutional Court [of Germany] is right to say that the further transmission of key competences to the EU must be linked to its democratisation. The EU executive must be the result of parliamentary elections and be supported by a parliamentary majority. We should also have a kind of senate, in which member states have the same number of seats regardless of the size of their population. 

We cannot accept that important decisions requiring a full democratic legitimacy are directed to Brussels, where they vanish in the apparatus, lost on the desks of high-ranking functionaries who are not under the control of the democratically elected institutions.

Do you expect that the election of the next president of the European Commission, succeeding José Manuel Barroso, to be a breakthrough?

It's not just about the head of the European Commission, but also about a new system. If the representatives of the European political parties and factions designated their candidates for the post of president of the European Commission, after which the European Parliament selected one of them to be the head of the Commission, then such a politician would benefit from the majority support and from a greater democratic legitimacy. It would also involve further institutional consequences.

Naturally, it would accelerate the process of democratisation. However, I doubt whether this situation will occur. Many people have mixed feelings about it. After the end of the day it is still the European Council which has to present a proposal. What happens if the candidate of the parliament does not enjoy the support of his own member state? An institutional crisis would be the result – and this is really the least we can afford in our present situation.

American political theorist Benjamin Barber, when asked by what he sees when he looks at Europe, said he only sees individual countries. He does not see the EU.

This is exaggerated, but he has a point.

We are clearly experiencing a trend towards more intergovernmentalism. But this is a result of the nature of the problems we are dealing with – the management of the financial crisis requires a stronger involvement of national governments and parliaments.

I would strongly support Mr Barber when it comes to foreign and security policy. We analysed this question during the conference in Warsaw – the EU is losing its international importance, and the nation states cannot fill the gap. Our foreign partners are often confused about who they should talk to – Brussels or the individual capitals. It should be emphasised that the EU can only do what the member states will allow. This often depends on the ambitions of people who are responsible for the policy at a national level and on their approach to the European institutions.

I get angry when I think of the ministers of foreign affairs and their reaction to Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. After her election in 2009, before she even spent one day at her post, I had already heard permanent representatives of some major EU countries saying that “she won’t make it”, or “she will be a disaster”. Officials in member states’ capitals did not even give her a chance. The member states' capitals bear the responsibility for the current situation.

Then maybe we should follow Barber’s suggestion and put our hope in Europeans, who will make the right choices during elections?

The next elections to the European Parliament will mainly concern two related issues. The first comes down to whether the turnout will be high enough to conclude that the European Parliament was granted a sufficient democratic legitimacy. For one day, we will come to the point where we will start to doubt it.

The second one concerns the situation in which the radical elements – eurosceptic or even hostile to the EU – will mobilise their forces in order to place their representatives in the European Parliament better than those who support European integration.

There is no time to lose. We must think about a way to rebuild trust. And I am surprised by the indifference with which some capitals look for example at proposals put forward by [British Prime Minister] David Cameron, who is trying to find practical solutions to European problems. His proposals do not solve all the problems, but at least some that upset people the most. Why nobody deals with those?!


Don’t ask me… Please do ask Mrs Merkel and Mr Hollande.

Berlin takes a firm stance on Ukraine. Meanwhile, even incarcerated Ukrainian opposition politicians call for the EU to sign an association agreement with Ukraine…

I am of the same opinion.

If Yulia Tymoshenko were released by autumn, the EU would have grounds to sign the agreement?

This is a realistic assumption. At least for some EU governments the release of former Prime Minister Tymoshenko is a condition sine qua non. I doubt the wisdom of this position if I consider the long-term interests of the EU and of Ukraine as well. The problem is called “selective justice”. What does it mean? Do we tell Ukraine: Either you release Mrs Tymoshenko or you put more people into prison? Preferably some from the ruling elite?

What is at stake in an association agreement. We are not discussing full membership. Therefore I am afraid that we are using double standards here. Our long-term interest is to organise step-by-step the integration of Ukraine into our structures. If the association agreement (and the DCFTA) enters into force, it will mean that Ukraine has made an irreversible choice and will no longer be in a limbo between the EU and President Putin’s Eurasian Union.

Can Poland do something more in this regard?

Poland is already doing a lot. We discuss the association agreement with Ukraine thanks to the strong commitment of Poland. The government in Warsaw does what it can on Ukrainian issues.

How significant is the voice of Poland in the EU? We often complain that we are too passive.

From my observations in recent years, I can tell that Poland became on one of the key EU players. Poland acquired an important position in the EU, mainly because of its political stability and strong economic performance. Poland should not mind being criticised by German environmental organisations because it does not agree to introduce some vague recommendations of the European Commission regarding energy policy until 2050. The Polish welfare for the next decades will depend on those decisions. It should be understood both in Berlin and Brussels. Poles should not worry if sometimes they are criticised for it.

For Poland, the issue of a single currency, the euro, is a dilemma…

The time of final preparations for entering the eurozone has not yet come. It will, but first, Europe must emerge from the crisis. Also changes in the management of the monetary union have to be introduced and their effects must be visible. Poles must know what kind of monetary union they will be joining. There will be far-reaching changes and one needs to know that in advance.

When in 2004 I was asked when I expected Poland to be in the eurozone, I said not before 2010. Today I would say that in any case, it will be before 2020. I do not refer to the legal aspect – Poland is after all obliged to join – but I refer to the interests of Poland.

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