Belgian MEP candidate: Either the EPP goes ‘social’ or we might leave


Claude Rolin, a former Belgian trade union leader now turned candidate for the centre-right at the next European Parliament elections, says the European Peoples’ Party (EPP) needs to “find a sense of social progress”, otherwise it might see its Belgian member, the CDH, leave the group. The idea is not new among Belgian Christian Democrats.

Claude Rolin was the leader of the Belgian Christian Democrat trade union, CSC. He decided to run for MEP at the next elections for his country’s Christian democrat party, CDH, steering controversy among trade unionists. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Tanja Milevska.

Mr. Rolin, you’ve decided to leave the trade union and enter into politics and run for MEP at the next European Parliament elections. What will be your priorities?

My first, second and third priorities will be employment, because that is the most important things right now. We see how the current crises affect us, how they deconstruct the European social system. Unemployment is devastating in social and economic terms but also in terms of democracy. We see it with the rise of Eurosceptic, populist and far-right groups.  

We heard from the panelists at the European Trade Union Summit that austerity does not work. Do you share this opinion?

Entirely. Austerity policy does not work. And we see it. If it did work, it would have been verified, you know, like in mathematics. This has been verified by Greece, we’ve just heard it at the panel. It does not work. It creates more inequality, more unemployment, more misery in the population. Therefore it is high time to change our course. Even though we succeeded in saving the European currency, we need to have a policy focused on investments. I think that the ETUC’s programme aimed at boosting investments is very pertinent.

Austerity does not work, you say. But you will nonetheless join the European Peoples’ Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament if you win, the party that has been the driver of austerity policies. Your party (Belgium’s Christian Democrat’s Centre démocrate humaniste, CDH) is a member of the EPP at the EU level. Isn’t there a contradiction between your trade unionist convictions and your political battle?

I see it as a challenge to bring a social dimension to the EPP, which is absolutely necessary. The CDH’s programme is very clear on that matter. We want to turn our back to austerity and put in place social policies, intelligent economic policies which will make it possible to have a real economic recovery through employment oriented investments, and sustainable employment.

How will you meet that challenge of “introducing a real social dimension” in the EPP?

The EPP, as the majority of other European political parties, is not a monolithic group. There are right-wing parties in the EPP, there are also centrist parties but also parties which are more on the left. And I’m clearly determined to commit to that debate. Not only inside the EPP, but also with other MEPs from other groups. We see that unlike national parliaments, the European Parliament does not function on the basis of a majority vs. opposition logic. It can be seen through the votes. There is a diversity of votes inside the groups, and I intend, I hope, modestly, to weigh in the decisions and in the emergence of a humanist vision in the centre of Europe.

Philippe Maystadt, a member of your party and former president of the European Investment Bank, stated that the Belgian media recently questioned the membership of the CDH to the EPP, saying that he was not at ease sitting next to politicians such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán or Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. Do you think this issue should be debated?

I have clearly no common ground with the people you’ve just mentioned and with their parties. So we need to have a real debate: either the EPP is able to find a sense of social progress or indeed as a party in the CDH we will have to ask ourselves where our place is.

A new group?

We will have to see what the possibilities we have to create, inside or outside the EPP, a place for a real European centre, a centrist group with a clear social vision.

The 2009 EU elections had a record low participation from the voters, do you think this will change this time, that people need more Europe this time?

I am convinced that people need a more social Europe, they need to believe again in the European project. Today we see that the European project is admired outside of its borders, but inside citizens are disenchanted. It is important for the world of politics to bring back the enchantment of the European project during the campaign, to show that not only do we need to change European policies, we also need more Europe but a better Europe.

As for the European Commission’s discourse on social affairs, it seems to me that it is not in phase with the reality. The workers are living a particularly difficult reality because of the crisis. It is therefore high time to go beyond the observation that something needs to be done. We have to be more radical in our policies and make them fit to the citizens’ aspirations. What is at stake is crucial. Either Europe succeeds in answering to European citizens’ aspirations and stop the growing social divide, or the European project will fail.

The European project could fail?

We see it in the polls – Eurosceptics and populists are the winners of the European elections polls. It is those who do not want the European project. It’s high time to sober up.

What should be the priorities of the next Commission?

The tax on financial transactions is an indispensable element. It is time to put it in place, because it is economically intelligent; but also because it will bring equity and trust. Then, we need to stop the fiscal, social, environmental competition. We have to realise that we are Europe. Europe cannot be built on intra-European competition policies. We need to put in place cooperation policies. Together we can win. If we fight against each other in Europe, we will all be losers. That is for me the priority of all priorities: fighting against that logic. And the second thing of course is to boost growth throught sustainable investments. And finally, in terms of economic governance: yes, we need to control the state deficits, because the debts will have to be repaid one day but we need to stop confusing consumption debt or investment debt. When I invest in the future, it’s positive.

One of the hottest social topics on the European stage is the posting of workers where two visions confront each other. How can we reconcile those two visions?

We can reconcile them only by putting at the heart of our policies and rules the ability to have a real control. We cannot let this system, which opposes workers from one country to those of another, go on. It’s putting in competition paid workers. It’s not possible, and it’s fertile ground for populist ideas. So, we will need a system of European labour inspection. National control systems will have to work much more on the mutual exchange of information. Otherwise we will make it possible for operators – and some of them are real thugs – to use the loopholes of the system, and receive lots of benefits.

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