Watson: New drivers for more EU integration will come from outside the Union

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The drive for further European integration is not coming from within, it is coming from what is happening in the world outside, from the centripetal forces of globalisation, said European liberals leader Graham Watson, lamenting the lack of vision of European leaders today.

Graham Watson is the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) party. He was the first British Liberal Democrat (LibDem) to be elected to the European Parliament in 1994 and has led the ALDE group in Parliament from 2002 to 2009.

He spoke to EURACTIV's Editor-in-chief Daniela Vincenti, just before the ALDE Congress in London on 28-30 November.

The LibDems have supported Cameron on his move to restrict freedom of movement and now he has announced a crackdown on European Union immigration rules, vowing to deport vagrants, restrict the right of foreign nationals to social benefits and call for new rules to stop “vast migrations” of Romanians and Bulgarians. LibDem have always supported freedoms, and especially the freedom of movement. What now?

We have supported Cameron up to a point, in the sense of what the government has done up to now, including this morning’s announcement, we have supported. We don’t support David Cameron when he says he wants to change the rules on free movement. That’s a perfectly legitimate aspiration for him, but we don’t support it. So, if it happens, it’s not in this Parliament.

Let me also say from a liberal point of view: I am sure that when the European Union was established and the treaties were written, the national leaders who wrote them  intended to allow free movement of workers, they did not intend to allow free movement of people living on benefits.

It is a disgrace but there are 10.000 British people, in Germany, joining unemployment benefits and living there.

There are also quite large numbers of people from other countries living in Britain and joining unemployment benefits. That was never the intention of the treaties.

Surely so, but the crisis has obviously worsened this scenario and you are unemployed and paid social security you should be entitled to get benefits, look for another job and not face deportation.

That is certainly true and Liberal Democrats have no difficulty with that. However, there is some evidence, very small, insufficient for the UK government to convince the European Commission, but there is some evidence of benefits tourism.

And one of the problems we have faced in the UK has been the lack of record keeping and the lack of proper controls.

If I can give you an example of this:  Students from other European countries have the right to apply for two forms of grants in the UK. One is a grant to pay their tuition fees and one is a grant for maintenance, to live on. Under the law, they have that right only if they’ve been living in the UK for three years prior to the application.

We have discovered that a lot of people of Romanian and Bulgarian origin are receiving grants, but have not been living in the UK for three years.

Now, clearly that is the kind of abuse that you have to stop. Systems can only work, and you can only defend free movement and the rights of free movement, if people are confident that the rules are being respected.

And if you have evidence that the rules have been broken, then as a responsible government, you have to act against it.

I’m very worried about the situation in the UK for the moment where there is a kind of a demonisation of Bulgarians and Romanians.

The demonisation is coming from the extreme right, it is infecting a part of the Conservative party and it is possible to have the view that it is influencing government policy. I am pleased to say that it has not influenced government policy up to now and I hope it will not.

Will the Lib Dems in the European Parliament and the Conservatives MEPs be more vocal and speak out against Cameron’s last move?

 I think we should defend freedom of movement. I have pointed out that there are almost as many Brits living in other European countries than there are other Europeans living in Britain, and the worst thing you can do is to start to discriminate against people of other countries, because then potentially you expose your own people living in other countries to discrimination.

I do believe that freedom of movement has been a magnificent achievement of the European Union. But we will only keep public confidence if people are sure that rules are being followed.

So it is a little bit short-sighted on the side of Cameron to come up with this debate right now, because also we are far away from the potential referendum, but starting this fear debate ahead of the European elections is paving the way for UKIP to collect even more votes. Wouldn’t you say so?

I believe that to be true because I believe that if you respond to parties like UKIP by moving on to their grounds, then you end up strengthening them. All of the evidence we have throughout history shows that to be the case and you have to respond by explaining, by reminding people why freedom of movement is a good thing.

In my constituency, we would not have people to work in agriculture, in care homes, in slaughter houses, driving trucks, if we didn’t have quite a large number of migrants from other European countries and outside the EU.

Where would we be in Italy without home help from Moldovans, Romanians and earlier from Polish.

One of Cameron’s point in the op-ed was “the EU has to change”.  Much of this change will be campaigning on change. You were here in 2004, 2009. How different will be the 2014 manifesto and campaign?

 I think things have changed a lot and if you look at the manifesto that we are debating and voting on this week at our Congress in London, it’s more hard-nosed than our manifesto in 2009.

Why? Because, in 2009, we still lived in the mind-set of prosperity, we were not aware of how long and deep the recession would be. We can now see that this recession is likely to last for ten years, I don’t mean we will be in recession for ten years, but I mean the impact of the recession is that it will take us ten years to recover. We’re halfway through those ten years. We are just beginning to see economic growth coming back, very weak and not very evenly spread across the EU. And our manifesto reflects that and the fact that governments have cut the European budget just as they’ve cut their own budget. We’ve had to make difficult choices about how we spend the European budget.

Our draft manifesto reflects this and I think what is adopted will be different, despite various amendments that have been put down by people like Andrew Duff, very nice, federalist, cosy. We live in a much tougher world and the only way that we know to improve our economy is through trade. And we’ve got to do two things.

First, we have got to get the internal market working properly, which it is still not. Secondly, we have to do more free trade agreements with other countries.

You will find this kind of emphasis on trade as a driver of economic growth in our manifesto.

In 2009, the manifesto highlighted enlargement, foreign, security and defence policy. Obviously, enlargement is off the agenda…

Not entirely because we can well imagine that between now and 2019, there may be one or two smaller countries joining the EU. If Iceland decides they want to join, we will have them in. If Norway decides they want to join, we’ll have them in. If Kosovo or Serbia or one of the Balkan countries reaches the standards they might join. We are also clear on that in our manifesto – we want to continue the negotiations with Turkey.

But we don’t think it is likely that Turkey would enter before 2019.

What about defence? EU leaders have decided to delve in to the issue at the December summit. But defence has been a sort of “touch me, touch me not” topic since the beginning of European construction.  Do you think we will have a defence policy in the legislature?

No. I think that the way leaders are choosing a theme for their summits is rather naïve. They’re all aware that they need to concentrate a little on defence policy, but they must also all be aware that there is not a great consensus among them to take it forward at EU level. I think we will see incremental change. The UK is even objecting to a very basic level of coordination headquarters and I don’t think that will change over the next five years.

The Commission is surely starting to think of its priorities for the next mandate. What do you think should be the top issues?

If you compare the Europe in which we grew up and the Europe in which we live today, the fundamental difference is this: the Europe with which we grew up was a Europe guided and directed by statesmen and, to a very small extent stateswomen, who had a vision of the kind of Europe they wanted based on their experience of the second world war.

The vision sometimes varied but they had visions. Margaret Thatcher had a different vision from Helmut Kohl, for example.  But the Europe where we are now, is a Europe where you do not have, I regret to say, leaders with a coherent European vision.

And so the drive for European integration is not coming from within, it is coming from outwith, from what is happening in the world outside. And it is coming from what I’d call the centripetal forces of globalisation.

And those are essentially the challenge of prosperity in a global economy, the challenge of world population growth and migration, the challenge of climate change and the related challenge of energy security. And I think finally the challenge of dealing with international organised crime.

And if you look at the Europe that we have and the challenges that we face, you can see that it doesn’t work.

Eighty percent our EU budget is common agriculture policy or regional development funds; it’s a way of putting back in the member states the money that they pay in the budget. What we need is a Europe that is capable of meeting these challenges and that means a much better equipped Frontex.

 It’s going to mean a much better financed policy on fighting climate change and switching from fossil fuels to green energy.  It’s going to mean much greater police and judicial co-operation. We are nowhere near that. I don’t know to what extent it will be reflected in the manifesto that we are about to adopt but certainly to some extent.

Let’s touch on rising europscepticism. Should we be afraid that the next Parliament will be unmanageable? And how do you think the balance of power is going to change, considering that the liberals have played a kind of kingmakers between the right and the left? Will we need to form a sort of grand coalition to make sure things will move forward?

 I think we might be. I say to Liberals that I’m very afraid of this [rising euroscepticism], the reason I say this is because I want them to work harder. In reality, I think it would be hard to imagine a parliament in which more than 20% of the members come from extremist or populist parties.

But still, you need 62% of the entire members for co-decision, what it actually means is 70% of present members. To get 70%, it’s a three party coalition—EPP, S&D and liberals. It will have an impact.

Looking at what happened in Germany where the Liberals have lost ground, could be mirrored at EU level. The fact that you are in coalition governments in other countries – Bulgaria, Romania, UK, Germany, Netherlands – have  weakened the Liberal message and will penalise you at the next EP elections?

I’m less worried than I was. We know Liberals always suffer in recession, as extremists always do well. I think there were other factors. The FDP ran a particularly bad campaign, at the end of a long period of decline within the party.

Of course, I regret the results but if we look at Norway, Luxembourg –where we are about to get the 4th prime minister-, the Czech Republic where we recently made progress in national elections, it’s not a clear pattern.

Six months ago, I was six quite pessimistic about the size of the liberal group in the next European Parliament. I’m no longer quite so pessimistic, I think we’re better organised in many countries than we have been before.

Last question about personalisation of this upcoming campaign with the selection of a candidate for European Commission president.  We know Guy Verhofstadt will run and so will Olli Rehn. One is federalist to the bone, the other is a Finn, Commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, seen as the bailouts manager. The Liberals could have had a chance with a compromise candidate, but are these two, even if they are very respectable politicians, viable options?

Let me say we have two exceptionally qualified candidates. One of them was Prime Minister for nine years and is now leading our group in the European Parliament, the other has been Commissioner, Vice president of the Commission, leading the way out of the recession. If you compare the weight of either of those with candidates of one of the other parties, who has never held government office in his life, I think we’re quite fortunate.

Second thing I’d say: In the past, the dividing line within the liberal family has tended to be whether you were economic liberal or social liberal. That is no longer the major dividing line. The major dividing line is over how fast you want to build Europe.

There may be other candidates. The call for nominations doesn’t open until the end of this Congress and will last until 20 December. On the 19th of December we have a leaders meeting and that will be another chance to examine candidatures. We know Guy Verhofsatdt will be candidate, Olli Rehn has said he’s interested. I haven’t heard yet of other names but I don’t exclude… There might be a woman candidate.

Yes, probably the main difference between them is that the one appeals more to those who want a more rapid federalist approach and the other one to a more gradualist approach. It will be interesting to know which way it goes. This conference will be a change of each to present its stall.

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