German FDP Spitzenkandidat Beer: We need a two-speed, project-related Europe

Nicola Beer is running for a seat at the European Parliament as the 'Spitzenkandidat' for the German FDP. [Felipe Trueba/ epa]

German parties are beginning to internally plan their lists of candidates for the European elections in May 2019. In an interview with EURACTIV Germany, Nicola Beer, the Spitzenkandidat for the Free Democratic Party (FDP), explained the vision she would like to enter the European Parliament with.

Nicola Beer is a lawyer and has been the secretary general of the FDP since 2013. Previously she was state secretary for European affairs at the Hessian ministry of justice, for integration and Europe, and culture minister for Hesse between 2012 and 2014.

Ms. Beer, why are you now drawn into European politics in Brussels?

Because the EU’s future is important to us – and we understand the great importance of these elections. This is because the question of whether the Union falls apart or is able to reform to create future prospects may depend on its outcome. I myself worked as the European state secretary in Brussels for three years, so I know the connections across political divides.

Do you have a topic close to your heart which you want to advocate as an MEP?

Yes, everything to do with education, research and development. We have so many brilliant minds but the EU’s education and research area is not where it should be. The networking of people is crucial in this respect.

For example, why don’t we set up a system where every pupil – and not just from academic schools but from all types of schools – is able to go to another EU member state for half a year? As a result, the foundation would be laid to later teach, research and work together. This corresponds to the most fundamental idea of the EU and we need to expand this.

In its programme for Europe, the FDP demands a two-speed model for the EU. According to this, Germany would belong to the “inner core” of states that would integrate even further into the EU. But at the same time, you are demanding that the EU returns powers to its member states. How does that fit together?

For us, it’s about a reorganisation. The Commission too often gets lost in regulating small things, while we don’t move forward on the big issues of migration, development policy, securing external borders, internal security and digitisation. The public can feel this stagnation. At the same time, they notice how some EU rules which are not well thought through determine their everyday lives.

That’s why we’d like a reform that tackles the big issues on the European level where we’re stronger together than with 27 – after the British have left – individual parts. At the same time, the things which are more effectively regulated at the regional level have to stay there. An important part is that this two-speed Europe is an approach that is dependent on the project.

Motivated member states could join forces on topics and move forward together in a field, instead of us having two groups at different speeds. This would have the advantage of some states being able to cooperate in a certain field and to show whether this integration is feasible and where the advantages are. It would be similar to the euro.

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What would be your message to the member states to join such a model?

That we have to stop occupying ourselves with too many trivial problems because we don’t get close to the particularly big issues. We can’t confuse a united Europe with a standardised Europe. And we can’t forget that it’s our cultural differences in particular that make us strong.

The FDP recently declared an interest in joining forces with Macron’s party “La République en Marche” in the new parliamentary term. Why?

Because what’s driving both parties is the idea of a common, pro-European platform. Currently, there are extreme forces on both sides. Our opposition is rejecting a free and outward-looking Europe of trade and calling for national isolationism. At the same time, with the conservatives and the socialists, we have two weary, fatigued groupings who believe that everything is quite good the way it is and want to continue to muddle through. This is very dangerous.

The only thing which can break things up is a forward-looking, pro-European force which has the will to reform and wants to bring to bear the original EU values more strongly again.

That sounds all very well and good – but Germany seems hesitant to follow Emmanuel Macron’s ideas for reform. What do you expect from the German government?

So far, nothing at all is coming from our government unfortunately, it has no vision for the EU’s future. In the Grand Coalition, there has been a total failure in such debates for two or three years. And in Brussels, similarly to Germany, there are attempts to maintain the status quo by balancing compromises and to pull through.

We also don’t have any leadership in the international context. Brexit should have been a warning shot for us. If a partner, who was important for Europe’s future – and was also very close to us in terms of substance – is so dissatisfied with the EU that it actually wants to leave.

This should be an opportunity for us to work on a new foundation of the European project. The EU should be so attractive that everyone wants to be involved, instead of everybody considering in turn whether are better leaving. All this also has a lot to do with the lack of leadership from the German government on the subject of Europe.

And, in the international context, we’re perceived as weakened because Europe’s so pulled apart. It’s so easy to play us against each other. Whether Trump is now talking to Merkel or Macron for longer – by thinking about these kinds of things, the important issues are quickly forgotten.

Regarding how seriously the EU is taken internationally: since US President Donald Trump has made clear what he thinks about NATO, voices for a European defence union have been getting louder. Macron is requesting this too. What do you think about this?

I’m definitely in favour! PESCO [Permanent Structured Cooperation] was a good first step but we have to go further. Our system is inefficient and our many defence systems, from acquisition to their deployment, are not coordinated at all.

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What are the FDP’s ideas for securing the EU’s external borders?

If you want to ensure internal freedom of movement – and that’s one of the EU’s great achievements – this only works if we effectively monitor and protect our external borders, which means deciding for ourselves who can enter and who can stay here for how long.

A points system to manage economic migration is an important issue for us because, in this way, a country can map its national interest in migration, depending on its own needs and the situation on the national labour market.

But if all member states see migration from an economic point of view, will we ever have a common European asylum system?

Merkel’s decision to act alone in 2015 caused a lot of damage with respect to our neighbours. Therefore, we have to reset the issue of migration together with all of the member states once again. Asylum – meaning providing protection against individual political or religious persecution – and temporary protection for refugees can’t be confused with economic migration, as we are currently seeing en masse.

Do you think that the European elections in May will show a significant boost for populist forces?

That’s down to the voters themselves because it will also depend on the turnout. Populists vote in elections and those who don’t, let others decide for them instead.

Something which concerns me personally is that citizens recognise that these elections are a fate-defining decision for a reformed Europe. Therefore, we have to show in a credible way that we take the existing problems seriously and address them.

The EU’s credibility is undermined if citizens deprive the EU institutions of the ability to act, and even the will to do so. These elections aren’t just about ensuring that the populists don’t receive too many votes, as their absence won’t make the EU stronger either. It’s more about opening the door for renewal.

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