Pat Cox: EU elections to decide future coalitions

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The June European elections will decide what kind of stable majorities can be built in the next Parliament in order to win qualified majority votes, Pat Cox, former European Parliament president told EURACTIV Poland in an exclusive interview.

Former European Parliament president Pat Cox now heads the European Movement, an international organisation open to all political, economic, social and cultural trends in civil society. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

We are speaking in Warsaw, where you have been invited by the Polish authorities to participate in the celebrations of the 1 May 2004 EU enlargement. Don’t you think that the celebrations in Brussels of this anniversary were rather low key? Some say that Western EU countries don’t want to hear about enlargement, especially ahead of the European elections. 

To be honest, the first time this thought has crossed my mind was your question. I have had this event in my diary for nine months now. I certainly think that the enlargement process has been, in the past decades, the definitive and most positive achievement of the EU, both of its transformative power, and for the real quality it has brought to people’s lives, and the stability it has brought to Europe. I was an enthusiast of the enlargement, I was that as an elected representative, and I remain it now, as president of the European Movement. 

But you will perhaps admit that there is less enthusiasm today, and a majority of countries are saying ‘after Croatia, let’s have a break, and let’s have the candidates join one by one, if they can’. 

I presume your question is designed to provoke a little bit. It’s a little bit more complicated that the way you have described it. One of the abilities of the Union has been to broaden, through enlargement, and to deepen, so that we can remain effective. And the unresolved Lisbon Treaty will need to be resolved for the Union to be able to grow, certainly beyond Croatia. 

If I take the states of the Western Balkans, they are self-evidently at quite different stages of their evolution, and the idea that they will be treated in a differentiated way makes sense. I think it would be unfair to tell Croatia to wait for Bosnia. 

But what I do know, because I still keep an active engagement with the region, especially now with civil society through the European Movement, as commentators speak of enlargement fatigue in Western Europe, there is certainly also commitment fatigue in some of the countries of the Western Balkans. 

You mentioned the Lisbon Treaty. As a prominent Irish politician, you are in a good position to confirm, perhaps, reported positive hints of a changing attitude before the revote. Is the mood changing? 

It looks as the mood is changing, if you look at the opinion polls. I’m bound to say that this is not because the public has started to read the Lisbon Treaty for bedtime reading. I think the big thing that has changed is that the Irish economy has suffered a fast, deep and dramatic downturn, on a scale that has been in some respects unprecedented. And I think there has been a reflection and realisation in the public’s opinion, that a small economy, in these big economic storms, benefits from being in a safe harbour. 

Will it make a difference? 

Well, I’m just observing. I think the context has changed. Jean Monnet has said many years ago, when you change the context, you change the problem. I myself hope to be very actively engaged in a civil society campaign. Our government has not yet set a date, but there is a general presumption that that could be early next October. One has to fight for it, but also hope that we can generate momentum towards a positive outcome. 

Will you be engaged as leader of the European Movement, or in a personal capacity? 

It will be personal. My intention is to temporarily step down and invite a vice-president to lead the European Movement in this period. Not because leading the European Movement is inconsistent with the wish to see the Lisbon Treaty ratified, but for slightly banal reasons. 

Under Irish law, if a public body gives money towards fighting a campaign in a referendum, that body has to give money to the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ sides. I should make it clear that the European Movement has not received one cent from any European institution to fight such a campaign. But I want to be like Caesar’s wife, to be seen above suspicion, so I will step down for a temporary period. 

What is the European Movement doing ahead of the EU elections? 

The European Movement, just to remind you, has national councils in 43 states, so it’s more Council of Europe than European Union in its geography. But we have a campaign called ‘Focused on putting the European Union in the European Union elections’. You may have observed that over the many European elections that we have had, Europe struggles to find expression. So in a media partnership with Euronews, we will jointly promote YouTube engagement, by comment and video clips, between citizens and candidates, and eventually, round it out with a political debate with the political leaders who are contesting the elections. 

You are working for a prestigious NGO, but don’t you miss your former activities, in national and European affairs? 

Just to have the terminology right, I’m not working for the European Movement, I’m contributing to it. I am giving a tremendous amount of time, I do it as a voluntary activity and I do it at my personal expense. And I’m happy to do it, because my European conviction has never been a function of being elected. I had this conviction before I was elected, and now after. 

I had the great privilege to be elected three times to the European Parliament, to be the first Irish person to lead a group in the EP, to be the only Irishman to lead the Parliament itself, and just for that, I just knew I have to move on. Stepping down was an honorable thing to do. 

Do you still belong to the European liberal family? 

Yes. Not in a highly active way, but one week ago I was invited in Brussels to address their election rally, which gathered about 500 candidates from the 27 member countries. The European liberals have a strong candidate for the post of European Parliament president – Graham Watson. The EPP have two candidates. You have been invited, by the way, to some sessions of the EPP congress. I have no function, in any way, with the EPP congress, because I’m not EPP. But I had the possibility, which I was please to avail of, to sit in the gallery and listen to some of the opening speeches. 

But do you sense a rapprochement between the EPP and the Liberals? 

I am not with the intimacy I would have if I was elected in the European Parliament. But if you would permit me to go back, ten years ago, after the European election in 1999, the typical accords between the EPP and the Socialists broke down, and for a very particular reason, because the then German chancellor Mr. Schroeder appointed the two German commissioners from his own government coalition. That caused annoyance, even offence, to German Christian Democrats and CSU members, because the practice always had been to give one commissioner to government and one to opposition. 

At that time, the EPP was willing to consider different kinds of arrangements, plus that at that time the EPP was for the first time the biggest party. And so the Liberal group, in a very transparent debate, entered a political accord, but not a coalition, with the EPP. The accord was about each supporting the other’s candidate for its representative to be president for half of the mandate. But that was not a coalition, because the liberals by choice and preference sometimes vote similarly to EPP, but on other issues, we voted similarly to the Socialists. 

That worked. Now, to bring it forward, for the Liberals, Greens and other parties to mobilise with larger parties, requires in addition to the chemistry of the personality, the chemistry of a wider consent, and we will have to see after the elections what is the balance of forces in the new Parliament, and what kind of stable majorities could be built to do things like that. Clearly one of the options is that the two large groups just do business together, which I would call “business as usual”. 

But if we listen to the negative speeches at congresses, this does not appear to be realistic. Besides, to push through legislation, the Liberals could be a precious ally to the EPP, if an agreement on a common programme is reached. 

All those questions depend on numbers, revealed after the elections. To be an effective majority, with the ability to do things, you need to be able to win quality majority votes in the Parliament. I should warn against interpreting the pre-election rhetoric with post-election strategies. 

We’ve discussed the mainstream parties. What about the populists? What about Libertas? 

Mr. Ganley is contesting a constituency in Ireland. I’ve no sense how he could do. It’s a place where an independent has been elected before. Would he be elected? I don’t know, but that could be possible. More generally, it seems to me that Libertas perhaps underestimated the complexity of developing a pan-European structure. 

It’s one thing to announce that you will contest everywhere – and I know it for having trying to build the Liberal family over many years – it’s another thing to go around, meet the friends and build the system. It’s a slow thing to do. I think he is collecting, in different parts of Europe, some very exotic populists, and I remember my mother used to tell me, one way to judge the person is by the friends they have. And if I was to apply my mother’s impeccable logic, I would say, even though Mr. Ganley tries to constantly tell us he is very pro-European, if I look at his friends, I’m entitled to conclude that they are deep skeptics, that they are on the margins of politics in most cases, and that they are nationalists and populists in a degree that will not be able to release any positive dynamic in Europe. 

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