Stetter: ‘Stop talking about institutions, start stating values’

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Ahead of next summer’s European elections, politicians should adopt a different political discourse based on values to engage citizens in the European project, Ernst Stetter, secretary-general of the newly-launched Foundation for European Progressive Studies, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Ernst Stetter was nominated as secretary-general of the newly-created Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) on 30 January 2008. 

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

Last year, MEPs agreed to reform the financing of European political parties and to establish party-affiliated political foundations. The Foundation for European Progressive Studies, which is affiliated to the Party of European Socialists, was launched last week. You are its first secretary-general. What’s the main goal of such foundations? 

Political foundations at national level are quite well established. However, at European level, there was a vacuum. You have a lot of really well-distinguished and very successful European think tanks, such as the EPC and CEPS, which are doing a great job. 

But what is missing is an approach to the respective political parties that is close to some elements of European policy. We would like to play this role on the European scene as a real socialist think tank, a social democratic think tank or as a labour movement think tank, whichever way you would like to label it. We have labelled it a progressive think tank. The Foundation of European Progressive Studies is our first priority. 

Ahead of the EU elections in June 2009, will you simply develop reports or are you going to try to engage civil society and boost turnout?

We are not going to stand still. We know that we have to look at what is going on at the European level and in the different member states with the citizens. Are the people engaged with our values? Are they engaged with our policies or what socialists or democrats want to put forward in Europe? So we will develop activities with citizens at national level. 

For example, two weeks ago in Madrid, we organised a seminar on European affairs with about three hundred people coming from all over Europe. This is an example of our grassroots engagement. But first and foremost, we would like to be a progressive, socialist or social democratic think tank. Precisely about Madrid: the Party of European Socialists launched a manifesto for the European elections. 

Did you participate at all in the drafting of that manifesto?

Yes, we were very much involved in the process, in the sense that we were asked by the party to comment on some issues. But the drafting of the manifesto was a party exercise. They just asked us to give our opinion, as a way of ensuring grassroot organisations’ participation. There is something that we should be very clear about: we are not a party organisation. We are close to the socialist party, but we are totally independent. 

Let’s stay for just a minute on the Socialist manifesto. It has already been criticised, notably by French MEP Joseph Daul, leader of the EPP-ED group in the European Parliament. He described it as ‘dream with no plan’. Do you feel think that is the case? Has the campaigning season begun?

Well, first of all it is not my business to comment on what the other parties are saying and or what the Socialists decided to put in their manifesto. I will say two things on the manifesto, but this is my personal view.

First of all, it is the first time that the European Socialists have come up with such a transnational document. Despite the fact it has come out at a very early stage of the election campaign, it has been agreed amongst all the 27 parties who are involved. Secondly, the Socialists were the first big party to issue their manifesto. As for the content, again, I said that it is not our business to judge it.

The only thing that I would like to say is that there are some strong elements in there that have never been in a manifesto before. For example, the analysis of the green growth policy to tackle the economic crisis. To that effect, we contributed our views. We recently published a paper together with Stiglitz [Joseph E Stiglitz,  a Nobel laureate in economics, is professor of economics at Columbia University. He was formerly chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers to President Clinton and chief economist and senior vice-president at the World Bank]. 

We also had numerous talks with Poul Nyrup Rasmussen [former prime minister of Denmark and president of Party of European Socialists]. We are all convinced that the actual crisis can be used as a chance for Europe to put forward a real new policy concerning jobs, concerning growth based on smart green growth. 

Do you have the feeling, after having been in Madrid, that national parties ‘own’ the manifesto and that candidates, instead of campaigning on national issues, will use it as a vademecum during their campaigns? 

Absolutely. This is my personal feeling and this is the feeling of everybody who was there. And I can say that this was the feeling of all the leaders who were present there. There was something growing up there in Madrid concerning the upcoming elections. 

Do you think that the elections will become truly European? Don’t you think that the core issues for debate will just be blunt propaganda for or against the governments in power?

I think that the European elections can be a real chance for us to bring forward the European project. That is really the point of the next upcoming elections. It will not be so much a question of who will be a candidate for which post or who will be a candidate for what. 

The question is whether it is possible to make the case for the project of European integration in the election campaigns. We also want to bring back the debate to the people. Are there common values, something concerning European integration that people can identify with? If this is the case, I am sure we will also have a broader participation of European citizens. 

The dispute will really happen on different concepts of society. The left will defend its core values on a different ground. That repositioning will very well give the Socialists a very good chance to win. But this is the campaigning for politicians, not for a foundation like ours. 

Coming back to your point about the dispute, it seems that the upccoming elections will attract more eurosceptics. Some scholars are saying that they should be welcomed, that they should be seen as an opportunity, not as a threat, because they are ultimately going to motivate voters to go to the polls. What’s your perception of this? 

It is not so much a question of being pro- or anti-European. That is actually why in recent times we have seen the emergence of eurosceptics. The real question is how the different political families will present themselves as real alternatives to the citizens. 

In the past, we have explained the EU rather than demonstrate a real political commitment. What citizens want to hear is not how the EU works, but what it can do for them. The different political families will have to be convincing on that ground. That will actually be a way to counteract and balance the eurosceptic movements. 

We have witnessed in the last week how the EU has failed to stand by its ambitious commitments and is ultimately watering down an energy package that was very progressive at the outset. 
Do you believe ‘thinkers’ like you can push politicians to be more ambitious even in difficult times? 

Europe has to be more ambitious on climate change. That is quite clear. The only chance in which the European Union will play an important role in the long-run is if we have position ourselves strongly on the world market by having developed unbeatable technologies. So when Europe is investing in the right kind of climate change technologies, when Europe is promoting progressive policies, then it will be able to stand to the challenge. 

Take for example the decision taken [last week] on the energy saving light-bulbs. This is a little element, but it shows that we are taking seriously energy efficiency as a way to tackle climate change. These new policies have also a positive impact on the job market. We can’t let industry run on obsolete technologies – the world will not be able to survive on these in 40-50 years time. 

If voter turnout goes down again, what do you think will be the impact on the EU? 

Well, it is not time to speculate. The Union is actually not in a very good shape so let us hope that it will get healthier. I do not speculate on whether voter turnout is falling. I believe there is a real chance with these European elections to get back the basics of political values and this will bring people who are committed to a better future to the European cause. 

What is the European cause? The European cause is first and foremost peace. The European cause is social justice. The European cause is also Europe’s position in the world. All these are issues that people believe in and can identify with. If you can communicate the basic values, then you will have a totally different discussion concerning Europe than the one we have had in the last five or six years. We have been talking about institutions, institutions, institutions. That’s not what the EU is about. We have to have a different and tangible discourse. 

So you would not for example advocate linking the outcome of the elections to the selection of the president of the Commission for example, like some are suggesting? 

You can’t link political commitments or policies to an institutional question. This is not the correct approach. We have to look at the European policies and this is why we would like to contribute as a progressive think tank and develop policies a bit further. We want to be an incubator of ideas and proposals. Who will be president, who will be parliament president, who will be foreign minister and so on is not really relevant to EU citizens. 

The European Union is more than just persons leading it. It is about developing a future together. We have seen new online media and social networking play a prominent role in the election of Barack Obama. 

Does the foundation believe in these new tools and will it use them? 

Definitely. We have already started our own Facebook group. We have just started it in Madrid. More than 300 or 400 people have already registered.

The Foundation will use any means that we think will bring ideas forward. For us, it is to let new ideas emerge and be discussed and debated by large groups of people. We will do it with traditional media tools, but also try new means. 

I think that this was also what Obama has done. He has shown us it is possible to get a lot of support from young people. That’s one of the European shortcomings too. People engaged in politics are from an older generation and if we can, as a foundation, to help engage young people in politics, that will be already very promising for the future of democracy. 

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