Borrell: Lack of political will is exacerbating EU integration fatigue

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The persistent hesitation of EU leaders to tackle crises is weakening the European Union and exacerbating integration fatigue, said Josep Borrell, president of the European University Institute, in an interview with EURACTIV.

Josep Borrell is president of the European University Institute and a former president of the European Parliament. 

He was speaking to EURACTIV's Managing Editor Daniela Vincenti-Mitchener at the Festival of Europe in Florence.

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

President Borrell, before becoming president of the European University Institute you were president of the European Parliament. How do you see European integration from the perspective of the academic world?

If we look at the integration process from outside active politics, we see it has rather stopped, with some risk of going backwards. Integration is not going forward. There is no political will to make it go forward.

Even though we have the Treaty of Lisbon and which we thought help the Union move forward?

The Lisbon Treaty gives us more tools, but if there isn't political will to use them…

No will? Would you say there is a lack of real European leadership?

If there were leadership there would be the will. The lack of will perhaps expresses itself in the lack of leadership. No doubt the problems related to the agreements to "save", in quotes, Greece, Ireland and Portugal, would not have occurred with good leadership.

But why this lack of political will?

There is a certain 'integration fatigue'. It is a complex process which requires a great deal of commitment and the members have realised that with the euro they've lost a little of their ability to do politics at home.

They don't want to lose even more leverage or instruments of political action.

And yet with the crisis one has the impression that there is strength through unity. Is there not perhaps a lack of understanding of the crisis?

Without a doubt, at the beginning of the crisis we told ourselves: 'Bah, it's the Americans' problem'. We were confident that our European financial system was much stronger and that we would not have the same sort of problems. We convinced ourselves that the European economy was sheltered from the blunders of the crazy world of American finance.

We thought, or wanted to convince ourselves, that we were safe; all of them, Merkel, Sarkozy, Zapatero. Then, they realised that the European financial system was much more affected by the root of the crisis and that the European economy was very vulnerable.

The proof is that, except the Germans, all the others are in a really difficult situation.

But what really worried me was Europe's inability to resolve the Greek problem from the start. That is, if we had really shown solidarity and defended the common good, the Greek crisis would not have degenerated into the euro crisis.

It was "Yes but no," "Yes but tomorrow," "Maybe, yes, but not…," all this procrastination, these vacillations, hesitations. It was the lack of will to face the problem that turned the Greek crisis into the euro crisis. Europe played a game of poker with the market and it lost.

There is another crisis which is developing right now, which is of course the crisis in the Mediterranean. Criticism is being raised here too: Europe does not seem able to understand this crisis either?

Here at the institute we work a great deal on the problem of the relationship between Europe and the countries of North Africa. Professor Olivier Roy, a renowned expert on trans-Mediterranean relations, works at the institute. And we do a great deal of studies, research, seminars and conferences on the subject.

The attitude with the North Africa crisis is the same as that shown towards the Greek debt crisis. The psychological parameters are the same: Someone has a problem, it needs to be resolved.

But Europe has been blind and complicit in everything that happened in North Africa. We were complicit for a very long time with all the despotic regimes. I was myself president of the joint parliamentary assembly between Europe and the countries of the Mediterranean and saw that although we were asking for more democracy in these countries, we did it in a very soft-spoken way.

In reality, what we were asking them was to have stability. We looked like we wanted democracy, in reality what we wanted was stability: Keep people in line.

We bought insurance against the 'Islamic threat' from North African dictators. There was supposedly an Islamic threat, they guaranteed us insurance against this danger. We recited this insurance policy. We didn't really give a damn about the despotic nature of these regimes.

Now we are 'discovering' that Gaddafi is a dictator. He set up his tent in all the European countries: in Madrid, in Rome, in Paris. He ridiculed us and everyone denied his egocentric attitudes, offering to be lackeys to have contracts, to have oil. Looking at this with a certain perspective, there is only one word: shame.

And after the crisis, which we did not see coming, the only thing that seems to worry us is not to have too many refugees coming to seek refuge in our countries.

They are 25,000, and what is 25,000 next to the half million African immigrants who have left Libya to go back home to awful conditions, which we don't talk about?

And they are now talking about changing the Schengen treaty…

One country wants to revise Schengen and the other threatens to leave Europe, it;s a bit ridiculous. Ultimately France: let's call a spade a spade: France imposed its point of view on Italy.

We are going to modify the Schengen Treaty and this with the blessing of the European Commission, which would not want to set itself on a collision course with France.

But all this proves that as soon as there was a serious economic crisis in Europe, the euro had a problem. In the same way, as soon as we had a migratory crisis in Europe, Schengen had problems.

Is there really a migratory problem in Europe?

No, nor was there a problem with the Greek debt. Greece makes up 2% of the euro zone's GDP. If we had said from the first day, 'we guarantee the payment of the Greek debt', we would have stopped the speculation and would not be where we are today.

We wouldn't have had the contagion to other countries. In the same way, if we had said from the beginning: Italy has a problem, we're going to help it, a very small problem because 25,000 is a small problem on the European scale. We wouldn't be where we are today.

But no! The reflex has been to say: We need to punish the Greeks and we need to change Schengen. That is to say, anti-European reflexes.

We adopted a punitive attitude instead of acting in the name of our common good. And this is really worrying! We must not hide the truth. This means there is no longer a pro-European attitude.

We really have a situation where the borders are returning. For a small migratory crisis, we're going to change Schengen, in the same way that for a crisis of a small country, we provoked the euro crisis.

But the governments aren't really guilty. It is the people who do not ask for more Europe.

The political class reflects the beliefs of a nation and at this time, the peoples of Europe are afraid. Aren't they?

People are afraid of two things: ageing and openness. It's an explosive cocktail: We age so we need openness. Openness bring us migrants, migrants threat our identity, so we want to close up again. 20% of Finns have voted for an electoral programme which said that "Only Finns can decide who has the right to go to Finland." That leads to the pure and simple negation of the European Union.

We've finished with freedom of movement. 20% of Finns have voted for this.

Everyone is clearly using the political debate to pursue their own agenda, and citizens are unable to distinguish right from wrong, but the the pro-Europeans are failing to make their voices heard…

There is a great lack of pro-European pedagogy. We are not making enough the case of teaching Europe. We continue to cultivate the myths of independence.

People continue to believe that they are independent. Look at the Finns: "We and We alone will decide who will come into our country. We are independent!" The Germans say: "We do not want to help the Greeks because it is their problems not ours."

And we don't take into account interdependence: If the Greeks go kaputt then the German banks will go kaputt. There is a lack of a certain pedagogical ability to explain what the benefits of Europe are and what the consequences of non-Europe would be.

Are this lack of ability and ultimately this failure not ultimately also due to the fact that for years there was a great deal of laisser faire with the intergovernmental method, rather than pushing for a Community approach?

Of course, and the governments – I was in the Spanish government for a long time – played for a very long time the game of "it's Europe which is imposing onto us these upsetting things. It's Europe's fault!"

After every Council of the budget ministers, every country comes out of it saying "Victory! I got more than what I give in!" That's impossible for all the countries at the same time, so someone is lying.

Nonetheless, though it is important to explain to people that their country got more than it gave in, this means that the European game is not seen as a positive-sum one.

I have never heard a country say: "We agree because Europe will benefit from it." No, everyone has to say, "I am winning, it's my country which is winning".

The total absence of a European spirit is never as obvious than when there is a budgetary debate.

Isn't it a bit schizophrenic to say 'we want Europe to have a role in global governance', while at the same time Europe is unable to create a renewal of the European spirit to play a key role in foreign policy…

It's what we call a lack of political will: One says one thing and one does another. How can there be a foreign policy when on the eve of a Council of foreign ministers France decides to recognise the Libyan rebel government. The evening before!

France decides to go 'en solo' and they decided to take a decision which stunned everyone, because we didn't really know who they were recognising. Who is the government in Benghazi?

But Mr Sarkozy wanted to have a little coup d'éclat by saying, "Look, I am more macho than the others," instead of waiting 24 hours to take a common decision.

With such attitudes, it is difficult to say that we really have the will to build common policies.

And then you know we Europeans, from one side to the other, we don't have the same vision of the world, the same understanding of the world.

In what sense?

I can give you an example which is often cited. I was talking with a Polish friend who told me: "You know we Poles owe our freedom to the United States and the Pope. It's the Pope Wojty?a who told us to be free, to not be afraid, who lifted out spirits. It's the United States who won the Cold War and therefore it's Reagan and John Paul II who gave us our freedom."

And me, when I hear this, I said: "We Spaniards, we believe that we owe 40 years of Franco's dictatorship to the United States and the Pope. Because it was thanks to the support of the Catholic Church and the United States that Franco was able to stay in power for 40 years."

So how can we have the same vision of the world? A Pole and a Spaniard. We can't have the same vision of the world. We can't have the same vision of what the United States is and what its historical role is.

For some it is the United States which gave freedom, for others it’s the United States which doomed them to 40 years of dictatorship.

But there must be a compromise on looking towards the future rather than the past…

Yes, but the compromise is always blurred. And sometimes none is found. Sometimes some go into Iraq, others leave Iraq. Why did the Poles go to Iraq singing while the Spanish leave as soon they can? Because they don't have the same vision of what the role of the United States in the world is, in the history of the world.

And we can see this every time there is a problem. The role of Germany in Libya, France hurries to recognise the Libyan rebel government, and Germany refuses to vote for humanitarian intervention in the Security Council. Would you want more striking differences than this?

In an interview with EURACTIV, Jacques Delors pointed to the fact that there is a too superficial relationship between Paris and Berlin. Is this also your point of view? Does this alliance need to be strengthened much more so Europe can find its motor for integration?

This alliance was not a question of some passionate love one summer night! This alliance answers to specific situations and objective criteria: Germany needed the support of France and France needed to latch on the economic power of Germany. It was not a couple of love but of interest.

Today, these interests have changed. Germany is looking east. And France, like the French minister said, it takes two to tango. And perhaps Germany wants to dance with someone else. Or at least it doesn't want a fixed couple to dance with. Germany is diversifying its interests. Germany has found in the east a space for economic development and political influence.

And you know the Germans today do not at Europe the same way as their grandparents did. The other day here at the institute, I was with a group of German students who came to tell me that Europe is a chain and ball that their parents attached to their feet to pay for the sins of older generations. They told me: "Europe is the price we pay because of the mistakes of our grandparents. Just because we had to make peace with the restored memory of the war doesn't mean we had to engage in a process which cost us money. Now all that is finished."

It is certain that we now need to find other reasons because that reason no longer works with the new generation of Germans.

Is there not a growing awareness that to face global challenges, Europe needs to be much more united and integrated than it is today?

You know there needs to be a European hope for a global purpose. The problem is that the world is advancing much faster than Europe and we cannot afford working the same way as in the past – It takes us five years to adopt a directive.

Thus, we run the risk of sitting by while the others run ahead of us.

We really risk faire du sur place, which is not enough. I give you an example: We have a common currency without having an exchange rate policy for the Euro.

If you had just one wish for Europe, what would it be?

That the European Union abandons the unanimity rule for taking decisions. We must be much quicker because our international partners won't wait for us.

(Translated from French by

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