Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and former European Parliament President Martin Schulz clashed over the strategy to relaunch the Union, illustrating the deep division at Europe’s helm in front of the global audience of the World Economic Forum today (19 January).
Hundreds of business leaders and political figures attending the Davos forum witnessed how fundamentally disunited Europeans are when they are confronted with challenges and the solutions needed to overcome them.
Schulz, who stepped down as president of the European Parliament this week, praised the achievements of the past and the need to push forward EU integration.
But Rutte told the Socialists and Democrats (S&D group) MEP to “leave out those romantic ideas”, adding that “that is the fastest way to dismantle Europe”.
Europe needs a “pragmatic approach and to stop lofty speeches”, Rutte said. He called for tangible results on migration, security or the internal market in the effort to create jobs.
He even went as far to say that the ‘ever closer union’ principle is “buried and gone”.
The ‘ever closer union’ goal is seen as the driving force behind the EU project. It was enshrined in the founding Treaty of Rome that celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.
While the Dutchman said that the experiences of Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand could not be “a model for the future”, Schulz punched back responding he was not a “romantic” but a “German”.
He got an applause when he recalled how the emotional ties after World War II brought peace and prosperity to the continent.
The fight between the two started right from the get-go as Rutte insisted more efforts from France and Italy to reform their economies are needed to save Europe.
He warned that if countries failed to meet their promises, it would be harder for Northern leaders like him to convince their citizens about the need to tighten their belts.
“At the end, this will have a devastating impact on EU integration”, he warned.
But Schulz told the Dutch leader to be “very prudent” about dictating to other countries what they should do, as this could further divide the European bloc.
He said that it is the European Commission and Council, and not “several member states”, who are responsible for fiscal and macroeconomic recommendations made to national governments.
As the verbal argument between the two escalated, Santander CEO Ana Botín mediated as she tried to combine Rutte’s pragmatic view and Schulz’s emotional plea.
In order to respond to this growing gap between the North and the South, she urged them to find “a common culture, a common purpose and vision” to cope with the difficult situation Europe faces.
“We need change and we need change now,” she claimed, because Europe is “at a crossroads” following the UK’s Brexit vote and the turbulent global context.
The clash between liberal Rutte and socialist Schulz showed the difficulties European decision makers are facing in their quest to keep Europe relevant as they lack a common understanding of the Union’s raison d’être.
European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans prioritised the need to rebuild trust and stop the blame game between the North and the South.
He warned that the “ideological battle” is between those who seek protection by closing the society, and those who embrace an open society as the solution to overcome the problems we are facing.
Timmermans, who was Rutte’s foreign affairs minister, kept a low profile in the argument between the two European politicians. But he pointed out that he did not believe in “a purely utilitarian Europe” that is based only on results.
He underlined that liberals were “wrong” when they said that markets would take care of everything and governments should be kept aside. “Even Davos agrees with it,” he said.
“Governments are more important than before” because “this world will not benefit everyone without governance”.