In this interview with EURACTIV, Pat Cox, the new President of the European Movement International and former EP President, talks about his “appetite for campaigning”, the Irish experience with referendums and the EU’s biggest current challenges.
A summary of the interview is available here.
Pat Cox, first of all we would like to congratulate you on being elected the new President of the European Movement International. The European Movement is a very prestigious organisation. However, some see it as a bit of an old men’s club, remote from the realities of today’s Europe. Does it have to reinvent itself to reach out to more people?
Thank you. Actually, I am a kind of a younger old man myself [laughs].
I am very pleased to have been elected to the position in London in December and I am excited by the possibilities. I think it is important that the repository of knowledge and interest in the promotion of European integration should remain a core activity of the European Movement. But I would like to add a dimension: an appetite for and a capacity for campaigning.
Believing in Europe is the first condition, but not a sufficient condition for the necessary outreach in today’s world for a different generation of Europeans whose life-experience has discounted much of the inheritance of much of what Europe means, and which we need to remind people about, but validly people are entitled to talk about what it means for their future.
Is it necessary now to turn to more concrete issues?
I would encourage the organisation here and in its constituent parts to have a campaign, a project. Seminars are important in terms of outreach, explanation and discussion and we will continue with that kind of activity. But they are not enough. I am ‘seminared out’ on Europe.
We are a civil society organisation and not the political elected leadership, but our input can be through project work. The thing I would most like to do is to try to organise a ‘self-empowerment exercise’. The project idea would be to energise ourselves and the associations affiliated to see whether we can have across the EU space a citizens’ initiative built around a specific project.
As regards your work in Brussels and the European Movement. is the European Movement seeking to work more closely with the groups in the European Parliament, for instance, to get the parties to go out to campaign more?
The European parties themselves are still at a very early stage of their own existence. But I do think they will be anxious to begin to profile themselves in their own right as mobilisers of politics. They will no doubt want to develop themselves as campaigning mechanisms.
I would hope that if we have a concrete project and it has a certain universality quality that then it will not greatly matter whether you are a Liberal, Green, Socialist or Conservative. When I have something concrete to tell and sell I want to talk to the political parties and invite their assistance.
What kind of project could that be?
I have to talk with my executive first. But I will tell you this much about the characteristics which are necessary. The project [citizens’ initiative] should pose a question to individuals, which is easy to understand. Secondly, it should incline the listener towards a positive response. Thirdly, it should be centred more on individuals than on institutions. And I think that whatever it is, it has to be connected to values and values in action. I would love to do such a campaign in the next twelve months.
Are there any experiences in Ireland that you could draw on, as for instance, the
National Forum on Europe
In Ireland, we have had endless referenda over the past decades. But there has not been in my experience a separate project-based popular kind of campaign that was not related to the big questions, like the Treaty of Amsterdam or Nice.
The National Forum on Europe was a good response in the aftermath of the defeat of the Nice Treaty. It had a calming influence, because it was not the government pushing the Nice Treaty. The forum engaged all sorts of a people in an open process. And it got itself out of Dublin to go around the country. It remains a very useful platform. At the same time, the forum will not lead such a debate. It is a place to exchange views, not to lead a campaign.
The big difference between Nice I and Nice II was the political parties’ appetite and determination to campaign, which had been quietly presumptuous of the outcome of the first referendum – always a dangerous thing in a democracy.
There is some scepticism among the Irish citizens towards EU enlargement and the free movement of labour. At the same time, Ireland, unlike most other EU countries, has not imposed labour market restrictions on the new EU citizens. Has it become more difficult to communicate Europe, considering the large socio-economic differences?
Indeed, a debate has started to manifest itself in Ireland and has started to pick up some of the continental European language about ‘race to the bottom’, including various attitudes about ‘the Other’– especially since the enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe. I think there are valid concerns in the Irish labour market about the extent of the state’s engagement and I would not have fundamental disagreement with some of the issues raised by the trade unions and the Irish Labour party.
Having said that, I am completely unsympathetic to the view that Ireland should now simply close its borders. The ‘race to the bottom’ story is a completely false presentation of Ireland’s challenge. The only serious issue for an economy as developed as the Irish economy is how to stay ahead.
And undisputedly the dynamics of that debate have to centre on the “race to the top”. We should be wary of following France, where I first heard the “race to the bottom” hypothesis from a French communist more than a decade ago in the European Parliament. Frequently, it carries with it a baggage – neo-protectionism, neo-nationalism etc. I think it is one of the lines of thinking that has killed economic dynamism from expressing itself in too many continental economies and it is the kind of philosophical disease that we have avoided in Ireland and that we should continue to avoid.
None [of the growth scenarios developed by highly respected Irish research institutes and groups] will happen without serious volumes of immigrants. We have repatriated former emigrants from Ireland – about 200,000 people – they are home now. The level of female participation has grown rapidly, so that as an additional source of domestic labour force it is almost exhausted – but the growth potential is not exhausted, ergo you need workers.
If we were to send all the immigrants home, the Irish service sector and construction industry would collapse. But those who open these debates carry heavy responsibilities for releasing energies and attitudes that may be prejudicial, may not be well-informed, may even be contradictory in terms of their own interests.
Is there then a positive Irish ‘story’ that could be leveraged in Europe?
In terms of its overall economic capacities, Ireland has become excellent in exporting goods and services and in re-importing its own people. Can the experience be carried to other places? The answer is yes, in many respects, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. It is an example of how things can change. When we joined [the EU] we were the poorest region of the European Union. In 1973 our average GDP per head was about 57% or 58% of the average and now we are at about 120% of the average.
Having said this, the possibilities for success are not directly transmissible, as between maturing, developing and emerging economies and mature and developed economies and they are not directly transmissible as between smaller and larger economies.
How would you describe the EU’s current biggest challenge?
I think the European Union’s dilemma is that there is a serious crisis to do with the legitimacy of politics and the political class in some member states, to do with their failure to modernise their societies and economies to deal with modern realities, to do with a frustrated sense of deepening anxiety that we have not been going anywhere fast and that we are going nowhere fast and these things have huge spill-over consequences, including into attitudes about Europe.
I believe there is a strong tendency to constantly debate the potential or demerits of globalisation. But in pragmatic terms globalisation is not an option but a reality. Whether it is the flexicurity model of Northern Europe or something else, you do not have to only choose to be American or Anglo-Saxon, there are other ways, but you do have to choose to recognise that globalisation is not an option, but a reality. These are real issues.
Until our societies and their leaders have fixed that kind of issue, even with the eternal optimism the president of the European Commission must have, there is no one that can solve this question for them. It’s like the old injunction ‘physician heal thyself’. The political class have to do a significant amount of healing to their societies, which could release possibilities for them and for Europe.
There are a lot of important contributions at European level, but in the end the ownership of that will be primarily at the Council. Europe awaits its leadership, people who are prepared to look at the bigger space and who will put their political weight and muscle, and heart and hope into an idea of Europe for the future, bigger than a set of national egoisms or national interests.
Is it not dangerous to say that Europe has to wait until some issues will be settled at national level?
France in particular is critical in this, because of what happened last year. I simply do not believe that the question of the Constitution of Europe will be settled before the French political scene has arrived at a new settlement with itself and a new legitimacy with its public.
It would be naïve to suppose that, whatever reflecting we are doing, we will act in 2006 – irrespective of what the Austrian or Finnish presidencies do.
You are waiting for the German presidency in 2007?
It could be very important, not because it is big, not because it is Germany or because it is Angela Merkel. It is even more important because some of the other conditionalities may begin to change, because of the French electoral season and so on. Germany’s moment – especially towards the latter end of the presidency – has all sorts of newer possibilities and then there is the scale and weight of Germany, the hardworking and understated kind of leadership of Angela Merkel – those qualities may come to be more widely appreciated. Leadership does matter, chemistry, diplomacy and timing also matter. So maybe there will be a conjunction that will allow us to be more ambitious.
What does this mean for the European Constitutional Treaty?
I have heard the firm sense of purpose of Angela Merkel to have a Constitutional Treaty.
But I was in Austria last week and I listened to the speech of Dominique de Villepin, a positioning speech of France. I took four things from his speech: Firstly, pragmatism – a word used more than once, which is interesting for a country which likes to talk about vision; secondly, a “Europe of projects”, energy and so on, none of them necessarily new; thirdly, a silence on the Constitutional Treaty – silences also speak; fourthly, the ‘limits of Europe’ debate, developed at some length. Taking all of that, parmi les présidentiables, it is a context of an agenda for those who want to be president.
What that means precisely for the constitutional project, it seems to me that in this context it could be different to the document that was torpedoed last summer.