Jo Leinen: Crisis could be chance for European project

jo_leinen_big.jpg

The proposed 'fiscal compact' treaty currently being negotiated overly emphasises austerity and is insufficient to resolve the economic difficulties, says German MEP Jo Leinen. However the unprecedented attention brought to the EU by the crisis also presents an opportunity for European federalists to make their case to the public, he says.

Jo Leinen is a German social democratic MEP (Socialists & Democrats) and the new president of the European Movement International. He is also the chairman of the European Parliament's Environment Committee. He was interviewed by EURACTIV's Christophe Leclercq and Craig Willy.

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

Mr Leinen, you have recently been elected president of the European Movement. You have previously led the Union of European Federalists. Is this a sign of rapprochement between the two organisations?

In fact the whole process of the convention for a constitutional treaty has brought the pro-European organisations in civil society onto the same line and objective. We recognise that the community method is the method to govern, to lead and to meet Europe's challenges.

The community method is ultimately a federal method where EU institutions have a special role: to be independent and to look for the common good in European affairs. European Federalists and the European Movement are today working closely together.

So that's a bit of a change for the European Movement which was not explicitly federalist.

Yes, there have been times when this more confederal thinking of a Europe of nation-states was very strong in the European Movement.

In the member organisations of the European Movement it was also recognised that the intergovernmental method has its limits and the community method should be promoted. Therefore from policy area to policy area we would look to the architecture of the community method through the existing European institutions.

As a new president replacing Pat Cox, you have a new style, perhaps a new strategy. What are your own objectives for the European Movement International?

Europe is in a crisis and Europe needs friends. The European Movement is a network of friends of the great historic idea of European unification. So we have to relaunch the European Movement in civil society by a better mobilisation of public awareness. [We need] civil society support to push the decision-makers towards better and more Europe.

There is this approach notably with the European Movement Network Germany to gather civil society organisations as opposed to having direct membership of citizens. Is it an approach you hope to use throughout the European Movement network?

The European Movement International is, like the European Movement Germany, an umbrella organisation of member organisations.

In fact, my strategy is to greatly enlarge our network because we need most of the pro-European organisations to be members of the EMI and then to have greater strength and a greater voice…

That is clear at the European level but at the national level is there an idea to roll out this civil society membership approach?

The traditions of our national member organisations are quite diverse. You have European movements of individual activist members as well as a mixture of organisations and individuals, or as in Germany, an umbrella organisation of pro-European civil society organisations.

It would be hard to have only one approach but clearly the European Movement Germany is a success story and there is best practice. Others should look more closely at how they have done it and try to do the same in their respective countries.

A number of people in European federalist circles have welcomed the launch of the European Citizens' Initiative but I have heard there is not an idea for a broad pan-European initiative supported by all the different organisations. Why is the tool of ECI not being used by the circles you are now presiding?

We are working on it and I hope that early next year we will come to an attractive and important topic where we want to mobilise citizens for their signatures and support. We have to be careful that the ECI is not hijacked by eurosceptics and other anti-European elements.

But this you cannot prevent, you can only do your own…

We would of course support ECIs that push for closer union and more Europe. We would ultimately look for a good topic where the European Movement International and its friends could also start an ECI.

What's your idea for such a topic, do you have a proposal on the table?

No, we have a few political issues, a few institutional issues where the European idea is reflected and promoted. There was an event at our congress in Warsaw in late November, when we collected 12 different ideas. I think the new board [of the EMI] should discuss and decide which is the best for us.

Let's shift topic to the new treaty that is to be agreed in the context of the eurozone crisis. It is an intergovernmental treaty which might exclude some member states and which puts a strong emphasis on fiscal controls that might make Keynesian policies impossible. How do you judge this treaty as a federalist and as a social democrat?

The new treaty is definitely only the second if not the third-best option that we could have. It would have been preferable to work inside the existing treaties and I have a few amendments to suggest to the existing treaties for the economic and fiscal union.

But whoever is guilty, whether its David Cameron, Angela Merkel or Nicolas Sarkozy, it didn't work. So a treaty outside the treaty with only 27 minus 1 is not optimal and poses a lot of legal and political problems.

Nonetheless I think fiscal union is one key objective, one key target to be achieved in the year 2012. I am happy that the Parliament has been involved from the beginning in the preparation of the treaty text. We definitely do not want only an austerity policy but also a policy for economic growth.

This proposal presented by President Van Rompuy is one-sided and lacks the other components of how we come out of an economic recession and how we can generate sustainable growth and new jobs. That is totally lacking.

We have inside the Lisbon Treaty the possibility of enhanced cooperation and this is in the community framework, where the Commission has a role and the Parliament has a role. I would like the Commission to be much more proactive, much more dynamic in legislative proposals for economic growth.

What should be in the treaty to allow this? Should it be something like eurobonds or changing the ECB's role to have a growth target as well as an inflation target?

Ideally it would also find its place in the treaty and I think a new balanced agreement for all would reflect stability as well as solidarity. You have the two pillars: the union of stability and the union of solidarity.

And the proposal on the table is only going for stability and not providing elements for solidarity: The eurobond idea of common bond purchases, a bigger role for the ECB as a lender of last resort, and a European Union budget which could promote investments and economic growth.

You have these three elements that are completely lacking. Somehow there must be a political deal in which this growth strategy and this solidarity strategy are implemented either in a separate treaty, by separate action, or even inside the Lisbon Treaty.

If you had to choose between the tax on financial transactions on the one hand and keeping the UK in the EU system on the other hand, what would you choose?

This is the wrong question. Cameron made perhaps the biggest mistake of his political career because he connected a question of the common market, of ordinary EU legislation, with a new question of fiscal union where Britain would not even be concerned because it would address the eurozone member states and those who would want to join this fiscal pact.

So I think he chose the wrong moment to ask for something which is disconnected from the matter at hand. Financial regulation is ordinary legislation on the common market. He lost all his power by this very mistaken manoeuvre.

Do you exclude some kind of compromise in the coming 2-3 months with the UK?

In common market questions it is not possible for France to ask for an opt-out on agricultural policy, for Germany to ask for an opt-out for automobiles, or for Spain to ask for an opt-out on fisheries policy. So Britain cannot ask for an opt-out on financial regulation.

Regarding the budget there was a precedent with the British rebate which was negotiated by Mrs Thatcher. Why not some kind of a compromise in order to keep the UK in?

If you ask me as a social democrat, I say clearly no. If you ask me as the president of the European Movement, I would like Britain come back to the table and find a solution that will not split Europe.

Not only into two-speeds, but into 'two Europes'. There is a clear difference between a two-speed Europe where everyone has to do everything, but it can come a bit later, and a two-Europes concept where some do not have the same commitments as the others.

So will the European Movement take some initiatives to bring the UK back to the table, perhaps with the European Movement UK?

This is a good moment to relaunch in Great Britain the European Movement and strengthen the network that wants to belong to the European Union, not as a second-class member, but as a first-class member. That must be the aim of the European movement. Of course the European Movement cannot accept unreasonable conditions that are put on the table.

Everybody knows that the City of London is a great economic asset for Great Britain and even for Europe. We want to have such a financial centre in our continent and not only in Hong Kong, Singapore and New York. It's good that Europe has a place where these capital flows and financial activities take place.

Maybe one can find a middle road where the City of London can further develop, and at the same time our experience of the crash in the financial markets has consequences for regulation and financial actors.

In 1948 there was a famous congress in the Hague where many illustrious speakers, including Winston Churchill, spoke of their European vision. What would the people of the Hague say if they were here today? Would they say you have made great achievements or that you have destroyed their dreams?

Already during the second world war and afterwards you had visionary people like Altiero Spinelli who always believed in a political union. You had Winston Churchill and others who believed in overcoming these hostilities and confrontations between European nation-states.

I think all of them would be really astonished at how far the European project has developed: no border controls, a common currency for many of these states, a common foreign policy in the making, a common market that is by and large realised, a European Parliament elected by the people with more and more competencies…

It took Switzerland [for example] 150 years to create a confederation.

My worry is that at the end of the second world war there was a political will to unite. Today, we are forced to unite because of external challenges. So it's not really due to political will but it is because of constraints and the pressure put on Europe that decision-makers have to unite more.

It was the case after the fall of the Berlin Wall with the introduction of the euro. It was the pressure of this historic moment. We have a foreign and security policy by the pressure of the Balkan Wars where Europe clearly showed its inability to act. We have now the pressure by the financial markets to go for fiscal union.

So we have pressure to go towards a common climate policy because of course no country alone could meet this challenge.

We should come back to a free political will to unite Europe and not act under pressure. I hope that the crisis will also be a chance. There has never been so much debate about Europe than in these months.

The European Movement and civil society have a big role to play to recreate the political will for the European idea: That it is a historic process to unite this continent after a thousand years of wars and conflicts.

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe
Contribute