Thorning-Schmidt makes Brussels appearance, promotes conservative social-democracy

Helle Thorning-Schmidt [L] on 11 June in the Brussels Press Club. [Georgi Gotev]

Former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt offered her views in Brussels about how the EU should improve globally and internally. The former leader of Danish Social Democrats said the EU should step out of Washington’s shadow but also review its policies on free movement of labour and migration.

For some observers, her appearance and comments on Monday (11 June) were a signal that she might join the race for the top EU job next year but Thorning-Schmidt, now the CEO of Save the Children International, declined a straight answer.

Thorning-Schmidt, who served as a prime minister in the worst period of the eurozone crisis, from 2011 to 2015, was a high-level guest at an event promoting the report ”Added value – what Europe can do to regain the initiative” by the BOLDT communications company.

She said she wanted to deliver some messages on how to re-energise Europe over the next years, after having been involved in European decision-making for more than two decades, starting as a trade unionist and an MEP (from 1999) as part of the Convention that led to the 2007 Lisbon Treaty.

First speculations about a top job for Thorning-Schmidt emerged when the post of Council President was up for grabs in 2014. In the distribution of top jobs a female social-democrat, with the experience of EU summits, is seen as a necessary contrast to the male EPP domination.

Asked if she was a candidate for Juncker’s job next year, she said:

“I don’t think you will get much of an answer from me. I will always do what I can for the European Union, as I say, for me, it’s not a technocratic, intellectual issue, it’s a deep feeling that we need to be together, we need to work together, and if we don’t, we will have the roughest and hardest form of globalisation, so I will always try to do my bit for Europe”.

Danish PM: EU top job speculation 'disturbs my work'

Ahead of a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt denied rumours that she could be offered an EU position, saying the constant speculation was interfering with her work.

Thorning-Schmidt reminded the audience that she had attended more than 30 EU summits, at a time when in her words nobody from EU leaders wasn’t sure if Greece was going to default the next day and if the euro would survive.

Time for EU to “step in”

She quoted famous boxer Mike Tyson who once said “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. She argued that Europe has received plenty of such punches in the last few years, but its lack of capacity to take decisions fast was compensated by those decisions being well rooted democratically and able to last a long time.

Europe’s weakness, she said, is that for too many years Europe needed “a nanny”, in the shape of the United States.

“For me it is completely obvious – it’s the EU’s time to step in”, she said, explaining that the EU should be much more engaged in issues such as the Middle East conflict, climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, including regulating the information society, platforms such as Facebook, but also artificial intelligence.

“No one will take that leadership if the EU doesn’t take that leadership”, she said.

The biggest threat for the EU, she said, was the governance of the eurozone, with a country like Italy representing a much bigger threat than the UK leaving the EU.  Although Denmark is not in the euro, she said the first thing on the EU’s “to do” list should be “let’s find a way to govern the euro”.

The next thing, she said, was “to watch our borders”. Europe must find a way to end the direct connection between immigrants or asylum-seekers arriving in Europe, and staying in Europe. In line with EU’s international commitments, the EU must make it clear that “if you don’t get your asylum rights in Europe, there has to be a return policy”.

Thorning-Schmidt said she realised what she was going to say is controversial, but said free movement of labour inside the EU also needed a revamp.

“We need to listen very carefully to what is being said by people when they are being asked”, she said, mentioning the name of former UK Prime Minister David Cameron who in her words asked the EU, before calling the Brexit referendum, for some changes on how the Union deals with free movement of labour.

“I still agree we should have free movement of labour, of course we should. But that doesn’t mean that member states cannot have some safeguards against things that seem obviously unreasonable,” she said.

Thorning-Schmidt argued that “some safeguarding of our welfare states” and “a little bit more of control of free movement of labour” was necessary.

“Unless we have that, and have that conversation, we will not gain the trust of people again”. “And when we do that, people will appreciate that we are taking action”, she said.

She said that without the EU, the European countries would have fallen prey to a rough model of globalisation where they would be no regulation, no control of the market economy.

“The EU is still the best protector of people, and I still think the European Union shows you can still have a market economy with a human face, it’s the only region in the world that actually tries to have a social model,” she said.

EURACTIV asked Thorning-Schmidt if she was throwing her hat in the race for European Commission president. Eric Maurice of EUobserver completed the question by asking if such a candidacy wasn’t handicapped by her controversial positions on migration and free movement of labour.

Thorning-Schmidt said that as a social democratic politician she saw migration going to the top of the political agenda, like her party had already done and still came in second with 25% of the vote in Denmark’s 2015 election, which in her words “wasn’t so bad if you look at social democracy across Europe”.

Without using offensive language against Muslims or foreigners, she said her force had convinced people that it was in control of the borders and of the migration pressure.

“And I would actually suggest that a lot of my European socialist colleagues would agree with this”, she said.

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