Former EESC president: ‘We need an EU president’

Henri Malosse [European Commission]

Former President of the European Economic and Social Committe (EESC) Henri Malosse explained to EURACTIV’s partner treffpunkteuropa why he thinks the EU needs an elected president and why neoliberalism and globalisation have fuelled populism.

Between 2013 and 2015, Henri Malosse was president of the EESC, the consultative body of the European Union. In recent years, the committee has championed civil society issues.

Malosse spoke to treffpunkteuropa’s Hannah Illing.

In a speech you made in 2014, while president of the EESC, you said, “It is no longer enough to build Europe. We have to build Europeans.” What did you mean by that?

I wanted to say that we have to build a strong European identity, through people. Except for a very small minority, most people today do not feel European. While most people feel like they need Europe, they do not identify with it, particularly not with the European elite. That’s what I meant by that.

How do you go about creating this common European identity?

A European identity cannot come from above, through a Council decision, for example. It can only come from the people. I feel like a child of the Franco-German reconciliation that happened in the post-War era. At just twelve years of age, I went on my first exchange programme. My father was a German teacher who paid particular attention to this aspect. The German-French link greatly influenced me.

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I have some experience of trying to organise a German-Czech exchange and it is unbelievably difficult to find financing. We never received EU funds.

That is frustrating, everything takes a long time. I believe that these small little steps are the things that build Europe. I am a European because of my little exchange. That’s how you build it. The European Commission once had a programme that promoted town twinning. But it doesn’t exist anymore.

What’s changed since you first became a committed European?

Brussels is technocratic, cold and has no soul. Young people are alienated by it. The young generation doesn’t participate actively in voting, they have no motivation. At the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the new millennium the EU made a mistake, it didn’t invest in citizens, rather it went after the economy and free trade. Everything was very ideological and theoretical, with the exception of the Erasmus programme. That and the introduction of the euro are the last people-oriented EU programmes. When the euro arrived, most people were positive. I was in a small town in the South of France at the time and remember seeing people queuing into the small hours to get the new banknotes. They were enthusiastic! This enthusiasm was wiped away by Europe’s austerity policies though.

What can be done to bring the EU closer to its citizens once again?

The EU is so complicated and foreign now. But it is always useful to take small steps forward. I’ll give you an example. Together with French MEP Jean Arthuis and other colleagues, friends and MEPs from the European Parliament, I am working on a pilot programme for an Erasmus for trainees. A training period would last three years, for example, a French apprentice would do two years in a French bakery, then another year in a German one. In the German bakery, they’ll learn the language and culture, like how to bake Schwarzbrot. Another example is the citizens’ initiatives that the current Commission, unfortunately, doesn’t take too seriously.

Have we got to change the structure of the EU institutions?

We have to give the Parliament more clout. We also need an elected EU president. I think that would bring younger people to the polling stations. If someone like former Czech President Václav Havel ran, I could imagine a lot of young people seeing him as the ideal candidate and would vote for him. Havel’s language is easy to understand, not ideological or technocratic. Maybe because he was a writer. But such politicians are rare.

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Václav Havel gave an interesting speech in 1994. He said that “the Maastricht Treaty addressed my reason, but not my heart”. He felt the same about European bureaucracy. But I have the feeling that we can talk about this as much as we want, nothing will change.

And it’s getting worse! We have not changed anything in our system. At the beginning we were six member states, now we are 28, but the system is still the same. I was fortunate enough as EESC president to take part in the European Council. The meetings are formal, boring and free of real debate. No one listens to each other. How can you expect something to come out of meetings like that?

How can a young person be expected to be enthusiastic about the EU when there are such disparities between member states?

It’s true. I think that the inequality between rich and poor has increased in EU countries. On the one hand, we have a common currency, but on the other, future opportunities are so different. If young Spaniards have to emigrate in order to get a job, what does Europe offer them? Nothing. That’s where the failure lies.

Is that why populism has increased so much in Europe?

Imagine: in the last 50 years, our countries’ wealth has increased and GDP has multiplied by four. But have the living standards of citizens got better? No! We live in a very dangerous world, there are fewer jobs for young people and they doubt whether they will ever get a pension. The idea of “mini jobs” is another good idea that would address this precarious situation. People do not understand why, after all this progress, conditions have got worse. Populists exploit this very easily.

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Is neoliberalism to blame for populism too?

Neoliberalism and globalisation, yes. How can we accept that industries have been moved to China? I think that the consequences of globalisation and world trade are negative for people, even if the elites see it differently. There are fewer jobs and people are paid less. Is this progress?

Is there hope for Europe?

We have no other alternative. Europe is our only chance. Just like Jean Monnet, I think that the basic idea of Europe is rooted in the continent’s citizens. Young people feel like they need Europe. So far, European politicians have not found the right vision. But that time will come. As Europeans, we are to blame for civil wars and colonialism. Our responsibility is now to build Europe. But we must build it with the people, not against them. We need people with vision, tangible projects, exchanges and a real political movement to democratically elect an EU president. We can do it.

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