quinta-feira, 21 de abril de 2016
Martin Schulz: ‘That’s when you hit a brick wall’
Martin Schulz: ‘That’s when you hit a brick wall’
The German politician has raised Parliament’s profile, but will he be rewarded with a third term?
By FLORIAN EDER 4/22/16, 5:35 AM CET
Martin Schulz is grumpy.
“It’s not the time to be in a good mood,” says the president of the European Parliament when I ask why he’s frowning. “Definitely not the time to give up — but we’re living in turbulent and worrying times.”
Namely: the threat of terrorism, the refugee crisis, concerns about Brexit and a European Union characterized by rifts.
The latter, first and foremost. Europe is Schulz’s life’s work. “I’ve invested my whole political life in European politics,” observes the highest-ranking German politician in Brussels, who has one of the plum positions in the EU and is pushing back against the centrifugal forces that would wrench it away from him.
His strategy is to make himself indispensable, using all the means at his disposal: a gift for public speaking and sharp intellect which have helped him shape more legislation than any of his predecessors.
“Seldom in my political life have I experienced more cynical behavior,” — Schulz on EU member countries migration response.
“Here’s what I vowed to do when I took office — I wanted to make the Parliament more visible, more audible and more influential. And I get the feeling that I’ve pulled it off,” he tells POLITICO during an extensive interview in his office.
There was a time when Parliament used to just react to Commission initiatives. Nowadays, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker first sits down with Schulz and the heads of the main groups of MEPs to sound them out on what the Parliament and Commission can jointly accomplish. These talks are known as the ‘G5’ and its participants meet regularly: Juncker and his deputy Frans Timmermans, Schulz and the main center-right and center-left bloc leaders, Manfred Weber and Gianni Pittella.
It is Schulz and Juncker’s aim to fill the gaping power vacuum at the heart of the EU, left by a European Council made up of national leaders riven by discord. That is not necessarily to the liking of member countries, but Schulz flips the argument.
“When the Community institutions are able to act, they come up with solutions. But they’re often prevented from doing so by governments in the nation states who don’t want a solution. That’s when you hit a brick wall. But it’s the capitals who are to blame for this, not Brussels,” he says.
Renationalization is the sort of “dangerous fantasy” that brought the Continent to its current predicament, says the German Social Democrat, warning those who spread this notion that they are keeping “irresponsible company.”
Included in that category, he says, are the right-wing nationalist governments in Poland and Hungary who “aren’t remotely interested in pressing ahead with European integration” but are focused on “purely short-term tactics” despite their awareness of the benefits of a stronger EU.
“This cynicism is extremely worrying,” says Schulz, who is equally worried about the complacency of those who dismiss the likes of Viktor Orbán as “just a few nutcases calling Europe into question.”
Schulz and Juncker are tired of hearing accusations that Brussels has no answer up its sleeve to tackle the crises facing Europe.
Following the European elections two years ago, when the former Luxembourg prime minister Juncker beat Schulz in the first ever elections to the post of European Commission president, and the German got another term as Parliament president as the consolation prize, the pair embarked on a mission to emancipate their institutions. Juncker said he didn’t want to be a secretary for national leaders and Schulz said he didn’t want to be what Germans call a Grüßaugust, or just a figurehead.
“What we’re doing here — merging the community institutions in such a way as to be able to act, that is — was a response to developments that one was already picking up on prior to 2014. ‘If something’s not working, it’s Brussels’ fault.’ We’ve had all that before,” said Schulz, describing the executive and legislative bodies as the “two motors” of European cohesion.
Merkel ‘not alone’
The Commission under Juncker has defined itself as “political,” granted legitimacy via Parliament’s support — to the occasional annoyance of the German government, which called in a paper in December for a “firewall” to be erected within the Commission, to ensure its role as guardian of the European treaties isn’t compromised by its political empowerment.
This sense of empowerment has provided Juncker and Schulz with moral support during the refugee crisis, which the president of the Parliament blames on member countries themselves “doing nothing.”
“Seldom in my political life have I experienced more cynical behavior,” Schulz observes. “Twenty states are refusing to get involved in allocating places for refugees and then in the next breath they’re criticizing the EU for a crisis which wouldn’t even exist if these peoples had done their bit.”
This stance turned the Social Democrat politician into a useful ally for Angela Merkel in the refugee crisis, as he has toured the TV studios to defend her calls for a pan-European solution. In Germany’s ruling ‘grand coalition’ between the chancellor’s conservatives and the SPD, “it isn’t just the chancellor acting alone,” said Schulz.
He takes a swipe at the Bavarian Christian Social Union, sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, for their opposition to the chancellor’s open-doors policy on refugees. As far as Schulz is concerned, this is something that SPD leader and German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel should do more often.
“All I’m saying is, there are people in the federal government, outside of the SPD, who support this policy a great deal less than I do,” he says.
When Germans go to the polls next year to elect a new Bundestag, the keen campaigner Schulz will be active in the fray, but in the lead-up his tactic is to deliver as many EU policies that can be clearly identified as Social Democrat ideas as possible, to help his comrades back home “deliver results.”
First on his policy to-do list is progress on the European Banking Union, which is facing “a lot of resistance in some member states” despite its potential to protect EU taxpayers from mistakes and mismanagement by bank executives, he says. One of the main planks of banking union — a common EU deposit insurance scheme — is resisted by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, presenting Schulz with a redoubtable foe.
Next, Schulz wants to use money from the €315 billion Juncker Fund for public-private investments to target youth unemployment: “We should be awarding tax benefits to companies who employ young people in places where youth unemployment exceeds the EU average. Instead, we’re striking tax deals with investment trusts. That’s not right.”
On immigration, he wants a stronger legal framework that ensures asylum is not given to those who are not victims of political persecution, while balancing the interests of people who come to Europe to seek a better life for themselves and their children.
“Working on this until I leave office is of great concern to me. 2019 that is,” he says, waiting for my reaction — then letting off a loud Martin Schulz guffaw.
The president is poking fun at the question on everyone’s lips in the European Parliament: Will he still be in the job after January next year, which will mark the end of his second two and a half year term in office? Staying for an unprecedented third term would break his 2014 promise to the center-right European People’s Party to pass the baton to them half-way through the legislative period. The Socialist and EPP groups have long had a gentlemen’s agreement under which they rotate the presidency half way through the five-year term. Strictly speaking, Schulz would be violating that understanding if he remains.
“I get the feeling that he’s overrated when it comes to the impact he has on his own faction,” — Herbert Reul MEP on Schulz
“He himself signed the piece of paper limiting his second term of office to two-and-a-half years,” says Herbert Reul MEP, leader of the CDU/CSU delegation in the European Parliament, who doesn’t share his fellow German’s sense of humor on this point. “It’s outrageous how, behind the scenes, people are pushing for Martin Schulz to be reelected president of the Parliament.”
Reul himself admits Schulz is effective at brokering compromises between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats: “We need that, and it’s something he takes very seriously.” But here comes the caveat: “Martin Schulz likes to give the impression that he’s moving mountains. But I get the feeling that he’s overrated when it comes to the impact he has on his own faction.”
For example, Reul credits France’s Socialist government, rather than Schulz, with convincing skeptical center-left MEPs to agree to a register of data on plane passengers, or passenger name record (PNR), as part of attempts to improve security after the Paris and Brussels attacks. Prime Minister Manuel Valls lobbied MEPs himself in Strasbourg during the April plenary.
As Schulz points out, however, “holding a parliament together with 750 members from 28 countries, eight factions and around 300 political parties is extremely difficult, and you can’t do it on your own.”
As for his longevity in the presidency, the German politician is content to sit back and let others do the canvassing for him, with the third-term debate likely to come to a head after the summer recess.
“The debate’s going on everywhere, it’s not me bringing it up. I am due to serve until 2017 and will do what I have described and what I have already done,” he says. “All in good time.”