Following his election as President of the European Parliament last July, David Sassoli said the European Union needed to recover the spirit of its founding fathers and put an end to the failures of nationalism by delivering a project capable of combining peace, democracy, the rule of law and equality.
Fast forward nine months and the Union is immersed in a health, humanitarian and economic crisis that threatens the very values it was built upon. With a plethora of dilemmas to face and decisions to be made as the EU weathers the Coronavirus storm, Sassoli is determined to ensure that European democracy continues to thrive.
“When the crisis struck, my first priority as European Parliament President was to ensure that the core functions of the Parliament could continue. We have managed that, ensuring Parliament can vote on essential measures to tackle the crisis and can also provide the necessary democratic scrutiny of decisions being taken. Parliament must have a key role in shaping Europe’s response, both to the medical emergency we still face and the economic crisis that will follow. The EU must be a space for genuine participation, not just the crude defence of national interests. The Parliament, as the only directly elected European institution, needs to be at the heart of that.”
Asked how the EU can ensure that governments in Member States do not take advantage of the Coronavirus pandemic to undermine the rule of law and democratic institutions, Sassoli states unequivocally, “Europe must come out of this crisis with our freedoms, values, and democracies intact.”
While the scale of the crisis has meant governments have needed to take unprecedented decisions, these measures must be proportionate, time-limited and targeted to address the pandemic, he says. “If governments use this as an opportunity to undermine the democratic values that our Union is based on then the European Commission, as guardian of the EU treaties, must act. The European Parliament has been very clear on this and has already asked the Commission to look at the new emergency laws introduced by the Hungarian government. The EU has a duty to act whenever its founding values are under threat in any Member State.”
"We want to support those who are suffering and do what we can to help the cities that welcome us and need help today. Europe’s strength is in its ability to show solidarity"
As national governments continue to lock horns over the size and structure of a long-term recovery plan for Europe’s Coronavirus-battered economies, Sassoli admits that there is more to do, but points out, “We have seen enormous progress from where we were five or six weeks ago.”
“When the crisis hit Europe, the initial reaction from some Member States was certainly the wrong one. Borders were shut without coordination, disrupting supply chains and meaning that essential goods could not get where they were desperately needed. However, the EU institutions acted to rectify this and ensure that the Single Market could continue to function and medical supplies could get where they were needed.”
Sassoli says this also holds true for the EU’s economic response to the crisis.
“Yes, some countries have been slow to recognise the scale of the challenge that we face. However, the EU has adopted very significant measures to tackle the economic fallout: support for national systems to limit unemployment, the transformation of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) into a ‘save Europe from COVID-19 mechanism’, European Investment Bank (EIB) refinancing, and the ‘bazooka’ from the European Central Bank (ECB) in support of bank liquidity and for the purchase of public and private bonds.”
The big question now, Sassoli says, is how to finance the economic recovery in the medium to long-term. “Here we have room for cautious optimism, although certain Member States were initially hesitant, there seems to be a growing consensus around the need for a common European response. Now we need to see the details of the proposals from the Commission, to ensure they have the ambition and urgency that Europe needs.”
Asked whether a perceived lack of European solidarity during the Coronavirus crisis is leading to a rise in Euroscepticism in those Member States most heavily hit by the pandemic, Sassoli says that what has been perceived as a lack of European solidarity, especially at the beginning of the crisis, was the blocking of internal markets and closing of borders by some Member States.
“These measures were actually corrected by the EU institutions. However, we are in a constant battle over narratives. There are those who want to blame everything on the EU, who will attempt to use this crisis to spread anti-European sentiment. To counter this, we must be clear about what Europe has done to help in the face of the emergency and show that the EU can take decisive action, in the medium to long-term, to help all countries recover from this crisis.”
He adds, “Nice words and platitudes about solidarity are not enough; we need to show that the EU can act together and be decisive in dealing with the pandemic and the economic fallout. Acting in a unified way in moments of crisis is how the EU will show its worth to all its citizens.”
"If governments use this as an opportunity to undermine the democratic values that our Union is based on then the European Commission, as guardian of the EU treaties, must act"
As actions go, opening up part of the European Parliament for homeless people and the most vulnerable during the Coronavirus crisis was particularly striking. Sassoli says that in times of crisis, everyone has a duty to do what they can to help.
“That is true for individuals, countries, and even institutions. Of course, the main way we can contribute as the European Parliament to tackle COVID-19 is by continuing to function, voting on essential measures, and continuing to provide democratic scrutiny of the decisions that are taken. However, we also wanted to do something to help the cities that host us. We have made our buildings available to host 100 vulnerable women and our kitchens are making more than 1000 meals a day for health workers and those in need. We want to support those who are suffering and to do what we can to help the cities that welcome us and need help today. Europe’s strength is in its ability to show solidarity.”
Until recently it was hard to conceive that an event would take place to eclipse the Brexit news cycle, but after a lull in Brexit-related developments as the Coronavirus took hold across Europe, questions are now being asked whether to extend the Brexit transition period, currently due to end on December 31 this year.
Sassoli says that the EU’s focus now has to be on addressing the pandemic and its economic fallout. “We knew that the deadline to reach a comprehensive agreement with the UK by 31 December was always going to be tight and negotiations have now been further delayed.” He adds, “The European Parliament’s position is clear: we are in favour of an extension to allow time to reach a mutually-beneficial agreement. However, this is a question that the UK government needs to answer, as they are still insisting that no extension is needed.”
"We are in a constant battle over narratives. There are those who want to blame everything on the EU, who will attempt to use this crisis to spread anti- European sentiment. To counter this, we must be clear about what Europe has done to help in the face of the emergency and show that the EU can take decisive action"
Another major EU initiative that has been forced to take something of a back seat as the bloc wrestles with the challenges of a pandemic is the European Green Deal – one of the flagship policies of the Ursula von der Leyen Commission.
Asked about his thoughts on the argument that the EU should put the Green Deal on hold for now and instead use its resources to fight the Coronavirus pandemic and the economic fallout from it, Sassoli says simply, “Ignoring scientific warnings and putting off action to tackle an imminent global crisis seems like the worst possible lesson to draw from the current pandemic.”
So, what does David Sassoli consider makes the EU worth fighting for?
“The current pandemic shows just how interconnected we are. No single country can face a medical emergency of this scale alone, none can manage the coming economic crisis alone, and none can face the threat of the climate emergency alone. We can only tackle global threats and ensure our values and interests are protected if we work together. We are a Union, joined by common history and built on the fundamental principles of democracy, individual freedoms and human rights. Yet these ideas are increasingly under threat around the world. If the EU crumbles, who will continue to stand up for these values?”