Europe’s national leaders lack courage of previous political generation, says outgoing EU Parliament chief

Shift in attitudes threatening to undermine the EU’s stability, warns Martin Schulz.

National leaders have failed to explain benefits of EU membership, says Schulz | Photo credit: PA Images

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

05 Jan 2017

Parliament’s outgoing president claims the EU has failed to move on from the Brexit vote in June and is being held back by the “failure” of national leaders to “sell the European vision.”

Martin Schulz, who steps down this month as president, said the EU was “treading water” because national governments had lacked political courage in the face of rising populism.

He accused national leaders of having failed to explain to their home electorates why they transferred powers to Brussels.


“The same people who nod along in Brussels pretend at home that some anonymous force has put pressure on them. That is deadly,” said The German Socialist MEP.

He said there had been a “paradigm change” in national leaders’ attitudes to the EU, which was threatening to undermine the bloc’s stability.

“The generation of Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand travelled to Brussels with the attitude that a strong Europe was in the interest of their countries,” he said. “The Viktor Orbán generation says ‘we have to defend the interests of our country against Europe’ – as if they were being attacked by Brussels.”

Citing the example of the euro, Schulz, a leading figure in EU politics for more than a decade, said if the EU “implemented everything that was possible without changes to the treaties, a lot could be improved”.

“The European Commission and the Parliament would be on board, but it all falls down in the council, with national governments. At the end of the day the Union is only as strong as its member states allow it to be.”

Schulz was speaking to the Europa group of newspapers in what is thought to be his last major interview before a widely expected move to the frontline of German politics where he has been touted as a replacement for the country’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Schulz’s intervention comes at a key time for the EU, whose rotating presidency passed this week to Malta and what promises to be a defining year in the Brexit negotiations and elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany.

Schulz’s comments also come as the race to succeed him as president for the second half of the current mandate is set to intensify when parliament resumes next week after the Christmas and New Year holidays.

The frontrunner is thought to be Italian deputy Antonio Tajani who was nominated by the centre-right European Peoples’ Party.

A former EU commissioner, he is a member of the right-wing Forza Italia party and a close ally of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Tajani was seen as a controversial candidate among his other EPP contenders. He served as the European Commissioner for Transport and then for Industry under José Manuel Barroso, and questions have been raised about his conduct in the Volkswagen emissions scandal.

The Socialists & Democrats, the second biggest grouping in Parliament, have said the election of a conservative president such as Tajani would disrupt the EU’s balance of power by giving the EPP the presidencies of all three major EU bodies, Parliament, Commission and Council.

The S&D, severing a decade-long alliance with the EPP, has come up with its own candidate for the presidency, Gianni Pittella, another Italian.

The Liberal ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt and EU-critical ECR group member Helga Stevens are among the other candidates although these are thought to be rank outsiders.

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