Martin Schulz calls for an EU that can tackle today’s challenges

European Parliament president talks to the Parliament Magazine about populism, European integration, the migration crisis and why he's advising David Cameron to choose "compromise over confrontation".

By Brian Johnson

Brian Johnson is Managing Editor of The Parliament Magazine

08 Sep 2015

Martin Schulz wants a "bettered" European Union, able to tackle today's challenges and provide tangible benefits to its citizens. 

Amid widespread criticism of Europe's leaders over their handling of both the Greek and migrant crises, we ask the European Parliament's president whether the EU's ideals of solidarity and an ever closer union are now in danger of retreating inside a populist and nationalist fortress Europe?

"We are living in difficult and complicated times", he replies, adding, "perhaps some of the most difficult for a century". 


Rapidly increasing globalisation, soaring inequality and changing economic patterns are presenting "a combination of challenges requiring decisions that are both complex and highly political," says the German MEP. 

"In the face of such complexity and crisis, it is understandable for people to be susceptible to those holding out tantalisingly simple solutions, which come with a heavy populist price-tag."

Of course, the EU is not alone in this respect, he admits. "Populist movements and insular responses are on the march around the world", but he suggests, that "in Europe the issue is particularly acute for a number of reasons. One of these is that many populist parties have found it easy to present the EU as a scapegoat."

"However, the EU is not the problem and I continue to firmly believe that the EU is part of the solution to deal with today's problems."

Schulz' post war Social Democrat upbringing has unsurprisingly instilled a strong belief in European integration. Nevertheless, his faith in the EU project hasn't deterred him from criticising those that he feels aren't pulling their weight. His infamous row in 2003 with Italian then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi stemmed directly from Schulz censuring the aging lothario during the opening address on one of Italy's EU presidency stints.


'It's now time for politicians to take control and set the route'

Ahead of planned discussions on the migration/refugee crisis with arch-rival Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán late last week, Schulz had this to offer wayward EU member states. 

"EU leaders, together with the institutions, need to reengage with people and restructure their ways of working. It's now time for responsible politicians to take control and set the route. If not, other sinister political forces will do it and the direction will be towards a system of insularity, xenophobia, and mercantilist economic policies."

He admits that, at first glance, this may look like an appealing way to solve Europe's problems, "but the opposite is in fact true. Such a system will be completely incapable of delivering sustainable answers to challenges such as mass migration, interdependence, or the issue of immensely mobile capital."

And the 59 year old added, "The EU for today and tomorrow must remain characterised by solidarity and even, in the many areas where this is necessary, closer integration", but warned that, "the reasons for retaining these characteristics must be explained once again to people and the political tools used to achieve them reassessed."

"It is not possible, for example, to continue thinking that we can have closer integration without explaining the benefits to citizens and simply banking on their implicit consent."

"Instead, the status quo needs to be one where politicians regularly explain the political and economic reasons for furthering the EU and stand up to be counted in the face of those peddling quick fix solutions. These, as we all know, are not solutions at all."

The dangers of populism shouldn't be underestimated, warns Schulz, although he adds, "I believe that politicians are beginning to properly understand and address this danger and good ideas on how the EU needs to be reformed are clearly in motion."

Turning to the Greek crisis, where Schulz was at one stage heavily criticised for allegedly attempting to influence the outcome of the recent bailout referendum, he acknowledges that the Greek people have been hit "singularly hard" by the crisis. The situation, he said, "has had ramifications reaching down to the very core" of the EU. 

"Greece has highlighted why we need to complete economic and monetary union - certainly the EU's largest project -and why we urgently need to make the EU more democratically accountable. It has also been a stark reminder of how deeply integrated the EU's economies now are."

Rounding on those who disapproved of his media statements during Alexis Tsipras' time as Greek Prime Minister, Schulz says, “Just a few days ago, Alexis Tsipras, in his former capacity as Prime Minister, asked for the European Parliament to come on board as the fifth actor in the review process established to check the implementation of the loan agreement that Greece has with the European stability mechanism (ESM). Clearly, Greece itself understands that the European Parliament has a role to play."


The refugee crisis and 'the glaring failure of some EU governments'

Schulz lays the blame for Europe's failure to tackle the growing body count and gruesome daily images of the refugee crisis firmly at the door of EU member states. 

He recently led a scathing attack against what he called, "the glaring failure of some EU governments, who don't want to take responsibility and thereby impeding a joint European solution."

As pressure mounts on migration-refusing countries such as the UK to help alleviate refugee pressure in other parts of the EU, and ahead of an emergency ministerial summit planned for 14 September, Schulz says that few would have imagined that the migration crisis would escalate to such a degree and over such a short period. 

"The EU's non-existent policy towards economic migrants, its outdated asylum system, and the reluctance of many member states to carry out reforms and urgently address the crisis have all contributed significantly to exacerbating the situation."

"I regret this, and I also regret some of the so-called solutions that some are proposing based on unilateral action and scaling down the Schengen area. These solutions will not work because they avoid addressing the situation head-on."

The ongoing Calais migrant standoff between France and Britain illustrates how ineffective national go-it-alone policies have been in dealing with migrants or asylum seekers arriving on their doorsteps. 

"There is no reason why more of this same failed approach is going to solve the situation we face," says Schulz. "We need joint action that maintains Schengen, develops a modern, unified asylum policy and a system of temporary protection for those in genuine need of shelter. And we need to create a migration policy which offers a predictable path for economic migration."

At their meeting next week, Schulz wants ministers to address what he sees as the "very basics of the problem", focusing on the need for delivering solidarity and addressing the issue of distinguishing between asylum seekers and economic migrants. 

"The unfortunate jumbling together of these two groups is causing a great deal of harm in many cases and is one of the causes of the EU's inability to act. Ministers need to set the ball rolling in developing common policies to deal with both these groups."

"The emergencies on the borders of a number of EU member states also need to be urgently addressed, notably in defining ways that mean all countries can contribute significantly in managing the mass of arrivals."


Brexit and 'the power of compromise'

Closer to home, Schulz recently urged British premier David Cameron to choose "compromise over confrontation" in his negotiations on future UK membership of the EU. 

As Cameron looks to complete a second round of negotiations with EU leaders, Schulz is keen to reiterate that "the EU has always functioned on the basis of compromise. In fact the very culture and raison d'être of the EU are eminently ones of compromise."

This style has worked well countless times because it avoids one country or another being isolated. In a system where it often takes just one country to say 'no' to block an outcome, it is important to achieve compromise."

In a nod to the UK's adversarial politics, Schulz acknowledges this is more common at a national level. "Because the policymaking system is fundamentally different, pitching a government against an opposition, such confrontation is typical and I therefore understand why the reflex for confrontation can kick in," he said 

As he waits to hear back on whether David Cameron will accept his invitation to address the European parliament on his reform proposals, Schulz offers the embattled British premier some advice. 

"It is easier to achieve results by working with, and not against, the cultural mind-set of EU decision-making. It is all about finding compromise and working on common projects. These common projects abound, better law-making being a perfect example of where all member states wish to see progress."

"I firmly believe in the power of compromise. It is the best ingredient not only for the UK to remain inside the EU, but also for it to be one of the main players."

He also dismisses Eurosceptic arguments that a failure to secure treaty change will scupper Cameron's negotiations for EU reform. 

"All the talk of treaty change, of process over substance, unfortunately put the cart before the horse. I would contest the claim that simply because imminent treaty change does not seem likely, then there is nothing to talk about."

"If the goal was treaty change for the sake of it, then indeed the atmosphere would be difficult. I believe, however, that most of the changes can be found within the existing treaties. As I have said before, the key is keeping everyone on board."

Schulz says he wants to turn the reform debate into one which is about every EU member state, rather than just Britain. 

"This cannot be a debate about the UK against the rest of the EU. At the end of this process, the British government, and equally importantly all other governments, must be able to say to their people, "this is a bettered EU, this is an EU more able to play a role in addressing the challenges we face today".

Most Eurosceptics tend to dismiss the socialist deputy as an arch federalist forever demanding 'ever closer union' Schulz has, however, also been calling for institutional reform since he first took office as president back in January 2012. 

"In contrast to the view that Britain and the rest of the EU have fundamentally different visions of where the EU should be heading, I think that reality is quite different."

"The basic premise, that the EU should be doing less but doing it better and in a more transparent way is one that I, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and many member state leaders share."

"We also all share the belief that the EU needs to be better at helping the economy, and that we need to develop new projects to provide people with tangible benefits."

On the big picture issues, Schulz says he is on the same page as Cameron. "It may not surprise you therefore that I see the areas where the UK may have a very different view as the exceptions rather than the rule. These differences should not be discarded."

"When necessary, we can discuss and see how to improve the situation. But neither should we let the differences overwhelm us and distort reality."

"Because we share the 'big picture' vision, the process the UK is seeking to start can easily fit in with the general mood for a common reform of the EU. Such a process is positive and would be beneficial for everyone."

The UK would, he believes, then "be in a perfect position to be one of the drivers of EU change that we all feel is necessary. This is why I choose to stress the common concerns. Because we have more in common than we have disagreements. Choosing to address the common concerns and treat them as such turns a potentially divisive and abrasive process into a constructive one."