Former Vice president of the European Commission and Commissioner for Enlargement from 1999 to 2004, and Enterprise and Industry from 2004 to 2010. We would like to thank Prof. Günter Verheugen for his interview in our 2nd Edition of the Visions for Europe Magazine.
Q1. How should Europe position itself in the new global order?
What we are witnessing now, is a fundamentally new era in the history of mankind. We are facing challenges, which we cannot master with the traditional political means. Even the most powerful nations are not powerful enough to deal with the climate crisis, the dangerously rising gap between the rich and the poor, the risk of unstoppable and uncontrollable mass migration and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. On top of that, we are rather poorly equipped to tackle the current pandemic and other pandemics that may follow.
All these challenges require global cooperation and a new spirit of global solidarity. This has consequences for the European Union (‘EU’). The EU must become an independent global player on equal footing with the others. The EU should act as a front-runner for achieving global solutions. Therefore, the EU should use its influence to reduce tensions between big powers, prevent conflicts and strive for dialogue instead of confrontation. I am however not sure if the combined political, economic and technological strengths of the EU would be sufficient to achieve such a role.
It would be much wiser to mobilize the strength of the whole European continent. I believe that it is time to push forward again, the idea of a pan-European system of integration and cooperation that unites the whole continent.
Q2. President Biden seems to re-erect the old transatlantic cooperation. Should Europe still rely on its old partners or should it be open for new ones?
I am not so sure, that the foreign policy approach of the Biden administration differs so much from that of his predecessor. The new President sticks to the idea of U.S. leadership which is, bluntly spoken, nothing other than a claim for supremacy. At present, European countries belonging to the EU or to the NATO are welcome as allies, as long as they do not question that the U.S. are head of the table. In the final consequence that will make all of them a party in the growing conflicts between the U.S. and China, and the U.S. and Russia.
We don`t need new alliances. Instead, we need to transform the existing western alliance into a true partnership between equals. That requires on the European side a new European security architecture, preferably covering the whole continent. It was a serious mistake that the long-term vision of the Charter of Paris from 1990, which envisaged that goal, was never implemented. We have to revitalise this process and this time we must succeed.
Q3. Climate Change is one of the most pressing topics today and is Europe doing enough against Climate Change?
Europe as a whole is still responsible for a huge part of dangerous emissions. The EU has a policy in place, which is ambitious, but in the views of many experts not ambitious enough. Even the brand new reduction targets for 2050 (the year in which the EU shall be Co2 neutral) will not guarantee that these reductions will be sufficient to meet the existing commitments. The biggest problem is not the definition of target dates, the biggest problem is the implementation. No doubt: we have to introduce dramatic changes for energy production and consumption, mobility, manufacturing, agriculture and indeed our individual way of life.
The difficulty is that the conditions in member States are completely different. Some countries, such as Germany can afford huge investments to protect the environment, some other countries have much more limited means. Some countries can rely on sustainable energy, some countries still need oil, coal and gas for the foreseeable future. A number of EU countries use nuclear energy, while Germany for example has decided to abandon it. There will be serious conflicts, especially if green parties come to power.
Under these circumstances the EU has to balance conflicts and to reduce disparities. Finally, the EU must deal with the social aspects of climate policy. As a recent study shows, the wealthiest parts of our societies are the heaviest polluters and there is no policy in place, which would force those people to substantially reduce their climate foot prints.
Q4. The distribution of wealth seems to be less and less fair. What can Europe do to tackle poverty?
Indeed, the unfair distribution of wealth and the income gap both within our societies and between nations has become a source of tensions world-wide. The pandemic has further aggravated the problem and I am afraid that automation and digitalization will make things even worse. There is no single answer how to turn the tide and to make social justice a core issue.
In my view the most important thing is to change the mindset of the political, economic and cultural elites. Such a change is achievable as the discussion about climate change shows. Let`s use one example: Currently the share prices of listed companies do not reflect, whether these companies have created sustainable production and socially responsible supply chains. This must change and CEOs and Boards should be obliged to develop and implement a strategy of sustainability and the bad apples must become visible.
Having said this, I would like to add, that I do not believe that it makes sense to put the responsibility for change exclusively at the shoulders of consumers. As long as it is legally allowed to produce and sell products at prices, which are the result of exploitation of people and of the environment, including farm animals, such products will be consumed.
Q5. Africa still seems to be the lost continent at the doorstep of Europe and how can Europe help Africa to tackle its poverty?
The EU has started to recognize that Africa is not just our neighbor, but a determining factor for our future. If we look at the demographic development in Africa, we see a dramatic progress. By 2050, more than 2 billion people will live in Africa, compared to 1 billion today. That means that Africa is a very young continent with hundreds of millions of young people who are looking for a future. This cannot be tackled by the traditional means of so-called development policies.
If we look at the reasons for poverty in Africa, we will find that the problem is not isolated simply to an unstable economy. All major African problems are the result of political conditions, which date back to colonial times and create conflicts and tensions everywhere. Furthermore, Africa is already hit by climate change.
The EU must establish a true partnership with the continent, which is based on respect and takes fully into account the priorities, which Africa has put in place itself. Furthermore, the EU must acknowledge that emigration from Africa at a much bigger scale will find its way to the European shores and must prepare for this.
Q6. The Covid-19 Crisis has hit Europe and its economy hard and what are the lessons learned from the Covid-19 Crisis?
We are still in the middle of the pandemic and we do not know all of its long-term effects. However, a few lessons can already be learned. First, the major organization to tackle these types of threats to humanity is the WHO. The WHO needs to be strengthened. Secondly, the capacities of the international community to fight the virus vary heavily from country to country. Therefore, international solidarity is a must.
It is in our interest to make sure, for example, that the fight against the pandemic succeeds everywhere. Otherwise, the pandemic is not over. Countries in need should get, for example, free access to vaccines, including patent rights and medicines as soon as possible.
Thirdly, the economic recovery of the EU must be set in motion now. The problem is, that a realistic damage assessment will only be possible after the pandemic. Only then we will know how many jobs are lost, how many SMEs went bankrupt, how many cultural and social institutions have disappeared to then determine the right course of action.
Everywhere is now a budgetary situation that is in breach of the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact. It can be assumed that the already existing disparities will further grow with a negative effect on cohesion and community policies. Under such circumstances, national policies everywhere have a stronger European dimension, which must be reflected in the decision-making of national governments and parliaments.
Q7. The EU crisis management was often criticized by the media. What should Europe change in order to be better prepared for the next crisis?
First and foremost, it should be recognized that the economic response of the EU was swift and decisive. The so-called recovery plan is a big achievement as well as the fact that all have agreed to a kind of Eurobonds. In all other issues, we have seen a very poor performance, both at the EU and national levels. In my view this has been a question of poor leadership and a lack of solidarity.
Furthermore, the scientific experts both, at the EU and member state levels have underestimated the risks and consequently, the early warning system did not function. All these problems would have been avoidable under the present political and legal framework of the EU. Therefore, it would not help to shift competencies from member States to the EU.
Q8. Based on the title of our Magazine. What other Visions do you have for Europe?
My main concern is that the EU has lost the pan-European perspective. It starts with language. We are used to saying Europe, when we speak about the EU. However, the EU is not Europe, it is only a part of it. I emphasize the need for a true European perspective, because I am afraid that the EU with 27 member States abandons its European vocation, which is to unite the whole continent.
The EU must leave its door open for European countries, which want to join and which fulfil the conditions and the EU must build bridges to those, who are unwilling or unable to fully participate. The areas of cooperation are self-evident: everything that is of European concern should be dealt with in cooperative structures.
We have a lot of unfinished businesses in our direct neighborhood. The relations of the EU with Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, UK and the Western Balkans are far from settled. Surprisingly this is even true for Switzerland. Without a settlement, Europe remains divided in at least two camps and will be marginalized. Obviously, the EU has not only difficulties to define its role internationally but also a lot of internal problems.
Since the rejection of the EU Constitution in France and in the Netherlands 2005, the EU is in a permanent stress mood, stumbling from one crisis to the next and none is really solved. This is closely linked to the rise of nationalism and populism across Europe.
Fortunately, this movement does not yet form a stable block, but there are issues, which unite them: notably the rejection of the Euro and more broadly their opposition against the supranational elements of the EU. All also share rigid anti-immigration policies. Insofar they represent a massive threat against the cohesion in the EU.
The cohesion of the EU has weakened over years and is now very fragile, as Brexit demonstrates. For the time being there is no other suspect for an exit, abut it highly unlikely that a majority of member States would support the idea of “more Europe” in the sense of additional EU powers. Many people feel that the balance between sovereignty of the nation States and the amassment of powers in “Brussels” is distorted and should be readjusted and I share this view.
In my vision, for the future of the EU, the institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg should show more respect and understanding for the needs and preferences of nation States and regions, and should abandon the concept of one-size-fits-all in rule setting, as much as possible. It would be a misunderstanding to believe that more harmonisation is always progress and that “more Europe” in that sense creates a better EU.
For the foreseeable future, the nation State will remain the pillar of the EU integration process and the idea that the EU could become a kind of United States of Europe, is a dangerous illusion and not desirable. Maybe it sounds attractive, but it neglects the European identity, which is characterised by diversity. History has bound us together, but the way how we understand history differs from country to country and this is a fact that especially Germany must always keep in mind.
My last observation concerns the question of leadership. The traditional view in the EU was, that France and Germany are the motor of EU integration and that, if they agree, the rest will follow. This is no longer the case today. A German-French consensus is still a necessary condition for compromise, but it is no longer sufficient. Being however by far the strongest two countries in the EU France and Germany share a special responsibility. In both countries, elections are coming soon. The outcome of these elections may well decide whether the EU integration project will survive.
Prof. Günter Verheugen
Former Vice President,