EU ‘treading water’ amid leadership gap, warns parliament chief

Martin Schulz says politicians’ blaming Brussels for joint decisions is a ‘deadly recipe

Outgoing European Parliament president Martin Schulz said: ‘The same people who nod along in Brussels pretend at home that some anonymous force put pressure on them. That is deadly.’ Photograph: Eric Vidal/Reuters

Outgoing European Parliament president Martin Schulz said: ‘The same people who nod along in Brussels pretend at home that some anonymous force put pressure on them. That is deadly.’ Photograph: Eric Vidal/Reuters

 

The EU has failed to move on from the cataclysmic Brexit vote and is hamstrung by the failure of national leaders to sell the European vision back home, the outgoing president of the European parliament has said.

In a parting newspaper interview, Martin Schulz, said Brussels was “treading water” because national governments had lacked political courage in the face of the rise of the populist right.

Speaking to the Europa group of newspapers before a widely expected move to the frontline of German politics, Mr Schulz said there had been a paradigm change in national leaders’ attitudes to the EU, which was threatening to undermine its stability.

“The generation of [Helmut] Kohl and [François] Mitterrand travelled to Brussels with the attitude that a strong Europe is in the interest of our country.

“The [Viktor] Orban generation says ‘we have to defend the interests of our country against Europe’ - as if they were being attacked by Brussels,” he said, in a reference to the hardline Hungarian prime minister.

Giving the example of the euro, the Social Democratic party politician, who has been one of the leading figures in European 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 commission and the parliament would be on board, but it all falls down in the council, with the national governments. At the end of the day the union is only as strong as its member states allow it to be.”

Mr Schulz’s intervention comes at a critical time for the EU, whose rotating presidency passed this week to Malta, its smallest state. This will be a defining year in the Brexit negotiations, though even that may not be the biggest story in Europe in 2017, with elections in France and Germany, heightened jitters over regular terrorist atrocities, and the euro and migration crises still not resolved.

Mr Schulz, who has been mooted as a replacement for the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, accused national leaders of having failed to explain to their electorate at home why they transferred powers to Brussels.

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

While he conceded that politicians in Brussels had underestimated cultural differences between western European member states and the eastern bloc of former communist states, he also claimed the continent would have found itself in a more precarious situation if there had not been an eastward enlargement of the EU after 2004.

“We underestimated how the two halves of Europe had drifted apart. The cultural, scientific and political structures of the west cannot be adopted one to one,” Schulz said.

“In view of Russia’s current political stance, just imagine if Poland and the Baltics were not part of the EU. There would be a deep uncertainty on the continent, and possibly a fear of war. That’s why it was historically right to take in those countries, and it was also right to introduce the euro.”

While denying that he was part of the “Brussels establishment”, Mr Schulz suggested some politicians working at the European level had lost touch with voters’ concerns.

“Some people in the apparatuses of Brussels are indeed far decoupled from the reality which confronts people on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “Only taking notice of Brussels can make you believe that Brussels life is the reality of people in Europe.”

But Mr Schulz insisted that idealists made up a minority of MEPs in the European parliament. “There are three groups: some are leading an academic discourse on the deepening of the EU, others are leading a brutal course of destruction. Between them are a majority of realistic politicians.”

Mr Schulz (61) left school without any qualifications and struggled with an alcohol problem after a cruciate ligament injury dashed dreams of a career as a professional footballer. Elected as an MEP in 1994, he became leader of the S&D centre-left political group in the European parliament 10 years later, and was voted president of the parliament in 2014.

“Perhaps what protects me is that I still live in a working-class district of W?rselen, the city where I was a mayor for 11 years,” he said.

While claiming to be still “very convinced of the European idea”, Mr Schulz said he did not count himself among those “who have moved away from the people”.

- Guardian