Antonio Tajani: “Citizens of Europe need responses that the member states cannot give on their own.”
10 May 2011
Antonio Tajani is Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship. Presseurop met up with him at the International Festival of Journalism in Perugia (Italy) last April.
PE: The EU has been very discreet during the uprisings in north Africa, even absent. Was it worth going to the trouble of creating a European External Action Service (EEAS) and spending millions of euros to set it up, when, at a time Europe should have spoken with one voice, its leader, Ashton, was struck dumb?
Antonio Tajani: To say that we have seen little of Lady Ashton is not correct. We would certainly like to have seen more of her. The EEAS is still a work in progress. Ashton visited countries that were being shaken by rebellions, where changes were underway. But it must be said that the European Commission was very active: [President José Manuel] Barroso visited Tunisia to address the issue of emigration and issues that concern the Maghreb and Libya. Commissioner [of International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response Kristalina] Georgieva was at the forefront of humanitarian action; Commissioner [of Interior Affairs Cecilia] Malmström also visited Tunisia to discuss immigration issues, and as for myself, I went to Algeria to talk with the African Union Ministers of Industry on how to work out a development strategy. The Commission has drawn up a strategic policy paper on its action in Africa. More could have been done, perhaps, but it is true that we were right in the midst of structuring the EEAS. I believe that Lady Ashton has done her best to give Europe a role as broad-reaching as possible, given the existing divisions. We must bear in mind, after all, that Europe is not just the Commission. It’s also the Council and the Parliament, and the member states sometimes follow their own tune.
Precisely, the Member States pursue their own interests. What good is it then to talk about “Europe” if, at the decisive moments, the states go their own way? Does it still make sense to talk about a European foreign policy?
This foreign policy has to be built. You can not pass within 24 hours from a national foreign policy to a European foreign policy at the wave of a magic wand. It is a change of strategy that will eventually lead to the member states, which have their own diplomatic corps, their own interests, getting accustomed to feeling more represented by a European voice in foreign policy as well than by their own diplomatic corps. Similarly, we are all fully convinced that we should have a common defence policy. But that will also take time, because the two policies are related. After all, military intervention is one of the instruments of foreign policy. Compared to where it was ten years ago, the foreign policy of the EU has taken some steps forward.
Regarding a common defence, do you think that the attitude of member countries towards Libya, where Paris and London have taken the initiative in military action, while Berlin was opposed to any, is a step in the right direction?
It shows that a common defence is necessary. Failing to have one, member states will act in their own interests, which do not necessarily coincide with those of Europe, or on the basis of certain legitimate choices, but choices that are not the expression of the Union. In the era of globalisation, either we realise that competition is global or we content ourselves with being second-tier players. Europe has a meaning, if, in the era of globalisation, the public needs responses that the member states cannot provide on their own. That’s the meaning – working in the interests of its citizens.
Precisely, the citizens ... Recently the German philosopher and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger published “Brussels, the Gentle Monster", in which he criticises the European institutions in particular for what he sees as a serious democratic deficit. He also calls the EU a Leviathan made up of unelected people who decide what is good for the people without consulting them. As a European commissioner, are you aware of this deficit and this perception?
Part of the ambiguity lies in the wording. If the European commissioners were simply called ministers and if the directives or other regulations – even in Brussels it is difficult to distinguish between them – were just called “laws”, their roles would be clearer to the population. Certainly, the commissioners are not elected by the citizens, but their appointment is subject to a vote of approval by the European Parliament, following hearings on their suitability. What’s more, the Commission must have the confidence of Parliament. And the commissioners are answerable to the Assembly. True, there are occasional excesses in the European bureaucracy, but it must remain an instrument for politicians in the service of the citizenry. And not the other way around. For this, the commissioners have to be able to play politics.
And, faced with a Council that seems to want to regain control over decisions and political strategy, does there remain any room for engaging in the politics?
Yes, but things mustn’t be viewed in terms of institutions opposing each other. Politics is also a dialogue: the Commission proposes to the Council, and the President of the Commission defends his proposal before the Council. It gets discussed, attempts are made to persuade the Council, and ultimately the one who has the best arguments prevails. It also depends on the ability and the persuasiveness of the commissioners. And the European machinery for decision-making is absolutely unique in the world.
A reform of the Lisbon Treaty to include the competitiveness pact that was approved to cope with the debt crisis in several euro zone countries is in the air. Is a breathing space in European integration intended, to let the Union "digest" these new measures?
The economic and financial crisis has forced us to take a series of measures, and to make a modification to the Treaty – limiting interventions solely to economic and financial policies – would not seem impossible to me.