The Malta Independent 18 August 2019, Sunday

‘Europeanism wins with Ursula von der Leyen’ - new EP President

Sunday, 21 July 2019, 15:00 Last update: about 27 days ago

David Sassoli, the new President of the European Parliament, talks to The Huffington Post’s Angela Mauro, as the European Parliament settles down into the new legislature and prepares to hold its grilling sessions on the European Commissioners to be proposed by member states

In his office on the 15th floor of the European Parliament building, from where there is a breath-taking view of Strasbourg, David Sassoli is satisfied with how the day has gone – a day that was crucial for the beginning of the new parliamentary term. The Parliament elected Ursula von der Leyen as President of the European Commission, although with a majority of only nine votes (383 votes in her favour, with a threshold of 374), her election was not a foregone conclusion.

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But, more than anything, it was far from certain that the Chamber would speak with a majority made up of Europeanist forces, avoiding the risk – very real until two days ago – that the new Chief of the Berlaymont would be relying on the support of the sovereigntists. This is the premise on which the President of the European Parliament begins this interview, in which he explains that pro-Europeans will be able to regulate Parliament’s vote on the Commissioners of the von der Leyen team. In short, it will be difficult for a sovereigntist Commissioner – from Italy’s Lega, for example – to be approved.

Mr Sassoli does not say so explicitly, but his reasoning is as follows: the new President will, in his own words, have to “present commissioners who remain faithful to the commitments she has made in Parliament. The College of Commissioners must be unanimous on the programmatic points on which the commitments are made. If there are structural divergences within the College, the Commission’s initiative would be weaker”.  His advice for Italy? “Return to the European dynamic, this is its vocation.”

 

President Sassoli, only a few days ago it seemed that Ms von der Leyen would receive more votes from the sovereigntists than from the pro-Europeans. How did we get to today’s result?

Listening to Parliament is good. The proposals have been made specific this week. Ms von der Leyen’s speech this morning touched on so many of Parliament’s hot topics: from immigration to the themes of solidarity, stability and flexibility, to the great proposal to reconcile with the Spitzenkandidaten method that was betrayed or starting an inter-institutional dialogue that could specify the instruments of democracy. She also mentioned a significant request from the Parliament to strengthen its power of initiative. Ms von der Leyen made clear that when Parliament, by a large majority, makes a legislative proposal, she will follow up on its initiatives. Here, this changes the scene to a significant degree and strengthens Parliament.

Only last week, the Commission’s President-elect was negotiating with everyone, regardless of political orientation or the degree of Europeanism. What made her change her mind?

Let’s just say that she looked around, listened, understood what she was hearing and clarified her proposals. There was a real negotiation with the Parliament. She met all the political groups, set out the proposals, wrote to them, listened to the priorities of the Europeanist groups and also specified which were her red lines. It was a transparent path, comprised of public statements, assemblies, meetings, Twitter posts, posts on Facebook, interviews – a path in which nothing was secret or confidential.

Finally, Ms von der Leyen chose the Europeanist field. Can we say that the anti-sovereigntists’ ‘cordon sanitaire’ worked?

Parliament has made political choices. ‘Cordon sanitaire’ is a very ugly expression. It is not a question of excluding anyone, but it was a democratic and transparent process, as happens in all the Parliaments of Europe. I do not think that it is done any differently in Montecitorio, or that Italian majorities are achieved in a different way. You are the President if you have the support to be so elected. I think she was very clear in the chamber this morning: she wants to work with the forces that want a stronger Europe. And she rejected the sovereigntists’ votes with a witty remark to the leader of the AfD, Jörg Meuthen MEP.

Will the Europeanist method therefore block the appointment of sovereigntists’ candidates for the team of Commissioners led by Ms von der Leyen?

Today’s vote is not a vote on the Commission, but the start of the Commission’s journey. In September, we expect that names and surnames will be on the table to be auditioned for the position of Commissioner and to form the College. Then Parliament will have the final say on the Commission. Today, we understand that those who are outside the European game play in Serie B. To play in Serie A, you must stay in the Europeanist scheme. In this case that comes out of the election result because the citizens have not rewarded the forces that want less Europe, but the forces that want a stronger Europe, that want Europe to be a key player on the international scene, that faces the structural nodes of European democracy but to make it stronger, not weaker. The ones who participate in this game play in the Champions League. The others play in Serie B.

 

In the Italian government, the Five Star Movement understood it: they voted in favour of Ms von der Leyen...

I think that Italy should be part of the European dynamic, this is its calling. When Italy plays in Europe, it can also win and assert its ideas. If it pulls back, we have seen that that can become a problem. And this applies to all governments and to all the Commissioners who will come here. They must form a legislature that must begin to make Europe stronger. And I hope my country can do it. Moreover, it is good if more groups come out and join those who want a stronger Europe. Ms von der Leyen said one thing: the starting point of her initiatives in the Parliament will be the forces that want a stronger Europe.

How were these first weeks in the Presidency?

I have been overwhelmed by messages from all over the world. I found myself in a blender set to very high speed and in a complicated start-up phase of the legislature, but with a very proud Parliament and many new parliamentarians: so many new group presidents – many do not even know each other. There is an unprecedented dynamic, often difficult to interpret if one is not inside the parliamentary game. I found myself thrown into the fray. My function is to guarantee and defend Parliament’s prerogatives, but not everyone voted for me. I think a strong European Parliament is necessary for a stronger Europe.

We have talked about the positive aspects of Ms von der Leyen, but there are also some negatives. What are those? After all, she received the approval of the Visegrad countries, which create so many problems for a united Europe.

She will have to present Commissioners who keep to the commitments she has made in Parliament. The Commission also has a political initiative. It is essential that the College is unanimous on the programmatic points on which commitments have been made. If the Commissioners depart from these commitments, the Commission’s initiative would be weaker.

Although at this stage Ms von der Leyen can promise anything, if the proposals do not pass, she can blame the Member States. It happened with the Juncker plan on migrant relocations...

We need a Commission that encourages solidarity between countries. We know that the mechanisms are not only in the hands of the Commission. For example, immigration policy continues to be national; we need to transfer immigration policy to Europe. That is why I referred to the reform of the Dublin Regulation, because it is a way to provide Europe with some operational tools. If you arrive in Italy, you arrive in Europe and therefore the EU must take responsibility. But if this reform does not develop, if transfers of powers from the national level to Europe do not take place, who will take those people in? Only Italy, Greece and Spain would take them in – the countries on the southern border of Europe. The Commission can do a lot, but it cannot do everything. In any case, having a Commission that pushes for greater solidarity is important.

Apart from the content, what impressed you most about Ms von der Leyen’s speech?

The story of her father: a 15-year-old boy in Nazi Germany, who then becomes a senior European Community leader. Her father really represents the Germany that understood the lessons of war and Nazism; that is the generation that started it all. It was like that for me too. I find so many similarities. We owe so much to that generation: they experienced the most absolute horror and have been able to give us an important legacy. That is why it is even more necessary to work for the European Union. She was right to make that reference, and to frame the forces that want a stronger Europe as her point of reference.

She has worked a lot in recent days to promote today’s Europeanist result. Did the fact that your name as President of the European Parliament did not come from the package of nominations by the European Council help her (where speculation centred on a socialist from Eastern Europe)?

Many feel that Parliament can be guided from the outside. No. Parliament has shown that it makes its assessments and takes its initiatives. The Parliament did it with a lot of autonomy – choosing a different path from the one imagined by the Council.

 

The publication of this interview was arranged with the assistance of the European Parliament Liaison Office in Malta

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