Interview with the president of the European Parliament, David Sassoli: the responsibility for addressing the challenge posed by sovereigntism and nationalism must be faced together with the citizens, as were the elections
On the 3rd of June David Maria Sassoli
(Florence, 1956) was appointed president
of the European Parliament
, of which he had been vice-President since 2014. Sassoli is a journalist. He wrote for a number of newspapers until 1992 when he started working for RAI, the Italian Public Television Network, as a reporter for the Tg3 News. In 2006 he became the Deputy Head of the Tg1 News. His political career began in 2009, with his election to the European Parliament with the Italian Democratic Party of which he became the delegation leader within the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats
Let’s begin with your investiture: you’ve said you want the European Parliament to become the home of European democracy. What do you mean by that?
It means that the European Parliament must become a point of reference for European citizens. It must be transparent. The associations, parties and citizens must feel the Parliament as their home: therefore we need reforms, because as in all large organisations there are habits that need changing. We also need to make it more accessible to citizens by improving how we listen to them and ensuring that the provisions and works of the Commissions bolster the participation of both citizens and movements. There’s plenty to do. It is not possible to achieve this result by a decree, it has to be a political choice.
Here intermediate bodies come into play: in recent years there have been attempts to reduce their room for manoeuvre. Is it possible to relaunch their role?
I’ve noted that among pro-European forces the issue of dialogue with intermediate bodies and associations is one they care about. I think this is also an outcome of the electoral result. The pro-European parties did not win on their own, they needed their citizens and public opinion. This is a great asset for Europe. Europe can’t just be built by parties, it needs citizens as well.
Did the elections of 26 May express a pro-European vote?
We won the elections: they were aiming to break Europe up and instead Europe broke up the governments. Even in my own country, in Italy, that’s what happened.
You were in fact voted by the 5SM but not by the League: are you trying to build bridges between Italy and Europe or between the 5SM and the Italian Democratic Party?
The Parliament is primarily a place for discussion, it’s a place where the political forces reach agreements and in the European Parliament it happens naturally. This will be a political legislature, because everyone has realised that the challenge posed by the sovereigntists and nationalists, that was defeated in this European vote, has entrusted to us a great responsibility.
However, at a party meeting in July you spoke of rebuilding bridges with the political segment of society that has backed the 5SM…
None can ever be afraid of dialogue and the Parliament is the best place for it. I believe that political forces should never consider themselves as self-sufficient: they must therefore feel the need to build up relations and if possible convergences with others without necessarily relinquishing their own identity. Diversity
must always be seen as an asset rather than a hindrance.
The European elections have produced a Parliament in which the Conservative-Social Democrat axis is weakened and new players have come to the fore, but the European positions have nevertheless been divvied up between the two main groups…
Divvying up is not a term I’d use. An agreement has been reached within the Council among the pro-European Liberal, Socialist and People’s Party forces. We believed that the best way forward was to appoint a C
resident who had been selected by the voters, according to the spitzenkandidaten
method. Of course we realised that the governments had a different view, but they nevertheless operated within a pro-European framework: the forces that reached the agreement within the Council, which are the majority of European governments, are all part of the families of pro-European Liberals, Socialists and People’s party members.
But you left out the Greens and the Left…
I went to Brussels at the beginning of June. We set up a working group focusing on content, and we made sure that the indications expressed through the Green vote were part of the discussion. Then the Greens decided to go their own way: without telling anyone, three days before the election of the President, they put up their own candidate, as if to say “we don’t need to join forces with anyone else”. I hope that this split can be smoothed over, because everyone realises how important the Green movement is and how successful their approach has been in a number of countries. But I think that one principle must hold true: if we want a political legislature, everyone must understand that the time for self-referential thinking is over.
Will we be forced to acquiesce to the French-German axis governs the Council, and therefore this axis decides everything in Europe?
From what has panned out, the decisions of the Council have been strongly approved by the pro-European parties and in the Socialist camp the main players were Sánchez and Costa. As I see it the choice was made more by political families that by the various governments. If we want Europe to change and become more democratic we have to invest much more on European parties. And I think that at this stage the European parties played their part, and it wasn’t just the governments running the show.
The spitzenkandidaten method has been laid to rest and the new president was backed by the Polish far right against Timmermans, leading to 15 years of on-going People’s party rule in the EU: how do you view the election of von der Leyen?
I believe that the strength of the appointed President is to have sought a very different kind of agreement than in the past. With her speech she took on very specific undertakings that range from reshaping the tools of European democracy to social policies, while backing Europe’s challenge to reduce CO2 emissions by 55%. I think her speech was very bold and that she has taken on board issues that the Parliament and pro-European forces have put forward during the electoral campaign and during the debate with her. There are many agreements that take place in the Parliament for many different reasons, but the political fact that a pro-European majority has taken shape cannot be questioned.
What are the limitations of this appointment?
We always believed that the best choice was to select one of the spitzen (leading, ndr
) candidates put up for election on the ballots. But the Treaty allows the Council to indicate
a Commission President and the governments opted to go with a different choice. But I’d like to specify one thing, because at the start of the legislature two things have taken place: on the one hand it’s certainly true that the Council decided not to listen to the parliamentary indication regarding the spitzen
candidate, on the other however the Parliament also decided to work independently from the choices made by the Heads of State and government: I am not a Council candidate, I was chosen by the Parliament. Secondly, it has been Mrs. Ursula von der Leyen’s decision to set up a close collaboration with the pro-European parties. These are not trivial matters. They are very important aspects that affect the start of the legislature, because the euro-parliamentarians have discussed, exchanged ideas and focused on a whole range of initiatives. In Parliament we do not elect a government, but we have given Mrs. von der Leyen the mandate to form a Commission. The Parliament will then be called upon to assess the coherence of the approach that she outlined in the plenary session. This involves an assessment of the Commissioners and a final evaluation of the Commission. She has taken a whole number of commitments, on social issues, immigration and the abandonment of austerity policies, and we will be required to assess their coherence.
On this point, will there be a more flexible approach to stability parameters?
The approach indicated by the President it to safeguard the flexibility in the implementation of the Stability and Growth Pact. There have been clear words spoken on investments, on the introduction of a Eurozone budget; flexibility is an issue we have discussed at length in Parliament and on which we will assess her actions. Von der Leyen has also expressed clear thoughts on proposals for a strategy against poverty, announcing a framework directive on the minimum wage and on plans for social protection: I think that on this front we have taken on board many of the indications made by the European left.
What kind of impact will the first female Commission president have?
She has committed to have a Commission made up of men and women in equal numbers and this is both relevant and unprecedented. It’s a challenge for Member State governments.
You have appealed to the European Council to reform the Dublin regulation.
Yes, because governments must get used to respect the Parliament and this means to respect citizens. We are facing an emergency, immigration, for which Europe must come up with the tools required to handle it, otherwise there will be no point asking the question “What does Europe do?”. And one of the points on which the Parliament was very clear during the last legislature was the need to reform the Dublin regulation which, without affecting the Treaties, can provide Europe with the tools it needs. Because, if we say that a migrant on reaching Italy is landing in Europe, then it is Europe that must act. This is a crucial issue: we must prove we can manage the issue of immigration and relieve the burden that many countries have to bear because they are the southernmost border of the Union.
How can the issue of immigration as a European concern be addressed while complying with the principle of the nearest port of salvage?
Two issues are at stake here that must be kept separate: the countries of the Union are required to comply with the International Conventions and this principle cannot be waved; the second issue is how to face the problem of immigration and as we see it this involves the solidarity of all European Member States. And clearly, according to the International Conventions, ports cannot be closed and people at sea must be rescued.
You are part of a generation that has always viewed London as a symbol of freedom: is this why you spoke of anguish with reference to Brexit?
Yes, because the thought that a country like United Kingdom is leaving because they think they will be better off without us is painful. But we have to be very clear on this point, because Europe quarrels over everything, but on Brexit it always had one word and this word has been respected by everyone. For us the agreement reached is the best possible one, and if that agreement is not satisfactory then we will all have to accept the consequences, including the replacement of an Irish border. Parliament will reassert this with a new Resolution, so that it is clear that we each have to take on our own responsibilities.
With Boris Johnson there’s a risk of a no-deal Brexit.
We are adamantly against such an option, because we believe that it will be detrimental to both European and British citizens. We want to do everything possible so this doesn’t happen, but the choices resulting out of the referendum and those of the British Parliament must be respected. So they will have to take responsibility for the fact that a new border will have to be established in Ireland.
There are three Catalan members of the Parliament elected by over two million European citizens, whom the Spanish state prevents from exercising their role as representatives: what’s your take on this?
In 1975, when it was decided that the European Parliament will be elected by universal suffrage, there was a major discussion on whether Europe should have just one electoral law for all members, but this turned out not to be possible. The national electoral laws and procedures are not only aligned to legal mechanisms, they also retain security aspects that are specific to each of the European Union’s democratic States. In this matter the decisions rest with the Spanish authorities.
The verdict in the case against the Independentist leadership is expected soon: what’s your view of the Catalan conflict?
My role is to respect national authorities because we are talking of democratic countries. As I see it, in the Catalan issue, there are a great political issue and a question of the respect of a nation State and its laws. Therefore both aspects, the political and legal ones, are in play. But this is an internal debate within a Member State, over which the European parliament has no jurisdiction.
In your acceptance speech you referred to the European memory of war, dictatorship and the Shoa: is there too much talk of new forms of fascism, or this is a real risk?
I think that certain authoritarian inclinations are present, and even the Juncker Commission and the Council have instituted procedures calling for compliance with the rule of law in certain Member States. This means that these tendencies are there and that certain countries must adjust their reformative actions, for example on the legal system, to comply with European standards. This is an issue on the agenda that President Von der Leyen’s has also stressed very firmly. We are duty bound to proclaim our freedoms, providing advice where needed, or reprimanding states when they are too lax in their handling of the rules of democracy. This is a task that the Parliament has addressed on many occasions and that the Commission pays a great deal of attention to.
Do you see the media playing a positive role on this point?
There’s no doubt that the discussions in recent months have been followed quite thoroughly. There’s one issue that the press as a whole should address, because for public opinion often it is difficult to understand institutional mechanisms. The press can’t be asked to stand in, but in many cases it can help out. Because it is easy in political debates to bring up functions that cannot actually be assigned, and immigration is a relevant example of this problem. Immigration is governed by national policies, not by European ones. If Europe has to deal with immigration, then powers need to be transferred. Work is probably needed to provide a better understanding of European mechanisms and the media, as well schools and universities, can help in improving citizen information. Mechanisms need to be understood so that they can be changed, even very radically.
You’ve already been a vice-President of the European Parliament. What changes now, when you are the President?
I was Vice-President of the Euro-Parliament during the Schulz and Tajani presidencies. It’s very different, because the President is also required to interact with the other institutions. There are two very important dossiers that I will be addressing as soon as Parliament will be back in session: one is Brexit, because the Parliament is required to ratify the agreement, and the other is the opening of the negotiations on the multi-anual Union budget. Many sides are pushing to cut funding for research, culture, agriculture and welfare spending and these must be reined in.
What has this first period been like?
It was been a very strong start because the elections have given the Parliament a jolt. They have boosted the desire to revive the construction of Europe. And right now we have a few important ideas that could provide a political slant to the legislature and change its policies. And this is a job that puts forward an idea of a new Europe, or at least of a Europe that does not stand still. In these ten years there has been the feeling that the construction of our European project has stopped. I think that putting it back on track is the challenge we will be facing in the next five years.
This article is also published in the September/October issue of eastwest.
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