INTERVIEW – Romano Prodi: Brexit is not enough!

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Courage and political savvy seem to be lacking. The European project will only be revived once the crisis gets even worse.

A conversation with Romano Prodi on Europe’s afflictions and how it can rebuild. 

I remember your presidency of the European Commission, at a time when Europe seemed to have a bright future: how disappointed are you right now that everything seems to be regressing?

I’m more disappointed than you can imagine. It’s not just a question of losing our way. Now everyone is criticising the expansion, the euro, as if it had all been conceived by madmen … Everyone’s saying that the euro should only have been in- troduced in conjunction with eco- nomic policy measures. We’d discuss this on a daily basis: Helmut Kohl, the leader at the time, used to say, “You are Italian. Rome was not built in a day. And we will build up the monetary union one brick at a time, along with other decisions, all based on the principle of solidarity; we can’t do everything in a day”. The expansion was a step towards shared European borders.

The problem now is that leader- ship has changed, and so have ex- pectations. Europe is overcome with fear. People think we’ve been fool- hardy, but we had a strong political project which, if carried through, would have left Europe in a different state. I presided over an European community with 15 countries, and then with 25. There was no differ- ence. There was only one discordant voice, one country with a different agenda: the United Kingdom. Its hidden strategy has come to light with the latest referendum. For the first time in Europe, one country declares, “My future is different”. This is the major change. I’m obvi- ously disappointed, but when faced with the unavoidable fact that Amer- ica and China are going to crush us, the project will find new vigour. Or we will vanish. Historic trends can’t be changed.

The fact is, when you get used to losing, you lose. In recent years, the European Union has been dismantled piece by piece. When the most fervent German fan of Europe, which [Wolf- gang] Schäuble used to be, was re- cently quoted in an interview saying, “forget federalism”, that only countries exist, the European Commission might as well stay home. It would save on expenses. The Commission has two exclusive areas of influence: trade and antitrust. When it came to signing the trade agreement with Canada recently, without being bound by any legal constraints, the Com- mission announced: “We will not de- cide alone, this issue must also be brought before the member states”. But any commercial treaty that has to be ratified by 28 countries is dead in the water …

This defeatist attitude has over- whelmed everyone. We need to have our backs against the wall, as during the time of the siege of Vienna. Then we’ll move forward again.

Let’s try to look ahead: a new for- eign policy document for the Union was recently ratified, the first in 15 years. Is there hope we might have a European foreign minister before too long?

Perhaps, but with what preroga- tives? If we’re talking about signed documents, then we can safely say the last 15 years have been the most successful in the history of humanity. The problem is power. Foreign and defence policies will be the last things to become European because they are core issues. If we did appoint a foreign minister, I’d be the happiest man in the world. But he or she must wield serious power. If the foreign minister has to wait for the Council of national governments to make de- cisions, what is the point?

On the issue of migrations, Franco Roberti, the chief anti-mafia and anti-terrorism prosecutor, recently told us we represent a successful vanguard for many cooperations (i.e., intelligence). We fall short on struc- tural measures: we must find more successful ways of integrating im- migrants. And boost co-operation and investment policies in the coun- tries of origin of the migrants. By improving living conditions in those countries we would limit departures. Do we have the resources to imple- ment these policies, or are emergency measures all we can expect?

The available resources are vast! European GDP almost matches that of America. We account for 20% of world GDP. We are the number one industrial country in the world, the greatest exporter. It’s not a lack of re- sources; it’s the political will that’s missing.

Even emergency measures are cost- ly. Is having one border patrol force likely to be cheaper than 28 or more expensive? We have 28. The problem is: do we want a European Union? History will forces us to build a Union in order to survive. I keep telling my students: “Europe will end up like the Italian states during the Renais- sance. We were at the top of every field. Then globalisation took place; America was discovered; we didn’t join forces, and we disappeared”. His- tory is filled with foolishness and mistakes. Right after Brexit, there’s talk of holding the referendum again. That’s suicide! The new British gov- ernment is headed by a woman who was against Brexit, who has appointed a foreign minister who was in favour … And people chide us Italians.

The word “politics” seems to crop up very often, and yet it is exactly what’s missing at this moment in time. Franco Roberti has said, “Events move forward on human legs”. When I first started to deal with European issues as a journalist, Jacques Delors was heading Europe, and its two legs were moving ahead. Then it was your turn, an important leader from an important country. One gets the feeling politics has lost its flair. There are no leaders, in Europe but also in the single countries. Traditional pol- itics is cowering away while populist forces rule the day. How can we re- verse this trend?

If politics sticks to what I call “barometric politics”, where leaders rely on weather reports and if we want less migrants, then we make a law against migrants, and if we need more, then we pass a law to this end … If this situation continues and all that matters are elections, we’re finished. This is a problem for democ- racy, in Europe but also in the West. Chinese political analysts say, “How can you govern if you have elections every day?” We’re used to it now, but beware: all of these elec- tions of ours – regional, provincial, municipal, even opinion polls – held in the smallest of provincial towns now have a bearing on national pol- itics. Thus our leaders are always looking to tomorrow rather than the day after. Migrations have decreased compared to before the financial cri- sis. Germany used to welcome more migrants than it does today, but there was no fear. Two wars have broken out close by [Libya and Syria]. Things have gotten out of hand, and now everyone is scared. The problem is not the numbers. These migrations are scary because they’re out of con- trol. The first thing to do is to end the wars in Libya and Syria.

You have to deal with things if you are in office. [Libyan leader Muammar] Ghaddafi was constantly calling me, threatening to send over more boats, but he didn’t. There was a government in Italy and one in Libya, and we held negotiations. Sometimes I gave in, sometimes he did. We reached agreements on major issues. Now, with this mindless war and the im- plications of terrorism, nothing can be regulated. But the point is not the quantity, it’s the fear. It’s similar to a pipe bursting: the amount of water is the same, but the flow is strong and out of control.

On the issue of the Western dem- ocratic crisis, do you think we can move ahead, without following the Chinese example? Can we use the United States that have elections every 4 years as a possible democratic model?

The US is always holding elections too, so they can’t be an example … I remember [Helmut] Kohl saying that the Germans don’t want the euro, but I do, because my brother died in the war. It had nothing to do with bankers.

So it’s not a matter of models but rather a question of political vision? Political vision and being brave enough to challenge history and risk losing elections. If politics is a weather vane … I shouldn’t be the one to speak, seeing as I was ousted 313 votes to 312 … But I challenged Par- liament, I knew the numbers and was well aware I could lose. But I had to stand by my convictions, and I did. If retaining political power in- volves giving in on everything, then the Chinese have a very good point!

I want to take advantage of your candour today to ask you about in- ternational terrorism, which, as Pros- ecutor Roberti has stated, is not necessarily connected to migrations. It has become a very divisive issue in Europe. As [anti-mafia prosecuting judge Giovanni] Falcone used to say: where both crime and terrorism are concerned, follow the money. The funds supporting IS come from var- ious sources, oil and the black mar- ket, local taxes levied on citizens who can’t refuse to pay, but also from countries that more or less openly fund terrorism. The list is quite long, and always headed by Saudi Arabia. Roberti has explained that investigators do what they can to stop these flows, but the problem is political. What’s going on? What can we do? Are there interests at stake?

Roberti didn’t mince his words. Firstly, terrorists certainly don’t come across on boats; secondly, they need money; thirdly, someone provides it. The sums involved are considerable, and they certainly don’t come from poor people, but they don’t officially come from states either. They come from foundations, associations, groups in league with states and tol- erated by them to various degrees. All analysts agree on this point – American, French, Italian … Then international politics turns a blind eye. There are countless problems: the Middle East is in constant up- heaval, and every time Western forces move in, they upset the applecart … Right now, the West is on the retreat and keeping well out of it.

At least on this front, the respon- sibility can’t be pinned on the Euro- pean Union. The whole international community is to blame. 

The European Union has very little power, so it can’t be considered responsible.

Here at Eastwest, we intend to launch an investigation that will hold European leaders to  account so that more can be done to break this vicious cycle.


If we look at the analyses and arti- cles following 9/11, it’s all there.. This is just history repeating itself 15 years later. Many tragic mistakes have been made, and the wars we have promoted, “we” being the operative word, have multiplied the horrors a hundredfold. And we’ve kept at it: we went into Afghanistan, pushed out the Russians and had everything sorted in ten minutes; we went into Iraq, and a few weeks later, we had the place set to rights; the same in Libya … This kind of leadership pro- duces these results. When we were all parading peace flags for Iraq, we weren’t cowards or fools. When you bring war to other people’s doorsteps, these have always been the conse- quences. Always!

A question about what is hap- pening before our eyes. I’m referring to the foreign fighters, the events in Brussels and Paris, and then Dacca. How much bearing does failed inte- gration have on all of this? And how much is going on behind our backs? For example, the Dacca attackers came from well-off families and had a good education, so pinning these events on suburban marginalisation no longer seems to work.

We have to bear in mind that these processes are moving ahead so quickly that we have trouble analysing them. When I speak about immigration to children in secondary school, I always ask: “Which country do you think sends us the most immigrants”? Every- one says Libya. But there are hardly any Libyans in Italy, yet the talk is all about Libya … So we have to tread carefully. These situations change quickly. Globalisation is causing major imbalances: employment is suffering, finance has become more mobile, and the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing. You end up paying for all of this. You pay with the attacks in Dacca; human beings have to feel like they are a part of hu- manity. We have built a system that leaves the future in the hands of mar- kets, and inequality is increasing sys- tematically. It’s not about left, right or populism; it’s statistically proven. People feel threatened. Populism owes its success to the fact that the middle class feels unprotected. They opt for someone who offers no solution and only acknowledges that things are wrong and need rethinking. That’s the collective reaction. These days, [US presidential candidate Donald] Trump is a European leader. His style maybe American, but he’s tapping into the same fears as European lead- ers. The problem lies within Western society and democracy, both of which need a serious overhaul. We have to let democracy have its say.

Can we give voice to some idea of hope and a democratic future for Europe?

The hope is that people will realise European countries have no future on their own, including Germany. And because popular wisdom exists, people must become aware of the nature of the crisis, that the crisis is upon us. If one month after Brexit, we go on saying, “Let’s have another referendum”, then we’re missing the point. We need to build a new Europe, not hold a new referendum!

Don’t you get the feeling that this tendency to step away from the ref- erendum has a Mediterranean flavour to it?

It’s unacceptable! The idea that negotiations for the exit of the United Kingdom don’t necessarily need to start makes me think the British had no alternative plan and somehow want to negotiate as if nothing had happened. They’re trying to avoid someone taking their place. The collecting of signatures to hold the ref- erendum again is the least British thing I’ve ever seen!

The role played by Queen Eliza- beth is also unclear. This monarch has always been known for her neu- trality, but in this instance, there is perhaps a level of blame attached: it could risk destroying the United Kingdom. Doesn’t it conceal a pro- Brexit stance?

From my experience of British conduct, I took it for granted the queen would not speak out. It seemed perfectly natural. It’s in line with her 40 year reign.

We have mentioned that European democracies are in trouble. What will happen? Is a reaction like the one we’ve seen in Spain likely, where the growth of Podemos has slowed and the responsible parties have tak- en back control over the situation, or do we risk going the way of Poland?

The Spanish parties were just lucky.

So in the upcoming French elec- tions, there’s also an element of risk?

I believe [Marine] Le Pen, and Trump too, are promoting a worldview they’ve learned from Grillo: populism must be populist, with neither left- nor right-wing tendencies. With the middle class collapsing and general discontent, populism can win out. As soon as Le Pen ‘killed’ her father, she began aspiring to become the president of the French republic. And in Italy, one can’t claim that the Five Star Movement is left-wing. Grillo has learned that lesson. Trump started out with very right-wing tendencies, but then began winning over workers in the Midwest. Of course he’s still right-wing, but the closer he gets to the helm, the more his statements become more generically populist. We have to realise that unfair wealth distribution, the destruction of the middle class, and the insecurity brought about by globalisation and migrations are all issues of the utmost importance.

Is there a chance Trump could win the elections?

I can’t say. But he has enjoyed a level of success that no political ana- lysts had ever expected.

Whoever wins the US elections will be the least popular president to date: Trump by his own party’s establishment and Hillary Clinton by her electoral base. What’s going on? Has even American democracy stalled?

Democracies are often faced with these situations. Just think what might happen if elections were held today in France … It’s not unusual. Hillary Clinton is a very clever and well-pre- pared woman, whom I respect, but her primary campaign was unable to stir up much enthusiasm. A president needs to be loved, but more impor- tantly must command respect. And Hillary is highly respected.

You say that we won’t manage to build a united Europe as a result of our capacity for leadership but be- cause we will be forced to do so. Is Brexit bad enough news, or will we need more of the same?

I thought it might be sufficient, but now I get the impression that the whole issue is being swept under the carpet. Allowing an indefinite time span to negotiate Brexit tells me the idea right now is to take a step back, in the hope this might trigger a reaction.




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