INTERVIEW – Romano Prodi: Brexit is not enough!


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

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.

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