« We want to involve citizens to build the future of Europe », a Conversation with David Sassoli
« We want to involve citizens to build the future of Europe », a Conversation with David Sassoli
During your term, which began a year and a half ago, you have had to confront several crises. How has the Parliament, and more generally the Union, dealt with converging, serious crises?
David Sassoli – First of all, I would like to highlight that in order for democracy to function, we need public debate. It is the only way to develop policies and shared attitudes so that oligarchies or elites are not the only protagonists. I would like to start with an observation. Last year, we saw to what extent a major crisis revealed who we were, and we were able to take away lessons about our institutions — our strengths and weaknesses. It is no accident if, during this past year, those same institutions, led by the same people, have responded to the two critical components of the crisis in very different ways; responding to the economic and financial emergency on one hand, fighting the pandemic on the other. In other words, these two critical junctions which became apparent in March 2020 as the pandemic was developing allowed us to understand our limitations. Faced with that observation, how did the European Union respond? If we look at the situation today, one year later, we can see, on the financial and social fronts, that its response was significant and robust. Of course, the outcome is up for discussion, amongst other debates and controversies. However, this allows us to say that the European Union faced, and is facing, the economic and financial crisis with shared policies.
At the same time, this does not at all seem to be the case in regard to the health response. In fact, as public health is not a responsibility or a jurisdiction of the European Union, its coordination efforts amongst different countries in dealing with vaccines were criticized by certain deputies who accused the Commission and the Union of bowing to the pharmaceutical industry. How do you respond to this criticism?
It’s difficult for us to evaluate the health response in the same way as the financial and social response. Even if we have the same institutions, the same people, the same presidents of institutions, and the same entities, the lack of competences immediately exposed a major difficulty. This is a first lesson. Once the European Union has clear competences, it is able to respond to crises. However, when the situation is unclear, its efficiency is reduced and if we ask European institutions to take over from national powers, answers are slow to arrive; or if they arrive, they are insufficient. In fact, we already know this. When the European Union plays the role of a substitute, it does not definitively solve our various problems. We can see this in the Union’s repeated failure on migration issues. I think that the Covid crisis highlighted these shortcomings which had significant consequences in the lives of citizens. We must improve the Union’s functioning if we want to face crises in an effective manner.
Indeed, even before the pandemic, a number of us had already identified these shortcomings. That’s why a year and a half ago we began this term with the idea of fine-tuning and reshaping European democracy. With the Conference on the Future of Europe we are continuing this work. Today, we have clearly understood that global phenomena do not knock at the door — they waltz right in and can do a lot of harm. No European country among the 27 can respond alone to the crises that globalization throws at us; not even the countries who believe — mistakenly or not — that they are stronger than others. In fact, I think that we could conceive of a sort of prerequisite which would be based on the lessons learned from the Covid crisis, lessons that should not be swept under the rug. Just the opposite in fact. We should value them because they help to improve democracy, making it more effective at re-establishing the connection with citizens so that they regain confidence in their institutions. We can see on the international scene that some countries are choosing authoritarian systems to demonstrate that they are supposedly more efficient. Efficiency is difficult to achieve in a democracy. This is why many people insist that the democratic system is fragile. It is up to us, as Europeans, to make a more solid system which is able to respond quickly and efficiently to our fellow citizen’s problems. On the other hand, what citizen could love a system which does not solve his problems?
You have mentioned lessons learned from the pandemic. How then, on the basis of the shortcomings that have been highlighted, do you intend to change and reform the Union into a new Health Union ?
The European vaccine response was not all bad. Health remains a jurisdiction that is managed exclusively by each country, but our “substitute work” has in this case produced some positive results. Firstly, that of asking the Commission to handle supplying all 27 member states. We must not overlook this point. Without the European Commission’s centralization of procurements, we would have witnessed a war between rich countries on one side, and the poorest countries in the EU on the other. Our supply capacity would have been elitist and would not have been in line with the Union’s standards.
What did this teach us? That we need a European policy for human health. Any reasonable citizen, from Finland to Cyprus, understands that, faced with pandemics and great health crises, the Union must have the necessary tools to confront these problems because they will be just as great in the future. We must therefore learn lessons about the Union’s shortcomings and limits in order to transform them into assets. I was very happy a few months ago to hear Chancellor Merkel initiate a discussion around European health policy. Let us not forget the Mad Cow Disease crisis in 2000. Even if it was not comparable to the Covid-19 pandemic, it was nonetheless a major crisis at the time, and we overcame it thanks to a European policy on animal health. The standards that were created following that crisis are still in place today and allow us to maintain a high level of stock health along with everything it implies: production, breeding, protecting human health, etc. We have relied on that experience and today, that European policy has become a standard in the entire world. We cannot avoid a European policy on human health after this Covid-19 crisis. I think that if that was the case, we would be passing up a huge opportunity to give the Union more powers while meeting citizens’ expectations. I believe that this is the challenge that we must consider.
Will all of this be discussed during the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE)?
The CoFoE is a debate forum where we will be given the chance to think and reflect on how to endow the Union with new tools. It is clear today that the topic of health is a major concern in public opinion and that it is of great interest to citizens. I even think that it will be one of the major themes of the conference. This is also one of the priorities for the Parliament, which will address this issue in order to find solutions to make the Union function more efficiently.
On the topic of efficiency, from an economic point of view, you have often stressed with great concern the rise in poverty and inequalities caused by the crisis. At the beginning of the health crisis, in the interest of an economic recovery which benefited the entire Union, it was decided to suspend the Stability and Growth Pact. Why not follow the same path and cancel Covid debt held by the ECB as you have already suggested? What is the true role of Parliament when it comes to monetary policy?
What we have lived through in this crisis is new to all of us. And we should be glad that we did not rely on mechanisms from previous experiences, but mechanisms created ad hoc to respond to the Covid crisis. Basically, we relaxed and suspended the Stability and Growth Pact, we suspended the State aid mechanism, and we created support for integration funds financed by European bonds. In all its drama, the crisis has, for the first time, offered us the opportunity to overcome certain paradigms of the past. I strongly believe that it would be useless and dangerous to plan on going back to yesterday’s world following the Covid crisis. We are not in a film where we can just rewind and go back to the beginning. We must bear in mind that this pandemic has already upended our lives and that it also changed the perception of the European Union’s usefulness in a positive way. We must continue on this path, for it is thanks to these new tools that we can allow ourselves to imagine our future. With regard to debt, we must admit that all European countries are in debt and that it is not just an Italian, French, or European phenomenon, but a world-wide one. Will it be possible for us to balance the debt with growth, with development, with employment — in other words, “our strengths”? For now, we do not have the answer. I strongly believe, however, that we must overcome the debt problem through a strong development policy. If we do not do this, we will leave future generations with mountains of debt and we would be carrying a great weight on our shoulders. In fact this would be a heavy burden not only for the young generations, who must already face an uncertain future, but also and especially for the most disadvantaged and precarious populations. I do not have a solution, and I don’t particularly wish to have one, but this question of debt must be up for public debate. As President of the European Parliament, I would like the debates to be rich in ideas and creativity in order to find solutions to our problems. But it is not the paradigms of the past that can help us in this. After all, even before the pandemic, the neoliberal approach to growth only increased inequalities instead of reducing them.
Since 1944, we have been measuring growth and economic development by reference to GDP. Yet that does not take into account the challenges related to male/female equality, sustainability, and environmental protection even as these issues have become priorities for the Union. How will you evaluate the achievement of these European objectives? How will they be measured?
Europe should celebrate because, without realizing it, it went into the crisis with this strong image of the Green Deal. We were lucky because in the period between the elections of 2019 and the health crisis, we were able to create a perspective around the Green Deal which must and will influence our ideas on development. We entered the health crisis with a certain understanding of the present and we had made certain commitments for the future, such as becoming the first zero emission continent between 2030 and 2050, with a transition mindset that must be inclusive. We cannot allow ourselves to get to 2050 having excluded some of our countries, societies, workers, or businesses (closing them down for example, for it is of course much easier to close down than to transform). And so, thanks to the Green Deal’s vision, and thanks to the plan already laid out by the Union, this allows us to be a bit ahead of the work we need to accomplish compared to others. The recovery plan, which we have been debating and discussing, is ultimately inspired by thinking that has already been developed beforehand and which is based on the commitments of the Green Deal and a sustainable economy — not just from an ecological standpoint but also social — and on the idea of a transition which looks to include those who are disadvantaged.
All the national recovery plans are being delivered now. They will be evaluated according to simple rules which were defined by the Commission and which have allowed for all countries to incorporate them to their proposals. We are also aware of having done something innovative by giving money to countries so that they can invest it in order to achieve shared goals. If we want the Green Deal to succeed, we must rally, project by project, the 27 countries’ initiatives around shared goals. It is in that spirit and through that mechanism that the Commission and the Parliament will be able to evaluate national plans.
We noticed, both during and before the pandemic, increasing discontent among the population (both in OECD countries and others). This anger among people underscored the need to resort to meaningful democratic reforms with the reworking of a social contract and a new consensus (such as President Macron proposed in an interview with Le Grand Continent for example) in order to emerge from the crisis. In this sense, how can we reform the functions of European institutions — giving greater influence to the Parliament for example?
There again, we are not starting from scratch. We have a system and a functioning of the Union which, based on treaties, is likely to take many new forms. In order to improve the Union’s functioning, we must not just modify the treaties, but also implement them. In fact, many parts of our treaties remain undefined.
The European Parliament shares decision making responsibilities via co-decision. For example, it has greater powers than the American Congress. It also has the ability to spread pluralism within our institutions which allows for an important dialogue between citizens about the realities these territories face.
That being said, we are convinced that the time has come to increase Parliament’s authority and central role along with its power of initiative; for a Parliament holds a central place in the outlook of all democratic systems. What does this mean? That Parliament must not only be a destination for proposals to be discussed with the Commission and the Council. In this sense, having more power of initiative could already allow Parliament to play a larger role. As we have already said, crises are important clues which allow us to focus on strengths and weaknesses and, for the moment, we have seen in the past few months that the functioning based on the trilogue works well. All the legislative initiatives which are discussed by the bodies granted legislative powers function very well given that we are all committed to responding to the same crisis. In fact, the Council of the EU or the European Council could propose a reform. It would be necessary to compare the different institutional bodies, for power was always unbalanced. For example, the European Council (representing leaders of the Member States) has no legislative power, unlike the Council of the EU. For the Union to work better, these two functions could be more integrated. This would grant a greater responsibility to the governmental function.
The CoFoE seems to be a tool which would allow us to respond precisely to needs and the demands of citizens to have a greater say. In this sense, we are trying to involve them, but also to have more communication with the public on matters relating to public policies and problems in the EU. In regard to this initiative, what are the possible reforms that are already on the President’s desk that aim to create a democratic platform which is more inclusive in the long term — a “Europe for citizens”?
Our mission statement for the CoFoE includes some issues related to the function and identity of the parliamentary institution. For example, the possibility of having MEPs elected on the basis of equality, thanks to a new electoral law. Until now, MEPs have always been elected in varying manners depending on their countries’ voting systems. I think that cleaning up European electoral laws will provide greater authority and a more accurate recognition of the parliamentary mandate in the eyes of citizens.
Another example is the Spitzenkandidaten process. This was a very political idea which was abandoned because it was not included in our rules and treaties. In other words, during the last few legislative sessions, we organized elections based on political families indicating their preference for the Commission’s president. Is it fair to give citizens and Parliament the possibility to indicate their preferences during the Commission’s presidential election? If so, I think that it is absolutely necessary to clarify that, to regulate the system, and clearly discuss it. We cannot limit ourselves to a mere political suggestion; all this must be laid out in our rules. This is an example of a tool which allows Parliament, and European institutions in general, to function better.
This leads me to mention the sometimes-difficult relationship between the “community” and governmental bodies. I know that young people hope that the community bodies prevail (which is also my preference). I am also convinced that we are heading in that direction for the future. But today we must approach this future a bit more pragmatically. At this time, it is impossible to envision that one body can dominate another because, above all, we need to reestablish a balance. This is a task which will allow us to affirm Europe’s relevance. And so, when we are ready, I think that the community body will prevail. Until then, we must always keep our opportunities in mind, both in regard to the European Union and our democratic systems. Our relationship with public opinions, which are based on consensus, is a relationship of convenience. In this sense, it is best if we are free. It is best if we live democratically. It is best if we are united. It is best that multiple countries cooperate in order to improve their performances together. It is best that we mutually support each other. The notion of opportunity is therefore fundamental to the CoFoE’s process, but more generally to political initiative in order to push us to improve our performance.
What are the expected results and the direct practical implication of the Conference for the Future of Europe?
We want to get citizens to participate in creating Europe’s future. The events that took place at the Capitol in Washington D.C. this past January reminded us that democracies are fragile and must not be taken for granted. We must rebuild connections with citizens, renew our social and democratic contract, and listen to the call of citizens who wish to be more involved in the decision-making process and policies that affect their everyday life because it may not be enough to have a say through voting once every five years. The Conference’s goal is to encourage this participation and engagement by reaching out to citizens from all backgrounds, to listen to them, and have them participate in a number of events through our European citizens panels where they can make suggestions which will be taken into consideration by European institutions.
We will get the message that citizens send us. We will see if they think we are stronger together and that Europe is the right place to tackle global challenges, if they want the EU to play a greater role in public health to fight against pandemics, if they want Europe to be a global leader in the fight against climate change. Depending on their questions, we will have to envision giving the Union the appropriate means to make it more resilient, more efficient, and more legitimate. There are great challenges, and we cannot imagine going back to the pre-Covid world.
How will the citizens be chosen to participate in the plenary assembly (alongside MEPs and national parliamentarians) and how representative will they be? Does the approach adopted by the CoFoE risk moving away from the principle of representative democracy which is at the heart of European societies by using a “populist” approach? Or is this the goal?
The way in which the Conference’s Executive Board has yet to decide on how citizens will be chosen. However, it is likely that a certain number of citizens present at the plenary session are representatives of “European citizens’ panels”, which are events organized by the European institutions. These panels will be composed of 200 citizens selected at random on the basis of a certain number of criteria in order to represent the EU’s diversity as stated in the joint declaration. There will be five criteria based on nationality, the urban/rural divide, gender, age, and socio-economic status. Additionally, particular attention will be given to young people. One third of individuals who make up the citizens’ panel will be between 16 and 25 years old because the future of Europe depends mainly on them. I think that we must modernize our democracies and adapt to a rapidly changing world. As I have already said, we must find new methods or use consultation tools which will allow citizens to express their opinions on matters that concern them. Such mechanisms have been tested in various settings and they have shown positive results. They also offer citizens a chance to assume their responsibilities and a different way to get involved in public life. The Conference is a unique opportunity because, for the first time, citizens will be at the heart of this huge democratic exercise. But we could think about setting up a mechanism that would allow for permanent citizen consultation, which I consider a tool that complements representative democracy.
Will other countries — and especially those neighboring the Union — figure into the CoFoE’s thinking process?
Our message to neighboring countries is very clear. We don’t want them to simply be part of a European plan for supplying vaccines but to be involved in the current reflection period throughout the CoFoE. In particular, we would like the public opinion of the Western Balkans’ civil society to participate in our conference on Europe’s identity because this also concerns their future.
What’s more, the Union’s approach consists of not using its economic machine to create conflicts. We want to use our qualities to reinforce our capacity for dialogue with other countries, even those that are far away from us.
One of the Conference’s themes is migration. Regarding the migration crises, we know that since 2009, managing immigration is one of your priorities. And yet, for the umpteenth time, 130 people coming from the Libyan coast lost their lives at sea this past April 22nd. You have denounced the inaction of Member States faced with “a painful scene” and demanded that “national governments give the Union powers and a mandate to save lives”. Did they listen to you? And where are we on revising the Dublin regulation, which we have been talking about for four years?
No, they did not listen to me. Many governments think that the migration crisis is a problem which only concerns a few countries. So, as I mentioned before, Europe has been dealing for years with merely being a substitute because it has no power to intervene. In other words, Europe can certainly provide money and guarantee an organizational mechanism, but its impact will be limited. Currently, the issue of migrants rests on the shoulders of the countries where these poor souls arrive.
In fact, I would like to highlight three points in this regard. First of all, we must change our point of view. We must consider it an advantage to have legal channels. Take Canada for example, a country which, in order to restart its economy, increased the number of legal visas issued by 3% to respond to the high demand for labor in its factories and businesses.
Secondly, we need humanitarian legal corridors which cannot be created by states alone because this requires cooperation at the European level. There needs to be a mandate so that Europe can organize these humanitarian corridors because we have an obligation to these men and women who are in desperate need. We must make our voice heard on this matter. We must make our public opinions and civil society understand, almost in terms of civic education, that Europe is not a bastion or an impregnable fortress, but a body at the service of all.
Third, we must implement an operation at the European level like that of Mare Nostrum that the Italians have put in place and make it an instrument of the European institutions. We can’t let people die at sea in order to get here! These tragedies force us to pursue these three points in a pragmatic way. This goes beyond the reform of the Dublin regulation, which I have worked on for an entire legislative session — even winning the battle — but governments are not applying the rules intended for this purpose.
In fact, I find it completely intolerable that the European Commission continues to lose time by inviting Member States to take in a few dozen people because it doesn’t have the ability to impose this across Europe. We badly need citizen voices. We cannot accept listening to those who say they do not want migrants. We must also listen to voices who wish to welcome them because European policy works by consensus. Civil society and public opinion need to take action to make politics accountable. These tragedies, which are painful wounds that are reopened every week, must be healed. Without being so arrogant to think that we can solve all the problems, we must encourage new initiatives, to make it understood that we are a great continent where people from elsewhere are welcomed, both to live and work with us.
Solidarity, which is a basic ideal that you defend, is not synonymous with charity or assistance but altruism. How can the Parliament support the Union’s paradigm shift with respect to developing countries, towards a process of true partnership? On that point, President Macron mentions “the shift in perspective with respect to Africa and the reinvention of the Afro-European axis”. How should the Union rethink the system of cooperation?
I am increasingly convinced that our destiny is closely linked to Africa’s. All we have to do is look at the African continent’s explosive demographic growth.
We currently work with Africa on two levels. First of all, I would like to clarify that it is not our intention to use vaccines as a political tool, but as a tool for solidarity. And we can proudly say that we have distributed 60% of total vaccine doses across Europe and 40% to middle- and low-income countries through the Covax initiative. Not all countries in the world can say the same. In this respect, vaccines should not be thought of as geopolitical tools, but as investments for the greater good. Operation Covax allows us to set up four production plants in Africa and grant licenses to produce the vaccines. This is an important initiative that will improve safety and create local employment.
Could Europe then advance a new understanding of multilateralism? Are there elements today that hamper or encourage the notion of solidarity and altruism that the Union is trying to make its own?
The conflicts and crises at our borders are of major concern. Certain countries have taken an authoritarian approach, overturning their rules and imposing the dictates of the majority. These countries have significantly regressed on the rights of women and young people. And so we must pay particular attention to these trends because we are in the midst of different crises. However, let us be clear on one thing, which is that we wish to oppose anything that seeks to divide us. In this sense, we must keep in mind that intrusion, interference, fake news, and propaganda are very real phenomena which not only influence us, but also weaken us. That is why we are confidently watching the change of administration in the United States. We look forward to President Biden’s visit to Europe in June which we hope will also include a visit to the European Parliament in order to send a clear message that the United States is now looking to Europe to face our common challenges together (an contrasting approach to that of the previous administration which was more concerned with dividing Europeans). The EU has always thought that multilateral relations with the United States should never be abandoned, and today signals coming from Washington are encouraging and seem to be going in the same direction. On top of that, the return of the United States to the Paris Agreement is also a very important message.
As you can see, we have a number of challenges to overcome, but we must look to the future without panicking. We must remain confident. If we have learned one lesson this year, it’s that we are capable of tackling potential solutions without any barriers. This is a strength that we must reinforce.
To cite the article
Sofia Scialoja, Sabrina Adjelout, David Sassoli, « We want to involve citizens to build the future of Europe », a Conversation with David Sassoli, May 2021.
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