Former European Commissioner Günter Verheugen The EU 'Has No Vision of Where We Are Heading'

Former European Commissioner Günter Verheugen, whose 10 years in office ended Tuesday, talks to SPIEGEL ONLINE about EU-US relations, the prospect of a common EU military and the union's lack of vision.

Germany's outgoing European commissioner, Günter Verheugen: "There is no consensus over where the borders of the EU should lie in the future, and there is no consensus over how we should define our role in the world."
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Germany's outgoing European commissioner, Günter Verheugen: "There is no consensus over where the borders of the EU should lie in the future, and there is no consensus over how we should define our role in the world."


SPIEGEL ONLINE: The new European Commission was approved Tuesday, thereby ending your 10 years as a commissioner in Brussels. Is the EU still an alliance of nations on the way to an ever-closer union, or is it just a bigger club with the same old problems?

Günter Verheugen: With the 27 members that it has today, compared to the 15 that it had back then, the EU has obviously changed dramatically. We have achieved much in those 10 years, but a few fundamental questions remain open: There seems to be no vision within the Union of where we are heading. There is no consensus over where the borders of the EU should lie in the future, and there is no consensus over how we should define our role in the world.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is it not too late for that already? Barack Obama recently cancelled his participation in the upcoming EU-US summit. Has our continent become unimportant to the Americans?

Verheugen: No. The overwhelming strategic importance of the trans-Atlantic relationship won't change. The Americans expect more participation in global affairs from our side, but we are not ready for that. We want to be taken seriously by the Americans as partners, therefore we should first develop our ability to be partners.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the public perception, you and your colleagues represent the whole EU apparatus, which is held in increasing disdain. Why is the Commission viewed as the epitome of bureaucratic hell?

Verheugen: That isn't fair. The Commission is the motor and powerhouse of European integration. But I concede that the image of the Commission is still too strongly influenced by the idea that it is some kind of many-tentacled bureaucratic monster that wants to regulate and harmonize more and more areas of people's lives.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But there are good reasons for that impression.

Verheugen: To me, achieving a cultural shift in the institutions of the European Union has been of the highest importance over the last few years. I have tried to get away from the mentality that the European project can only be achieved through more and more rules. That said, whatever we communicate has to go through the twin filters of the national media and national politics. In many countries, especially in Germany, the bad habit has developed of always putting the blame for anything unpleasant on "those people in Brussels." A lot of what we do is very technical, the language is horribly overblown and bureaucratic through and through. It's something that is difficult for people to understand.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is that resignation in the face of a self-created monster? You have complained often enough that is hard to get anything done with all the bureaucracy.

Verheugen: The ability of politicians to oversee the ever-increasing influence of the bureaucracy doesn't grow in line with that influence. It can't -- after all, human capacity has its limits. There are 27 commissioners, which means 27 directorate-generals. And 27 directorate-generals means that everyone needs to prove that they are needed by constantly producing new directives, strategies or projects. In any case, the rule is: More and more, more and more, all the time.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Hasn't this kind of excessive growth long since suffocated one of the original intentions behind the European project, namely the vision of a "United States of Europe?"

Verheugen: At the moment, the idea of a single European state is simply irrelevant to the political reality. In fact, it's really just parts of the British media that constantly claim that there are people who want such a thing. But I don't know anyone who does.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: At the same time, though, someone like Joschka Fischer, who was Germany's foreign minister under then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder from 1998 to 2005, could very easily imagine having a more closely integrated Europe.

Verheugen: Sure, but that was aimed at a political union within the EU itself, which wasn't very realistic. Nevertheless, it's still an option that you can't rule out for the future.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does the EU really see itself as a global player?

Verheugen: It isn't one yet. But in 10 or 20 years, Europe will be forced to compete with new economic superpowers which will also have their own political agendas. And at that point, we won't be able to play an equal role if we do not have a single EU representation in international organizations such as the IMF or the UN Security Council and are hence unable to speak with one voice.

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