Germany's Martin Schulz on the EU's Democratic Deficit 'Europe Has Become an Over-Intellectualized Affair for Specialists'

Martin Schulz, the chairman of the Socialist group in the European Parliament, talks to SPIEGEL about the forthcoming European elections, why the EU needs more democracy and his infamous spat with Silvio Berlusconi.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Schulz, do we need to introduce you to our readers?

Martin Schulz: According to surveys, a quarter of all Germans know who I am. There are some cabinet ministers or prime ministers who would be pleased with a figure like that.

Eurosceptic members of the European Parliament demonstrate after the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

Eurosceptic members of the European Parliament demonstrate after the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

SPIEGEL: Why did you become head of the Socialist group in the European Parliament and not a federal minister in Berlin?

Schulz: It has to do with my background. I grew up in the Aachen area, one of the most Europeanized regions on the continent. My parents were staunch pro-Europeans from the war generation. They were very proud when I went to France in 1971 on a student exchange program. In those days, the concept of Europe was mainly about values. Today, unfortunately, personal benefit has taken center stage. People ask: What can Europe do for me?

SPIEGEL: Not very much, is the answer of more and more people. According to opinion polls, only 35 percent of eligible voters plan to exercise their right to vote on June 4-7. How do you, as the leading candidate for Germany's Social Democratic Party, explain to citizens why they should go and vote?

Schulz: I can point out how much influence the European Parliament has on the European Union and the lives of its citizens.

SPIEGEL: That'll certainly impress people.

Schulz: Exactly. It's a powerful parliamentary chamber.

SPIEGEL: Let's discuss the power of this chamber. Who would become president of the European Commission if your Social Democrats won the election?

Schulz: I admit that you are addressing a democratic deficit. The election outcome ought to determine the makeup of the Commission, but in actual fact, the heads of state and government determine who the Commission president will be. We should start by resisting the efforts to approve a second term for current Commission President José Manuel Barroso.

SPIEGEL: So your goal is to get rid of Barroso?

Schulz: Unfortunately, at this point we can only try to obstruct Barroso, but we cannot elect our own candidate. For this reason, we should at least dictate political criteria by which we would judge the next president. Together with the Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB), we have compiled a set of requirements for strengthening employee rights in Europe.

SPIEGEL: Wait a minute. Are you saying that it's possible for a majority of citizens to vote for social democrats on June 4-7, and yet a conservative will become president of the commission?

Schulz: Yes, in theory. Practically speaking, it would be difficult, of course. The heads of state and government will have to think very carefully about whom they propose, if the Party of European Socialists form the strongest parliamentary group. That's why neither (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel nor (French President) Nicolas Sarkozy has commented officially on Barroso to date.

SPIEGEL: Do the two of them fear the power of the European Parliament?

Schulz: Yes, because their power is also at stake. Until now, the heads of state and government have constituted an informal steering committee within the EU which operates on the basis of behind-the-scenes diplomacy. In effect, Europe is run by a sort of permanent Congress of Vienna. The Lisbon Treaty is supposed to change this, by stipulating that the election of the Commission president reflect the outcome of the European election. But the treaty is not yet in force…

SPIEGEL: …because the Czech Republic and Ireland haven't ratified it yet. That's why the rules of the Nice Treaty apply.

Schulz: Exactly. The heads of state and government want to appoint the president swiftly, before the Parliament acquires more power. On the other hand, they want to appoint the other commissioners in accordance with the new version of the Lisbon Treaty, under which each country will continue to have its own commissioner. Under the old version of the treaty, some countries would have had to do without a commissioner. The governments are currently playing fast and loose with the rules, so to speak.

SPIEGEL: Now you've made it clear why a citizen ought to be upset about Europe. He or she has a right, after all, to know what the basis for his vote is.

Schulz: Oh, come on. Before a parliamentary election, voters in Germany don't discuss the details of how the chancellor will assume office. They want to know whether Merkel or (chancellor candidate Frank-Walter) Steinmeier will lead Germany through the crisis more effectively.

SPIEGEL: The rules for Bundestag elections are undisputed. The German constitution is not amended during the election.

Schulz: That's true. But it's not me who is responsible for this unfortunate state of affairs, rather Ms Merkel and her officials, who are playing these games behind the scenes.

SPIEGEL: The European Parliament doesn't seem to be all that powerful. What does it lack?

Schulz: Essentially, a proper government that answers to the Parliament. The separation of powers we are familiar with from the nation state doesn't exist yet. If we had a European head of government who had to assemble a parliamentary majority, there would now be two candidates running for the office. I admit that if that were the case, it would be easier to motivate citizens to vote.

SPIEGEL: How do you feel in the European Parliament, what with these Italian models and over-the-hill Greens?

Schulz: There are stubborn prejudices, because the European Parliament has an image of being a place for old people. But German Green Party co-chair Claudia Roth and the Christian Democratic politician Friedrich Merz began, rather than ended, their careers in Europe.

SPIEGEL: And the models?

Schulz: That has to do with Italy's shady prime minister, not Europe. What Silvio Berlusconi practices is only funny at first glance. This amalgamation of economic, media and political power in a single person is a threat to democracy. It isn't surprising that Italy has fallen behind on the Worldwide Press Freedom Index.

SPIEGEL: Models as a threat to the freedom of the press? Please explain what you mean.

Schulz: Berlusconi is systematically turning Italian domestic policy into tabloid news. To do so, he uses his entire media empire, which hypes issues at his orders. He uses the media to mobilize voters by placing his TV starlets on candidate lists.


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