Interview Philippe Kamaris, former Head of the European Parliament Information Office in Riga*
The EU is not a collection of 25 national interests
Many think the European Parliament (EP) is not really an important institution of the EU. Its resolutions are often disregarded and according to the so-called consultation procedure the Parliament’s opinions on legislative acts are not binding. How would you as someone who has worked in the EP for several years defend its role?
Well, if you look specifically at the consultation procedure – its usage has decreased over the last decades and it is a steady tendency, which means that the role of the EP has been strengthened. Also, according to the treaties in many cases the EP is not the only institution that is to be consulted in legislative procedures. One can mention the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, and if you look at these three, well there is a question which opinion is regarded or disregarded more.
On the resolutions, it is a tool with which the EP wants to give attention to certain issues, demonstrating that they are important. EP also has the last say, according to the assent procedure, about enlargements, budget expenditures. Yes, sometimes it is difficult – and that’s a chronic problem – to explain what the EP does in everyday life. There are these difficult, sometimes very technical questions for voters, consumers back home. Maritime safety, for example, was not a big topic until the “Prestige” catastrophe when the EP acted very actively.
If you look at all the issues we examine at the EP not according to the consultation, but the co-decision procedure - food safety, environmental safety at the work-place – these issues do matter and do influence quite directly the quality of the air we breath, what we eat, the quality of the environment we are bound to enjoy, the conditions in our working places – these things are pretty important. So I cannot agree to the allegation that the EP is not an important institution in the institutional triangle. The case with the nomination of the new European Commission (EC) proves my point!
You came to the nomination of the EC. Some think it was the case when the EP had too much power, namely, that some of the nominees of national governments were sent back home, ignoring the will of these member states’ leaders.
I think this is not the opinion of majority, although, of course, there are many views on the nomination. Some thought it was good for the democracy; there were others throwing accusations, saying these people should not be included. One fact is that at least the EP is way more transparent and more accessible to voters, to NGOs than other institutions. One can accuse the EP of many things, but not of obscure mechanisms that tend to exclude the people. What I mean is that we had this procedure of hearings. If you look in the treaty what it says about the hearings, you will not find a single word. This procedure was invented by the EP so that it can formulate recommendations after an open and transparent period of questions and answers. It is obvious that since you had some questions that were raised here they would also be raised at the EP.
I think that what is a fair show is that there is no proof of segmentation between what would be the national political market and what is the European political market. If you have someone whose personality is attached to some questions on the Latvian political arena, these are bound to be put in Europe one way or other sooner or later… and as there is this hearing procedure it is bound to be sooner than later. Obviously, the same questions that were raised here were also raised in the EP and the answers were valid as they were.
What about the Netherlands Commissioner? Why was she left in the team although it was widely believed there were errors in her candidacy?
You are not alone in this opinion. Many members of the EP (MEP) agree with you.
Does that mean they “sacrificed” Udre and Butiglione and kept the Netherlands candidate?
Look, I am sure that you will find MEPs that will agree with you. I am sure that some others will not and still others will tell you that the solution we have was the one that satisfied all institutional partners – the new Commission and the Council of Ministers. Now, I am not sure one has to see things in terms of sacrifice [of these candidates] for these countries. Ms Udre and Mr Butiglione would not have been Commissioners only for their own member states – they would be Commissioners for the whole Europe. Their prerogatives would be extended horizontally across the continent. So, whatever you lost, I lost, whatever you gained, I gained, and since I am half Greek and half French – that’s double! But seriously and honestly, the perception in the EP was that the new Latvian Commissioner Mr Piebalgs had an exceptional hearing that went on extremely smoothly, and especially so since he had far less time to prepare himself than his direct predecessor.
Yes, but still what about the Netherlands’ case – if you scrutinize everyone, why do you leave one alone?
Well, it’s perhaps a lesson to be learned for the next nomination of the Commission…
… in five years?!
Five years is a short period for European politics!
With what feelings do you leave Latvia and this post?
I arrived here – I thought – for two months. I did not know much about Latvia, to be absolutely honest. Now after a year and a half here I am still unsure I know very much, but I hope I know more than before. I think it’s a country that is very attaching. In a way it is a laboratory – on integrating minorities, obviously, but also as a new member state that is on the way to find its own course in the EU.
I come from a country - Greece - that was called the black sheep of the family for many years. It took Greece more than 15 years to become, I would not say a normal player in the European field, but let’s say - one that was not seen as a country that all the time requested transitional periods etc. So don’t underestimate what Latvia has achieved already. Latvia is a new member state so, of course, you cannot expect it to have the experience of member states that have been in the game for 50 years. But it’s wrong sometimes to underestimate your own presence and what you can do.
There is this idea that should be clarified a bit. I often hear people saying, “we have to go to Brussels or to the EU to defend our national interests”. If everybody would only do that, namely, if the EU would be just a collection of 25 national interests; if each country would only be thinking about its own national interests, we would not be getting anywhere! This is not to say that national interests are something that we can throw out of the window and they don’t exist. Of course, they exist, but it is very difficult for any member state – be it Latvia, Estonia or Portugal – where it happens to be in a position where it is alone and everybody else is against it. Of course, you have your national interests, but you have to explain absolutely honestly, saying without even using the term “it is our national interest” – look, we have a problem in this field. Usually people will listen and usually people will try to find a way to help you, a transitional period, something! The best ally in this event is not another member state, but the Commission, because Latvia is not a big member state, but the role of the Commission is to make sure that the system works, keeping some kind of equilibrium.
Of course, you also have your MEPs – now if you look at the percentage of your population in the total of the EU and compare the number of your MEPs you will see that the number [of MEPs] is way bigger. It is a prism that allows Latvia’s voice to be heard. This is another opportunity that I think Latvia is using already.
So you’re saying that Latvia’s EU integration is a positive case?
It’s a process. But what I know about the EP I can say that Latvian MEPs are doing a good job there – they are getting important dossiers which are good for Latvia and also the rest of the EU.
How do you evaluate our government’s successes in working within the EU?
I don’t know the specifics of Latvia in this case, but in general I know that the smaller the member state and the less stable its government, the more important is the head of its permanent representation to the EU. Sometimes people say he is just an ambassador, but no – he is the person who is to vote almost on a daily basis on issues representing his country’s view. It is obvious that if you have one person who is staying there more often than the ministers, the first one is the stability incarnated. That’s the general trend.
You’ve worked in the EP, worked as an interpreter in the EC, studied in the College of Europe - so you’re a person who’s interested in the EU. Can you tell me what is the sense behind the project – why does the EU exist?
Well… (a long pause)
It cannot be just the money!
No, it is not just the money, for heavens sake! If it would be only the money we would all be in North Atlantic Free Trade Association or the European Free Trade Association. It is not only about that. It is about several rights – freedom of movement [of labour], which right now for you could seem a bitter issue… but freedom of movement around the continent, the right to live your own life as you want – it might be even more important. It could be a sentimental dimension – I don’t know – but it is not only about the money! The EU is also about values, also about democracy, human rights, the rule of law – this is why the EU has, for example, a very strong position on the death penalty. If the EU would be only about the money, we would not care about such things. This is why the EU believes in the International Criminal Court – if the EU would be only about the money, why bother?! It is also about developing slowly and gradually some common perception – here I’m being very moderate – in fields of foreign policy. So it is not only about selling washing machines or cars, definitely!
Look at me – my father is Greek, my mother is French. I have lived in both countries, more in Greece than in France. I’ve worked in Brussels, now I am in Riga for one year and a half and I don’t feel completely out of place anywhere, and if you put this in a perspective, I don’t think it’s that bad. I’m not saying that everyone should change living places three times a year to prove that he is a good European, but [the EU gives] a structure, an organization or perhaps a mentality that allows you to do what you want where you want without of course living in a complete anarchy.
But why do countries come together in the EU?
That’s a very existential question. Well, you might also need the money, of course, but one has to see it in terms of economic and social cohesion, which means not to allow your most behind-lagging-region – which in some cases can be a whole country – to be lagging behind the rest of the economies in the EU zone because a depressed country is a depressed market and a depressed economy. Yes, that is very materialistic, but there are other needs as well – needs of safety, for instance. When Greece acceded to the EU in 1981 it was also because it felt small, it felt threatened, it wanted to belong to a stronger family – and Greece was already a member of NATO at that time. But NATO for all its merits did not prevent Greece from becoming a dictatorship in the 60s, so we also needed the EU – and this was very underlining in the process – to safeguard the democracy. The underlining assumption was that with the EU there would be no other authoritarian rules. The same reasoning was valid in the cases of Spain and Portugal, and this is not [ancient] history we’re talking about – this is only 20 years ago!
And where does the EU go – with the Constitution, with Turkey’s possible accession, with further enlargement?
We had this wording in the treaty about the ever closer union which is having competences administered centrally, but with rules which are made by respecting everybody’s rights in the Council, the EC and the EP. It is obviously going towards more coordination. If you observe the trends, these are indeed less and less vetoes, more qualified majority in the Council, more co-decision with a bigger say of the EP. I’d like to stress that this is not because it is imposed upon by somebody. These are member states themselves who want it just because they know that this is the only way to have the machine working! If you have a veto right in the EU of 25 states on a decision, this is the best recipe for stalling. Of course, you could have the EU becoming a classical international organization, but I don’t think that that’s what we are. I don’t think that’s what we want to be either.
Where is the EU going with Turkey?
First, we will have enlargements before that, logically – Romania and Bulgaria.
Croatia is a candidate country. I don’t have a magic ball to predict whether it will join the EU before Turkey, but what is sure is that it will get a promise of accession after a shorter time than in Turkey’s case, hopefully. Now where is the EU going – that is a question on where do we set the boundaries…
Also, what does the EU want to become? If it wants to become a stronger actor on the global arena, does the Constitution provide that, and if yes – why do we need to be stronger?
Well, this is one ambition. You can have another – to be weaker and smaller – but the first seems to have dominated over the other.
Don’t you sometimes wonder what is the vision of the EU for the future – and whether the steps it takes will take the EU there? For example, Turkey’s possible accession – this is a topic about which people have contradicting feelings, so is it not fair to ask whether that is necessary for where ever the EU wants to arrive one day?
I believe that strengthening and achieving democracy in Turkey is in the best interests of everyone - both the EU and Turkey. It is much better to have a democratic Turkey than to have a Turkey under the rule of either military dictatorship or something else. The question is whether we believe a democratic Turkey should be part of the EU or not, but I believe we have given our answer to that!
When I say we, I mean, the Council of Ministers and the EP. Of course, every enlargement is always approved by all member states, so from this point of view you can of course do it the French way by approving it in a referendum. It will be a novelty, and when someone would ask me why is a referendum used here when it was not in other cases – a rational reasoning is hard to find, especially, when a Turkish person asks you that.
The thing is that the association agreement with Ankara of 1963 had a clause including the phrase of a probable accession to the EU. Now 40 years later it is quite difficult to say that we’ve changed our mind. We’ve had other association agreements with other states in between, but not with such clause, so either we keep our word or we don’t! If we keep our word, we should ensure that everybody is treated without any discrimination.
But does the EU need to go on with the enlargement?
If you ask whether there is an enlargement fatigue – there is, it’s a phenomenon we know. It’s very easy to say, especially after the enlargement we’ve just had, let’s take a breath and see how the system works. But we have to be realistic! We have the Balkans, where we saw very clearly what ultra-nationalism can do, and it was not a problem only for Yugoslavia. Open front or a war in the Balkans was definitely a problem of the EU. You don’t need to tell that to Germany that had to welcome so many refugees! I believe that achieving stability in the Balkans is definitely a top priority for us not only for the Balkans’ sake, but also for our sake. Of course, it is a major challenge as these economies are devastated after the war. Even the Bulgarian economy 10 years ago was not very shiny. Basically, it is better to export stability than import instability. If you manage exporting stability by offering the perspective of accession probably we should do it.
What about enlargement in the other direction? Ukraine, Russia – to export stability and democracy?
Russia is not a candidate country and has never said that it wants to be. But the case of Ukraine is more interesting. There are many MEPs who believe that the perspective of accession should be offered to Ukraine, but then there are those who say that we have to learn when to draw the line! There was the previous strategy of the Commission that was attacked severely since it put Ukraine in the same status as Morocco. I think that now this has lost its weight because of the new member states which were really active in the process of the EU getting involved in the Ukrainian elections. Why? Because Ukraine is in many cases a direct neighbour and it is much better to have a stable and democratic neighbour than anything else. Your question about Russia would be valid, if you would ask me about, let’s say, the year 2020 when Ukraine could be in the EU and would need stable and democratic neighbours [Russia], but that’s a total science fiction at this stage.
* The views expressed here are purely personal and do not in any way represent the position of the European Parliament