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Von der Leyen: «Russia violates international laws. Yes to sanctions but also to dialogue»

Exclusive interview with the newly elected european Commission president

BERLINO. You are the first female at the top of the Commission. Will the change of guard in gender be noticeable?

«First of all, the Commission will have as many women as men around the table. This will provide a different perspective on problems and solutions because we all have different backgrounds. And I hope it’s going to be visible by pragmatic solutions. I always felt, also now in the last 14 days trying to get a majority within the European Parliament and the different groups, that it was easy to bridge gaps with women. A lot of them were willing to be very pragmatic and result-driven».

When did you learn about your majority – beforehand or when the EP president announced it?

«I knew from information I got, it would be an extremely close call. So I still felt overwhelmed, when the EP President announced it officially a few moments later. A lot of suspension had been build up, because I couldn’t be sure in the days ahead. And even on the morning when I gave the speech, people told me they liked it. But I knew at the same time that I had put forward clear positions that might have convinced some and disgruntled others».

You won only by a very slim margin. How do you explain the high turnout against you?

«The sentence I have heard the most in the past couple of days was: “It’s nothing personal, but….” Well, I understand that many in the parliament were angry because the EU heads of state did not nominate one of the lead candidates as EU commission president but me instead. Nevertheless, Manfred Weber supported me tremendously – it would not have been possible to succeed without him. And of course, some voted against me because I presented a clear pro-European outlook they did not share».

As a matter of fact, there were EU-sceptical forces like Fidesz from Hungary, PiS from Poland and the 5 Star movement from Italy that supported you. How big a liability is that you had to rely on their vote?

«The vast majority came from Renew, EPP and S&D. The new parliament is very heterogenic. And the work ahead of us will consist of finding stable majorities for the different topics and maybe new ones every time. While this is challenging, it is also an opportunity to work for majorities whatever the topic is».

Have you offered anything in return for the votes from Fidesz and PiS?

«The Central and Eastern European countries have placed trust in me because they knew me from my former work as Defence minister. We also had disagreements concerning defence issues, but I think there was a lot of recommendations from my colleagues in the Defence ministries that I am a person you can work with. That helped a lot. And when you look at the division between Central-Eastern and Western Europe, what I sense is the urge to have more acceptance and to be more visible».

Are you quite sure who voted for you and who didn’t?

«No. Plainly and simple because it’s a secret vote. I only know what the groups told me».

But how do you explain that you were not able to convince MEPs from your own country, namely the SPD and possible even members from your own party. Is the coalition in Germany at jeopardy?
«I think this is not about the coalition in Berlin, but purely a European issue. The 16 German Socialdemocrats in the European Parliament pointed out that they couldn’t support me because I hadn’t been a Spitzenkandidat. It’s not my job to interpret them, it was their decision and I certainly would have much preferred they had based it on content rather than procedural questions. But now we have to look forward and work with what it’s there».

You presented very ambitious goals for fighting climate change. But how do you plan to finance them? And how are you going to force the reluctant countries supporting your ideas?

«Honestly, this is something where Europe has understood the message. The clock is ticking, we are running out of time. We have to focus on changing behaviours, make Co2 emissions more expensive, invest in R&D and green financing. Equally important, is that we ensure a just transition, not every region has the same starting point. What is good for our planet must be good for our people and the economy».

But again: Where does the money come from for all this?

«It’s a matter of the setting the right priorities in the Multiannual Financial Framework. If we do not invest further in these areas now, we will pay a much higher price later on as the costs for high emissions, old-fashioned technologies and compensating lost employment will add up. If Europe moves first, it can benefit from first-mover advantage. Within the next months we will develop a more detailed working plan».

You support minimum wage in all member states and you’ve argued for an unemployement reassurance in case of external shocks. But how do you want to implement these ideas when not even your home country, Germany, has shown support for such ideas?

«On the contrary, Germany has made positive experiences with the minimum wage tailored by collective bargaining of employers and trade unions. It’s all about getting the details right: if someone is working full time, they should be able to at least financially support themselves. Otherwise we push people from legal work into the black market and no one profits in the end. As to the unemployment reassurance: The idea is that countries have instruments at hand to buffer external shocks such as a no-deal Brexit. We have learnt in Germany during the financial crisis that it is much better to have short-time working in times of crisis and avoid mass dismissals, and then have the skilled workers in place in the moment the economy picks up again. An unemployment reassurance allows you to bridge hard times in case of an external shock to your economy».

You are coming from a government who has stalled initiatives from French president Macron for further integration of the European Union. What’s your view on a Eurozone budget and a European minister of Finance?

«I haven’t talked about a European finance minister because there are too many open questions. About a Eurozone budget, we will have a budgetary instrument for competitiveness and convergence, which is in a single money market of course useful and necessary. Formerly our problem was the lack of competitiveness and convergence. The open question always was: will it be accessible also for countries that are trying to join the euro? I tend to say yes; it’s certainly a road worth thinking about».

How big should a Eurozone budget be? This is the great divide between France and Germany.

«Discussions are ongoing among Member States. My presidency will start in November, I will pick it from there. We have to work everything out in detail, when the new commission is in place. But the problem will be on the table».

Jean Claude Juncker made a point of being a political president of the commission, using the full flexibility allowed in the stability pact. But other countries like the Hanseatic league argue for respecting the rules no matter what. In which camp are you playing in?

«We have many slogans in the European debate that immediately stop any kind of real dialogue. You immediately know where somebody comes from when he uses either the term transfer union or austerity policy. My ambition is to change our language so that we are willing to listen to each other again and to focus on finding pragmatic solutions, as people expect from us. If you look at the Stability and Growth Pact there are options for flexibility in it which we should use without breaking the rules that are necessary».

What about Italy? The deficit procedures have been stopped although the rules were not met.

«The current Commission decided not to open an Excessive Deficit Procedure. My Commission will closely monitor the situation in Italy, as in other Member States. Our common aim is to go into investment for more growth without going against the existing rules».

And your political ambition for the commission?

«Normally, I wouldn’t like to have a prefix ahead of the word commission. But if I had to choose one, I would call it a geopolitical one. The European Union has to be assertive, unified, strong and it has to play a key role in this world. The world is calling for more Europe».

Another field where we haven’t seen much dialogue lately is European migration policy. You said you wanted to bridge the gap. But how do you want to do that after all we’ve seen in the past four years is a deepening divide?

«If the past four years have taught as anything is that the simple answers won’t take us any further. All you could hear was either “Close the boarders and migration will stop” or “we have to rescue in the Mediterranean Sea and this is it”. We have seen that migration doesn’t go away and that there is a limit to integration capacities and at the same time we need humane solutions. A comprehensive approach is overdue, we need to heavily invest in Africa in order to lessen migration pressure. At the same time, we have to fight organized crime, reform Dublin and make sure Schengen can prevail because we protect our external borders».

How should external borders be protected if EU heads of states are only willing to enhance Frontex until 2027?

«The intention to build up Frontex to 10.000 guards is good, but 2027 is definitely
too late. We have to speed this up as I made clear in my Guidelines. Also, the EU asylum framework, the so called Dublin system, urgently needs to be reformed. The issue with complex problems is: they are more complicated to explain, so people and politicians need to make the extra effort. Those fighting over migration policy tend to focus on only one part of the picture. By talking about burden sharing with a view on the whole chain, from Africa for example to Dublin, we might be able to move forward».

Should NGOs continue to save lives in the Mediterranean Sea?

«Our political approach should focus on keeping people from entering these rubber boats in the first place. We have quite successfully managed to fight organized crime together with Turkey, Morocco and Algeria. Once people have ventured on their deadly journeys, we are obliged to help. Saving lives is always an obligation, but saving lives  alone doesn’t solve anything of the much bigger issue. And when the refugees are ashore, you have to be clear. Those who are there irregularly and not eligible for asylum have to go back. Through our deal with Turkey, we have managed to reduce the numbers from five thousand migrants per day to a couple hundreds».

But the key country in Africa for irregular migration is Libya. How do you want to cut a deal with a country that doesn’t even have a government – but terrible camps run by militias instead?

«You’re absolutely right that it is very hard to deal with a country like Libya where you have no functioning government but the dawn of a civil war. These problems are there without any question but they do not prove that the concept of the broader approach is not right. We have to face the big challenges of our time, which is not only migration, but also demography and digital revolution. Get along with them. Work through them. But do not pretend that we could solve the problem only by tackling just one part of the picture and not talking about the rest».

So is Italy’s interior minister Salvini in the meantime right to stop and criminalize NGOs like Seawatch?

«It is a human obligation to rescue people from drowning. What Italy mainly wants is the reform of the dysfunctional Dublin system. And I must admit that I am wondering how such a flawed agreement could be signed in the first place. I can understand that the EU countries at the external boarders do not want to be left alone in dealing with the migration challenge. They deserve our solidarity».

How are you going to convince Poland and Hungary about that?

«Some countries concentrate at their specific problems, use slogans and show no willingness to move. But it is also true that not many people recognize that a country such as Poland has already taken in 1.5 million people from Ukraine, where at the eastern border a hybrid war is going on. We need to start talking about this polish view on the picture and be ready to listen to arguments beyond our owns. I expect that from all of us. Our job as politicians and diplomats is to unlock such deadlocks»
You sound different from 2015. Have you changed your position regarding migration?

«As I said before, migration is really complex topic. And there are no easy answers. The debate has matured, because during the discussion we learnt a lot of details about the situation in the origin countries, about trafficking systems or the shortfalls of the Dublin sytem. So did Europe. At the beginning we had very simple contradictory answers. Now there is acceptance that migration is there and will not go away. And we want to commonly try to open ways for legal migration too».

Should member states who break the rule of law and other European values be punished by reducing subsidies from the EU structural funds?

«The rule of law is one of those sacred values of the European Union. In order to take out a few of the heated emotions; we support to introduce a mechanism that will add a transparent reporting about the state of the rule of law in every member state. This should make sure that it is not about finger pointing at individual members, but that every member is under scrutiny here».

You say that rules should apply to everyone. But Germany and France have not met deficit criteria and still got away. Are double standards undermining the EU?

«The same criteria applies to everyone. My political experience tells me that obeying rules that everyone has agreed upon before is the only foundation to keep a certain balance between the mighty powers of this world. This is the rules-based-order we defend. It also applies to the European Union. The more we walk away from the rules we set ourselves, the less we will be able to achieve balance and to have fairness in the community».

In Eastern Europe we have countries which have been fighting for freedom, and now their governments try to abolish the independence of justice and curb the free media. What is your take on that?

«Freedom of speech, justice and press is the essence and the common base of our Union and we will always act to protect it, where ever it is needed».

But the courts in Poland are still being attacked and there is no independent newspaper anymore in Hungary.

«The mechanism I support to protect the Rule of Law will detect violations of European values and principles. And we will act where it is necessary. It applies to all Member States».

So you don’t find the rise of right wing populism in Central Eastern Europe particularly worrisome?

«We will always see internal fights about different ways a country could move forward. The answer is work hard for the better argument, convince people, deliver a better policy and understand that democracy is not a given but that it is frail. That should be the lesson we have also draw from Brexit.

Except for Italy, the Lega is still fantasizing about leaving the Euro.

«The euro is much more than the notes and the coins in our pockets. It is a symbol of European unity, the tangible promise of protection and prosperity. Italy is one of our founding Members and has always played a decisive role in European construction and the euro area. There is no question in my mind that this is Italy’s natural home. There has been some rhetoric on the issue but I think facts speak louder than words: since 2015 the flexibility used in the Stability and Growth Pact has allowed Italy to spend and invest €30billion, or about 1.8% of its Gross Domestic Product. That’s why I will always take a constructive and open approach when it comes to Italy because I believe it is in our interest as a Union and in the interest of all Italians».

You argued that Brexit might be postponed for «good reasons» – what could such good reasons be?

«The withdrawal agreement is a good one and I don’t see another deal on the horizon. For postponing the actual Brexit date, there have to be good reasons brought forward by the British government. We shouldn’t be mistaken: The way Brexit happens will have tremendous implications, because it won’t be the end of something but determine the start of our future relations. And that’s one of the main reasons why I think it is of crucial importance to have an orderly exit of the UK».

Democracy is under pressure. Russian influence in Europe is growing, a governing party in Italy is involved in a scandal concerning funding. How worried are you about Moscow expanding its power?

«We have witnessed hostile behaviour for quite some time now. It ranges from breaching international rules, like annexation of Crimea, to trying to divide Europe as much as possible. The Kremlin doesn’t forgive any kind of weakness. From a position of strength we should uphold the current sanctions and keep offering dialogue at the same time. We are also getting better at dismantling disinformation plots and social media campaigns with fake news. It is our privilege as democracies to answer with transparency, free press and an open debate».

The transatlantic alliance has been under some strain. Jean-Claude Juncker has managed to avoid protectionist measures so far. What will be your approach?

«I applaud Jean-Claude Juncker for his successful work. We want our American friends to never forget that we are sitting at the same side of the table. And I would very much argue that the US and the EU unite and deal with common opponents rather than fighting each other».

One of your kids studied in Poznan. What vision of Poland has she/he (?) brought back?

«I am a big fan of Erasmus, the European exchange program. One of my kids was in Poznan, in Polen, another one in Madrid, one in London and another one in Paris. Erasmus really is one of the most precious instruments the European Union has created because exchange benefits academia or vocational training. Beyond that, it is fostering friendships and understanding in a way nothing else can. We all know that the first country you go to as a young adult turns you into an ambassador for this country».

Your colleague AKK has argued for giving up the second parliament seat in Strasburg. Would you agree with her?

«No, I would never argue for giving up the Parliament in Strasbourg. It’s one of the symbols of French-German reconciliation that lies at the heart of the EU. It has a huge history. Sometimes you simply have to invest in symbols too».

Many initiatives by your predecessor Juncker were stopped or stalled by the heads of EU government. What would you do to regain power?

«I have full respect for the triangular relationship of European Parliament, Commission and Council. I am looking forward to work with a new team and we will use the spirit from a new beginning. I know by experience it’s not an endless credit you have. The new EU council president Charles Michel is eager to move things forward, too. So let’s see».

And if things don’t move fast enough, would you opt for a Europe that moves at different paces?

«I’m not a friend of the idea that different parts of the EU move at different paces because this only deepens divisions».

Copyright Lena – Leading European Newspaper Alliance


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