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Let’s retune the European Union!

Interview by Hughes Belin

Q: After Brexit, what is the future of Europe? Where is the EU headed?

A: Brexit embodies the democratic and institutional crisis in the EU. For the first time in the history of European integration, a member state has decided to give up its EU membership. The decision made by UK citizens has clearly shown that the so-called ‘ever closer union’ is no longer advantageous, and hence not sustainable for all member states.

I travel a lot and I can tell you, whenever being asked about Brexit, be it in Asia, Africa, America, my feeling is that the EU’s image was damaged by it, regardless of what people in Brussels think. Because if you have a club and one of your strongest and most successful members decides to leave this club, then those looking at it from outside inevitably start to ask “what’s wrong with that club”?

But I don’t believe the EU is facing the ‘to be or not to be’ question. It does not have to be ‘more EU’ or ‘no EU’. There is a different option a flexible EU, pragmatic, reasonable and fair. An EU that puts its member states first. That is the direction I would like to see the EU take.

Q: What flagship measures do you propose at European level to “retune the EU”?

A: The EU needs to be reformed. The reform I have in mind however is a lot different from what you might hear from Mr Weber or Mr Verhofstadt.

Contrary to them I believe the EU should not aspire to become a superstate. Instead, we should focus on those areas where the EU adds clear value, for example the single market or a common trade policy whilst ending excessive bureaucracy, over-regulation, and any further expansion of the EU’s competences.

Such reform is possibly the last real opportunity for the EU to survive.

In order to make the most cost effective and efficient EU possible, we need something I call a ‘Great Review’ of the entire “acquis communautaire” the biggest legal self-assessment since the foundation of the EU.

Therefore, my College of Commissioners would focus entirely on assessing the existing body of EU law, removing what is no longer necessary or inefficient, and improving what can be made to work better.

We also have to seize the opportunity to become the world leader in trade. Much has been done so far so we have a solid base to build on. Our task as politicians is to enable businesses to thrive and create jobs. Opening up international trade and completing the single market is the easiest way to achieve this.

Q: How can the functioning of the EU best be adapted to meet today’s challenges?

A: I think the EU could be a good servant but it is a bad master. That’s why I believe in a scaled-back and fairer EU an EU delivering the basics, with a controlled budget, returning unneeded powers back to the capital cities, a multi-currency EU, and a firm but fair immigration policy driven by Member states.

I have spoken to a lot of people across Europe during my tour these past couple of months and I can tell you that people are seriously unhappy with the status quo. They tell me that they feel the EU has taken too much power from them and does not care about the issues that matter most to them. That it goes about its business in Brussels and has stopped listening to them.

We have to change this. Regaining the trust of people is crucial. And the next European elections are a unique opportunity to show people that the EU can adapt and respond to these concerns.

There are areas where the EU has an important role such as research, the single market, and trade agreements; but there are areas which should be left to the national governments to deal with because they simply know better.

The EU’s role is not to replace national governments. We do not need a common European solution to every problem that exists.

Q: How do you see the EU’s relationships with big trading partners such as the USA, Russia and China evolving?

A: The EU is progressing with the US. Some of the recent actions have been counter productive but we are trying to find a way forward. I am confident that this will happen as both economies are so mutually dependent that trade cooperation will continue. We must therefore strive to find ways to break down more barriers, probably not through a large deal such as TTIP but possibly via sectoral agreements. The Commission has already started working on this.

It will also be interesting to see what comes out of the US’ relationship with China and the trade talks they are having. The EU shares many of the same concerns with China as the US, particularly in terms of technology and strategic investments which should be properly screened. From the EU side we should be pushing the Chinese to open up more of their markets for investment by European firms this is beneficial to both us and them.

Russia continues to prove that they cannot be relied upon, particularly for countries in Central and Eastern Europe. We should continue to diversify our energy suppliers as we are still far too dominant on Russian gas, and while their provocative actions continue we should ensure sanctions remain in place.

Q: What is your industrial strategy for Europe? How will you give European industry a future?

A: It is difficult to have an overall industrial strategy for Europe as we have 27 or possibly 28 very different economies that are structured in completely different ways. We need to ensure our competition policy promotes a level playing field, rather than creating European monopolies out of national monopolies which seems to be what some countries are calling for.

The EU should focus on where it can add value. This means providing pro-growth investment through the budget and the European Investment Bank which supports research and innovation and tackles common challenges such as the clean energy transition.

Q: How do you propose to take forward environmental protection and EU leadership on climate change?

A: Let ́s be honest: Europe is arguably the cleanest continent in the world, and we are responsible for approximately 10% of global emissions. We have adopted ambitious policies to reduce our emissions but globally they mean very little if others do not follow. It’s not for the EU to do more right now, we need to encourage China and India, who are much bigger polluters, to follow EU’s example.

I believe the EU needs to build its long-term strategy based on the Member States’ capacities. In some countries, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, their energy systems and industry are still based on fossil fuels and if we impose rapid and stringent requirements, we risk irreversible damage to the economies of those countries.

We also need to take into consideration certain social constraints, because if we impose radical changes on people against their will, they will resist and we will see “yellow vests” everywhere.

So, in short, we need to stick to our com- mitments under the Paris Agreement, support and encourage our industries to change, and invest in research and sustainable technology but we need to do it in a pragmatic way with achievable goals and targets.