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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » August 2, 2010
Politics & Society
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Promoting Our Values, Dealing With Threats Together
August 2, 2010   
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Prof. Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Parliament, talks to Andrzej Jonas.

The European Union is largely about solving problems. What problems are the most important to the bloc today?
The European Union was founded to prevent wars. We tend to forget this, but when European integration was beginning this was the most important issue. The European Coal and Steel Community was meant to prevent any future situation in which European countries might start excessively and uncontrollably arming themselves.

The aim being to solve problems at negotiating tables and not on the battlefield?
Yes, precisely. Of course, today the EU’s problems center on completely different matters, many of them located outside the EU itself. The global crisis is an external occurrence, just like climate change, the need for energy security, terrorism, piracy at sea, nuclear threats or money laundering.

The EU is there to make sure that the Europeans, thanks to their internal strength, are able to solve the external problems that pose a danger to the citizens of Europe. The economic crisis, the biggest problem today, is not of European breed. It was imported here. It’s true that living beyond one’s means is also a European disease, but the consequences of such a behavior have chiefly and primarily affected the United States, undermining confidence in the U.S. economy and the U.S. dollar, among other things. Today we have to rebuild confidence in the euro because of this imported crisis. That’s why we have 750 billion euros of guarantees at hand for countries that might need a boost.

What other protective measures can be taken to prevent such a crisis from happening again in the future?
The guiding principle of all our actions in this regard should be that solidarity expressed to those in difficulty needs to go hand in hand with their responsibility.

We should avoid at any cost situations where a particular member state may be able to bring down the entire EU. That would be a disastrous situation. That is why the European Parliament supports the principle that the budgetary spending of EU member states should be subject to scrutiny at the EU level—the so-called peer review. Furthermore, we are in favor of a strong European supervision of financial products—voluntary pension funds, insurance policies, securities. This will be achieved via the setting up of the European Systemic Risk Board and a European System of Financial Supervisors. And the European Parliament, at its last session before the summer in Strasbourg, adopted regulations on capping banker’s bonuses. We will also decide on hedge-fund regulations in the autumn.

Something else is crucial, though: Are we able to create a new governance to guide the European economy? We have a monetary union, but we still don’t have an efficient economic community. This is now the task of a Working Group led by Herman van Rompuy, President of the Council. Their findings are expected in October.

As President of the European Parliament, you—together with the whole EU—face the crucial question: Should we strive to achieve greater integration, similar to a federation, or should the EU remain a coalition of countries sharing common affairs but also having their own egotistical interests?
We need not continue this discussion—should we have a “Europe of homelands,” or a federal Europe. What we need is better cooperation, communication and coordination of our activities.

A great deal can be done within the legal framework of the Lisbon Treaty—and we won’t have any other such fundamental document in the EU for the years to come. First of all, as I mentioned, we have to establish new efficient EU procedures that need to accomplish two things. First, limit unnecessary budgetary expenditure, which often goes uncontrolled in many countries; second, to ensure that new crises will be avoided in the future through consistent financial and economic supervision. We need to check if the data individual member countries send to Brussels are reliable. This was not always the case. We need to strengthen Eurostat.

On the other hand, there is one question regarding the Lisbon Treaty: To what extent should the financial/economic supervision be up to the European Commission, versus intergovernmental agreements? I personally think this supervision should be the responsibility of the European Commission, as the community body which decides on the matters of the EU as a whole. It’s hard to imagine that the member countries will discipline themselves, especially if times get tough. Such discipline is essential, unfortunately; if it is not applied in advance, it can lead to the kind of situation we now have in Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal.

In fact, we are doing this for EU citizens, who are genuinely suffering in Greece today, for example. Drastic wage cuts are very painful, but now the Greeks have no other option left. Wouldn’t it have been better to have contained excessive spending in advance?

Is the existence of the euro zone endangered in any way in the present situation in Europe?
No, it isn’t. I am convinced that all EU countries, including the most prominent ones, are determined to defend the euro as the single currency. Estonia is adopting the euro; Iceland is making haste to join the EU. It needs emphasizing that if the euro didn’t exist, the threats to most of the member countries would have been much greater. The euro is harder to manipulate as a currency, harder to attack.

There is also one other important problem. It concerns rating agencies. We will want to put a stop to a situation in which their work is completely uncontrolled. They have sometimes published conclusions drawn from nowhere. With their sometimes completely unjustified decisions, these agencies are capable of jeopardizing a currency, by causing a wave of speculation, for example. The Polish zloty has fallen victim to that, its market value changing by more than 30 percent over recent months.

Will the countries admitted to the EU in the latest rounds of enlargement be treated as equals by the “old EU” in the coming years, both in terms of taking part in decision-making and in terms of the partners’ respect for their interests?
Sometimes people speak of a two- or even three-speed Europe, a division within the EU based on the pace of development and level of prosperity. However, no such ideas are apparent in the EU’s decision-making bodies. I’ve never heard anything like this said by leading politicians from the European Commission, European Parliament or European Central Bank—the “management” of the euro zone. Of course, with respect to the crisis in the zone, it was mainly the countries from the zone that had to speak out and act—someone had to lay those astronomical sums on the table, to be used as stabilization funds for countries in the zone that were in the greatest trouble. In my view, the efforts to strengthen the euro are an example of a good initiative and not a drive to form a “different-speed” group.

Responding to current dangers is one thing, but running the EU’s economy in the coming years is another, and this task will be carried out by all 27 member countries. There will be no talk here of any privileged group of countries.

Russia is a tough and demanding partner for both Poland and the EU as a whole. How do you evaluate your recent visit to Moscow?
If I were to judge it by the words that were spoken, the way the discussion was conducted and also how I was received, I would say it was a better-than-good visit. We were very serious about sitting down with our Russian partners and discussing also those topics that were very hard for them, such as minority issues (including the situation in Chechnya and the Caucasus as a whole), political prisoners, and unexplained murders of human rights activists and journalists.

The Russians told me openly that they had a lot of making up to do. They also complained of something they called “the oil and gas drug,” remarking that, paradoxically, if the prices for these strategic resources hadn’t gone up so much in recent years, this would have been better for Russia. It would have necessitated better work, better state organization, faster modernization in the country. But because oil and gas generate huge incomes for Russia, these essential reforms can be postponed, together with other changes planned in Russian power circles, such as efforts to combat alcoholism and build a civic society. This last thing is crucial; I emphasized during my talks in Moscow that the state could only be modernized if hundreds of millions of citizens joined the process.

My trip to Moscow was the first visit by a European Parliament president to Russia in 12 years. After such a long break in direct contacts, I think this was a new and positive opening.

Do Russia’s present leaders understand Europe?
Very well indeed. For various reasons, though, they cannot or will not apply the same rules in their own policies. Something else is the most important—today’s threats have to be combated together; the EU has to work with the Russians, Chinese, Brazilians, Americans. We won’t manage with the Americans alone. This is what we call global governance. Ten years ago, the world didn’t have such huge global problems.

I repeat, let us try to make a new opening in EU-Russia relations. In our talks with the Russians, we present our point of view, while they reply that they can’t change theirs so quickly, it has to take time. The Chinese say the same, actually. I witnessed it myself during my recent trip there. Let’s trust one another, to begin with. That doesn’t mean everything will be perfect, I’m not that much of an optimist to believe in words alone—I expect deeds. After an opening up towards China or Russia, we should wait a year or two to see if things change. Past experience hasn’t been good—we took such a step toward Belarus and it failed; the things we were concerned about look worse there than they did two years ago. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Encouraging our partners to adopt our values such as freedom, responsibility, human rights and solidarity and believing in them deeply ourselves, we can hope they will come to understand that, unless they embrace these fundamental ideas, they cannot expect to develop in the long term.
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