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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » April 26, 2012
Politics & Society
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The European Union: Made by People
April 26, 2012   
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German politician Günter Verheugen, the former European Commissioner for Enlargement who presided over the entry of 10 new member states into the EU in 2004, talks to Marek Orzechowski.

Your name has long been associated with Europe. To Jürgen Habermas, the EU is a group, a union that is concerned almost exclusively with itself, while former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt claims it has long been lacking a leader or leaders. The more crises there are, the more calls for a new approach to the EU. In these difficult times, is the EU still a project that has legs?
Both opinions are harsh, too harsh to my mind, which also makes them unfair, but they do contain a smidgen of truth. It’s true the EU seems ineffectual from the outside, but that’s mainly because internal crisis management is absorbing all its strength. EU leadership is moving more and more toward the European Council, into the hands of the member states’ leaders who - let’s face it - seek a balance for their own national interests. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Today we need European integration more than ever before - no longer as a project safeguarding peace in Europe alone, but chiefly as the only possibility of protecting and properly representing our interests in the world of tomorrow. However, the EU could do with an overhaul - old habits should be thrown away, new priorities defined and community instruments strengthened.

Does this mean it’s no use looking out for someone to lead us, to take us by the hand, holding it tight?
The EU’s way of functioning isn’t based on commands and obedience. EU leadership is about joint institutions - the Parliament, the Council, the Commission. But they need support from bold heads of government because integration in Europe can only be successful based on strong support from the member states.

But though all countries are equal, they aren’t the same. Small Slovakia is different from France, Hungary is a far cry from Germany. Surely someone should take responsibility for the development of European integration. Can you imagine Finland, for example, standing at the helm of the EU and showing us the way?
The thing that makes integration strong is the sovereign equality of the members on one hand and their colorful diversity on the other. However, experience tells us that integration—on both the European and national levels—is alive thanks to outstanding personalities that have clear visions, know what is essential and know how to fight for it. Such people could come from any country, from Finland but also from Poland, from anywhere. The deciding factor are their qualifications.

Is the position of an individual member of the community, let’s say Germany, the result of its financial strength and its contribution to EU coffers?
The rule that whoever pays more has more of a say doesn’t apply in the EU. Those who pay more don’t gain any special rights. Payments to the joint coffers, for example by Germany, are an investment in one’s own future, and a profitable one. I admit that many Germans view this in terms of the role of “treasurer.” But this isn’t true because we Germans are benefiting the most from integration.

Speaking of money, did the EU pass the test during the days of deep financial crisis? If not, why?
Crisis management was poor and is still unconvincing. On the one hand, it’s because the crisis took the EU by surprise. Nobody expected it at all. This was and is “new territory” for the EU, so the appropriate tools were not in place. On the other hand, we have a strong clash of national interests. And this won’t end anytime soon.

Does that mean the crisis is changing the EU?
It’s still too early to answer this question. There are plenty of voices, growing in number, saying that the experience brought by the crisis is forcing the EU into a strong and effective consolidation. I share this view and see hope in this kind of attitude. I’m not one of those who predict the fall of the EU, those who take pleasure in prophesying the end of European integration. I don’t see any serious movement toward “we’re leaving the EU, we’re leaving the euro zone.” We still stand a chance.

Is the crisis behind us? Are there still some lean years ahead?
No, the crisis hasn’t been overcome yet. Budget deficits are still not under control, the banking sector is still unstable, we are still not out of the recession and economic differences in the EU will increase. Some countries need quite a lot of money this year and confidence in financial markets has not been restored.

It’s just eight years ago that new members were accepted into the EU. Don’t you think the present crisis in the euro zone is a very cold shower for them?
First of all, I think the strategy at the time was the right one: not to push new members forcibly into the euro zone but let them define their own pace. Only, the fundamental decision had been made long before. Even if some people today think the euro has lost its attractiveness, all the new EU members know very well it’s their best option in the long term.

Do you think the lack of European leadership we mentioned earlier, and a sense of “being tired of Europe,” have any specific impact on the decentralist tendencies that are visible in Hungary for example?
I don’t think fatigue with Europe or the weakness of European leadership are the causes of the way events are developing in Hungary. They are absolutely domestic in nature. However, unfortunately it’s hard not to notice growing nationalistic tendencies in some countries, and movements that exploit problems of EU integration for their own purposes. These are very disturbing trends.

Is nationalism threatening Europe once again?
Nationalism has been and is the greatest danger in Europe. One of the reasons behind European integration was to keep it in check. Our history is inexorable and teaches us that we have to be vigilant. This is a dangerous disease, especially in difficult times.

Are there no reasons to be dissatisfied with the EU?
Of course there is a tendency to blame Brussels for everything that goes wrong. That’s nothing new. And it won’t change until European social and political elites speak out honestly in favor of Europe and defend it. But we also have to say clearly that superficial meetings centered on beer, pork knuckle and sauerkraut will never constitute genuine integration. The EU doesn’t need superficiality. A dispute over what path to follow is necessary and it will exist. Just like mistakes. In the end, the EU is made by people.

Ever since it came into existence the EU has practically been a huge construction site. What do you see as the final stage of this construction project?
My motto is: as much Europe as necessary, as much national responsibility as possible. It’s about subsidiarity. There can never be too much of it. But if we say, for example, that “we need more Europe,” we also have to ask what that means specifically. If it means a few more national attributes will be transferred to Brussels without the simultaneous, essential elimination of democratic deficits in the EU, then I am against it. Intensification of integration is contained in its very logic, but new steps in this direction - I want to say very openly - cannot take place without the genuine participation of the EU’s citizens. A stronger Europe, a more integrated Europe will have a greater impact on the global balance of forces, so this is a question of power… But if we limit ourselves to the EU’s internal structure alone, it will be more a question of functionality. I think we ultimately have to find the strength and the courage to concentrate on truly important issues and regulate only those things on a European level that a member state is unable to cope with on its own.

You come to Poland quite often. In those eight years after enlargement it has been noticeable that Poland was not only your biggest concern and challenge but that it was somehow close to your heart.
It’s true, for me Poland is different from other countries. I feel very close ties to the Polish people and it will always be so. When I look at Poland today I’m happy at what has already been achieved. But, as the saying goes, he who rests, rusts. After all, time doesn’t stand still... and there’s still a lot left to be done. Further modernization of infrastructure, welfare system reforms, effective guaranteed energy supply - these are just a few examples.

Günter Verheugen was born in 1944. He studied history, sociology and political science at the University of Cologne and the University of Bonn. In the early 1960s, he became affiliated with the liberal FDP party and was its secretary general in 1978-1982. He served as a German diplomat for many years.

After the FDP left the government coalition, Verheugen joined the social-democratic SPD party and became its secretary general in 1993. He was elected to the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, in 1983 and was a member of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee until 1998. In 1994-1997, he was the deputy chairman of SPD’s parliamentary group.

In 1998, Verheugen became Germany’s deputy foreign minister. The following year he was appointed European Commissioner for Enlargement, championing the admission of ten new member states. In 2004, he became European Commissioner for Industry and Enterprise and one of the European Commission’s vice-presidents.

Poland in the EU: The Tally Eight Years On
- Poland’s biggest advantage from joining the European Union is the right to participate in economic decisions at EU level and the transfer of large amounts of funds from Brussels to Poland. From May 2004, when it joined the European club, to February this year, Poland received a net total of 39 billion euros from EU coffers. It gained access to EU structural funds and the cohesion fund. By 2013 the country is to receive over 80 billion euros from these sources. Poland is the largest beneficiary of EU funding in net terms.

- The Polish economy is growing faster than the EU economy as a whole. In the past seven years, Poland recorded a combined GDP growth of over 30 percent while the EU-27 economy grew a mere 6 percent.

Poland started to benefit from its integration with the EU and associated adjustment processes several years before it joined on May 1, 2004. In the run-up to joining the single market, Poland became an attractive location for foreign direct investment, the combined value of which has now exceeded 150 billion euros.

- Polish exports almost tripled from 47.5 billion euros in 2003 to 136 billion euros in 2011. The EU is Poland’s main trade partner—accounting for 78.6 percent of Polish exports and 58.8 percent of Polish imports.

- Polish wages grew by a third since the country’s EU entry, but are still three times lower than the EU average. In 2011, the average gross wage in Poland was equivalent to 800 euros a month and was 33 percent higher than in 2005, according to Eurostat. The average gross wage in the EU-27 was 2,177 euros a month, up 11.8 percent on 2005.

- Polish agriculture is undergoing rapid modernization thanks to the transfer of EU money and technology, and organizational changes.

- Poland is delaying adopting the euro, though it has an obligation to switch to the single currency under the accession treaty. This slows the inflow of foreign direct investment, makes business planning more difficult for the investors and makes the Polish market less transparent and predictable.

- As Poland is not a member of the eurozone, businesses operating in the country are exposed to currency fluctuation risk. The migration of many young Poles—up to 2 million—to Western European countries after Poland’s EU entry is another disadvantage since it puts a strain on the Polish pension system.
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