An interview with MEP Pavel Svoboda
Pavel Svoboda – Czech politician and lawyer, Member of the European Parliament for the Christian and Democratic Union – Czechoslovak People’s Party (EPP), chairman of the Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI) and one of the most influential members of the EP, according to POLITICO.
Marcin Chruściel: As a Czech representative in the European Parliament, what do you think about the Polish Prime Minister’s vision for Europe? Namely “the Union of Nations 2.0” – “de Gaulle’s vision adapted to the challenges of modern times”.
Pavel Svoboda: Well, the vision of Charles de Gaulle was old and not relevant already in the times of Charles de Gaulle. I do not share this kind of vision and I think that thankfully we had Jean Monnet who invented the supranational method of European cooperation. This was not by chance. He pragmatically tested this method since the First World War when he was occupied with the logistics of war. So going back to merely international way of cooperation is really a setback. This is something that ignores the tens of millions of people who had to die in between, because we did not have the supranational method of cooperation in Europe.
So you would rather support President Macron’s vision of a sovereign Europe in which the EU receives even more powers than it already has?
I would not put it in this way. My vision is that we have to reiterate the principle of subsidiarity, linked with the constitutional principle that all power belongs to people. Because if we look at the reality, we see that all power belongs to the state. What I am aiming at is a type of governance that would be effective from the point of view of subsidiarity. That local problems should be dealt with at the local level, continental problems at the continental level. I do not care whether you call it “federalism” or something else. And whether this means more or less powers for the EU, I do not know. This debate is quite eternal in the European Parliament as well as in other European institutions. Because everybody agrees to a potential decrease of EU powers. Nobody is against giving them back to the nation-states. But when you ask the second question: “Which particular powers do you have in mind?”, then there is a big silence. In other words, it is really an emotional outcry rather than a well-thought-out idea to give some powers back to the nation-states.
Do you believe that the mainstream political groups in the EP and the European Commission are ready to give back some powers to the national or local level? So far we have not seen any powers being returned.
It is in fact a matter of belief, as you said. If we do not have an answer to the first question: “Which particular powers do we give back?”, we have no space to test it. Basically any institution – if you give it power – will be reluctant to give it back. And I do not think that the European bureaucracy would be different in this respect. But we have not had a chance to test it so far. Nobody came out with a really rational list of powers that should be given back. The only concrete example, but not rational, concerns the migration crisis. We can hear such outcries as: “The EU failed to resolve the crisis – give powers back to the nation-states!” But when you look at the distribution of powers, you see that actually there are very little powers at the European level concerning migration. And in fact that is the reason why the crisis was a crisis. Because we had a continental-wide challenge and we were not prepared to solve it at the continental level.
We may say that the EU has limited powers in this area, but the EU relocation scheme has in fact forced some Member States to accept asylum seekers against their will.
The one thing is – if the population does not want something, then it has to be taken into consideration seriously. The other thing is that the argument of forcing somebody was false from the very beginning. Because what the politicians in your country and my country do not say is that the decision on quotas has been taken on the ground of article 78(3) of the TFEU. It has been inserted into the treaties by the Lisbon Treaty, to which all of the governments have freely agreed. So, any words like: “The national governments cannot be forced to do something in this regard” are false. Because they have agreed to a procedural principle, namely that such a measure can be taken by a qualified majority – which happened. Yes, we have been outvoted in a sensitive area, which was not wise, politically. Yes, maybe it was a mistake to have the qualified majority [voting] rule on that subject. But I say “no” to such populist outcries that claim we have been forced to do something, as if something illegal had happened.
After the outcome of this vote and the fact that some countries did not want to accept asylum seekers and finally have not implemented this decision, do you still believe in European solidarity?
There are many kinds of European solidarity, not only in the area of asylum and migration. And it is true that even other kinds of solidarity are undermined, this time by the so-called “old” Member States. When you look at the discussion about minimal wages, about posting of workers – these are clear protectionist measures taken by them to the disadvantage of the new Member States, which also lack a level of solidarity. So, there are shortcomings in the area of solidarity on both sides.
When you look at these recent disagreements between the old and the new EU members – especially from Central Europe, do you see the recurrence of a historical divide between West and East in Europe?
I see this threat, which is dangerous for the whole European Union. Leaders should realise that there are advantages to keep the whole EU, as we know it today, together. When you look at the most recent European Council meeting on migration [28-29 June], you see that this agreement has been reached, because the leaders understood what is at stake is the Schengen area. In my opinion, that was the reason why there was some positive outcome of this summit. Hopefully, these advantages will bring us together once again. Because when you ask the question who profits from any, even partial dissolution of the European Union, the answer is: “Everybody around us, Russia in the first place”. This is why the Russian disinformation propaganda fuels these fears over migration.
The Russian propaganda in the EU is widely considered as a threat for its unity. At the same time, there is relatively low concern about the Nord Stream 2 project, which in fact undermines European solidarity. What is the reason? And what is the dominant opinion on NS2 in the Czech Republic?
I think it is a matter of values. The old Member States do not have the same experience with Russia as we have in Central Europe. Therefore, they are more flexible to practice the so-called “Realpolitik” – politics which are not value-based. In the Czech Republic, NS2 is not considered as a threat, especially in a sense of gas supplies.
Paradoxically, what is common is declining turnout in the European elections. Why is the interest in these elections consistently decreasing across Europe?
Well, there are several reasons for that. First of all, people are not aware of the importance of decisions – mainly economic – taken at the European level. If you look at the rules of the Internal Market, sanctions against Google, or countermeasures in the customs area against China or the U.S., these measures could not be taken at the national level, even in Germany. It is the power of a market of half a billion people that enables us to act in such a brutal way. So, unawareness. The other reason, in my view, is self-evidence. Because we take peace, prosperity and so on as self-evident. We have no experience of a real war, my generation and yours as well, so we think these things are simply given. Then, we have to take into account the Russian disinformation war. In my view, that also has played a major role in the recent years. Obviously, there are many shortcomings at the European level too.
And how about the way these elections are organised? I mean the system of electing domestic parties, and not European-wide ones.
This is a big question. Because it is a paradox that until the first direct elections in 1979, the relationship between domestic and European politics was much closer. There were the national MPs gathered in the European Parliament and then they were at home again, so decision-making was much more interconnected. The direct elections created a gap between domestic and European politics.
This is very interesting, because the purpose of this change was to make the European Parliament more legitimate and democratic. What you are saying is that actually people lost interest in the EP as a result.
Yes, but there is a pragmatic reason for the direct elections as well. The European agenda became so bold that it was technically not possible for the members of national parliaments to deal with both domestic and European issues. So it had to happen because of the rising amount of European dossiers. Therefore, what we need nowadays is a complex communication policy. Individual institutions are doing their small propaganda, but it really does not reach to the ordinary people who are not aware how much they profit from European integration. It seems it is not in the interest of domestic politicians to say: “Well, we achieved this because of European cooperation and not because I am such a good politician”. This political egoism is also one reason why the whole system lacks at least acknowledgement in the eyes of ordinary citizens.
This is the reason of the famous Czech Euroscepticism too?
Not only of the Czech one. However, for the last fifteen years we have had political leaders who were playing games with the Czech nation. They were putting all the deficiencies, all the shortcomings on the European Union’s side. The EU is not perfect at all. But you cannot use this argument to deny the big achievements of European cooperation, such as 70 years of peace, prosperity, and the Internal Market. In short, there was a nationalisation of European successes and Brusselisation of domestic shortcomings.
In comparison with other EU nations, the Czechs are the most sceptical towards an economic and monetary union with the euro – 71 percent are against it. What is your opinion on joining the Eurozone?
In general, I am in favour of adopting the euro. The Czech economy depends to a great extent on exports to the Eurozone and the EU as a whole, basically to the old Member States. For me it is a clear indication that we should have the euro. But there is also a warning from the Italian side – they have large indebtedness, which is going to get even bigger, and banks full of toxic assets. Unlike Greece, Italy is a big economy that could create real problems for the Eurozone. Therefore, I would rather wait for a moment before entering the Eurozone. There is also a second, political element to this answer. Should the core of the EU be formed around the Eurozone, its members will in fact pre-decide on other matters than just the common currency. This would be a political reason why to enter it.
Are you not afraid of losing sovereignty by joining the Eurozone?
What sovereignty are we talking about in the case of Czech Republic? In energy we depend on Russia, in defense we depend on NATO, in economy we depend on export to the old Member States. So, I am not afraid of losing sovereignty.
Originally published (in Polish) by the Nowa Konfederacja Thinkzine on 04/09/2018.
Marcin Chruściel is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Wroclaw and a contributing writer for the Nowa Konfederacja Thinkzine. You can find his interviews on the future of Europe here (in Polish).