Giles Merritt: It would be wonderful if Merkel were to succeed Donald Tusk

We have become very used to focussing on immediate problems and allowing the long-term ones to grow bigger and bigger

My hope is that the solution will be a second referendum. That finally politicians on both sides will understand that the only way out is to ask the British voters again, after three years of heated debate and with much more information available: “Do you still want to leave the European Union?” or “Do you want to think again and perhaps stay?”, says Giles Merritt, Founder and Chairman of Friends of Europe, in an interview to Europost.

Mr Merritt, what message did the voters deliver by depriving the mainstream political families in the EP from their comfortable majority?

There were two messages. One was populist, that people are disappointed because their living standards are not improved after 10 years of austerity, finding it hard to make ends meet, to find a good job when the labour market is changing, and so on. People will vote for anybody who promises them a better future, even if it is unrealistic.

The second one was quite obviously environmental, that climate change has started to worry people deeply. The Greens and other more obviously ecological parties prospered at the European elections. It pointed very clearly to public demand for stronger environmental discipline. I think that big parties, rightly or wrongly, are being blamed for the lack of progress on combatting climate change.

The EU leaders will meet on 20 June to discuss the new leadership of the Commission and the Union's other key institutions. Do you think that the 'spitzenkandidaten' system will be applied?

No, I don't. I think the 'spitzenkandidat' process has already been abandoned. It worked ones, not again. The Germans, the CDU were those who insisted that Manfred Weber should be the 'spitzenkandidat' for the centre-right EPP group. But I think it was dead anyway.

Governments don't really like to be told by parliamentarians who the heads of the new EU institutions should be. I don't think there was a lot of support for the 'spitzenkandidat' process in the capitals of Europe. So I think it is already dead.                                                                                                                                                   

Recently you wrote that the increasingly attractive prospect is that of a woman president who might burnish the European Commission's image. Do you really think it can happen, or is it just wishful thinking?

It's a mixture, but I think it is wishful thinking that we have finally abandoned the idea that presidents of the Commission should have been a prime minister or head of government. I really hope that is the end of that criterion.

But I think it is quite possible that Margrethe Vestager becomes the Commission's president for a number of reasons. First of all, she is an attractive woman, and that changes in people's minds the image of Brussels as the source of not so pleasant, unelected bureaucrats.

She is a female politician from a small country, with good manners. She already has a very high profile because she has been taking on the big internet giants. It is not a done deal by any means, but I do think she has a very good chance of stepping into the Commission president's job.

Is it possible to predict in advance who will be capable of tackling the four-point strategic agenda for the next five years?

No, because you are asking me to tell you who will be the heads of government. I think the Commission has a very clear idea on what it should be focusing on. Its problem is that it is told what to by the European Council.

What we need is a European Council made up of heads of government who are determined to think long-term, to think 25-35 years from now, and that makes it hard to tell you who might be the national leaders over the next five years.

But I hope that the results of the European elections will guide national leaders to tackle these big problems - climate change, migration, ageing, the need for totally new taxes, Eurozone stability, and finally, what Vestager has been working on - how to introduce new international rules to govern the world of the internet.

It was somewhat provoked by the media, but would you comment the statement of French President Macron that he would support Chancellor Merkel if she were to seek succeeding Jean-Claude Juncker on the EC top post?

I think there is a confusion here. I saw the question, and my understanding is not that Macron was talking about the EU Commission. I thought he was talking for the European Council, to succeed Donald Tusk. And I hope that this was what he was talking about because it would make a huge difference if Angela Merkel were to preside over the European Council. She has the authority, she has a German clout, and she also is a woman with a vision of where Europe needs to go to confront its big challenges.

Having said that Merkel would be perfect for the European Council presidency, I also think she wouldn't be a good choice for the European Commission. The EC is a big model of bureaucracy that needs to be shaken up.

I don't think that's what she would be good at, because I don't think that Merkel's track record as German Chancellor suggests that she is very interested in sorting out internal bureaucratic structures. If possible, it would be wonderful if she were to succeed Donald Tusk, but as I said earlier, that might be wishful thinking.

Last week, people from civil society met in Brussels and voiced determination for changing the economic model that relies on more and more growth for creating prosperity, at the expense of draining away the natural resources. Does the growth model really matter in tomorrow's Europe?

Our problem is that we don't have enough growth, not fast enough growth, not high enough growth. Whether it is based on a dangerously producing system, it's another matter.

If they devise a form of economic model that is cleaner, more environmentally responsible, then I think everybody would be interested. But just to criticise growth and the present model of economic development, without suggesting an alternative, I think that's silly.

Should the next Commission be 'political', as there are many objections to such approach?

It's very much an internal Brussels discussion and all depends on what you mean by political. It's true Juncker declared it is a political Commission, when he took office nearly five years ago, and there was a lot of criticism of his statement. I know lots of people who deeply believe that the Commission must be above politics, but I've met people saying that labelling the Commission as non-political makes it vulnerable to criticism of the EU being dominated by faceless and unelected bureaucrats.

I think we need an effective Commission. The problem lies most of all with the member governments. We must find ways of reconciling their different political colours, different ambitions, different beliefs. But I don't think that having a Commission that is either to the left or the right is necessarily the way to improve people's support for the European Union.

In your view, what is missing today in the debate about Europe?

It is the question whether we have been looking at the right problems. We have become very used to focussing on immediate problems and allowing the long-term problems to grow bigger and bigger.

And the one that I have in mind most of all is the problem of young people. We don't have enough young people in Europe, our birth rates have been very low for 30-40 years, and at the same time we have this ageing population. This is going to be very expensive. How can we expect younger people, who don't have good jobs or have badly paid work, to pay for an ageing Europe. I think it is the major challenge that faces the Union.

Immigration is one of the answers, but it is not an easy answer. We all know why - different religions, not enough education. But we must start to think in terms of how to strengthen the younger generations to be Europeans so they are equipped to take responsibility for the problems we are leaving to them.

This leads us to your forthcoming book. Could you reveal its main idea?

The title of the book is 'More Migrants, Please!' and it meant to demonstrate to people an opportunity to think about the immigration. First of all, we need more people, we need taxpayers, we need workers. And in some parts of Europe we actually need people to come to live there. Central and Eastern Europe and the newcomers into the European Union are in a way best examples that they suffer this enormous outflow of younger people looking for better paid work in the western parts of Europe. So, we need more people because of economic and social reasons. That's the first point that I'm going to make in this book.

The second part of the book basically says: “Look, not only do we need more people, but they are coming here anyway.” The population in Africa will double over the next 25-35 years. It is currently 1.2 billion people and by mid-century it will be 2.5 billion. Most of them young, most of them certainly to be unemployed in African countries. The pressures from those countries will be enormous. And the same is true for the Arab world where the population will also double with far more political volatility in our big neighbourhood around the Mediterranean.

The third point that this book is trying to make is: “Look, we cannot pretend that immigration is easy, it's not.” We don't really know how to integrate new people with different cultures into our European culture. We have to think about it much more closely. We have to recognise that we've been doing something cheap. We must rethink our approach, because we need housing for these people, we need schools, hospitals, better transport and of course - a huge education drive.

We need also to reassure ourselves that these are investments, not costs. If we invest in these newcomers there will be dividends, there will be profit in it. But if we don't invest in the newcomers, they will come anyway and they will be socially disruptive.

We must stop thinking that migration is a short-term problem and that this is something we saw in 2015-2016. These were refugees from the civil war. What we are looking at now is a much more serious structural change, not just to Europe, but to our part of the world in the Northern Hemisphere. We really must wake up to these huge demographic changes that are invisible, but it doesn't mean that you can ignore them.

The EU is still in a Brexit break, and President Juncker stated recently that the new prime minister of UK will not change the divorce deal. Is in this case a no-deal leaving the only option on the horizon?

It is a big question. Nobody knows. I find it hard to believe that a big country of over 65 million people, with centuries of responsible government behind it, could choose chaos. It is hard to believe that no-deal is possible. On the other hand, the Parliament said “no” to the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Theresa May. Parliament has also said “no” to no-deal.

So, my hope is that the solution will be a second referendum. That finally politicians on both sides will understand that the only way out is to ask the British voters again, after three years of heated debate and with much more information available: “Do you still want to leave the European Union?” or “Do you want to think again and perhaps stay?”

And I hope that this is what is going to happen. There will be what they now call a “people's referendum” or “people's vote” to at least give those who favour Brexit an opportunity to repeat their decision, but also those who voted for Brexit, but now understand that it is more complicated, an opportunity to change their minds.

Could you comment President Trump's advice to the British government to “walk away, if you don't get the deal you want, and don't pay the divorce bill”?

I have no comment to make on anything that Mr Trump says. He is a profoundly silly man, and I wish he were not President of the United States. Just because he is the President of the United States doesn't make his comments any less silly.

The idea that Britain, with the City of London as one of the greatest financial centres in the world, could walk away from its debt, break its promise to the EU negotiators and just pretend it doesn't pay that money, that will make Britain an unreliable country.

 

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Giles Merritt is the Founder and Chairman of Friends of Europe, a leading Brussels-based think tank that stimulates debate and triggers change to create a more inclusive, sustainable and forward-looking Europe. A former Brussels Correspondent of the Financial Times, Merritt is a journalist, author and broadcaster who has specialised in the study and analysis of EU public policy issues since 1978. In 2010, Giles Merritt was named by the Financial Times as one of the 30 most influential “Eurostars” who most influence thinking on Europe's future.

 

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