Giles Merritt: We must challenge opportunists to say what their answers are

Right now none of the governments of the European Union seem to be on the same page when it comes to the migration crisis

Photo: European Union Giles Merritt

I think that voters across Europe need to be reassured that people involved in any EU-level decisions are thinking seriously about what is going wrong. It is not enough to turn to the populists and say: “You are wrong.” I think what we should be asking them is: “What are your ideas?” Because the populists are against everything, but they don't say what they are for, says Giles Merritt, Founder and Chairman of Friends of Europe, in an interview to Europost.

Mr Merritt, how do you think the debate about the future of Europe is being held? Nine months before the European elections, isn't it pushed aside by other pressing issues that the bloc faces?

I don't think there is a debate on Europe's future. I see a lot of anxiety about the populists, Euroscepticism, a lot of concerns about Brexit, about the future of the Eurozone, and so on. I don't see any debate about Europe's future and its structures and its mechanisms, and I think that this is a major mistake. I think that voters across Europe need to be reassured that people involved in any EU-level decisions are thinking seriously about what is going wrong. It is not enough to turn to the populists and say: “You are wrong.” I think what we should be asking them is: “What are your ideas?” Because the populists are against everything, but they don't say what they are for.

Two years ago, you published your memorable book “Slippery Slope: Europe's Troubled Future”. What will be your wake-up alarm for European politicians today?

I think it is coming in the shape of 'we are very worried about what is going to happen in the European elections next May'. And I think that is going to be a wake-up call. We are going to have chaos in the European Parliament, and until we know the results of these elections, we can't even guess who the next leaders will be in the top jobs, because it is quite obvious that the EPP group are in retreat. How it is going to work, I don't know. But the alarm calls are very clear - we don't have enough growth, we don't have common policies on migration, we haven't answered people's concerns about unemployment, even though in fact there is a labour shortage. I think, all the things that I was worried about in my book are starting to happen and the alarm calls are being made by the voters.

Recently, the media wrote that Chancellor Merkel is trying to get a German as President of the European Commission and is willing to give up the ECB presidency. According to you, what will be the battle for the top jobs at leading European institutions?

The good news, I think, is that the Germans are not going to insist on getting the ECB job, as we can't delay Eurozone reform for very much longer. It will be politically dangerous to have a German heading the ECB, because Germany has rather hardline views on the 'mutualisation' of debt. Therefore, I think it is preferable to have a non-German, probably one of the two French candidates, in that job. That's for the ECB. For the rest, I think it is very premature to say. I've been reading these stories about a Spitzenkandidat in the European Parliament. It's ridiculous to talk about Manfred Weber at this stage. We need to have the elections to the European Parliament, and all the politicians I've talked to are very worried. They think that they are going to suffer serious reverses in the elections. The Spitzenkandidaten process was never very good, it was a pretence of democracy, but I think it is going to be very hard for any of the top jobs to be resolved until after the European Parliament elections. At that stage, we don't know what is going to be, but it could be devastating if Eurosceptics of different degrees are a powerful part of the MEPs.

What in fact is boosting the Eurosceptic wave in some European countries, and is there a chance for mainstream parties to regain voters' trust?

Europe has been losing economic power internationally, our share of the global economy keeps on shrinking. Our living standards remain quite high, because we are basically living on credit, whether we borrow it, or we spend savings. I think democracy in Europe, and European integration in particular, have worked well, especially when everything is improving, including when the economies in the new Member States are starting to feel more confident. Now, I think people are beginning to feel pressures, with the finding that Europe isn't delivering and indeed that democracy isn't delivering. And they turned to political opportunists - I think we shall call the populists opportunists - who are saying, “What is being done now is wrong and let us, with our easy answers, fix the problem.” I come back to the point earlier in our conversation, we must challenge the opportunists to say what their answers are, and where their policies are. I think this is the only way when the mainstream parties can reassert their authority. Because right now they are a disappointment to many voters around Europe.

Do you think it is realistic to have a Brexit divorce deal in the coming month before the October EU summit, and what is your opinion about some proposals of observers - for the EU to offer the UK a moratorium on Brexit?

I don't think it is realistic. I even don't think we've got to the stage of Brexit discussion between the UK and the EU. The Brexit discussion is between the UK and the UK, it is an entirely internal disagreement within the Conservative Party. I think until that is somehow resolved, there is nothing to discuss. You probably follow the Brexit process as closely as I have, it's a mess, a paralysis. Because every time the British government says one thing, Tory Brexiteers tell Mrs May - the Prime Minister - “No”, so the British have to change their position again. This is not a negotiation. I don't like a moratorium, but I think: let's have some sort of a 'stop the clock'. Michel Barnier has to say, “I don't want to talk with anybody from London, until it is clear that they have a real mandate.” If the British want to go back for another referendum - fine, if they don't want a second referendum - that's fine too, as long as they come with a clear mandate. So, let us 'stop the clock'. Let us not expect the British to secure the deal by the deadline. But let's freeze everything for the moment.

Recently, French President Emmanuel Macron urged that Europe needs to take practical steps towards a strategic partnership with Russia and Turkey. How high on the EU's agenda should such a move be?

I think Macron is quite right. We have to redefine our relationship with Russia. We can't stay with this nonsense about another Cold War. And we also have to redefine our relationship with Turkey. At the same time, I am reluctant to say that Russia and Turkey should be on the top of our agenda. At the top of our agenda should be Africa and the Arab world, they are our nearest neighbours, they are the source of so much migrant pressure. They are the countries that we have neglected. And I think right on the top of our agenda should be what to do about the potential wind of fire around Europe - North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, Sub-Saharan Africa, these are all parts of the world where the population will double in the next 30-35 years. Such huge problems are going to be there, and we have to start tackling them. So that is where our priorities should lie, but Macron is right - we must try to get the relationship with Russia and Turkey back on an intelligent footing.

Do you consider that Juncker and Trump's July deal is a signal for reviving TTIP, and what will be the future of EU-US trade relations?

TTIP was dead in the time of the Obama administration. Our interests and American interests are not the same, and we need to think about this very carefully, and we also need to be thinking about the interests of rising economic giants, especially China and India. Juncker came back apparently successful from his Washington trip and the reason was, as I understand, that he took with him a series of infographic charts that he showed Trump and explained to him why and how protectionism was shooting America in the foot. Because Trump is so uninformed, Junker actually managed to explain some of the facts of international economic relations to him. But Mr Trump is going to be an unguided missile for as long as American voters keep him in the White House.

Three years after the start of an unprecedented migratory crisis in Europe, today it seems the complexities of migration are escalating. In this respect, how can the major divisions between Member States be mitigated?

I was working on my migration book this summer, so this was on my mind a lot. I particularly enjoyed the meeting a week ago between the Italian and Hungarian leaderships, both of which are against migration. But Italians want other European countries to share the burden of refugees and asylum seekers, and the Hungarians don't want anybody to cross their frontier. The point I am making here is: right now none of the governments of the European Union seem to be on the same page when it comes to the migration crisis. But Europeans are aging so fast, and this is an accelerating crisis. Just one figure: right now, there are four working-age people that work to support each pensioner. In 30 years' time, there will be two working-age people per pensioner. Anyway, we can make this really fundamental change in our society and bring in young blood from Africa and the Arab countries. But that is a huge challenge in cultural terms. In my belief, and this is a point in the book I'm writing, that is a big opportunity. The economic dynamic which we will create from bringing these people, by building new houses, new schools, hospitals, educating them, giving them the skills they need and absorbing them into our society, that will do for us what the microchip has not done. Everybody talks now about the digital revolution, but it has no real impact on economic growth in Europe. I think it's time, and we should listen to the European voters. According to Eurobarometer, two-thirds of all Europeans think there should be a common migration policy. They don't all agree on what this policy should be, but consistently they say, “We need a European defence, we need a European migration policy.” And I think this is something that politicians should start to listen to voters about.

Italy has recently threatened to stop its funds for the Union, if a Europe-wide solution is not found for the distribution of migrants heading to Italy by sea. Should each ship with migrants be a cause of noisy disputes?

Italy has been suffering economically from poor management for many years. We worry that a big country like Italy had a banking crisis and then a financial crisis that could spill over not only into Europe, but across the whole world. So the Italians threatening us with anything, especially on financing, is just too funny to be true. The serious question is what we do about this short-sighted, noisy dispute, every time a shipload of refugees and migrants tries to come into a port in Europe. I think really this is where the EU, the European Commission, have been too silent for too long. The Commission have to show more courage, more leadership. Gunther Oettinger, the German Commissioner, tried to do this last week, but I think the whole College of Commissioners should be standing up and collectively, with Juncker in the lead, say, “Enough, this has to stop. Let us have an emergency debate and a new approach about the migration crisis. Let us look at what the possible solutions are.” The truth is that the Commission has been coming up with good ideas, sensible suggestions, ever since - and over the last 20 years - but certainly ever since the refugee crisis in Syria and Iraq first started in 2015. I think it's time for the whole group of Commissioners to really find political courage to tell the European public the facts about migration. And that is what my book is going to do.

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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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