Tomi Huhtanen: Name deal is not beyond the realms of possibility

The EU hopes that the agreement can be ratified by the two sides and that North Macedonia's integration to both the EU and NATO can move on

It was expected that the participation would not be high, but we shall take it as a signal of what the people's choice is, and I think the Macedonian Parliament has a basis to set about ratifying the name deal. It is very clear that it will not be an easy process because it needs constitutional majority, and it will not be easy for it to be obtained, said Tomi Huhtanen, Executive Director of Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, in an interview to Europost.

- Mr Huhtanen, what is your opinion on the results of the referendum in Macedonia, and how right are the observers who say now that the country's way towards the EU and NATO remains very uphill?

- The participation in the referendum was not ideal, but it gives clear indication what the mood of the majority in the country is. The EU is hoping that the agreement can be ratified by both sides and that North Macedonia's - as named in the Prespa agreement - integration to both the EU and NATO can then move on. It was expected that the participation would not be high, but we shall take it as a signal of what the people's choice is, and I think the Macedonian Parliament has a basis to set about ratifying the name deal. It is very clear that it will not be an easy process because it needs constitutional majority, and it will not be easy for it to be obtained. And respectively, there is a heated discussion in Greece where still a large segment of society sees the agreement as problematic. It's a long road but ratification is still feasible, not beyond the realms of possibility. According to many analysts, the agreement is considered as an opportunity that has to be used, because if it is missed then it might take a very long time before such a chance comes again.                               

- In his last State of the Union address, EC President Juncker said “the time for European sovereignty has come”. How can this phrase be interpreted?

- We can interpret this in many ways, but one way of seeing it is that now, in the current state of the global affairs, an individual country has limited possibilities to be sovereign. This can be changed by building a European sovereignty through moving on with cooperation, uniting the forces, enhancing integration. Juncker's suggestion is also a clever way to use the concept of sovereignty in the context of the European Union, because so far this concept has been used only by those who are supporting the independence of nation states. I think a very important part of the European sovereignty debate is of course the subsidiarity. Sovereignty and subsidiarity are two sides of the same coin: in the end, it is all about taking decisions at the right level, be it local, national or European. This pragmatic approach benefits both the Member States and European integration. The whole development of the European integration has been a process where nation states transfer some of their sovereignty to the European level in order to enhance their domestic and international strength.

- Again from the planks of President Juncker's speech, how can Europe become a real global player “taking its destiny into its own hands”?

- This relates very strongly to what we spoke about the European sovereignty. One can argue that Juncker meant we need a European sovereignty in order for nation states to have sovereignty, meaning that Member States are weaker while they are separately in the global world where we see big players like the USA, China and Russia. Therefore, only by coming together with integration, we can really have control on what is happening for Europe and within Europe. I think the question how to make Europe a global player has three basic aspects. First of all, we have to put our own house in order. Especially since the economic and financial crises, our economies have been in a recovery shape. But now in Southern Europe the impact of the economic crisis is still felt. In the people's memory, the austerity still plays a wrong role, the unemployment is still very high in some countries, and we have to focus on economic development of those countries. When we speak about the economic growth in Europe, we should not only look at the average levels but should look for example at those pockets in Southern Europe or Central and Eastern Europe where the challenges lie, because there are still big differences within the EU. Secondly, we are dealing with immigration and security challenges. If you compare Europe to the US, China or Russia, for example - those countries are able to have a very big say in what is happening in their immediate neighbourhood. But for us in Europe, we are not able to do that - we have a crisis in Ukraine, problems in several countries in our Eastern neighbourhood, North Africa is very problematic. We don't have enough influence and that is why we are paying the price. The Middle East is very close to us but we are not able to intervene, and then we are paying the price in terms of immigration flows, etc. So we must have the capacity to have a say on our immediate neighbourhood, to have control, but it links to the issue that we need to have some intervention capacity. The third aspect is that we need to have the European Defence Union, President Juncker has mentioned the European army. But of course, these are things that will not happen tomorrow. It will take maybe decades, but these are the aspects we need to focus on, because only when we achieve all this, we can take our destiny into our own hands.

- Brexit Day is approaching but a 'no deal scenario' is likely to happen as the discussions are still in deadlock. Is it possible for the EU to 'stop the clock' on the divorce for some years until a good for both parties agreement is made?

- The impression on the European side of what we are seeing with Brexit negotiations, is that the ball is in the UK's court, as we have been rather well organised and coordinated. While on the UK's side it is very clear that the governing Conservative party has had great difficulties to define what exactly their strategy is. Now the time is running out. We saw a big gap between the positions at the Salzburg meeting concerning British proposals. About 'stopping the clock', I think that if at the final moment the agreement is very close to happen, then for a few-weeks delay a technical way to handle it would be found. However, if at the end of the year - October, November, there is no agreement on the horizon, I don't think that the EU side will start out a kind of freezing the situation and wait for something to happen. So, if there is an impression that the deal is not within reach and the positions are very different, I'm afraid that we will be in a situation where the UK will do exit without an agreement. Bending the rules for a non-EU member to be like the UK would send a bad signal to current EU members, and eventually to new members as well.

- Apart from the divorce with the UK, what is your opinion about the current depth and the intensity of the European integration drive?

- Back in time, a couple years ago, before the French presidential elections and the German elections there were expectations that when they took place there would be a set of quite far-reaching proposals to move forward with the European integration. However, it took a lot of time for Germans to form the government and that caused a delay. The impression was that even though Macron took a very pro-European profile and spoke that we have to move on now with the European integration, the perception in many Member States was that he is making classical French proposals with a new wrapping. In Germany we haven't seen so much enthusiasm for certain proposals. Another thing that complicates issues is the rise of the populist parties' influence in European politics. For example, we have now a new government in Italy which is very critical towards the EU. This is creating a situation that when we speak about more fiscal solidarity within the Union, there is always a question how for example fiscally responsible will the Italian government act, and this is not helping. There are certain ideas and maybe some proposals are on the table, but in the current situation there is not so much discussion about that. We have a set of proposals which are not being completed, such as the digital single market, the banking union and the energy union. I think that we should aim to find a compromise between those countries and politicians that want more integration and those Member States that put more emphasis on the role of the nation state. In my view this is possible. The way to go is to push the integration in areas where there is already very strong political support that refers to some elements of stabilising the euro, the banking union for instance, which has not been completed yet. There is certain support to make a European Monetary Fund, but also in the field of security. Concerning the migration, there is no agreement yet, but there is clear will to have some kind of common solution, even if it is difficult. So at the end of the day, looking at the whole landscape, I don't expect some quick steps to be taken in the near future. There is a mood that we should rather focus on the topics that were already agreed but not completed yet. When it comes to European integration, there is no one silver bullet because there are many processes that we need to push forward.

- Can we expect surprises in the field of the EPP regarding the so-called 'Spitzenkandidat', if a strong French candidate for example jumps to the ring?

- Michel Barnier already last week has said that he will not run, but who is running next to EPP Group leader in the EP Manfred Weber, is Alexander Stubb. He announced it on Tuesday at a press conference in Strasbourg. There are still some weeks and other candidates can join. In November, the EPP will hold a congress and there will be a real election of a 'Spitzenkandidat' between at least two candidates. But about the 'Spitzenkandidaten' procedure, it is quite surprising that for example a Liberal like Guy Verhofstadt, who was one of the candidates five years ago for the ALDE to become a Commission President, is now rather critical and has been making contradictory declarations about the process. No doubt this has to do with the fact that the liberal group will not be the largest group after the next European elections. This is not really helping if we want to make the 'Spitzenkandidaten' election part of a really democratic process which can help European citizens to be more involved in defining who will lead the EU in the future.

- What about the division in the EPP Group about Hungary?

- A few weeks ago there was extensive discussion at the EP on the situation of rule of law in Hungary and the majority of EPP decided to support the resolution that recommends starting the Article 7 procedure vis-a-vis the country. When the results of this procedure are on the table, then the EPP will make a conclusion on what to do next.

- The migration issue is a 'hot potato' that for three years already cannot be solved. Is it possible, at EU level, to find another working alternative instead of punishing countries that don't want migrants on their soil?

- I wouldn't agree that there has been any punishment. There has been a Council decision, they agreed on having certain quotas for refugees for different countries. There were thorough discussions but this was not working very well at all. Currently, there is almost no discussion about these quotas. Now the Council is discussing different kinds of solutions, they talk about 'disembarkation' centres outside the EU, about migrant transfer centres within the EU. But there has not been any punishment. Indeed, in Hungary they claim that this Article 7 procedure is a kind of punishment because of the immigration process, but that has nothing to do with it. Article 7 has to do with internal policies and how they are implemented.

- What will characterise the political landscape after the elections, according to you, and how severe will be the battle for the top jobs at leading European institutions?

- I think that we will see more fragmentation. It looks like the big political groups in the European Parliament will be weaker and this means it would be more difficult to create alliances. Also, in the Council we have no clear dominance of one group - we have the EPP, we have the Socialists and Liberals and others with more or less the same size. Adding the fact that many new actors will come to the new Parliament, and it will take some time to get organised, it will be much more complicated for different actors to negotiate and find an agreement on those top jobs and who will get what position. It will be most likely a much more difficult process than it was five years ago when the Juncker Commission was formed and respectively other positions agreed.

- Good or bad for the European unity and for democracy will be an eventual removal of unanimity vote in the Council when it comes to certain decisions?

- For the functionality of the EU such removal seems logical, but reality is different. I think the migration quota showed that even if there is a majority for certain policy, but if it is not agreed by all Member States, we can see it backfiring. I don't think pushing on removal of unanimity on more policy issues than we currently have is a good idea. The EU currently works best when everyone does the hard work of convincing and compromise among Member States. We need very strong support for the different policies and we need to find compromises. We are not at that state of the EU politically that we can drop the unanimity criteria in an extensive manner.

 

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Tomi Huhtanen has been Executive Director of the Brussels-based Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies (WMCES, previously Centre for European Studies) since 2007. The WMCES is a European political foundation and the official think tank of the European People's Party (EPP). Tomi Huhtanen is also Editor-in-Chief of European View, the academic journal of the WMCES. He was previously EPP Senior Adviser, focusing on Economic and Social Issues. Before that, he worked for the Finnish EPP Delegation to the European Parliament. Tomi Huhtanen studied International Politics and Economics at the University of Helsinki and spent a year in Spain at Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, studying International Law and Political History. He also holds an MBA degree from the United Business Institute in Brussels. He speaks Finnish, Swedish, English, Spanish, French, Italian, Greek, and has basic knowledge of German.

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