Either We Remake Europe...A Socialist father and a Catholic mother, a fascination with Willy Brandt, the rage of a 20-year-old, and the surprise of the Rimini Meeting. The President of the European Parliament tells his story in this article.
“I arrived in Rimini skeptical, but I left happy.” Something evidently happened in between. And it’s striking that, in order to talk about Europe and trust, crises to overcome and ideals to relaunch, Martin Schulz–58 years old, a German from Hehlrath, Social Democrat, President of the European Parliament since 2012–starts precisely from there, from a fact that happened to him six months ago, at the Rimini Meeting. “It surprised me a great deal. I hadn’t thought that it was such an impressive event. Actually, to be frank, I thought it was a sort of convention of an association of conservative Catholics. Instead, I saw a lot of young people from all over the world. There were people who were very serious in discussing the challenges that we are facing but, at the same time, with an intact optimism.”
Schulz is not a man who is easily impressed. He has seen it all, in a career that began very early. He enrolled in the Social Democratic Party at age 19, after a complicated adolescence (he began drinking when a knee injury shattered his dream of becoming a soccer player, but was able to get through it with the help of his brother, a doctor). Having dropped out of high school before graduation, he worked as a bookseller before becoming a politician full-time–as the youngest mayor ever in his town, and then, in 1994, as a member of the European Parliament.
And yet, the man whom you have before you in the small parlor on the top floor of the Louise Weiss tower (the European Parliament building in Strasbourg) is not at all harsh. He smiles upon seeing the pictures of himself dancing the tarantella among the booths in Rimini, pulled along by a group of volunteers (“They were Australian, right? No, I remember: Canadian!”). He often resorts to irony. And you can tell that it’s not out of common courtesy toward his listener that he says of those young people, “I think that this is the true difference between old people and young: young people don’t fear risks, they aren’t afraid. If young people froze in front of risks, then there would never be development. There in Rimini, I saw people who are not afraid.”
So let’s start from there: risks and fear. For many people, this is what Europe is becoming. What is Europe, for you?
It is still a simple idea–the idea that some countries cross borders and join together in an institution, because they know that they can no longer fight each other. It is an idea that combines very heterogeneous capabilities; it is a sort of mosaic of traditions, experiences, and different cultures. This idea is still alive, vibrant–if you discuss it with people, you realize this. But there is one problem: many people, especially young people, think that it has nothing to do with the European Union. My friend Wim Wenders, the director, once described this perception well when he said to me: “The idea has become administration. And now people think that the administration is the idea.” We have to choose: either we give up on this idea, or we change the administration. I prefer the second hypothesis.
But how can the people’s trust be won back? Is it only a question of institutional structure, or are there other factors? Perhaps the debate regarding lost roots–including Christian roots–and ideals lost along the way was not a useless discussion.
Look, I believe that the loss of trust is the key to our problems, both of the Union and of the member nations themselves. Without trust, we are less capable of protecting citizens, of ensuring welfare and well-being. I will give you a personal example: I am a German of the post-war era. The government asked my parents to make sacrifices that we cannot even imagine today: low salaries, long hours, high taxes, no vacations. My parents had five children, and my father was a police officer, not even a supervisor. They had to pay out of pocket to send us to school, because the state didn’t have money. My parents went on vacation for the first time when my father was 60 years old–60, do you understand? But why did their generation accept all of these sacrifices? Simple: “We do it for our children’s future, so that it will be better than ours.”
Today what happens is that we who are in power are asking people to work more, pay more taxes, reduce salaries, and content themselves with fewer services. And for what? To save the banks–not the people. This is what millions of people think. It’s no surprise that they’ve lost their faith in the EU. People think: the institutions care about dealing with the financial crisis, but they don’t have time for us. Awhile back, a Spanish girl said to me, “Europe spent 700 billion euros to save the banks. Mr. President, tell me–how much money does it have for me?” If we could say to parents, “You have to make sacrifices, but we guarantee that your children’s lives will be better,” then they would make all of them. For this reason, one of the key issues is to combat unemployment among young people. We discussed this with Enrico Letta at the last summit: if we could guarantee every young person who graduated from high school or college the opportunity to enter into the job market, this would be an enormous point of revival. It would restore the people’s faith, even in the institutions.
The recovery, for now, is labored. How can momentum be reintroduced into the economy? And isn’t it time to relax the austerity measures? I’m asking you as the President of the European Parliament, but also as a German...We have to show people that we want to change direction. I will give you three examples of things that we need to do right away. One: the majority of jobs–for young people, as well–are created by small and medium-sized businesses. That’s fine, but these are the companies that have the most problems regarding access to credit. The credit crunch has hit small and medium-sized businesses the hardest, in almost all of the member nations. The first thing that we have to do is overcome it. We have to focus on this. How? Two: by putting more regulations on financial markets. We cannot accept that, while the European Central Bank holds the cost of funds at 0.25%, the banks that take the money at these interest rates, instead of financing the real economy, use it for investments and speculations. More rules and more control of the banking market are needed. Third: whoever makes a profit in a certain place should have to pay taxes there. It’s a very simple principle; we don’t need a Ministry of European Economy to realize it. The estimate is 1,000 billion euro in unpaid taxes every year. In Germany, there are companies like Google that earn 3 billion euro and don’t pay a cent in taxes. Austerity is not just a question of cuts, but also of revenue. For this reason, we need more fiscal discipline at the European level. These are three simple things, but they work.
The European elections are in May, and the term for the Italian president begins in July. What role can Italy play on this road to recovery?
A leading role, at all levels: economic, institutional, and political. With regard to the economy, I always emphasize–sometimes more so than Italian politicians themselves–the strong points of the Italian economy: a public deficit that is under control, a low debt level among families, a healthy banking system, districts that have known how to bring costs down and reconfigure themselves, exports that have begun to grow again... Letta has rightly placed the reduction of the cost of labor at the center of his program, in order to relaunch growth and employment. But the battle with the crisis does not allow for truces–reforms must be carried forward with a firm hand. And I believe that the stability of the Italian government is a necessary condition for Italy to latch on to recovery in Europe. Italy’s contribution will be fundamental at the European level, as well. The Italian presidency, by necessity, will not be a “legislative” presidency: it coincides with the last semester of the term, which will then lead to the renewal of the leadership of the institutions. But it will be a presidency of vision. Europe needs all of the strength of Italy’s visionary pragmatism in order to reform itself. I believe that the internal renewal of Italian politics and institutions can positively accompany this delicate phase of transition for all of Europe.
Isn’t it paradoxical that, while disillusion regarding Europe runs rampant among us, people in the Ukraine are demonstrating in the streets to be able to jump aboard the EU train? What are these Ukrainians looking for as they wave the flag of the EU?
First of all, I believe that they are looking for Western values. They want to be part of a democratic community, based on democratic values. It’s not a struggle between Russia and the European Union, it’s an internal struggle in that country regarding the future of that country. It is a reaction to a government that tried to restore authoritarian mechanisms and measures. Yanukovych has to respect the international standards of democracy, if he wants to become a relevant partner for us. The people who are demonstrating in Kiev should be kept in mind. What we must do as the Union is help them to find a combination of economic and individual security, as well as security of rights. We take for granted the freedom guaranteed by our history and by the European institutions. It is not a given, and we should be more aware of that.
The Union has another troubled border, to the South. It took months and the shipwreck at Lampedusa before anyone began looking at the refugee emergency as a European–and not only Italian–question. But doesn’t it seem to you that we are lacking a vision for relations with the Mediterranean area?
One of my greatest disappointments in recent times is how much we are undervaluing our relations with Africa. Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Nigeria–these are all countries that have great potential, and not only in energy. There are millions of people there who are suddenly jumping from the 19th to the 21st century. Think of Cairo: 22 million inhabitants, and you can’t drink the water. They need infrastructures. These are potentially enormous investments, with significant consequences for politics–it would mean giving these people not only food, but work as well. But who can be a partner in a venture like this? Who can contribute know-how, finances, and ideas? Italy, France, Spain–countries that have a great tradition of relations with this area. To take on the problems of the Mediterranean is to take on the problems of a slice of Europe. Of course, in order to do it, we would need to change our politics.
The sincerity with which you have talked about your difficult youth–alcohol, problems with school–was striking. Why did you later go into politics?
I grew up in an area of mines and laborers, and in a very politicized family. My parents had quite different opinions: my father was a Social Democrat, my mother was a Catholic activist and voted with the Christian Democratic Union. But love was stronger than militancy. I am the result of that. I leaned left, like my brothers, also because those were the years of Willy Brandt, and there were strong ideal motivations. I was a very restless type–angry, I would say. If I look at myself today, I’ve lost a lot of that rage–but not the ideals.
Speaking of ideals, earlier you spoke of the Rimini Meeting, and just now of what you saw in your own family. In your opinion, what contribution can Catholicism make in approaching the crisis?
I don’t think that I am the best person to answer that question. But I can tell you that I, like millions of other citizens of the world, believers or not, are profoundly touched by Pope Francis’ words, by his humility, by his genuine ecumenism, and by his attention toward the outskirts of the world, both material and immaterial. The Union, too, must learn to open itself. Too much introspection and self-referentiality are common illnesses in the European institutions–sometimes they risk being too “Brussels-centric.” Europe has transformed from a force at the service of peace into an administrative and regulatory force–but in the absence of solid ideals, of a sense of dedication to the objectives of a shared mission, its legitimacy will meet with an inexorable decline. I think that some of these ideals are found in the message of the recent apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: no to an economy of exclusion, no to money that governs instead of serves, and no to the unfairness that generates violence.
What effect did the encounter with the Pope three months ago have on you?
It imparted a lot of energy to me. And faith: in dialogue, in solidarity, and in values, on which we cannot agree, but about which we can never stop dialoguing.