Hans-Gert Pöttering is the longest serving member of the European Parliament. His first direct election took place in 1979. With that career coming to a close in July, Pöttering tells DW how things have changed.
DW: Mr Pöttering, you'll be leaving the European Parliament soon - after 35 consecutive years. Is Europe in a condition where you'd say "Yes, I'm happy with what I'm leaving behind?"
Hans-Gert Pöttering: Politically speaking, I'd have to say, there's no finish line for Europe, but we have certainly achieved a lot. In 1979, when the European Parliament was elected the first time, Europe was divided, Germany was divided. Today, Germany is a united country.
Back then, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania formed part of the Soviet Union and today they're parts of the EU's community of values. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia have gone through similar developments. That's been a wonderful evolution which we didn't necessarily foresee or dare hope for back in 1979. And it shows that the EU is more than a randomly selected geographical and political union. It's a community of values based on human dignity, human rights, freedom, peace and democracy.
The European Parliament had no legislative powers whatsoever back in 1979. Today it's strong and influential. That's also a good development, but many challenges remain. Acceptance of the EU by our citizens is not on par with the EU's significance. We have to keep working on that. I'm leaving the European Parliament with a big feeling of gratitude, because it allowed me to experience all kinds of things, and above all, it allowed me to help shape and improve many things.
Approval rates by European citizens for their institutions here in Brussels and in Strasbourg are at a historic low. Does that sadden you?
It ought to distress us, and should serve as a clear call to keep striving for European integration. But approval rates for politics are not just low at the EU level, they're also low at national levels across EU countries. Voter turnout has been on the decline at all levels. It's a sign that we have to get even more in touch with our citizens.
But citizens also have to know that the EU is a tremendous value for them. Never before have people lived with as much freedom, in such democratic systems, and above all, in as much peace as today. But the financial and economic challenges, together with the worrying level of youth unemployment in the south of Europe, have meant that people have a bad image of Europe. We have to change that. Every generation has its own new challenge to master as far as European integration is concerned.
The European Parliament has considerably more powers and more influence than back in the days when you, Mr Pöttering, first joined it. And still, Germany's Constitutional Court recently said that it's not a "real" parliament, because the weighing of votes works differently from how the constitutional judges would think is right. Does that make you angry or sad in any way after all these years?
I have a background in law myself, and I've been a member of the European Parliament since 1979. I will therefore take the liberty of saying that the decision by the five judges of the Second Senate who abandoned the three-percent-hurdle claiming the European Parliament was not so important was based on misconceptions.
I am a little sad about the fact that our top court passed such a ruling. And I'm happy about the fact that we have a European Court of Justice in Luxembourg which has the last say. European law surpasses individual national law of the 28 EU member states.
When you first started as an MEP in 1979, the EU was small, and Europe was a divided continent. We've reached a point where some worry that Europe could face a new internal split. Would you have thought that the ghosts of the past could return, and that we'd ever face a similar external challenge again as we're facing now?
First of all, we should be glad that the 28 countries of the EU, with their more than 500 million people, are living peacefully together in freedom, democracy and with a common rule of law. That's huge progress for European history.
But I wouldn't have expected Russia to take quite the approach towards Ukraine which we are currently having to witness. That shows how important it is for us to stand together as EU citizens and to tell Russia what we expect from it. Russia is a big nation and it does have tremendous significance for peace on our continent in the 21st century, but Moscow also has to adhere to international law. We have to support the people of Ukraine.
We're in your office here in the Parliament. You keep collection here of people you've met in your long career as a member of the European Parliament: Queen Elizabeth II, the queen of the Netherlands, the Dalai Lama and many others. Can you even say what your most important encounters were in all these years?
For me, encounters with so-called simple people have always had a big significance. Whenever I've had discussions with normal citizens, I've learned that they actually support my ideas. The idea of European integration, and the fact that we can live together in peace in a liberal system, where we respect the rule of law. And those statements have always encouraged me that the path I chose was the right one.
My encounters with heads of state and government or the popes or representatives of monarchy were also, of course, always special moments. But the so-called normal people were always the ones who had a lasting impact on my political life.
Hans-Gert Pöttering (68) was the chairman of the conservative group of the European Parliament for many years. He was President of the European Parliament between 2007 and 2009. After leaving the European stage on July 1st, 2014, Pöttering, who has a degree in law, will become the chairman of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, associated with the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), yet independent of it.