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Europe's mission

Interview: Bernd Riegert / cdFebruary 1, 2013

The EU needs to become more democratic and transparent, says President of European Parliament Martin Schulz. No country can afford to stand alone, he tells DW - not even Great Britain.

A balding man with a beard and eyeglasses opens his raised palms as he explains something to an off-camera crowd from a podium. (Photo: REUTERS/Eric Vidal)
Image: Reuters

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans for a referendum to decide whether Great Britain will remain in the EU. In doing so he began a serious debate about the European Union's meaning and purpose - questions that will certainly crop up at the second EU budget summit in Brussels on Thursday (07.02.2013).

DW met with Martin Schulz, president of EU Parliament, to talk about EU reform and Britain's membership in the EU.

DW: The European Union has declared this the "year of citizens" and is again attempting to get people excited about the EU. How do you explain the value of the EU to a skeptical British citizen?

Martin Schulz: You're putting some big challenges on the table! I think that Great Britain, like all EU countries competing on the global stage - one in which we're involved economically, ecologically, and in terms of currency - what with worldwide speculation and international financial locations and immigration - would be overwhelmed alone. The EU can only handle the situation, when it enters the political sphere on behalf of member countries as a strong political power.

In his speech, British Prime Minister David Cameron had numerous criticisms of the EU. Are all of them false, or is there something in there that causes you to say, "He's actually got a point there - that's something we need to talk about."

I believe that his points about limited transparency, limited recognition, who actually does what in Brussels - are right. I also believe that after all this time we finally have to recognize that the European Commission doesn't have to regulate each and every thing. But I don't need David Cameron to tell me that. I've been saying it for years.

I believe David Cameron was also right on one point: The EU certainly has to become more democratic. That means that whenever the EU decides something, it should require parliamentary legitimization. That implies a strengthening of European Parliament.

In a crowded room, a bald man in a business suit points a finger at Chancellor Merkel, who's wearing a purple business suit. (Photo: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)
Merkel and other heads of state will need EU Parliament approval of their budget frameworkImage: Reuters

Do you expect the British to block everything the EU does until their referendum takes place? Let's take, for example, the negotiations on Thursday and Friday regarding the EU's financial framework to 2020.

No, I don't believe that. With the 2020 financial forecast it's not really about the stance the British take at all, but really about the grappling between the 27 national governments and European Parliament. Here I have to say - there are some governments here, the German government obviously included, that are ready to accept budget deficits in order to get the British on board. I can tell you very clearly: I will not do that.

In the upcoming financial framework negotiations, the European Parliament could, for the first time, block a compromise that has been agreed to by the head of EU member states. Could you really say 'no'?

Yes, that's how it is - that state and government leaders will have agree on a compromise that will then have to be passed in European Parliament.

The EU Parliament will have new elections in the coming years. Do you believe that this maneuver by the British will lead to an increase in the size of the Euro-skeptic bloc in parliament? There's already a "UK Independence Party" represented. Will the attacks from Great Britain increase?

Together, as Europeans who are fighting for this union, we have to manage to convince people that we, ourselves, are capable of reform - that we're self-critical and that the EU doesn't aim to celebrate itself, but rather to look at its own failings. At the same time we have to address some things: a. how can we overcome our failings and b. to what end is the EU actually of use? What does it bring in terms of increased value, more jobs, more social security, more environmental protection, more education, more competitiveness? If we can't manage to do that then Euro-skeptics will gain more momentum.

But I'm still convinced - with a good measure of self-criticism and a good measure of self-confidence - that Europe really is the right project for the 21st century. In the century of global development, a retreat to our own backyards is the opposite of what we need.

If we can clarify that to people and win them over, then it's the Euro-skeptics who will be raked over the coals.

Martin Schulz has been the president of European Parliament - the only directly elected branch of the EU - for a year. The German Social Democratic Party member has been a part of EU parliament for the past19 years. The 57-year-old began his political career as mayor of Würseln, a small German town, where Schulz also owned a book shop. In 2003, Schulz attained international prominence when he became involved in a heated argument with then-president of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi. The conservative Berlusconi compared the sharp-tongued Schulz to a guard at a concentration camp. The Italian president later had to apologize for the comment to then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.