Pat Cox and Prof Richard Butterwick giving a talk to students

Interview with Pat Cox, former President of the European Parliament

Pat Cox, a former President of the European Parliament, visited the College of Europe Natolin for the 3R symposium. During that visit, he sat down with the Natolin Blog team for a short interview in which he talked about the future of Europe and the EU.


Cankat Özkan: The greatest challenge that the current President of the EP, Antonio Tajani, will face will be Brexit. Do you think the heads of the European institutions should take a tough position on Brexit or should they rather strive to get the best deal for the EU and the UK?

Pat Cox: This is unprecedented. We don’t know how it will precisely evolve. I think it would be helpful on all sides if the politics of posturing were minimized and the politics of substance maximized.

The United Kingdom is a very large and important member state. I think it will be a difficult; potentially a quite polemical debate and the media will also fan the flames of that debate. We should try to sort out the details and to avoid posturing.

For my own part, I hope that the ultimate Brexit agreement will minimize the socio-economic negative spill-overs for both parties as much as possible. The recovery from the financial crisis has been anaemic and slow. We need to try to minimize significant shocks to the system. But we need to respect that those who choose to be on the outside cannot presume the privileges of membership. If I might put it in rather colourful terms, if somebody gets divorced, they cannot presume to have the same conjugal rights with their former partner as they had before. Britain is choosing the divorce unilaterally. It is not obliged to do so. So, of course it will be disruptive.

Valentin Luntumbue: In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, some have discussed the possibility of Irish reunification. Could Northern Ireland become part of the Republic of Ireland?

P.C.: The question of Northern Ireland joining the Republic of Ireland is a broad onw. The Belfast Agreement of 1998 foresees the continued existence of Northern Ireland as a constitutional part of the United Kingdom for so long as that is the will of the majority. It also foresees that in the event that a consensus eventually emerged, and that consensus doesn’t exist today, and Northern Ireland wished to adhere to the Republic of Ireland, then the United Kingdom constitutionally would not block that prospect. So, by consent, and in the fullness of time, what you’re asking is possible.

Talking about whether it is probable would be entirely speculative. What raises an interesting question is this: imagine that sometime in the future Northern Ireland arrives at the consensus to join the Republic of Ireland. And imagine that Northern Ireland, as an entity of the United Kingdom, had quit the European Union. Then, by what procedure would Northern Ireland, as part of the Republic of Ireland, re-enter the EU? If the constitution of the Republic today already provides for a possible Irish reunification and if the Belfast Agreement, approved by Westminster, endorses the same potential consensus from the British point of view, Northern Ireland would need to be treated like the Eastern Länder of the Federal Republic of Germany, whose adherence to the EU and the acquis communautaire was fast-tracked. It’s important that that provision be understood and included in one of the eventual outcomes of this Brexit negotiation.

V.L.: The European People’s Party now controls all three presidencies of the EU with Mr Juncker, Mr Tusk, and Mr Tajani. Is that a danger for plurality inside the European institutions?

P.C.: It’s certainly unusual for all presidencies to be located in one party. We also have, of course, Mrs Mogherini, who at least flies the flag for Partito Democratico. But this circumstance is a direct result of a deeply engrained tradition: the two largest components in the European Parliament rotate their control of the highest position by first voting for representatives of one party and then the other.

I know this time it was contested with Gianni Pitella on one side and Antonio Tajani on the other side, and other candidates. Unusually, this time it did not work as before. But Mr Schulz had five years, which was exceptional because normally it’s two and a half. That Tajani’s Presidency coincides with the other EPP [European People’s Party] positions of power is a matter of coincidence rather than design and the consequence of what had happened before.

V.L.: A few months ago, the Parliament voted to sever ties with Turkey. Do you think that it is good that the Parliament is taking that kind of a stance and that it can be a motor for bolder and more audacious decision-making inside the EU?

P.C.: Bear in mind I haven’t had a mandate in the Parliament and haven’t been elected to the Parliament so I haven’t followed the details of the debates. But on the Turkey question, that has no legislative effect. It does have a political and moral effect. I know it greatly annoys the powers in Ankara.

A parliament serves many functions. One function is to act as legislature – in Europe’s case, a co-legislature. It also acts as a budget authority and it is to hold the executive to account on a public forum but it is also a tribune of the people. It’s the place where you pick up the feelings of the day. Even if parliaments typically don’t make detailed foreign policy, it is an expression of public opinion that has probably distilled wisdom from the wider political atmosphere and has managed to express it in a coherent way.

C.Ö.: The 2014 European Parliament elections saw a historic low with a 42% voter turnout. Why do you think people are increasingly losing interest in the EU?

P.C.: It’s been a very variable result. It is disappointing because this time around one of the big ideas was the so-called Spitzenkandidaten, having candidates who would generate some debate and that might mobilize people. Looking at the turnout, it appeared to make no difference, which is disappointing.

Political scientists regard the European Parliament elections as what they call second-order elections. Therefore, less seems at stake than in a first-order election, during which you elect a government that decides about your taxes, your welfare, your health, and your education. I think time has borne out some truth to that observation.

If I can make one other observation: if you look at mid-term Congressional elections in the US, it’s not unusual to see turnouts of the order of the European elections. In mature democracies, classic political culture and civic culture is changing significantly. In this sense, the European result is undoubtedly part of a wider trend, particularly acute but not especially unique.

C.Ö.: During your term as President of the European Parliament (EP), you were a strong proponent of EU enlargement. What do you think about the possibilities of further EU enlargement with respect to Turkey, which has long been a candidate country, and Western Balkan states?

P.C.: Yes, I supported the so-called Big Bang Enlargement when it happened. History had excluded Central and Eastern Europe from the post-war choices made in Western Europe. It was important that these newly independent or re-independent states should be able to make this choice if they so wished.

As regards Turkey, it is very large, partly in Europe but mostly in Asia Minor, and has significant historical and cultural differentiation. The possibility of Turkish accession, with all the issues that have turned up since the attempted failed coup d’état and with the increasing power of its President, remains quite dim. I think there is no great appetite in Turkey today as may have appeared to be ten or twelve years ago and I don’t think the appetite or the energy is in the European institutional system either. So, the status quo of customs union, coexistence, the refugee deal, and the like seems to suffice and I don’t see any imminent change.

For the Western Balkans, the processes have been engaged for some considerable time and one of the elements that enters into this is potential fatigue – how long the process lasts before it comes to finality. What we do know is that there are many things on the European Commission’s plate, which is overflowing with challenges and difficulties. The Commission seems unwilling to add to that complexity by adding a whole other series of member states at this moment.

V.L.: You are still the President of the Jean Monnet Foundation in Lausanne, so I assume that you are a federalist or at least close to the federalist milieu?

P.C.: It would be unwise to assume that. If you ask me whether I am convinced that a big-bang sort of step towards federalism or to a sort of super-state is imminently likely or desirable for Europe, I’m not part of that camp. I also don’t want to belong to a camp of a Europe that muddles through and fails to focus on some key questions. The classic federalist approach focuses excessively on constitutions and institutions. Can institutions be improved? Yes. But I think Europe’s biggest challenge is a lack of policy tools, policy instruments, and the budgetary capacity to act more than an improvement in institutions and constitutions.

V.L.: As a follow-up question, you said that you wanted to see some shake-up, some change in the European institutions. Do you think this change should happen in the framework of the current Treaties or do you think we should be expecting another Treaty, or another revolution in the European construction process?

P.C.: The change I would like to see is less focus on what the EU is and more focus on what the EU does or fails to do. I’d like to spend more time looking at the toolkit to fix the engine rather than redesigning the car, so to speak.

Many blame Brussels because of problems with external frontiers and migration. I leave aside the causes of migration, which would require a whole other analysis. But the EU has a FRONTEX programme, which puts aside money for this issue. However, we must consider the scale of the territory, the extent of the borders, the nature of the finance, and the mandate available. When we consider all those factors, then Europe has very little power. What we’re complaining about is an absence of Europe. The same kind of thing could be said as regards 50% youth unemployment in Greece, nearly the same in Spain, and people living in marginalized conditions. Do I think some European capacity to intervene in these issues makes sense? Yes. Do I believe in blank checks and keeping sending money south? No.

Europe needs some kind of stabilization instrument to use in economic policy. It’d of course be nice to sit down and agree on a constitution but will that put bread on the table for unemployed youth? No. To me, these things really matter and they should matter first.

Can we achieve this inside the existing treaties? Yes. It might require some change therein but that change needs to be focused and targeted. The design in my mind is to try to establish greater output legitimacy for the EU. You deliver the goods, you get the respect. I think I would concentrate on that now. I’d like more tools to do with economics. Furthermore, I think a budget resource of a bit less than one percent of GDP is a joke for the number of things we project onto the European screen as requirements. So long as we have an aspiration to deliver but a low capacity to act, the aspiration-capacity gap becomes a credibility gap. That undermines trust and creates, in my view, a false premise between so-called elites and others, which is hugely exploited by populists.

C.Ö.: The College of Europe Natolin organised the Three Revolutions Symposium. I would like to ask you about Ukraine as well. How do you think the dialogue between Ukraine and the EU should develop from now on?

P.C.: My own conviction is that Moscow is trying to render Donbas into a frozen conflict. The decision to recognize documents issued by the so-called People’s Republic of Luhansk as valid travel documents between there and Russia is a first signal. I deeply regret this frozen conflict: it is a classic Russian means of manipulating the territories that were the so-called near-abroad under the USSR. It keeps the process of the Minsk Settlement somewhat at arm’s length.

What should the EU do? The EU works through Germany and France because the EU was not as such at the table, which I regret because this is an EU common policy, the EU Neighbourhood, with association agreements and so on. It’s hard to be optimistic about the Minsk process. But we owe a huge loyalty, solidarity, and consistency to our friends in Ukraine and they should not be abandoned.

One signal of that solidarity is the sanctions policy. No-one wants to go to war with Russia, and military action is not an option. You’re left with diplomatic and political instruments. Sanctions are one of them. You can escalate them if the problem escalates and de-escalate them if the problem de-escalates. But it would be unacceptable to do nothing. There is a risk. Many European states would like to see the sanctions abandoned. That would be the wrong policy.

There is one big principle that Europe must insist on: Nothing can be done about Ukraine above the heads of the Ukrainians themselves.


This interview has been abridged and edited for clarity

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