Previously published in Metro www.readmetro.com.
Nobody takes the European Parliament seriously, right? Well, they didn't use to. But since Martin Schulz was elected President last year, things have changed: Schulz is on a mission to make the Parliament feared in Brussels and national capitals. And he's succeeding. Metro met with the plain-speaking German Social Democrat - who was recently named GQ's Political Man of the Year - at his office in Brussels. Italy just delivered a bewildering election result. How do you think it will affect Europe? It's a very difficult situation because we now have a situation where three parties are almost equally strong and can block each other. Of course, that's nothing new: Italy has long had difficulties forming governments. But now we Europeans are in the new situation that what happens in an election like Italy's effects us all.
But the election was won by two "clowns", as the international media calls Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo. Isn't it frightening that people vote like that? What I find frightening is that people are despondent: that they've lost hope and have lost faith in institutions. Very often this hopelessness leads to voting behavior that's essentially a protest: "Pay attention to me!" The Italian election outcome was a result of the same feeling, of people feeling neglected. My interpretation of the Italian election is that people are despondent, and that's something that we as Europe have to take seriously. If you're 28 years old, with two university degrees, and your parents have invested all their money in your education, and you've done everything that was expected of you: if society then tells you, "sorry, we don't have a job for you", then it's easy to understand why people revolt. We have to give young people hope. In Europe, the world's richest continent, there has to be a place for young people, damn it! Berlusconi once called you a Kapo (concentration camp guard). Do you feel insulted? Listen, there are insults that don't affect one because they're made by certain people.
Your predecessors as President of the European Parliament were more accommodating... Everyone has his own style. But to date, the Presidents of the European Parliament have mostly viewed this position as one that represents the citizens of Europe. I see it the same way, but I also believe that we can only get democratic legitimacy in Europe when we have a parliament that's uncomfortable for the executive branch. Every prime minister on the national level is afraid of the day that he or she has to go to parliament because the uncomfortable people sit there. He knows that among the members of the majority site are his internal opponents, and the opposition is against him anyway. We can only develop a true European democracy if people fear the European Parliament. My job as President is to make sure that the European Parliament is taken seriously and feared. Are you seeing more qualified people run for the European Parliament as well? It's not true that people who didn't manage to get elected at home run for the European Parliament. MEPs are as qualified and committed as national parliamentarians. For example, I went into European politics out of conviction, even though I could have gone into national politics. The same is true for many of my colleagues. And if you look at recent EU decisions, like the CO2 reduction or the law that prevents internet service providers from passing on European users' details to US authorities: that's the work of the European Parliament. What's second-class about this parliament? We don't need to hide behind any national parliament. But objectively we have a problem: the huge gap between our work and people's perception of it. My job is to close this gap.
Would that also fix the EU's democratic deficit? All decisions that impact the lives of European citizens need to be discussed and decided by the European Parliament. The people who sit in the European Council - that is, Merkel, Hollande, Cameron and other heads of government - all need the backing of their national parliaments when they make a national decision. It's unacceptable that they, like the Congress of Vienna, can sit behind closed doors and decide about the EU and then simply announce to their subjects what they've decided, or mostly not decided. That's the democratic deficit in Europe! But the European Parliament is slowly changing this by forcing the leaders to explain their actions to us.
Do you have a favorite and least favorite EU member state? Greece, perhaps? No. The great thing about the EU is that each member state counts. Sure, things have gone wrong in Greece, but what makes me angry is that there are people who have to look for food in rubbish bins while at the same time super-wealthy Greeks buy expensive homes in London and Berlin. That's what we have to fight. I don't understand why ordinary people have to toil while those who for years made huge profits demand that the government bails them out when they make losses. Why do ordinary people have to cover up for the bankers? It's unacceptable that profits are private but losses are covered by the taxpayer.
You're a fan of Eric Hobsbawn. Are you a Communist? He was a Marxist! But that doesn't mean everyone who likes his books is a Communist. I'm not a Communist. Hobsbawn was a brilliant historian.