Guy Verhofstadt is the Liberals' leading candidate for the European elections and a strong advocate of a federal Europe. He sat down with Max Tholl to talk about a ban on political visions, why Ukrainians understand Europe better than Europeans do, and the craziest idea one could ever have.
The European: Mr. Verhofstadt, the elections to the European Parliament are within reach. Do you think that we will witness a truly European election campaign or many national ones? Verhofstadt: I don't know if "truly" is the right word, but I am convinced that the election campaign will be more European than previous ones.
The European: What makes you think so? Verhofstadt: There has been a lot of debate about Europe, especially on the national level, and this has contributed to an increased interest in European politics. The question "Do we need more Europe, or less?" is one of the key questions facing the Union, and its citizens today, and we still haven't reached an agreement or conclusion. I am very hopeful that these elections will show that European elections are not about national political "tests" for the respective governments, but about Europe and its citizens.
The European: Do you think that the decision to put forward direct candidates for the Presidency of the European Commission is helpful in this respect? Verhofstadt: Absolutely! It's of course no panacea, but it is definitively a step in the right direction. We can, for the first time in history, have debates between the candidates, broadcast throughout Europe, so that the people can get a clearer picture of the candidates and their election programs. In previous elections, maybe one percent of the electorate read the program and the rest just voted based on national preferences. I am not so naive as to believe that direct candidates will double the voter turnout, but I am also not so pessimistic as to believe that it will have no impact whatsoever.
"It's lies, plain lies"
The European: One of the much-discussed topics in the run-up to the elections is the threat that the populists pose. Do you think that these concerns are justified or overblown? Verhofstadt: It all depends on how people react to the populists' paroles. It's true, that there is an increasing number of people who are falling into the trap of Euroskepticism, and I am of course worried about it, but the die is not yet cast.
The European: You refer to Euroskepticism as a trap rather than a conscious political choice... Verhofstadt: It's a trap insofar as Euroskeptics promise easy and alluring solutions. But their solutions are completely crazy. They are right to criticize the European Union for its bad management -- it is badly managed, I agree -- but they fail to offer any plausible solutions. They argue that we can solve all our problems by retreating behind our national borders. As if climate change or mass-unemployment would simply vanish once we returned to the isolated sovereign nation-state. It's lies, plain lies. I am not against criticism. I myself am as critical as the Euroskeptics, but I have better solutions.
The European: For example? Verhofstadt: Most Euroskeptics plead in favour of a return to national currencies without realizing that it is one of the craziest ideas you can have. To abolish the Euro would be the end of Europe as an economic heavyweight. We can prove that a common currency is lowering the costs for businesses, for exporting and importing products. The Dutch Euroskeptic Geert Wilders recently commissioned a study to assess the consequences a Dutch breakaway from the EU would have. The report was of course arguing that this would be to the benefit of the Dutch, but we know from previous, more reliable studies that such a measure would cause a downturn of the Dutch economy three times as high as the one caused by the bankruptcy of Lehmann Brothers. It's a well-known fact and yet there are still politicians like Wilders who try to capitalize on lies and fear.
The European: ... and thereby attract a lot of voters. Verhofstadt: That's what I want to change. I know that the Union is far from perfect, and that there remains a lot of work to be done, but we can't succumb to these ready-made solutions when everybody around us -- the IMF, the American Treasury, the OECD -- pushes us to have more European integration, not less. We need to fix the EU and the common currency, and to do this we need a proper banking union, fiscal union, economic union and political union. This won't hurt national sovereignty; it just means that member states have to coordinate their policies in a common framework.
"Euroskepticism is no longer a taboo"
The European: We recently interviewed your Belgian compatriot Chantal Mouffe who told us that the success of the populists is caused by the lack of alternatives in the centre of the political spectrum. She argues, that we have reached a "post-political" situation, and are being governed by a "consensus at the centre." Do you agree? Verhofstadt: She is partly right in her assessment, but I am here to offer an alternative, a pro-European alternative. The Conservatives and the Socialists have failed, so people either turn to the extremes, or to the only mainstream party that still offers alternatives: the Liberals. Also, I don't think that Euroskepcticism is still a real alternative because it has, sadly enough, established itself as a mainstream political stance. It is no longer a taboo, and even the parties of the centre have recently shown signs of mild Euroskepticism. The alternative I am offering is a Europe that is only active when it can create added value.
The European: A selective Europe. Verhofstadt: Absolutely. We need greater subsidiary within the EU. Nobody wants a European super-state. Issues that nations can decide for themselves should be resolved on a national or local level and not in Brussels. But we need greater cooperation and harmonization when it comes to the crucial political and economic decisions, otherwise we won't stand a chance against the Chinese, the Indians, or the Americans. It is a truth that many are afraid to spell out.
The European: Why? Verhofstadt: I am not one of them so it's difficult for me to say (laughs). Many politicians or political movement prefer to support the European project because it kept peace on the continent for nearly 70 years. But what does this mean to young people who never experienced war? Peace is a good argument, but it is not enough. The support for Europe has to stretch beyond that. Young people are fleeing the continent because they no longer have any perspectives -- that's today's problem, and that's why we need a new narrative to unite the continent and its citizens.
The European: Don't you think that the problem with European integration lies a bit deeper, and that there is not one big Europe but many little Europes -- because every country has its own perception of what that term means? The Hungarians do not necessarily share the values the French take for granted... Verhofstadt: I have to disagree. I think that all Europeans share the same values and ideas -- and not just those from the member states. Look at Ukraine: I was on the Maidan and I sometimes think that the people there know better what Europe is about than we do. They fight for a democratic country with civil liberties; they fight to join our community.
"States won't do that"
The European: Ten years ago, the EU witnessed its largest wave of enlargement, welcoming many former Soviet countries into the Union. Do you think it would be wise to push forward with further enlargement, or should the EU focus on deepening? Verhofstadt: No, we can tackle both of them at the same time. The next wave of enlargement will come from the Balkan countries and I would very much welcome their decision to join. We have had to send soldiers to keep the peace there. I think it would be an easier solution to welcome them into a Union in which conflict has no place.
The European: In your Manifesto "For Europe," you argue that if the Unites States of Europe become a reality, it will probably be against the will of many politicians. How about citizens? Verhofstadt: The United States of Europe can only be established with the help of the citizens, that's why we need to establish a movement that promotes this goal. You can't expect the citizens to campaign for closer integration when there are no politicians promoting this idea. After all, politicians create public opinion.
The European: You have repeatedly argued that a European tax could help foster enthusiasm for the European project. Why? Verhofstadt: First of all, I don't want a new tax; I simply want to change the taxation system. The EU should be funded by the citizens; not by the member states. So citizens should pay less to their government and more to the EU. Nobody would have to pay more; people would just pay it directly to the EU -- that's it. If people pay for Europe, they will have more interest in it, and the EU will be accountable to the people and not to the member states. But the nation-states try to block this at all costs.
The European: Why would they? Verhofstadt: To remain in control. As long as they fund the EU budget, they can control it. The budget gives them leverage -- simple as that.
The European: Do you think that the citizens would support this plan? Verhofstadt: If they don't have to pay more than they do now: yes, absolutely. I am a Liberal so I am adverse to the idea of raising taxes. We would need to assure people that their money is not wasted on a bureaucratic machinery, but that it is well spent and that they can have a say about what we ought to do with their money. They might think that it would be wise to centralize all European defenses instead of funding the same thing 28 times. States won't do that.
"Politicians aren't allowed to have visions"
The European: What's your appraisal of the age-old debate about the EU's alleged democratic deficit? Is it just a buzzword, or is there more to it? Verhofstadt: I am an elected member of the European parliament, and frankly I don't see any difference between the European parliament and national parliaments when it comes to the democratic legitimacy. The Lisbon Treaty gave the EP more power, and this is something I will fight for in the future. The democratic deficit is quite another one.
The European: Namely? Verhofstadt: The level of election participation. The voter turnout of the past elections has always been unsatisfactory, so we need to find a cure for that.
The European: So far, the participation steadily decreased from one election to the next. Will the coming election be the opportunity to turn the ship around? Verhofstadt: I don't want to speculate, but I can only hope so. It depends on us and the visions we propose. Sometimes, it seems to me that as a politician, you are not allowed to have visions, but I do have one, and I am confident that the people will like it.
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