Adelina Marini, January 16, 2013
The Europarliament, under the leadership of the German Socialist Martin Schulz, is trying to overjump itself creating a feeling of a genuine European parliament before which national leaders and leaders of EU institutions give an account of. The beginning was set in February last year when before the MEPs appeared the selected by Brussels European civil servant Mario Monti to lead a technocratic government in Italy with the aim to protect the country from further slipping toward the economic precipice. And in November, before the MEPs appeared German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right in the peak of the European debates about the future of the EU, the need of changes of the eurotreaties, the separation of the eurozone, its own budget, etc.
In the end of 2012 was initiated the hearing of finance ministers of EU member states too, as through the economic committee of the European Parliament passed the ministers of Spain, Hungary, and of France and Germany. The latter two appeared in a package. 2013 began with not less accelerated pace with the appearance of Austria's Chancellor Werner Faymann. Austria is an interesting country in every aspect in the EU. It is considered a mid-sized country and has almost the same indicators as Bulgaria (size and number of population). A country which is situated on the boundary between the West and the East of the continent - a boundary which is still clearly visible. Austria is also a nation of which could be said a "green country", fighting for nuclearless European future. All of those things were evident during the debates with Mr Faymann on January 15th in Strasbourg.
2013 is a crucial year for European politics
With these words EP President Martin Schulz opened the debate, specifying that it was about convergence between countries, about the political, economic and ecological future of the EU. What he missed to mention but is definitely valid, is the preparation for the European elections in 2014, for which European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (who also attended the debate) and Martin Schulz are all set for - they both have ambitions.
Unlike Angela Merkel, the Austrian Chancellor did not read from a prepared in advance speech, he was only consulting from time to time with his main points. Was this the reason or the fact that the expectations for his role in the EU are not commensurate to those of the German Chancellor, but Werner Faymann's statement did not contain any impressive vision of Europe nor any bold ideas. Faymann is a Social Democrat, graduated in law. He was a consultant in the Bank Austria, a minister for transport, innovation and technology. He has been a Chancellor since 2008. He is not among the leaders who impress the most, but the Austrian presence in the European Council and the Council of the EU is tangible. Most strongly it is felt during meetings of the Eurogroup or Ecofin (the council of the ministers of finance) where his Minister of Finance Maria Fekter is among the people who defend their national positions with a very firm tone.
Faymann is also among the not many leaders who often drop by the journalists on the eve of EU summits to explain the national position of Austria, to share his expectations and to comment on hot news. Probably this is one of the reasons why he agreed to take part in the not agreed in any treaty procedure hearing of heads of state or government in the Europarliament. In the almost empty house, the Austrian Chancellor found many like-minded souls. He started with an issue that occupies MEPs from the entire political spectre - the record high unemployment in the EU. In his words, currently more than five million and a half young people in Europe are jobless. More than eight and a half million people under the age of 25 do not have access to the labour market and education. "This really is a crisis", Mr Faymann said.
Austria is the country with the lowest unemployment rate in the EU (4.4%), followed by Germany with 5.2% and The Netherlands with 5.4%, which is why the Chancellor proposed the Austrian dual model of education to be applied on European level. Competitiveness can be achieved only through investments in education, he added. Austria has the lowest youth unemployment rate precisely due to the model of professional training. According to him, Europe must at any cost take care for the survival of people. Industry is essential, but young people need guarantees that they can find a job, these people have to be trained in such a way that they could stand real chances on the labour market. The issue of unemployment is one of the favourites of the European Parliament.
Answering the raised by the Austrian Chancellor problem, the chief of the largest political group in Parliament - EPP - Joseph Daul said that in order for this problem to be solved more Europe was needed, not less. The price of less Europe is already very high. The Union should be enhanced, more harmonisation is needed, he added. The Austrian MEP and leader of the group of Socialists&Democrats, Hannes Swoboda, also called the Austrian model to be followed, which is right the opposite to the neo-liberal one. In his words, in Austria hand in hand go rule of law, democracy, individual initiative and competition. Social partnership is also very important, he said. Rebecca Harms, co-chair of the group of Greens and the European Free Alliance, expressed her admiration with Austria and also called the country to be used as a role model.
Unlike the times 30 years ago, when we worked a lot and with energy together to respond adequately to the challenges and to act, in the end of 2012 as if we were hesitant, the Austrian Chancellor said, quoting the outcome from the EU summit on December 13-14 last year, when all ambitious plans for deepening of the European integration were left for another time and the German approach was adopted - one step at a time. He did not speak too much about his vision what should Europe look like, but he mentioned several times that the key was in the word "balance". Social balance is needed because without it a united Europe cannot have a future. We will discourage the young people if we continue not giving them a chance, he said, thus touching another cord of the European Parliament who often criticise austerity programmes.
Austerity is something important, he explained, competitiveness too, but the most important thing are investments and solidarity and they are possible only when countries have what to invest. That is why we should declare war to fraud and most of all to tax fraud. To enhance cooperation among tax administrations and to increase tax collection while in the same time create friendly conditions for investments, is the winning recipe of the Austrian Chancellor.
The more he spoke, the more he led to the thought that the invitation to him was not an accident. Werner Faymann is a supporter of a common system for debt management, of financial transaction tax and not a few of the supported by the European Parliament tools for handling the crisis. He paid special attention to the differences in yields among the member states. While Germany and Austria enjoyed yields of below 2%, other countries paid 7-8 and even 9% of interest. In such an occasion, he explained, the countries cannot make investments, which is why a joint system for debt management is needed. His support for the debt redemption fund evoked applause among the MEPs.
The financial transactions tax was approved unanimously by the Austrian parliament and that is why Werner Faymann welcomed the support by the European Parliament. That tax is symbolic because in this way the harmful impact of the speculative financial markets is eliminated. It is important to enhance the real economy in Europe not as much the financial economy and those products that remind more of a casino, the Chancellor added.
Of course, he did not miss mentioning one of the most vivid Austrian EU positions, namely that the future of Europe is without nuclear energy. I know that the transition toward renewable energy is a very difficult task for some, he said, but nuclear energy does not have a future. The disaster in Fukushima showed us that we cannot control the nuclear energy. That, however, was met sharply by the opportunist group Europe of Freedom and Democracy, led by the anti-EU British MEP Nigel Farage, who has a growing influence in British politics in terms of Europe. He did not attend the meeting with Faymann, but on behalf of the group spoke another British MEP - Roger Helmer. According to him, until recently the EU had a 30% share in global gross domestic product which will shrink to 10 per cent by 2050. The main reason for this, he explained, will be sticking to the targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. You are dooming the future generations to poverty with renewables, the MEP added.
By the way, Britain was introduced into the debate by the leader of the group of liberals, Guy Verhofstadt, who dedicated his entire statement to the upcoming (on Friday) European speech of British PM David Cameron, which he chose to hold in The Netherlands. Verhofstadt took advantage of the opportunity to respond to Cameron because he said he already knew what the British premier would say on Friday. Europe is not a menu, from which every country could choose what it likes. Renegotiation is out of the question, the former Belgian prime minister was firm.
The next national leader to appear in the Europarliament
The desire of Martin Schulz to involve national leaders in European debates is absolutely comprehensible, because thus he would attract the attention of national audiences too to problems that are becoming more and more distant for the ordinary national voter. But if something does not change in the way these debates are held, the initiative will soon fail. And precisely in that direction was the criticism of the Austrian Chancellor who in the end of the debate, which lasted an hour and 40 minutes, said it was very unpleasant to debate with an empty chair. The debate was attended almost only by those MEPs who asked for the floor. The other more than 700 seats in the huge house in Strasbourg were empty.
Werner Faymann explained that there are often ardent debates in the Council, hinting that if such discussions cannot take place in the Europarliament as well, no leader would want or would be able to afford spending an hour and a half of his time to listen to MEPs' statements which are often irrelevant. Such an example is Guy Verhofstadt's statement, who is one of the colourful European politicians, with a vision and many ideas, but what exactly can the Austrian Chancellor do on the issue with the upcoming speech of David Cameron? The options are not many. Angela Merkel, for instance, said that she could not imagine the EU without Britain, but she reminded that the world was different and the British would feel quite lonely among 7 billion people.
But Austria is not Germany. It would be nice from now on, when the next leader appears, to be asked direct and well formulated questions about what his country is doing nationally to implement the decisions taken at EU level, what are the difficulties, what are the positions of that country on the most controversial issues about the future and why. National leaders are used to being stretched in their national parliaments. But there European issues rarely find a place, except when they are directly related to handling the eurozone crisis. If the MEPs play their cards well, they could make of the Europarliament what Martin Schulz wants. And not only he does. But by then, such discussions will be for the sake of appearances and a loss of time for everyone, maybe excluding the MEPs, which is not in their benefit.
In this sense, one of the few specific questions during the debate with Faymann, was put forward by Polish MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski from the EPP group, who expressed disappointment with the fact that Faymann did not at all touch the issue of the danger of Europe devided into two speeds. Austria is situated on a key spot - between the East and the West - and it is logical to share how does the country see the risks of another division in Europe. To the specific question, he got a specific answer. Austria supports the movement of all members with one speed and in one direction. Those who want to move forward should not be hampered, the Chancellor said.
According to unofficial information, the next leader who will appear before thе MEPs is French President Francois Hollande. There are many and specific questions precisely for him, related to the future of Europe and the condition of the Franco-German motor. It would not be a bad idea Martin Schulz to start preparing for this from now to avoid not only a failure of his desire more national leaders to appear in Strasbourg, but to avoid the impression that MEPs are more interested in leaders of bigger and influential member states rather than smaller ones.