|Author (Person)||Abbott, Dennis|
|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||Vol.8, No.10, 14.3.02, p15-17|
DA: Mr Cox, it's now almost two months since you became president of the European Parliament. How are you enjoying the job?
PC: Wonderful. It's a great challenge - the only problem is there aren't enough hours in the day.
Q: Is there anything you didn't expect about the job?
A: I've been used to long work days, but the density of it is staggering. The span and range of it is extraordinary.
If I gave you a copy of yesterday's schedule, the number of different states that were represented in the course of a day's work is quite demanding because of course you want to be up to speed. And when you're doing some of the political work on reform of the House, your tracking of those issues is endlessly punctuated. It's quite a juggling exercise.
Q: What do you make of the Convention on Europe's future?
A: I think it's a radical departure from the past, a wonderful innovation and an idea of this Parliament; it's parliamentary in form, but hybrid in construction.
I invest a lot of hope in its capacity to establish through the range of participants a good definition for an effective and democratically accountable Europe.
Q: It seems to have lot of legitimacy by virtue of its composition. Could it threaten to overshadow the European Parliament?
A: I don't see this as some kind of beauty contest. I hope it has a very high profile and is a very great success. It's not a contest, it's a creative exercise in the future of Europe. If indeed it can generate a lot of publicity, that's all to the good. We need to communicate this European idea to a much wider audience of people.
But the important thing is not to forget our [the European Parliament's] day job. The less spectacular work, the work which isn't about the future construction of Europe, but rather the legislative or the budgetary or the issues of the day like the United States and steel tariffs...we've got to keep our foot on the pedal.
Q: Since you mention it, what are your views on the steel dispute?
A: I've just had the privilege to address a group of US ambassadors from each member state and the US representation to NATO. I talked about our many common interests and bonds transatlantically and the need to strengthen, in particular, the legislative dialogue between Congress and the European Parliament. On steel, I expressed my keen regret at the retrograde step on the part of the administration to opt for protection, when during a fragile recession it should be giving global leadership and openness.
Q: Are you in favour of Strasbourg being the seat of the Parliament?
A: [Hesitates] You interview me in my role as president, so I have that hat on in the context of my answer. The law on Strasbourg is clear, it's in the Treaty, you have to meet there 12 times a year and as president I've got to respect the law, and I told people that before the election.
For those colleagues in the House who don't like that, the option is to see if they can convince a majority of the House or through the Convention to change the law.
But you can't be a Parliament that makes the law and than disrespects it.
Q: How do you attract the best politicians to the European Parliament rather than their national assemblies?
A: That's an interesting question and I don't know from what perspective you pose it. But the systems through which we get elected to the Parliament are dramatically different.
In the case of the system I know best, because it's the one I've graduated through and from as a politician, you can't get elected if the electorate don't know you individually or personally at some level and put a mark beside your name.
There are other colleagues who are elected on lists where the top two or three personalities are well known in public life, and other people bring their particular skills from some other walk of life that wouldn't be classically political as a background.
I think, on balance, there is in this Parliament a very high calibre of representation and that's shown in the fact that, since Maastricht, we've engaged in the co-decision process and, in 297 cases, we've passed laws by co-decision - which is quite a volume of work in that period of time.
Q: Turnout in the Parliamentary elections is not as high as it might be. What can the Parliament - and you in particular - do to try and change that situation for 2004?
A: Well firstly, I think Parliament has changed very dramatically in the past ten years because of extra powers in the Treaties; it is an institution that is now a reliable partner in the European project. We deliver the goods on time.
The vast majority of our Parliamentary amendments in second readings have been adopted by the Council. We constitute a power base in the areas where we have competence.
We have the same ability as a [national] parliament to influence legislative outcomes in co-decision as the sum of the influences of the 15 states. That's real power.
In the budgetary area, we have very considerable powers of influence though, regrettably, not yet properly in terms of agricultural expenditure. As a platform for the expression of European views we are unequalled because there is not another tribune or creator of self-expression Europe has on this public and open scale.
Turnout is clearly a problem. At the last European election the turnout was under 50 by a very narrow margin and that's disappointing.
But I'm bound to say it was extremely distorted by wretched turnouts in three states: the United Kingdom with a turnout of less than a quarter; Netherlands had one third; and Sweden had less than 40.
But I must again underline, as president of the Parliament, that the burden of explanation shouldn't be loaded on the shoulders of the Parliament as an institution. When I can observe that statistically more people voted for Big Brother on Channel 4 last year than voted in the European elections in the UK, that says something - but I don't know whether it says something very much about the European Parliament.
Q: You played a pivotal role in the fall of the Santer Commission in 1999, along with the now famous 'whistleblower', Paul van Buitenen. He's produced another dossier alleging further irregularities. What do you know about that?
A: I don't know a great deal, but what I do know is that we have a system now for investigating these things through OLAF - an independent watchdog capable of doing the business.
I'm aware that some of the observations that van Buitenen made relate to a compatriot of mine, David O'Sullivan, the secretary-general of the European Commission. In my own dealings with this man, I'm bound to say he's a public servant of the highest probity and if I was a betting man I'd bet on O'Sullivan right down the line.
Q: Some MEPs are in favour of postponing discharge of the EU's 2000 budget as a result of the latest van Buitenen disclosures. Should it be postponed?
A: That's absolutely a question for the House, but the House has to operate on the basis of its own analysis and its own mature reflection. Any amount of interesting external observation cannot substitute the public, political responsibility of this House. I haven't discussed with budget control colleagues what the general opinion is on this.
Q: Let's move onto Barcelona. Economic reform is one of your major concerns. Can the summit make a difference or is the Lisbon process well and truly stalled?
A: I think the Lisbon start was excellent. It created a sense of a new dynamic. But I think the political delivery has been less spectacular than it ought to have been - and I don't talk here of the Parliament.
Everything that's come to us we've delivered on time. But there is a political job to be done in the member states to make a direct strategic connection between the aspirations expressed by heads of government and state and the delivery of their ministers so you don't get the disconnection.
When you look back to Lisbon [23 March 2000] it was a time when every day you woke up and you had another dotcom millionaire or billionaire. All the stock exchanges were breaking new ceilings in terms of records and there was a different spring in our economic step. That needs to be factored in.
These high aspirations clicked with the mood of the moment and today there's a different mood.
But, in fact, the substance is now even more urgent in my view because we're on the cusp of a fragile recovery; if we really seize that moment to push for reform we can maximise the opportunity when we come out of the slowdown.
Q: You are meeting several of Europe's leaders ahead of the summit. What will you be hoping to get out of those talks?
A: There's a dual purpose. One is purely in an inter-personal sense to make introductions to people, so that whenever I show up at a summit I'm not sat as some exotic stranger at the far end of the table. You need that human connection. The second dimension is to share some perspectives in advance on the enlargement issue.
I've just made my first external visit outside the Union to Poland, to feel and see at first hand the reactions to the Commission's financial package. And in the past three weeks I've probably met three quarters of the candidate state foreign ministers or prime ministers coming through Brussels for meetings, so I have a very rich feel for that analysis.
This is the year of enlargement; it's the year of the end-game.
And the end-game has saved up all the difficult politics. But they are not the only challenges. I very much hope that the talks in Cyprus can mature into some kind of settlement.
However it goes, that will be a very interesting, large political question later this year. We know our position's to be in favour of the entry of Cyprus - and that's not in question.
There will be no external veto, but the conditions in which the entry happens are still indeterminate. I hope the talks will be positive and very successful. I've been discussing with the authorities in Cyprus the possibility of a visit on Schuman Day on 9 May.
Nicosia is the last capital city on our continent that is divided down the middle and Schuman Day seems to me symbolically to be the day to carry a message of reconciliation from what is the most representative supra-national and trans-national Parliament in the world.
I'm hopeful of being in the position of visiting the majority of candidate states before Seville. The other big thing is to have more participation by candidate state MPs. Next Monday I will be with the bureau trying to anticipate the budget costs for next year of an exercise of political creativity of that sort.
I'm excited by that as a potential act of solidarity, creating for their states a cadre of politicians who are familiar with European affairs, an avant-garde for their own national debates and, for ourselves, a learning curve.
We're going to grow as institutions in an extraordinary organisational transformation into a much more multi-lingual, multi-cultural role and better we make our mistakes before the real match begins: it's a win-win and I'm hoping to drive that forward this year.
Q: You've also had a busy schedule meeting heads of government...
A: I met the Danish prime minister last week, the Spanish prime minister, I'm meeting the German chancellor and Tony Blair. I'm interested in their perspective on enlargement before the June summit and our defining debate in November. I want to tell them what work the Parliament has done on Lisbon - and what they haven't yet delivered on.
I want to convey to them that in terms of the work rate and capacity of this Parliament we have been a very reliable partner for this project and that we try to overcome difficulties.
Q: You have said you are keen to promote partnerships for reform with other institutions. Could you go into a little more detail about that?
A: I think that's the only strategic way to do it. The European Parliament is now in its 23rd year since direct elections and I guess it's a little bit like looking at one's family.
It went through its infancy where people accused it of being a kind of talking shop.
It went through its adolescence where it used its elbows to create a bit of space for itself and looked to get more competences, as we will continue to do where it enhances Europe's democratic accountability.
But I think that adolescent phase is certainly coming to a close and there is a new maturity about our public purpose, which is not to cease the argument for quality of democracy in Europe - that's not yet properly and fully delivered - but to recognise that a very substantial series of steps have been taken and to be able to tell our story of the partnership we have delivered, that sometimes we haven't under-stood ourselves because we didn't stand back to think about it.
Q: Are you in favour of the European Commission president being elected by the Parliament - or even by the public?
A: The two methods are very different and the Convention, I am sure, will reflect on them.
I think the act of democratically legitimising the appointment of the president of the Commission would be an act which would strengthen the Commission - on the grounds that it is perceived to be the act of democracy and not simply the act of appointment.
Whichever method would be chosen, I think there is considerable merit in the suggestion. A dimension of the Convention, which will be very important as we plan out the future, is the question of what will be the role of the Commission?
I hope, for one, it's still going to be a very significant central player because the Commission - notwithstanding the battles of two years ago on financial management - with its role of guardian of the Treaties, as a body that mediates between the large and the small, the rich and the poor, has been indispensable to Europe's success.
I used a phrase at the opening of the Convention on behalf of the Parliament that we should 'intelligently conserve without being conservative'.
That phrase betokens many things including the intelligent conservation of those things that work well - and the Commission is one of those.
Q: Do you think the Irish public will vote 'yes' in a second referendum on the Nice Treaty?
What role, if any, will you be playing in the campaign to persuade them to change their minds. And is there a neutrality issue at stake here?
A: Do I think they'll vote 'yes'? I hope so. We have to convince them to do it. Will I play a role? Yes, extremely active. Is there a neutrality issue? No. On the eve of my election in January I wrote to five or six colleagues [MEPs] who had written to me in the terms of your question.
I said to them that I would not use any of the staff assigned to me as president if I had the privilege to win the presidency in the event I should take part in the campaign in Ireland. But I am an Irish representative and they are not entitled to ask me to abdicate my Irish representative responsibilities.
I feel liberated by the act of loss of votes like that to be able to take my responsibilities, but to do it in a way which in no sense abuses the privileges of this office as president of the House.
I don't know the details of the timing but if I needed to take some time out to spend in Ireland I would invite the senior vice-president, David Martin, to stand in for me at bureau level meetings if I was absent in order to show, in at least a formal sense, that the proper management of this House would proceed in neutral terms.
But on the Nice issue I'm not neutral; I'm not neutral on Europe, I'm not neutral on Ireland's interest being served by the closest connection with Europe.
And I think there's a very good story to tell and I'm going to go out and sell that story.
Major interview with Pat Cox, the new President of the European Parliament.
|Subject Categories||Politics and International Relations|