Transcript: The future of Europe


This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: ‘The future of Europe’

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. Welcome to this, our first podcast of 2024. We’re starting the year by looking at the future of the European Union, which is facing crucial parliamentary elections in June. The EU ended 2023 in a reflective mood after the death of Jacques Delors, the man widely regarded as the father of the European single currency. My guest this week is Charles Grant, author of a much-acclaimed biography of Delors. As director of the Centre for European Reform here in London, he follows European politics very closely. Delors led the last great phase of European integration. So is the EU capable of another great leap forward?

Ursula von der Leyen in audio clip
Honourable members, when I stood here four years ago, I said that if we are united in the inside, nobody will divide us from the outside. And this was the thinking behind the geopolitical commission. Our Team Europe approach has enabled us to be more strategic, more assertive and more united. And that is more important than ever.

Gideon Rachman
That was Ursula von der Leyen, the current president of the European Commission, making the case for the EU to act as a geopolitical force. That feels more necessary than ever in the era of the Ukraine war. Like all commission presidents, von der Leyen’s often measured against Jacques Delors, who is still fondly remembered in Brussels as the most dynamic and successful European Commission president ever. So before turning to the future of the EU, I began my conversation with Charles Grant by looking back at the past. What did Delors represent and achieve?

Charles Grant
I think Delors made a real difference to the way the EU functions and to perceptions of the EU all around the world. I mean, the two things stand out when you look back at Delors’ career as commission president. The single market programme was really his idea as he persuaded the heads of government at the time. He took over the commission in 1985 to relaunch Europe around a single market programme and then make the constitutional changes required to implement the programme, which was basically abolishing the national veto over single market rules. That was a success, so that gave the EU some momentum. And he moved on to a second great thing, which was economic and monetary union, EMU in the jargon, and although the single currency, now called the euro, has had its trials and tribulations over the years, it has survived. And that was basically not entirely Delors’ idea, but the plan for EMU was really his idea and it wouldn’t have happened when it happened in the way it happened without Delors pushing it. So I think the single market and the single currency are two quite big achievements for Jacques Delors.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. I mean, the book you wrote about him was, if I remember correctly, called The House that Jacques Built. Do you think that the EU today is still basically the house that Jacques built?

Charles Grant
I think a lot of the way the EU works today is very similar to how it worked when Jacques Delors was president for 10 years in the ’80s and ’90s. The basic institutional structure — commission, council, parliament — the balance of forces between the federalists trying to integrate and the intergovernmentalists trying to slow that integration — that basically isn’t gonna change. What has changed perhaps a little bit is that the EU has gradually integrated in recent years in some new areas, like health, borrowing in its own name for the rapid Recovery and Resilience Facility against the damage caused by Covid and doing more in defence. So I think the integration is the chipping away a little bit on the margins, but the fundamental balance is quite similar to how it was in Delors’ day, I think.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. And Delors of course was, you know, somebody who believed very firmly in integration, in “ever closer union”. But something that happened after he left office was the massive enlargement of the EU. Has that basically changed the EU so fundamentally that the Delorsian vision no longer truly applies or not?

Charles Grant
Well, Delors was a bit ambivalent over enlargement. He wasn’t a massive enthusiast for it, but in a way, he paved the way for it. The reason why the EU enlarged was because lots of countries in central and eastern Europe wanted to join the European Union. They wanted to join because it was a success and it was really his stewardship at the top during his time as president that made the EU a successful and effective organisation that made others want to join it. So enlargement has really to some degree followed on from what he did as commission president.

It has also brought in lots of countries that have different visions of Europe, and we now see a kind of balance between the more integrationist countries and those with a somewhat more sceptical disposition towards further European unity. So I think my own view is that we’re not gonna see a fundamental change to the Delorsian system of balance between federalism and intergovernmentalism because the chances of another treaty change that would lead to much more integration are basically close to zero, because treaty change requires unanimity and there’s always gonna be several countries that don’t want to do that. So when Delors was around pushing forward integration, there were four treaty changes set off by what he did, starting in 1985. But that period of greater treaty change really came to an end with the Lisbon treaty, which was adopted in 2009 and I don’t think is gonna happen again. So there’ll be a little bit more integration here and there in minor areas, I think. But I doubt we’ll see a fundamental shift in the balance of power in Europe towards more integration any more.

Gideon Rachman
And Delors of course had a very difficult relationship with Margaret Thatcher. Initially, quite a successful relationship because they were both very committed to the single market. But she parted company with him very, very clearly over the single currency. And I think her famous statement, no, no, no, was about that single currency project. Do you think in a sense, inadvertently Delors really triggered the process that eventually led to Brexit?

Charles Grant
Well, he certainly became an important player in British politics. As you rightly say, he got on very well with Margaret Thatcher for his first three years as commission president. They agreed on the single market and quite a few other things too. They fell out not only over the single currency but also over social policy, because Delors said, let’s make the EU a social Europe and let’s have a social charter and workers’ rights. And he came to the Trades Union Congress at its annual conference and talked about those issues, which really upsets her a lot.

And because he was indirectly linked to the fall of Mrs Thatcher, because, as you rightly say, she said no, no, no in response to his own ideas. And that provoked Geoffrey Howe to resign and bring down Thatcher. He’s always been a bête noire for British Eurosceptics, and he became a symbol for them. But he not only became a symbol for British Eurosceptics and gave them a target to aim at, he also played quite a role in converting the British Labour party to be pro-EU. People forget that in the mid-1980s, the Labour party was the anti-European party in Britain and the Conservative party was the pro-European party in Britain. Nobody remembers that these days. But he’s giving Europe a social dimension, helped to convert the Labour party to be more pro-EU, which it remains to this day. I don’t think I’d really blame Delors for Brexit. I mean, Europe was integrating and doing more things, which annoyed British Eurosceptics. If he caused a bit more integration that would have been otherwise. So he has something to do with it. I think there are many reasons for Brexit which are nothing to do with Jacques Delors.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. And looking forward now, Ursula von der Leyen, the current commission president, issued a statement shortly after Delors died, obviously praising him as a great European but also saying that she was very much his heir. Do you think, in any kind of meaningful sense other than that she has the same job, she is an heir to Delors?

Charles Grant
Well, she’s the most effective and successful commission president since Delors by quite a long way. They have some things in common. They’re both great opportunists, seizing the opportunity to push forward European integration when it appears to them. In her case, she exploited the Covid crisis and the war in Ukraine to get the EU to do more: more integrated defence policy, for example, doing more on health than it used to do, joint procurements of weapons and of medicines. So she’s a great exploiter of opportunities in the way that Delors was. Delors exposit his opportunities for the favourable conjuncture for integration in the 1980s. They do have quite a lot in common in that respect.

Also, they’re both upsetting the member states by pushing Europe too much, too fast for some of the member states’ taste. She in particular is so Atlanticist and quite tough on China and things like that, which really upsets quite a lot of the member states. He upset the member states who are less keen on European integration.

One difference is that although Delors was quite a centraliser within the European Commission who did try and run things along a fairly smooth centralising line, she’s a much more of a centraliser. She really takes all the decisions with her chief of staff and a couple of other close advisers much more than Delors did, and she excludes other commissioners and member state governments from some of the decisions she takes, which does upset some of the member state governments. So there is a bit of a pushback against her, but of course Delors had a similar pushback as he did more than they wanted him to do as well. So there’s quite a lot in common between von der Leyen and Jacques Delors, I believe.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, and just as a footnote, I guess you mention a powerful chief of staff. I mean, Delors had one of those in Pascal Lamy, who later became a commissioner himself, and von der Leyen, very much so in the case of her chief of staff, Bjoern Seibert.

Charles Grant
They were both. Those figures are very important for the way the commission operates. I think, as I said, the Delors-Lamy regime was a bit less centralising than that of von der Leyen and Seibert. Other commissioners were consulted, like Leon Brittan in Delors’ day was a very important commissioner and Peter Sutherland in the earlier phase of Delors’ time at the top.

I think though if you talk to commissioners in von der Leyen’s commission, some of the most senior figures in it really say they’re not consulted on some decisions at all. But to be fair to her, she deals with a much more difficult environment. There are now 27 member states. The challenges she faces are different from those faced by Delors. Delors didn’t have to worry about the growth of the far right across Europe nearly as much as she does, didn’t have to worry about migration, this crisis that’s impossible to solve, really. So she faces much more difficult challenges, I think, than Jacques Delors did in many respects.

Gideon Rachman
And indeed, a third challenge, a war in Europe, right on the borders, in Ukraine. So looking forward to the future, I mean, you mentioned the rise of the far right. How much of a threat do you think that is to the EU? We have European parliamentary elections coming up this summer, and a lot of people seem to think that they could emerge as the single biggest bloc.

Charles Grant
Yeah, I think that they will certainly do quite well in the elections and the Liberals will do rather less well and the Greens will do rather less well. And the centre-left may not do particularly well and the centre-right will probably emerge as the largest party as usual, but perhaps with fewer MEPs than it has today. But the key thing will be a growth in support for the far right. It’s important to distinguish between the slightly more moderate far right, the so-called ECR, European Conservatives and Reformists, which is Meloni in Italy, the Sweden Democrats, the Finns party in Finland, Vox in Spain, the Law and Justice in Poland. They are tough on Russia, it’s important to note that. Though they are anti-immigration and anti-EU integration in many respects, they’re a part of the far right that could work with the centre-right if they had to, and they may well do.

But then there’s the Identity and Democracy grouping, a much more extreme far right, which is Marine Le Pen in France, it’s the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, it’s the Freedom party in Austria, it’s Salvini’s party in Italy, the Lega. This part of the far right is sympathetic to Russia, much more extreme in a way than the ECR group. So I think what matters is the relative balance of strength between these two groups on the far right who don’t like or get on with each other at all well. I don’t think the far right will dominate the European parliament after the elections. I think the forces of moderation will still be predominant and run the parliament, but it will be harder for them to get legislation through than it is today.

The big picture is because of the growth of the far right, member state governments will be quite reluctant to go for further European integration, because that will only give red meat to the far right and could encourage the far right to do even better. So I think this is gonna be a brake on some of the further integration. There’ll be no talk of the new EU treaty and it does actually affect the enlargement process because some countries are saying, like France and Germany, for instance, if we enlarge the European Union to take in more countries, we have to reform the institutions and have more majority voting. But that requires more integration and treaty change. And I don’t think many member state governments will be prepared to do that. I think that there is a bit of a question mark as to how much the EU can really enlarge given the strength of the Eurosceptic forces across the European Union.

Gideon Rachman
So does that mean that, for example, what was hailed as a big breakthrough, the formal opening of negotiations with Ukraine, a kind of a sign of hope for the Ukrainians in a very tough period, that actually, that may not be worth as much as people think?

Charles Grant
Well, I personally hope very much that the EU does enlarge to Ukraine and indeed to the Balkans in the long run, because I think for strategic reasons, we have to take in these countries and give them a…



This article was originally published by a www.ft.com . Read the Original article here. .