UK

Martin Schulz, The EU Parliament President On Why He Still Has Faith People Can Learn To Love Europe

29/11/2014 16:11 GMT | Updated 29/11/2014 16:59 GMT

At first glance, the office of the European Parliament's president is a eurosceptic's stereotype, the top of the 15-story building, with sweeping views through the glass walls, and his office crowded with legions of staff, fresh-faced and speaking in a mixture of French, English and German in accents from Czech, to French, to Estonian.

So far, so predictable, until someone hands Martin Schulz his mobile phone as we settle down on settees. It is a Nokia 3310, that old kind of phone that can't tweet, can't take a selfie, but you could literally chuck against a brick wall and it wouldn't break. And the battery lasts for about a month, unlike smartphones which nowadays have effectively become landlines because of the need to keep them plugged in.

This is perhaps, a telling metaphor for how Schulz sees his role in the EU. It is the old values and issues of that body that appeal to him, tackling youth unemployment, promoting social democracy, and yes, ever closer union. And they are ones he hopes will outlast the values of his opponents.

But the EU's brand is toxic, from Rome to Rochester and Strood. And the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one. So does the EU have an image problem?

"Obviously," he says, with a half laugh.

It is not just the banking crisis that has fuelled the growth of euroscepticism, but the pervasive sense that those making decisions within the EU's walls do not live in the real world. The EU is the focus of near-daily scathing Daily Mail headlines about restricting olive oil jugs in restaurants, straight bananas, or the power of vacuum cleaners, not the bread-and-butter of the EU's main work, on climate change, trade agreements, migration problems, security and international currency relations.

“Olive jugs on restaurant tables is not my item," he says wearily. "But it is a general feeling that is what we do. We should not be blind. Often it's not justified, it has a lot of prejudices, but the feeling is there and we have to take it seriously.”

He acknowledged scepticism had “deepened” in recent years. “I have been here a long time, these prejudices are here, too bureaucratic, too slow, too expensive, it's eternal. In bad times, these feelings increase, because neither European nor national institutions have the trust of citizens to solve the problems. These prejudices are tinder on the fire, in a crisis. It is different issues from country to country, but every citizen feels that their particular problem is not being taken seriously.

He pointed some of the blame at politicians, too eager to gobble the credit for EU successes. "The European Council holds 28 press conferences, in 28 different languages, all of them say if we succeeded, 'I made it'. If we fail, it is the fault of this bureaucratic European Union'.

“If the responsible politicians, especially the heads of state in the European Council, continue to say the success is national but the failure European, then we should not be surprised that the European Union has an image problem.”

martin schulz

European Parliament President Martin Schulz

Euroscepticism is growing force, though the younger, more liberal of the 500 million citizens of the EU tend to feel more favourably. A 2013 public sentiment study for the European Council on Foreign Relations found that since the beginning of the euro crisis trust in the EU fell from +10 to -22% in France, from +20 to -29% in Germany, from +30 to -22% in Italy, from +42 to -52% in Spain, from +50 to +6% in Poland, and from -13 to -49% in the UK.

"Enthusiasm for the EU will not return unless the EU profoundly changes the way it deals with its member states and its citizens," the study's authors warned.

Schulz was born a decade after the Second World War ended in the picturesque district of Hehlrath, in the western Rhineland where Germany meets the Netherlands and Belgium. He left school without finishing his final exams, and trained as a bookseller.

"I didn't grow up thinking, 'I want to be the President of the Parliament of the European Union', I wanted to be a football player," he smiles. "But actually, my mother told me that when I was about six-year-old, I could do a perfect impression of Charles de Gaulle [the former French prime minister and war leader]. I could say 'Vive La France!' just like him."

He breaks into a chuckle. "No, I didn't think I would be here, But I think it was clear to me, early in my life, that I would be in public life."

He was still a teenager when he joined the German socialists and was elected to the municipal council and then to the mayoralty when he was just 31. Schulz was first elected to the European Parliament 20 years ago, and held several high offices, as well as advising Germany's SPD Party on all matters European. In 2012, he was elected President of the Parliament.

The depth of people's problem with the EU became even more starkly apparent to him when he was on the campaign trail for the very top job at the institution, running for President of the European Commission. “In my election campaign in Spain, a young woman raised a question to me, she had degrees in architecture and psychology, a very interesting woman," he recalls.

"And she asked 'you have €700bn to save the banking system. How much do you have for me?"

The meeting made a distinct impression on him, he says. What was his answer? The words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel had come to mind, that “banks are systemically relevant.".

“My answer was that a whole generation is perhaps even more relevant. But I lost the election. So the majority of those people who voted, they voted for parties who found that to save the banking system was more relevant."

The man who won was Jean-Claude Juncker, the centre-right former prime minister of Luxembourg, who has been having some of the grimmest of months in the wake of the LuxLeaks scandal, which laid bare the breath-taking scale of corporate tax avoidance facilitated by the country's laws, while he was in in office.

Schulz is keen distinguish his own values from those of his former opponent, now colleague, drawing on his previous experience not as a prime minister, but as a bookseller, a small businessman, a mayor of a border town and as a child in a Germany which was a country clambering up from its knees.

"My experience has taught me one thing that can be summed up in one sentence. 99% of people just want a decent life, no more, an apartment, a car, a small holiday once a year, and a decent prospect for their children," he says.

"My parents were post-war Germans, they sacrificed everything for their five children, my father went on his first holiday when he was 60. Because they were told the sacrifices were for their children, and visibly it was.

“Now, what are my generation doing?” he continues. I anticipate him to mount a defence of why the Euro crisis has also meant sacrifices. But he doesn't.

“We are asking sacrifices from parents, for billions and billions and for what? For saving banks. And their children are unemployed.

“How can I expect that they have trust? How can we believe that they feel decently treated? I am quite clear people have lost trust. We are in the richest part of the world, with the most amount of billionaires, and yet you have 50% of a generation paying with their life chances for the risks the speculators took."

Last week Greek President Karolos Papoulias, who earlier this week told President and Editor-in-Chief of The Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington, that he feared people were being treated like “rocks”. It was a sentiment echoed by the Pope in his historic speech at the European Parliament this week, who said that citizens were being treated like “economic instruments” and “cogs in a machine.

Schulz is eager to agree with both assessments. “Yes," he says, "[that feeling] is a daily experience. I make this appeal daily not only to my colleagues but also to myself."

nigel farage

Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party

Though Britain has on the face of it suffered far less than many EU member states during the financial crisis, and its economy is showing fragile growth, it is one of the most Eurosceptic countries by far. A 2013 study for the European Council on Foreign Relations found that since the beginning of the euro crisis, trust in the EU fell from -13 to -49% in the UK. Support for the eurosceptic Ukip is at an all time high of 16% in the most recent polls.

Schulz believes that scepticism was down to Britain's "inward-looking tendency... in the United Kingdom it is very strong".

"For the last couple of years, there has been a tendency that... problems that you can’t explain by looking inward are scapegoated elsewhere, to the European Union," he said, citing migration, economic development, and growth. "Inward-looking people are suddenly surprised that it is not enough to just look inward because even the United Kingdom plays a role in this global development, and they say, this is because we are in the European Union. It’s the easiest explanation."

Schulz said he also believes that economic concerns were breeding xenophobia, and the two could not be separated. "Xenophobia is the reaction to a feeling of threat. Xenophobia is lower in countries with a more equal distribution of wealth than in societies with a big gap, a social gap."

Though he is willing to admit that the EU bears some, if not all, of the culpability for its unpopularity, there is a sense when he speaks that Schulz still has faith that people will regain their affection for the institution and its original values, even though the evidence is bleak to say the least. Recent polling has shown that voters for Ukip are the most loyal of any party, with 75% saying they will not abandon their intention to vote for them, even in the 2015 general election when far more is at stake.

Schulz disagrees profoundly with this analysis. He is a centrist, a compromiser, a deal-doer at heart and fundamentally does not believe human beings are naturally extremists. "There are hard-core xenophobes too, obviously, right-wingers, extremists," he added, but said he did not think that widespread right-wing extremism or indeed true Euroscepticism was at the heart of the Ukip surge.

"The leadership of the parties [like Ukip] don’t represent the voters of the party. It is an extremist vote by people who vote because they are disappointed.

"They are a protest vote," he continues, calling the surge in support in recent by-elections and the European parliament elections "a yellow card vote".

"Ukip want to make a system of tax competition between member states the basis of their economy. This is the wrongest thing you can do in this time," he says, saying that is likely to be "at odds" with many of what their voters would want. "Therefore I have not given up hope and I believe these parties are beatable."

"We should be prudent, and not consider these people [who vote] as racists or xenophobes," he says. "This is a cry ‘don’t forget about us’. Not all voters of the French Front National either. If you look at the analysis there are people who voted previously for the Communist Party, now [FN]. These are not right-wing extremists."

France, he says, as a “big, important member state” was a major worry, but finds it difficult to say which of the member state’s nationalist and right-wing elements were the most dangerous. “Austria has a right-wing party even stronger than in France, and Hungary is also worrying me a lot,” he said.

“France [has] a certain protest vote, but is it really a sustainable political movement? What do you think of the people who voted centre, or left, and vote now for Marine Le Pen, and say ‘we must now make an alert’ to the government? Then they read in the newspaper this woman borrows money from a Russian bank? Do you believe this leads to credibility?”

syriza

Leader of the left-wing Syriza party Alexis Tsipras

Insurgent political parties are also emerging from the left, Alexis Tsipras’s Syrizia party in Greece and the socialist movement of Podemos in Spain, led by Pablo Iglesias, which recently voted to censure newly elected Juncker.

Both are movements whose core support base is young, anti-austerity, and with a policy of debt-forgiveness. Several other EU politicians have warned that rising support for the groups could spook the markets and disrupt the fragile recovery of southern European states.

Schulz says he understands what fired much of the support for both parties, but said that Podemos in particular was not yet a credible political force. “Mr Iglesias [in Spain] is for sure, a very intelligent man, and a man who has, for sure, also some points. But my feeling is that his approach is not constructive.

“It is exclusively blaming others, and he has not made any concrete suggestions how to solve the problems, and this is different from Mr Tsipras [in Greece].

But he says he admires how Syrizia,conversely, had transformed themselves from a protest group to a party which has “really tried to develop a programme, which is not my programme, but they tried to become more serious”.

The party is “fundamentally negative”, he adds, saying they had no intention of being part of a sorely-needed compromise. “If you ask them, 'what is now the concrete solution and are you prepared to make a compromise?'...then?

“Because even they will not win an absolute majority, so we must ask them, where are your compromise lines? We get no answer.”

“They are there, they give a certain feeling of citizens’ voices,” he continues. “But I don't see where their concrete proposals are, to get out of the crisis and to do something for their people. They are always tempted to make one mistake, if you have an ideological approach to a problem, then 100% of nothing, is more than 1% of something. You consider 1% of something a failure.

"We as social democrats are always blamed for that, as compromisers, betrayers to the working class. But 100% of nothing, you have gained even less than 1% of something.

The answer, Schulz says, was not for the mainstream parties to become more xenophobic or radical themselves. “Delivering social justice and protection for citizens is the best way to regain trust and win them back.”

Schulz believes the answer to the feeling of detachment that many Britons in particular feel towards European institutions was an even closer union. "My feeling is that a full-fledged, fully involved UK in the European Union would influence much more, not always stepping to one side and leaving things in the hands of other people.

"This is the big contradiction. Because they are not fully involved, they influence less, and they are frustrated. This is a problem which is becoming increasingly a problem for both sides, for the EU and the UK."

Freedom of movement across the EU and the resulting migration of many citizens of member states to Britain has been cited as a key concern of Ukip and of the Conservatives. Yesterday, David Cameron announced a radical shake-up plan for the UK's relationship with the EU, with treaty changes sure to be needed to allow his new plan for a four-year-ban on benefit claiming by migrants, and deportation if migrants do not find work in six months.

He does not say so directly, but Schulz is clearly finding the referendum and renegotiation debate a severe frustration. "Let's be clear," he said. "If they [Cameron's proposals] are not in the interests of all 28 member states, we will not get it [any re-negotiation]."

"I remember very well the time when one country urged the EU to enlarge as fast as possible, it was the United Kingdom," Schulz continues. "Today, the United Kingdom says we have too much Eastern European workers here. Can you imagine the reaction of Eastern European countries? They considered the United Kingdom as their strongest ally, some of them are relatively disappointed by the reaction."

"He says ‘our relationship with the European Union’, well, this is a relationship with yourself. The UK is a member of the EU. I don’t negotiate about my relationship with myself, it’s a little bit strange."

"Yes," he says without hesitation when I ask whether he prefers the prospect of a Labour victory. "I think it’s not a surprise that a social democrat is in favour of a Labour victory. I think Ed Miliband is a pro-European, this is a man with strong European experience, and Labour is playing a very constructive role here [in the parliament]."

schulz juncker

Luxembourgian Jean-Claude Juncker (R) for European People's Party (EPP) and German Martin Schulz (L)

Schulz is unashamedly outspoken, but he has a low tolerance for any disrespect to his office from his opponents, who have had a tendency to make German-themed jokes. He ws once compared to a comedic kapo by then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. "Mister Schulz," he said. "I know of a movie-producer in Italy who is making a film about Nazi concentration-camps. I will recommend you for the part of a Kapo. You are perfect!" Berlusconi later said he was referring to the show Hogan's Heroes.

Godfrey Bloom, the disgraced former Ukip MEP also had several run-ins with Schulz, most memorably heckling him by shouting "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer" at him during a speech, and Bloom was removed from the chamber.

But in the most recent months, it is his counter-part, Juncker, not he, that has been at the receiving end of some of the most vicious attacks. Tabloids hinted at issues with alcohol, one even saying anonymously he had "cognac for breakfast". Cameron was relentless in his dislike of Juncker, an arch-federalist, who he saw as likely to block any proposed reforms. The worst was yet to come, in fact. The LuxLeaks’ scandal which revealed the epic scale of corporate tax avoidance facilitated in the Grand Duchy, and was splashed across newspapers in all of the member states, broke just one day after Juncker took up the post.

"It was not the best encouragement for us," says Schulz, looking weary for the first time. "I was surprised I must admit. First about the dimension, which is now becoming visible. Secondly, about the timing, the day after the commission took office. And thirdly, it is six months now after the election, I spent the first part of this year more-or-less only on the election campaign. In all my speeches, against my opponent candidate, I said exactly that. I said 'except for being prime minister of Luxembourg, he's a nice guy'."

"So everybody knew," he says, slowly and forcefully. "Everybody knew Luxembourg has a certain tax regime, everybody knew it before. How can we know be [surprised]?"

This frustration, one could say, may stem not only from the turmoil the scandal has created for the institution, but also from Schulz's own frustration that no one seemed to take that argument, that he made, seriously on the campaign trail. He still does not speak of Juncker warmly, and it is clear there are clashing personalities at play. But he is defensive of the way his now-colleague has been treated as well.

"The Murdoch press, what they did to Juncker before the European election is indecent. It is a shame [on them]. Juncker is a very socially responsible man, he is the son of a steel worker. He is coming from a very ordinary family. And I have a lot of different opinions with Juncker, but I have a high respect for him as a personality.

"You can disagree with someone, you can fight, and I'm a street fighter through my political life, I am an outspoken man. But you can't survive in a decent society without a minimum respect, even for your adversaries and enemies. And also Juncker deserves that respect."

With all the abuse, bureaucracy and unpopularity that comes of being president of the European parliament, does that mean that for the little boys and girls in the 28 states of the European Union should not dream one day of being in his position?

"No," Schulz laughs, as he rises to leave. "I wouldn't want to punish them."