News2019.04.26 16:51

EPP Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber: EU's next supercomputer could be placed in new member state

Vaidotas Beniušis, BNS 2019.04.26 16:51

Manfred Weber, the European People's Party's candidate to be the next European Commission president, believes that Ukraine could become a EU member state in the future, but says there is no place for Turkey in the bloc.

During his visit in Lithuania, the German politician warned that member states which trample over the rule of law and democracy might face financial sanctions from the EU.

In an exclusive interview with the Baltic News Service, he listed tighter border controls, the promotion of economic growth and the development of higher social standards as his priorities.

Which are the areas that you would push for closer EU integration if appointed president of the European Commission?

For me, politics starts with listening to people and during my listening tour all over Europe, where I visited almost all member states, I experienced that many people in different countries are worried about the same issues.

The first is still migration. People want the authorities to decide who is allowed to enter Europe and not the human traffickers. So we have to protect our external borders. Very concretely, we decided to add 10,000 new Frontex officers to guard our border. And now member states have agreed that they will only be fully active until 2027. That is not acceptable. If in 2015 and 2016 we have a huge migration crisis, we have to deliver sooner. We have to speed it up, we have to do it by 2022. That is what I will fight for.

The second big issue is living standards, economic development. I want to give the promise that we work for a Europe where nobody is forced to leave his or her home only for economic reasons, to get better salaries, to get a job. This economic emigration is a problem in many places in Europe, and also in Lithuania. That's why I strongly support investments in Europe’s regions and I support the agriculture policy. The EPP is the party of strong local communities and for farmers in Europe.

How do you do that? How would you close the gap between wages in Lithuania and, let's say, in Germany? What are specific tools?

First, by reinforcing the internal market, negotiating trade agreements and investing in innovation. And these will be crucial, considering the difficult economic outlook in the coming years. This is not always easy because the socialists often vote against the proposals, like trade agreements with Canada, that strengthen our economy and create many jobs in Europe.

On research, for example, I give you a concrete point. I think the next supercomputer of Europe, and we are building a supercomputer, should not be placed again in the old member states of the European Union. It should be placed in one of the new countries of the European Union, to give countries like the Baltic countries or Poland or Romania a kind of understanding that Europe is investing in modern technologies not only in the old countries of Europe.

About an hour ago you had a discussion with Lithuanian business leaders. They are sceptical about some ideas of setting social standards. Part of it is the Mobility package. They claim – and they get support from the Lithuanian government – that mobility package rules are about pushing Central and Eastern European carriers out of the market to the benefit of Western Europeans who can afford higher wages. What's your response to that?

I like competition. Competition brings lower prices for all of us and better quality products because we can choose. But in Europe we also need minimum social standards to improve the living conditions of people. Europe should not only be seen as a union of money, of banks, of the euro, or whatever. These things are important, but they are not the essence of Europe. The essence of Europe is a social market economy where we have free markets with clear rules and minimum social standards. That is what I really believe in.

But on the other hand, parts of the Mobility Package limit the possibilities of transport companies, also here in Lithuania, to provide their services all over Europe. So I think the current text can still be improved. You know, it is the first reading now, the European Parliament will have to vote on it again after the elections. I will look for a good balance between the free market for companies and the minimum social protection for those who are working in this sector.

Another issue that I heard was raised are sanctions on Russia. Some businesspeople question whether it is sensible to condition sanctions to Russia withdrawing from Crimea which seems unrealistic in foreseeable future. On the other hand, Lithuanian government today urged to ramp up sanctions, because of the new passport rules imposed by President Vladimir Putin in eastern Ukraine. What is your position?

Russia is behaving in an aggressive way against the European Union, and they want to divide us. With their cyber attacks in Europe and their fake news. It is clear they are afraid of a united Europe. That is why it is so important to stay together in our reactions and we have to be clear that we don't accept these provocations and attacks. Until Russia is not coming back to reasonable behavior, we have to stick to the sanctions.

I met in Ukraine with people who had the same desires and wishes for the future like people 30 years ago here in Lithuania. They want to live in a democracy, in a state where you have an independent judiciary, with freedom of speech. That is why Europe will stay on their side. That is totally clear.

You recently said that Turkey cannot become a member of the European Union. What about Ukraine?

We need in the next five years a general discussion about the final composition of Europe. What belongs to Europe and what does not belong to Europe. And I think that the test case is for sure Turkey because we have already negotiations going on. I promised that when I become Commission President, I will stop the enlargement talks. I don't think that Turkey can become member of the European Union.

And for Ukraine there is still a long way to go, membership is not feasible now, everybody knows this. But there must be a European perspective. Even if we know this is a very long term project, I am committed to invest in the relationship, for example by progressing regarding visa liberalization. The association agreement with Ukraine already works because we have strengthened the economic situation there and that is what I want to continue.

Do you think that Russian decision to grant passports easier for people in eastern Ukraine territories not controlled by the Kyiv government should lead to new sanctions of the EU?

We have to assess the impact of this measure. Generally speaking, I am in favor that, if necessary, the European Union is ready to even strengthen sanctions because we have to show the will to defend our principles.

Under the leadership of President Grybauskaitė, whom you met this morning, Lithuania's approach was to isolate Russia to punish for intervention in Ukraine. Many other EU states have taken another approach, including Estonia, whose president met President Putin recently. What is your personal opinion, which way is better: isolation or engagement with Russia?

In my view, the best way to deal with Russia is to be clear and outspoken about what is happening and what we don't agree with. Russia needs the European Union much more than we need Russia. And most importantly, we are united. We should use this to defend our interests and to protect our values. On the other hand, it's obvious that we have to use all the channels of communication to keep dialogue open.

The current President Jean-Claude Juncker has spoken about the vision of economic zone from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Would you repeat such statements?

A great dream, but currently unthinkable. We always showed readiness and this idea of Commission President Juncker makes this very clear, but we need a partner for this. At the moment Russia is not this partner.

The meeting with President Grybauskaitė lasted twice as long as planned initially. She is ending her term. Do you think she would be a good candidate to become the next president of the European Council?

The current president of Lithuania is a very respected and experienced politician in Europe. So I think that gives her a strong profile in Europe and that is good for the country, for Lithuania.

Do you see her as a candidate for the president of the European Council?

We will discuss all the question of the positions and the institutions after the elections, first of all the people have to decide about the direction of Europe at the elections.

Have you mentioned this possibility during the talks this morning (Thursday)?

I will never speak about internal talks.

Speaking about the EU budget, would you support the idea of punishing member states with cutting EU funds if EU institutions find that they breach the rule of law principles?

When we speak about rule of law, we speak about the fundament of Europe. Because the European Union is not first of all an economic zone, it is a union of values. The rule of law, the independence of judiciary, the media freedom, the fight against corruption are foundations for our modern societies. And all Europeans – the Lithuanians, the Austrians, the French – expect from us that these principles are respected and protected.

These values are not a matter of political ideas. They are above politics. And it is clear we need to do more to protect them. The current Article 7 procedure could not prevent recent developments in Poland, Hungary or Romania. That why I propose to upgrade the rule of law mechanism. To make it more independent and effective. As Commission President I would install a committee of experts, consisting of former judges, and have them conduct yearly reports for all Member States, not just the eastern Europeans. We have to take these issues away from politics and finally let the experts and the judges decide. I agree with the idea to link the penalties in such procedures to the European funds.

I think all Europeans, all the Lithuanians don't accept that countries receive taxpayers' money from the EU budget if they do not respect these basic ideas of our societies, like the fight against corruption, the independence of the judiciary and freedom of the media freedom. It's not about punishment, it's about protecting the principles, and that is what I will be very strict on this.

But would you agree that these cuts of funds also pose a risk of bigger Euroscepticism in countries like Poland and Hungary?

No, I don’t think so. Because I see a lot of people in Poland, Romania and elsewhere who demand their governments to protect their basic freedoms and democratic institutions.

My final question about your personality. The surveys show that you are not very well known even in your native Germany. I heard the Church plays a huge role for your personality. How would you describe yourself as a person?

About my personality, I think what defines me is where I am rooted, where I feel at home in Europe and where I am from. We are not representatives of Brussels. I am at home in Bavaria. I go to my Catholic service in my community there and I speak with farmers, with nurses, with my friends. I think for politicians it's extremely important to be rooted in a community with an idea of what the problems are people have from day to day. So my approach be connected to people and to listen to them. I think Europe needs to reconnect with citizens, and that is my mission.

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