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2019.07.18 15:00

Von der Leyen's election weakens eurosceptics – interview with EP President Sassoli

Angela Mauro2019.07.18 15:00

“Today, this much was clear: those who are outside the European game play in Serie B. To play in Serie A, you must stay within the Europeanist scheme.”

In his office on the 15th floor of the European Parliament building, with a breath-taking view of Strasbourg, David Sassoli is satisfied with how the day has gone, a day that was crucial for the beginning of the new parliamentary term.

The European Parliament elected Ursula von der Leyen president of the European Commission, albeit with a majority of only nine votes (383 MEPs voted in her favour, where the threshold was 374).

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda, meanwhile, said her narrow victory gave Lithuania a good negotiating posititon for Commission posts – "If I can put it lightly, she [Ursula von der Leyen] won by a margin which is about the number of Lithuanian MEPs".

Her election was not a foregone conclusion. But more than anything, it was far from certain that the chamber would speak with a majority made up of Europeanist forces, avoiding the risk, very real until two days ago, that the new chief of the Berlaymont would be relying on the support of the sovereigntists.

This is the premise by which the president of the European Parliament begins this interview, where he explains that pro-Europeans will be able to regulate Parliament's vote on the commissioners of the von der Leyen team.

In short, it will be difficult for a sovereigntist commissioner, for example from Italy’s Lega, to be approved. Mr Sassoli does not say so explicitly, but his reasoning is as follows: the new president will have to, in his words, “present commissioners who remain faithful to the commitments she has made in Parliament. The College of Commissioners must be unanimous on the programmatic points on which the commitments are made. If there are structural divergences within the College, the Commission's initiative would be weaker.”

His advice for Italy? “Return to the European dynamic, this is its vocation.”

President Sassoli, only a few days ago it seemed that Ms von der Leyen would receive more votes from the sovereigntists than from the pro-Europeans. How did we arrive at today's result?

Listening to Parliament is good. The proposals have been made specific this week. Ms von der Leyen's speech this morning touched on so many of Parliament's hot topics: from immigration to the themes of solidarity, stability and flexibility, to the great proposal to reconcile with the Spitzenkandidaten method that was betrayed, or starting an inter-institutional dialogue that could specify the instruments of democracy.

She also mentioned a significant request from the Parliament to strengthen its power of initiative. Ms von der Leyen made clear that: when Parliament, by a large majority, makes a legislative proposal, she will follow up on its initiatives. This changes the scene to a significant degree and strengthens Parliament.

Only last week, the Commission’s president-elect was negotiating with everyone, regardless of political orientation or their degree of Europeanism. What made her change her mind?

Let's just say she looked around, listened, understood what she was hearing, and clarified her proposals. There was a real negotiation with the Parliament. She met all the political groups, set out the proposals, wrote to them, listened to the priorities of the Europeanist groups, and also specified her own red lines. It was a transparent path comprised of public statements, assemblies, meetings, Twitter posts, posts on Facebook, interviews... a path where nothing was secret or confidential.

Finally, Ms von der Leyen chose the Europeanist field. Can we say that the anti-sovereigntist ‘cordon sanitaire’ worked?

Parliament has made political choices. 'Cordon sanitaire' is a very ugly expression. It is not a question of excluding anyone, but it was a democratic and transparent process, as happens in all the parliaments of Europe. I do not think that it is done any differently in Montecitorio, or that Italian majorities are achieved in a different way. You are the president if you have the support to be so elected. I think she was very clear in the chamber this morning: she wants to work with the forces that want a stronger Europe. And she rejected the sovereigntists’ votes with a witty remark to the leader of the AfD, MEP Jörg Meuthen.

Will the Europeanist method therefore block the appointment of sovereigntist candidates for the team of commissioners led by Ms von der Leyen?

Today's vote is not a vote on the Commission, but the start of the Commission’s journey. In September, we expect that names will be on the table to be auditioned to form the College. Then Parliament will have the final say on the Commission.

Today we understand that those who are outside the European game play in Serie B. To play in Serie A, you must stay in the Europeanist scheme. In this case, that comes out of the election result, because the citizens have not rewarded the forces that want less Europe, but the forces that want a stronger Europe, that want Europe to be a key player on the international scene. The ones who participate in this game play in the Champions League. The others play in Serie B.

In the Italian government, the Five Star Movement voted in favour of Ms von der Leyen.

I think that Italy should be part of the European dynamic, this is its calling. When Italy plays in Europe, it can also win and assert its ideas. If it pulls back, we have seen that that can become a problem.

And this applies to all governments and to all the commissioners who will come here. They must form a legislature that must begin to make Europe stronger. And I hope my country can do it.

Moreover, it is good if more groups come out and join those who want a stronger Europe. Ms von der Leyen said one thing: the starting point of her initiatives in Parliament will be the forces that want a stronger Europe.

We talked about positive aspects of Ms von der Leyen’s election. Are there also any negative ones? After all, she secured the approval of the Visegrad countries that create so many problems for a united Europe.

She will have to present commissioners who keep to the commitments she has made in Parliament. The Commission also has a political initiative. It is essential that the College be unanimous on the programmatic points on which commitments have been made. If the commissioners depart from these commitments, the Commission's initiative would be weaker.

At this stage, Ms von der Leyen can promise anything, but if the proposals fail to pass, she can blame the member states. It happened with the Juncker plan on migrant relocation.

We need a Commission that encourages solidarity among countries. We know that the mechanisms are not only in the hands of the Commission. For example, immigration policy continues to be national; we need to transfer immigration policy to Europe.

That is why I referred to reforming the Dublin Regulation, because it is a way to provide Europe with some operational tools. If you arrive in Italy, you arrive in Europe and therefore the EU must take responsibility. But if this reform does not develop, if transfers of powers from the national level to Europe do not take place, who will take those people in? Only Italy, Greece or Spain will take them in – the countries on the southern border of Europe.

The Commission can do a lot, but it cannot do everything. In any case, having a Commission that pushes for greater solidarity is important.

What else impressed you most about Ms von der Leyen's speech?

The story of her father: a 15-year-old boy in Nazi Germany who then becomes a senior European Community leader. Her father really represents the Germany that understood the lessons of war and Nazism, that is the generation that started it all.

It was like that for me too. I find so many similarities. We owe so much to that generation; they experienced the most absolute horror and have been able to give us an important legacy. That is why it is even more necessary to work for the European Union. She was right to make that reference and to frame the forces that want a stronger Europe as her point of reference.