European Commission Vice President Margot Wallström discusses the state of the EU, its political challenges, and the next countries that may join the union.
Question: Did the EU take a step backwards with the June elections?
Margot Wallström: It’s difficult to sort of summarize from that point of view. I think the disappointment was that we had an even lower voter turnout in these elections than last time. But it was a very uneven result, because in as much as eleven countries the voter turnout was higher, but in general it went down further, even if it was not as much as predicted.
I think what was positive was that in those countries and those parties where they tried to introduce a more Pan-European perspective, and debated while focused on substance issues, voters actually rewarded them for doing that. So this was a good element.
We also saw some really extremist and right-wing candidates being voted into the European parliament, and that is always sad. And I think that the whole picture, it will be more volatile, it will be more difficult to find. We have seen during the last mandate, sort of this Grand Coalition, big coalitions or big solutions between the political groups. So I think that it would be tougher five years to come for the commissioners to find the support and backing of different proposals.
Question: Why do extremist parties appeal to EU citizens?
Margot Wallström: I think when the established mainstream political parties do not integrate the European issues into their normal political debate, discussion, and discourse, or if people don’t see that they address the real problems, then there will always be room for the extremists or populists. I think that that this can be the result of a deep economic crisis. If people think that the politicians are not doing enough, they will be more inclined to listen to those that have a very, very clear or simplistic message, unfortunately. So I think there are many explanations to why this happens. But I think the lack of a truly European public space where you can discuss these issues, where it is a natural part of the political discussion. That is definitely one of the explanations.
Question: What is the importance of the Libson Treaty to EU politics?
Margot Wallström: Well the fact is that the Irish, who are yet to ratify the new treaty, have announced that they are willing to have another referendum, probably on the 2nd of October or beginning of October. It has been a long winding road to have a decision on the new treaty for the European Union. This is because it has to be ratified by all twenty-seven member states.
The background is that we could see that the rulebook, the existing treaties, are not designed to host 27 member states. They are not effective or democratic or well-designed enough to live up to the demands of the times we live in. We want to make sure that we can speak in one voice on the international scene, for example. We want to make sure that we can make decisions much more effectively. We want to make sure that we are more democratic, inviting citizens to take initiatives. And there are new provisions of that kind in the treaty, but we’ve had problems in a few countries where, through referenda, people have opposed it. It has not been very well communicated in those countries.
Question: What countries are on the radar for inclusion in the EU?
Margot Wallström: Well we already have an established negotiation cycle. Negotiations are going on already with a number of countries, Croatia being first on the list. With newcomers like Iceland, that has already been decided that they would apply for membership in the parliament. And of course, Turkey. For many, many years now that we are engaged in negotiation procedures with Turkey.
We hope that the countries in the Balkan area will become new members. It helps if we have a modern effective treaty on how to make decisions when we have so many member states, even though it is not an absolute sort of preconditioned or an obstacle to continue. But the rules are not clear about what will happen then.
Question: In regards to Turkey’s inclusion in the EU, is part of the debate the belief that it is not European enough?
Margot Wallström: I think it is part of debate where in some member states. The public opinion is very negative and for many different reasons. I think there’s a lot of ignorance on both sides. We are ignorant about exactly what modern Turkey looks like. I think in Turkey there is a lot of ignorance about what it would mean, and what happens, and how the debate goes in Europe. I think that there are a lot of prejudices on both sides, and clearly there are differences that have to be sorted out. There are provisions and conditions that they have to live up to before they can become members, and these are the same rules for any country. They have to live up to certain criteria about defending human rights, or the judicial system: how that works, etc., democratic rules. And still, they have quite some work to do.
But I am one among those who think that this is one of the most important decisions that we can make. And I’m all for it. I’m really hoping that we will be able to welcome Turkey as a new member of the European Union. From a geopolitical point of view, there is no more important decisions we can make in order to secure a secular democratic development in Turkey. It’s so important that we live up to our commitments, and that they also do the work they have to do in order to be ready.
Question: Ideally, where do you see the European Union in ten years?
Margot Wallström: I believe it is the European Union including the Balkan countries. And I’m hoping that Turkey will also be a member. I hope that it will be European Union that will have sustainable development as the overall target, and will be the showcase to the rest of the world that it is possible to combine economic growth with environmental protection, social justice, and social protection, as well for our citizens and to show that it is possible to create a smart green growth. And I hope that it will be a European Union that does the right things, makes the right decisions, but also does it right. That is, opens up for citizens and works on the democratic development in the different member states. And I think we have all the possibilities in the world to turn Europe into a place where sustainable development is top on the agenda.
Recorded on: July 10, 2009