An interview with Prof. Danuta Hübner on the future of Europe
The following is based on an interview with prof. Danuta Hübner, Polish economist and politician, chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs, former EU Commissioner for Trade and Commissioner for Regional Policy.
Marcin Chruściel: The debate on the future of Europe is gaining momentum…
Danuta Hübner: Indeed, the European Commission’s White Paper from March of last year provided grounds for the debate, and I find the Commission’s method very effective: both the European Parliament and member states have taken up the discussion. I do regret that it has not started in Poland yet. Even more so because the Commission has already proposed a first draft of reforms on the basis of the White Paper.
In which direction are these reforms going?
It is clearly visible that they will be focused on deepening the eurozone. This is an absolute priority in the EU nowadays. Not accidentally, the first package of reforms presented by the Commission concerns the eurozone’s future – its architecture and the way it functions. What is becoming very apparent is also the intention to accomplish the banking union, which is an example of federal arrangement – especially in terms of banking supervision. The work on its missing element – the European Deposit Insurance Scheme – will be continued this year. In this way, the first package of reforms concerns also the strengthening of the single currency, aiming at increasing its resilience to crises. All of this is heading towards the greater macroeconomic and financial stability in the euro area.
What about those member states which remain outside, like Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary? Are you not afraid that deepening European integration around the eurozone may result in their marginalisation and, consequently, in a two-speed Europe?
Whether we like it or not, integration within the eurozone will proceed. And yes, the euro is becoming nowadays the main axis of division in the EU. The areas without euro will become very small after the UK’s departure, in fact marginal: 85% of the EU’s gross national income will be coming from eurozone countries. The voices of many Polish politicians – that the monetary union is falling apart, that there is no political will for its continuation, and that joining the eurozone is a bad idea because it is doomed to collapse – have nothing to do with reality.
Let me remark that out of ten countries which joined the EU in 2004 only three have not introduced the euro so far – the above mentioned Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary. Seven have already done it. Including the Baltic states which made their decision in the period of financial and economic crisis in Europe.
On the other hand, those countries which joined the euro family are not economic powerhouses, to put it mildly…
That is true. However, their decision cannot be accounted for only by the fact that they are small economies. They have individually considered the risks of remaining outside the eurozone and the benefits of belonging to it. And in this matter many things have changed recently. The eurozone has been in fact reinvented – with strong stabilisation mechanisms against crises and better guarantees of avoiding irresponsible fiscal policies. I think that today it is organised and protected much better than in the past.
This tendency towards deepening the Economic and Monetary Union does not simultaneously impose further political integration?
You are raising an important point. Because if we look at the “new” member states having problems with the rule of law or with respecting European norms and values, it turns out they are all outside the eurozone. These problems occur in Hungary, Poland and Romania – in countries where there is no single European currency.
It can be said therefore that the feeling of responsibility and common interest grows along with the membership in the monetary union. At the same time, the EU’s political weight is moving there, with Brexit making it even more relevant. For these reasons, joining the monetary union – as the main theatre of European integration – becomes crucial also from the political point-of-view.
It sounds like if Poland and other “outsiders” join the eurozone, all their problems will be solved.
Not at all. But what we have to do in Poland is simply to start discussing it. Unfortunately, the current government has shut down all the institutions which were responsible for preparing Poland to adopt the euro.
In the National Bank, the Office of Polish Integration with the Eurozone has been closed, just as the Bureau of Government Plenipotentiary for Euro Adoption. So, we have to open the public debate on the euro and start contradicting the false narratives. It is not about joining the eurozone tomorrow, but about getting away from anachronistic views. Like the one that by remaining outside the eurozone one can manipulate the exchange rate and improve the competitiveness of the economy in case of crisis. But nowadays it depends upon other factors – upon talents, education, entrepreneurial culture… With the new drivers of competitiveness, such as innovation and technology, the classical arguments of economy are losing importance.
You are saying that the EU is re-integrating and the eurozone strengthening. How can we then explain the recent electoral gains of eurosceptic parties in the “old” member states: the AfD in Germany or the Five Star Movement in Italy? Do you not get the impression that people are becoming fatigued with European integration?
I have a slightly different look at it. In my opinion, these results are grounded in a new and quite universal tendency of social changes which stimulate the rise of populist politicians. This is due to the fact that new challenges emerged, for which traditional parties have not found solutions.
Is this a self-criticism?
To some extent, yes. We could not cope with migration flows. The populists have exploited this immediately in order to scare people. For example, by saying that the migrants bring insects and diseases. They throw Europe in to all of this. The undermining of trust in European institutions helps them build strong national or xenophobic narratives. And the populists live off these narratives.
Or maybe Europeans are simply not ready for a supranational European identity – which is being imposed on them from above?
No one tries to construct a European identity ”from above” nor is it about replacing national identities. The feeling of “Europeanness” occurs (or not) on a different level. In America, this is manifested very well by “hyphenated identities”, like African-Americans, Latino-Americans, or Indian-Americans. But it took many years for this to appear, and it has to be a spontaneous, bottom-up process. People have to feel that they need Europe to speak: “I am a Pole, and also a European”. And here, paradoxically, Brexit plays an important role. How many people were talking before about the European citizenship and EU citizens? We have it in the Treaties, but nobody was interested in it, knew about the rights and obligations. And now it turns out suddenly that there is a struggle to keep the rights of EU citizens in the UK – like the Poles, among others, who will be still arriving there for some time. Thus, Brexit has allowed us, the EU citizens, to discover that this citizenship is real. That it gives us certain rights and entitles us to something, and we are starting to fight for them. For this reason, Brexit is a positive process for the European identity.
Since we are already at Brexit – may the departure of the UK, a tough opponent of supranational integration, lead to the federalisation of Europe?
In fact, I am not so sure about the federalisation of Europe. Apart from the very beginning, when the word “federal” has actually appeared, it was never said in Europe where this idea of integration is leading to. Its finalité politique was always open.
The European Communities, and later the European Union, have been changing step by step, embracing new countries and policy areas, usually in response to what just happened and is needed. Today, for example, people first expect from the EU a sense of security, so integration in this area is progressing. We already have PESCO, which is a Permanent Structured Cooperation on security and defence, gathering 25 member states (including all V4 countries). It cannot be ruled out that one day a federal formula will appear, with a common army or taxes. But I do not think this could happen otherwise than by a social contract with people willing to give more sovereignty to the European level.
Some politicians in the European Parliament, headed by Guy Verhofstadt, are already loudly pronouncing that they are in favour of the federal model.
Yes, there are groups of federalists, there is the Spinelli Group. However, they are not lobbying for a top‑down adoption of the federal model. They are calling for actions that bring more and more Europe to those areas where it gives the most effective solutions. These are movements against intergovernmentalism. Against what the British have forced us into on many occasions, for example by vetoing the Treaty on Stability (in 2012 the UK, together with the Czech Republic, refused to sign the Treaty).
Was it then a relief for these movements that the British have decided to leave?
Certainly, the state which is now going away had a tendency, or even the ease of vetoing various solutions. And that was not good for European integration.
Don’t you think that the European Commission went too far, launching Article 7 TEU against Poland?
It is the duty of the Commission to be the guardian of the Treaties, to ensure that all member states respect the law and common values of the EU, including the rule of law. For two years, the Commission was seeking dialogue with Poland and was giving its recommendations as a part of the procedure that enables not triggering Article 7. Poland has rejected the Commission’s right to exercise this initial control and left it with no other choice but to reach for the “nuclear option”, that is, to use the treaty base.
Some argue that the activation of this option was a step towards a de facto Polexit – that is Poland remaining in the “second speed” Europe. And Polexit de iure – is it a possible ending?
Article 50 confirms the possibility of leaving the EU. But we can observe, thankfully from the example of Great Britain, the kind of drama it brings to the future of a country; what does it mean in terms of legal disorder and the costs that must be covered to replace EU activities. Exiting from the single market and the customs union is depriving oneself of the most important growth-enhancing mechanisms. For a country like Poland, which is still a country “working its way up”, it would be a tragedy. I cannot imagine any responsible politician starting actions towards an exit referendum in Poland.
So Brexit as a lesson for Poland?
Yes, let’s take it as a lesson.
The original version of the interview (in Polish) is available here on Nowa Konfederacja.
Marcin Chruściel is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Wroclaw and currently works with the Nowa Konfederacja Thinkzine.