Saturday
November 1, 2014

Europe Day

Friday, May 9, 2014

EU turning a new corner with parliamentary elections

By Michael Soltys / Senior Editor
If the European Union has picked the Robert Schuman declaration on this day in 1950 to mark Europe Day as a defining statement of community principles, then in those terms today is the moment for the EU to be singing: When I’m Sixty-Four like the Beatles song — to mark the occasion, the Herald invited the EU’s ambassador here Alfonso Diez Torres to put his words to the music.

Diez Torres started by adding another anniversary — the 10th of the 2004 enlargement of the EU from 15 to 25 members, which he could witness at first hand as Spain’s ambassador in Bratislava at the time. “The mother” of all the expansions was also the biggest challenge because all the 10 new members save Malta and Cyprus had belonged to the Warsaw Pact. Given that even today per capita income in most of the new members is around half the EU average, there has been considerable skepticism as to the EU’s ability to digest this huge slice but integration has been smooth beyond the most optimistic expectations — the addition of three new members since 2004 could be presented as proof of that. If Europe has problems, these are not due to the enlargement, despite a more complicated architecture, Diez Torres insists. The assessment has to be positive — the EU is not just bigger but stronger.

The envoy was then asked to explain the paradox that there has been a window for EU-Mercosur agreement in the past couple of years, precisely a period of intensified Argentine trade curbs and Brazilian slowdown.

Diez Torres accepted the apparent contradiction between a free trade agreement and restrictive measures but described the optimism as well-founded. Especially in Brazil the economic players understood that an association agreement was not against the national interest but the best tool for re-industrializing in a globalized world, instead of becoming an excessively primary producer (although Diez Torres adds that many European countries would gladly trade their industry for Argentina’s soy). It was not a question of confronting industry and agriculture but integrating towards open markets and open trade.

Turning from the broader context to the actual negotiations, Diez Torres said that these had never stopped since 2010 and were now close to their “moment of truth” — the exchange of offers (the prior step of the official exchange of information had already been completed in March). The European Commission has already finalized its offer and is consulting its members states, aiming to complete this process before the World Cup and the European summer kick in. The EU envoy also noted with satisfaction that a more pragmatic Argentina this year facilitates negotiations. The offers must still be negotiated, of course, but Diez Torres already feels that it is the “beginning of the end” for negotiations.

The Herald noted that there had been unofficial efforts to speed up the association treaty by hinting darkly at the need to make the most of the window before this month’s European Parliament elections (May 22-25) voted in dozens of Eurosceptics to block everything. How real was this threat and how important are these elections, the Herald asked?

Important for various reasons was the reply. These were the first elections since the Lisbon Treaty (2009) and the first after the full impact of the 2008-9 euro crisis. The Treaty had upgraded the Strasbourg Parliament — if European Parliament elections had previously been a dry run for national elections (Diez Torres accepted the Herald’s analogy with the PASO primaries here), there was now a much bigger campaign with a real European debate because the Commission’s future president will emerge from these elections. Diez Torres noted that both European People’s Party leader Jean-Claude Juncker and the top Socialist Martin Schulz had already appeared in over half of member countries instead of the strictly local campaigning of previous elections.

As for the crisis, things were going better in Europe now with a “silent revolution” in areas like banking union and budget co-ordination but recovery was still pending — as a result there has been a rising skepticism about Europe (but also about politics in general). Yet the EU could be paradoxically grateful to the crisis, Diez Torres argued, because it had created a European public opinion across the continent where none had existed before, making community politics relevant. Plenty of negative voting and abstention can be expected this month and yet the crisis has produced this positive result. The envoy was also extremely proud that Europe’s democratic institutions had undergone and withstood this stress test — before the crisis the EU’s legitimacy had been based on efficiency but if this legitimacy could survive when things did not seem to be working, then European legitimacy was solid indeed.

To complete his answer to the question, Diez Torres explained that the European Parliament played no part in the negotiation of the association agreement — its role was limited to a simple yes or no to approve the treaty after it had been signed by the member states.

Diez Torres almost had the least to say about his own job — since the last Europe Day it had been a quieter year with normal relations and in recent months more pragmatism favouring dialogue. He is looking forward to the visit next month of European Industrial Commissioner Antonio Tajani (frustrated two years ago due to volcanic ash in Chile).

The EU and Argentina have shared values (democracy, human rights, agreement on the main multilateral issues, etc.) and also challenges in common — how to address growing social inequality without hurting the economy — which should be tackled without ideological overload. There are disputes (biofuels, anti-dumping, etc.) and restrictions which hampered the European interests, which still remain here however — despite everything, there was positive engagement and a common agenda.

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