The EU has failed to move on from the cataclysmic Brexit vote and is hamstrung by the failure of national leaders to sell the European vision back home, according to a valedictory interview with one of the bloc’s key figures.
The outgoing president of the European parliament, Martin Schulz, said Brussels was “treading water” because national governments had lacked political courage in the face of the rise of the populist right.
In his last major interview before a widely expected move to the frontline of German politics, Schulz told the Europa group of newspapers there had been a paradigm change in national leaders’ attitudes to the EU, which was threatening to undermine its stability.
“The generation of [Helmut] Kohl and [François] Mitterrand travelled to Brussels with the attitude that a strong Europe is in the interest of our country,” he said. “The [Viktor] Orbán generation says ‘we have to defend the interests of our country against Europe’ – as if they were being attacked by Brussels.”
Giving the example of the euro, the Social Democratic party politician, who has been one of the leading figures in European politics for more than a decade, said if the EU “implemented everything that was possible without changes to the treaties, a lot could be improved”.
“The commission and the parliament would be on board, but it all falls down in the council, with the national governments. At the end of the day the union is only as strong as its member states allow it to be.”
Schulz’s intervention comes at a critical time for the EU, whose rotating presidency passed this week to Malta, its smallest state. This will be a defining year in the Brexit negotiations, though even that may not be the biggest story in Europe in 2017, with elections in France and Germany, heightened jitters over regular terrorist atrocities, and the euro and migration crises still not resolved.
Schulz, who has been mooted as a replacement for the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, accused national leaders of having failed to explain to their electorate at home why they transferred powers to Brussels. “The same people who nod along in Brussels pretend at home that some anonymous force put pressure on them. That is deadly.”