The recovery fund could become a permanent feature of the European Union, according to European Parliament President David Sassoli.
In this exclusive interview with Kathimerini, published on the day of his visit to Athens for the 40th anniversary of Greece’s accession to the European Community, Sassoli praises the country’s performance in the face of the pandemic crisis, noting that it was helped by the fact that the EU learned from the mistakes of the past.
The president of the European Parliament says that he is particularly concerned about internal developments in Turkey and expresses MEPs’ frustration over the lack of progress in talks about the new migration pact.
What is your reaction to the events that took place on Sunday with the Ryanair flight that was forced to land in Belarus? What do you think of the European Council’s response?
It is an incredibly serious incident. We demand the immediate release of the Belarusian dissident and his companion. We welcome the decisions on targeted economic sanctions and on new listings of Belarusian regime officials, on the suspension of travel over Belarusian airspace and the banning of Belavia and other Belarusian airlines from the airspace of EU member-states. We don’t want the EU to be a paper tiger. This is an incident which escalates tensions, especially if we consider that there were some Russian citizens on that flight.
Do you believe that Russia should be included in the frame over the European response to the incident?
We must focus on the authors of the incident. It is clear that it is the Belarusian authorities that are responsible.
Are you satisfied with what Europe brought to the table at the Rome summit to boost access to vaccines in poorer countries?
Europe at this point is the only global power which is helping poor and middle-income countries on a significant scale. What we ask from the other major powers is that they also commit to boosting vaccination all over the world. The first thing they must do is repeal bans on exports. Secondly, production must be increased, and we must send more vaccines to these countries. The pandemic will not be over unless it’s over everywhere. All major countries need to participate in the COVAX mechanism. The pandemic has taught us that solidarity is what will save us.
What is your view on the idea of waiving intellectual property rights concerning vaccines and the recent change of heart in the US, toward which the EU has reacted with skepticism?
As I said at the Rome summit, anything that increases our production capacity must be supported. There must be no taboos. And of course, it’s critical that we support the Commission’s proposal in the World Trade Organization (WTO) framework for better utilization of the flexibilities of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The EU must speak with one voice on the issue of intellectual property rights.
On the common vaccine strategy, do you think the EU has learned from its mistakes? Was the harsh criticism of recent months – using words such as “fiasco” and “disaster” – fair or excessive?
In these past 15 months we have understood what works and what does not. Europe need competencies in order to function well. When, without having the necessary competencies, it tries to substitute for the member-states, it faces major difficulties. This is true of health, like it is of migration.
In the area of health, we have witnessed a number of initiatives from the center after the outbreak of the pandemic. Will member-states accept this transfer of competencies, or will they demand their repatriation once the pandemic is over?
I have said publicly that we need more such initiatives, because the crisis is far deeper than we had imagined. We are now waiting for the implementation of the recovery fund and the issuance of common European bonds that will finance it. It is a toll which I am sure will be useful also in the future.
Do you mean that it will become a permanent feature of the EU policy architecture?
Let’s see first how it works this time. But I am sure that if it proves successful and easy to use, it could indeed become something permanent.
Last week an agreement was reached between the Council and the Parliament on the EU Covid certificate. Are you optimistic that it will lead in practice to the restoration of free movement inside the bloc?
It should, yes. The Parliament fought to ensure there would be no discrimination against those not vaccinated and for a common framework, so that we don’t see a plethora of unilateral measures by member-states. The certificate should allow us to begin the summer season in an orderly and safe manner.
On the migration front, the crisis has receded (for now at least) – and along with it, so has the sense of urgency for a common European approach. We hear increasingly pessimistic noises about the prospect of a deal on the new pact proposed last September by the Commission.
The European Parliament is particularly frustrated by this. We have been asking the member-states for years to give the Union the competencies it needs. Today we can be pragmatic, and at the same time we can defend our values. We can organize a pan-European search-and-rescue operation, coordinate on the creation of humanitarian corridors, build a framework for safe, stable, legal migration. This would be useful for all our countries; they all face demographic challenges, after all. Legal migration, therefore, could help with the recovery plans. If arrivals in the EU were distributed across the 27 member-states, the burden for each would be miniscule. Greece knows this well – it is the European country that has borne the burden of the migratory waves more than any other.
What is it that’s blocking an agreement though? The Commission proposal certainly went a long way toward assuaging the concerns of countries most concerned about inflows and border protection.
There is no progress because some countries insist that the solution is to wall themselves off and not accept anyone. They are wrong. Legal migration helps our societies.
Another crucial issue for the EU, and especially for Greece, is Turkey. The Parliament last week overwhelmingly approved a very tough resolution on this issue. Where do you see EU-Turkey relations heading? Do you believe that the interests that bind the two sides (migration management, economic relations) are sufficient to paper over the growing gap in values?
I am particularly concerned about the internal situation in Turkey. We are not seeing any effort on the part of the Turkish authorities to establish the rule of law and to protect human rights. It is obvious that in these circumstances the tone of the discussions with Turkey will not change – though we remain open to dialogue. We need to see very concrete signals [of a changing attitude]. Also, the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean remains precarious. Let us hope that the de-escalation of recent months will persist. We believe that the Commission should be very clear on these matters. In any case, the accession negotiations at this point are essentially at a standstill.
Greece went through an unprecedented financial crisis and six years ago came within a whisker of leaving the eurozone. As its recovery was gaining strength, it was hit by the pandemic, whose effects have been especially ruinous for tourism. A year later, how do you judge Greece’s performance, both on the health and the economic front?
Very positively. In part because Europe understood the mistakes it made during the previous crisis. Greek society was put under enormous pressure at the time. I trust that the experience of the pandemic has taught us that we cannot return to the status quo ante. The fiscal rules, the rules on state aid, all had to be suspended to manage this crisis. The fiscal rules especially cannot be reinstated in their current form, as this would decisively undermine the recovery. The Stability and Growth Pact must change – and this discussion must happen now.
How worried are you about the state of the rule of law inside the EU? How sustainable is a situation in which one member-state is consistently diverging from the common line on foreign policy?
First of all, there is no other international organization which defends the rule of law like the EU – to the point where it imposes sanctions on its own members when they violate its core principles. Some member-states are currently under observation and procedures have been opened against them. Last year we strengthened the tools available to the Union to defend the rule of law. It was a priority for the European Parliament – and now it is EU law. Especially at the current juncture, when many totalitarian regimes are trying to showcase how effective they are, we must defend democracy. But we must also modernize it: We cannot run the EU on the principle of unanimity.
Where are we with the China investment agreement (CAI)? Will it remain frozen until Beijing removes the sanctions it has imposed on MEPs? Has the EU, as a result of the pandemic, become less naive and more determined to defend its interests vis-a-vis China?
The EU must do a lot more to become an effective global player. It is very hard to negotiate with a state that imposes sanctions on members of Parliament. That is why we suspended the ratification of the agreement. We have similar problems with the Russian government, which has banned me from traveling to Russia. When it comes to our economic interests more generally, we should remain open to foreign investment, but we must be careful. We must protect our patrimony, not sell everything off.