BRUSSELS - Some would see it as poetic justice, a tale of small-scale retribution. Walking down a corridor of the European Parliament is a stunning young woman with black hair and a slender figure, "straight out of a magazine." Martin Schulz, not the most impressive peacock in the building, is walking past her, accompanied by two aides. The gorgeous woman's eyes sparkle as she looks at him and flashes a wide smile. Schulz nearly chokes. "Was that smile for me?" he asks, seeking verification. "It wasn't aimed at you, right?"
"She's one of the beauties that Silvio Berlusconi bequeathed to the parliament," notes his assistant. Schulz keeps on walking, his head held high. The circle has closed: A few years ago, Schulz, the leader of the Socialists in the European Parliament, gained the world's attention following an incident in the parliament plenum in which the Italian prime minister, who had just become the rotating president of the EU Council of Ministers, was presenting his platform. Berlusconi was displeased by a reproachful speech that Schulz delivered in response. "Mister Schulz, I know of a movie producer in Italy who is making a film about Nazi concentration camps." he said. "I will recommend you for the part of a kapo. You are perfect!"
Berlusconi recently lost his job as the prime minister of Italy. Conversely, the 56-year-old Schulz will soon settle into the seat of the president of the European Parliament. He regards the appointment with awe, and has already adopted an official demeanor.
"A German who heads an international institution bears a unique responsibility that deviates from the ordinary. He has to be sensitive and to act in accordance with the very unique commitments of Germany. Throughout my political career I have felt that the consequence of our national history must be Europe, and that the internal threats that still exist to one degree or another inside Germany require our strong country to integrate in the European Union and in multinational frameworks. This, along with the German commitment to Israel's security, are the raison d'etat of Germany in the modern era, and we must hold to that."
Should a German Socialist be more worried than other European leaders? Given the crisis in Europe, do you fear a return of nationalism and a return to the wars of the past?
"This is very much on my mind. Germany always prospered when it was rooted in its regional family. Conversely, it was always threatened or itself constituted a threat to its neighbors when it adhered to the notion of sonderweg ["special path"]. This must be avoided. How? It happens automatically when Germany is European. Our supreme goal needs to be a European Germany and not a German Europe.
"The national identity of the Federal Republic of Germany in postwar Europe had been fully exhausted. We joined the family of democratic nations via European integration. This was the historic lesson of Germany - its resolution in favor of 'no more nationalism' and 'no more fascism,' rather integration into a united Europe. It was a formula that created unique national identity and transformed Germany into a recognized and conciliated state, both in internal German terms and also in terms of its partners.
"European integration is a colossal economic success for us and for our neighbors, and therefore I am certainly troubled, since whether Europe fails economically because it has failed politically, or it fails politically as a consequence of failing economically, it would be Germany that would be hurt more than anyone else."
Germany's dominant position in Europe and the manner in which Chancellor Merkel is managing the crisis are provoking a sharp wave of Germanophobia in the Continent. Some people are speaking about the founding of a "Fourth Reich."
"It's easy to explain it. Germany is, after all, the most populous country in Europe, it is situated in the center, it is the largest economic power in the continent - leading it to be the 'inevitable force.' Everyone needs it, and at the same time the Germans need Europe. Meaning that it is Germany's obligation to act, and incumbent on its partners to agree to its actions. What is not logical is that Germany is asked to act, and the moment it does so they come to it with complaints.
"In a way this 'Germanophobia' is not justified. Germany did not push itself into this role. It is a reluctant "leader"; it is partly due to the help or cluelessness or cowardice of some European leaders who hide behind the Germans that Germany is forced to act, otherwise there wouldn't be any progress at all. Germany has a very successful and competitive economy; that creates admiration but also envy. When the Germans say, OK we are paying or we are backing up these loans but we want certain safeguards and conditions in order not to lose our money in the long run, these are normal, fair and understandable requests.
"But Germany's mistake is that it creates the impression that it is lecturing and preaching, maybe even dictating, to others instead of trying to persuade. In my opinion, this matter can be resolved if the Germans changed their style. Merkel should have told her partners - we are paying for you but that is not to humiliate you but in order to strengthen you, and to arrive at a future situation in which we will not have to pay for you any longer. That would have been perceived very differently. The taste of technocracy that now dominates in Berlin is harmful. There is a lack of sensitivity here, and it worries me."
More and more experts are talking about a collapse of the euro bloc and a return to the national currencies. Do you subscribe to this scenario?
"First, the euro will not fail. Before it falls apart, the euro bloc will take extraordinary measures, and they will come from Germany because if there is one country that cannot allow itself the re-emergence of national currencies, it is Germany. It mustn't find itself in the situation of Switzerland today - a situation of exaggerated revaluation of its currency in relation to the other currencies, which would harm a people that depends more than any other on the convertibility of its currency. Therefore, Germany will do everything possible to save the euro. So it is clear that the solutions that they are not willing to talk about right now in Berlin will in fact be top-priority in the Berlin of tomorrow - for example, in relation to the role of the European Central Bank, and to the issuing of eurobonds."
According to Bernard-Henri Levy, Europe's decline is not economic; it has more to do with culture, politics, ideas and ideals. What future do you predict for the continent in the decades to come?
"Culture in Europe is flourishing. In Berlin, culture is at its peak. Paris and London are vibrant and blossoming capital cities. There is no cultural decline, but rather political stagnation, weakness and lack of political will.
"It is difficult to make a prophesy on the future of the continent. There are two options. It is my hope that there will be a European government that will be responsible for increasingly more subjects that would be transferred to it by the governments of member states - such as in the realm of international commerce, monetary relations, climate and issues of immigration and international security, for example. The reality is liable to be different - a divided Europe in which nation-states vie with one another in an attempt to regain influence they've lost, in order to accrue renewed strength in the face of other world powers.
"Europe has to choose between intensifying integration and the other option. However, the Europeans are politically paralyzed and this creates new problems every day. It's like the story of the ass and the farmer Buridan. A story they used to tell in Eastern Europe, in which the farmer's ass is placed between two stacks of straw and cannot decide from which one to eat. Eventually it died of hunger."
Europe has seen its share of crises in the past. Is the current one worse than preceding ones?
"Yes, since there is now a lack of willingness to take action. The leaders know that they should act, but are afraid of the reactions at home. Merkel is afraid to act courageously at the European level because she fears that her actions will lead to a breakup of her government. So her actions are only superficial, and in reality she is not really taking action."
How would you sum up the European summit that made a decision to adopt a fiscal treaty, and do you also think that the way to get out of the crisis lies in the idea of a "multi-speed Europe"?
"I criticize the summit's failure to act on a string of critical issues, including a pact for employment and stability, the role of the ECB and next year's funding for states in crisis. The outcome of the summit leaves a lot of questions unanswered, including legal ones about the structure and ratification process of this new treaty. The purely austerity-driven approach is shortsighted; it is all very well for a country with a strong and sound economy based on a competitive income-generating manufacturing and services industry. But how should a country like Greece come out of this crisis when there is no investment in growth and employment?
"To a great extent, the 'multi-speed Europe' is already the situation today. We have, for instance, a single currency. There are states that wish to join it and others that received the okay to remain outside it - like Britain and Denmark - and still others that signed on to join the single currency but have decided to wait, like Sweden and the Czech Republic. Meaning that multi-speed Europe already exists.
"Is it the solution or is it perhaps a source of trouble? I feel it is a source of trouble. The coherency of all of the 27 should be the objective."
Is Britain's prime minister, David Cameron, who refused to sign the fiscal treaty, leading his country out of the EU?
"I condemn the British government's stance at last week's EU summit. I deplore the U.K.'s increasing self-isolation caused by Prime Minister Cameron, who is playing up to the Europhobes within his party. The other 26 EU member states could not allow themselves to be blackmailed by unreasonable British demands such as opt-outs from the working time directive and the refusal of stricter financial regulation, the lack of which was one of the main reasons for the financial crisis in the first place.
"David Cameron has scored a classic own goal. He will have to return to the negotiating table to undo the damage.
"The U.K. belongs to Europe and with an actively participating U.K. we would all be better off. But this selfish cherrypicking and constant obstruction displayed by the present government really forces us to ask the question, where does the U.K. want to be? Europe will be able to continue without the U.K., but I am not so sure whether the same applies the other way round."
You favor enlarging the EU, such that it would also include the Balkan states. Could Israel also be a candidate to join?
"As long as the Netanyahu-Lieberman government is in power, even those who theoretically favor Israel's membership have no chance of persuading others to back the move. Israel cannot become a member of the EU, but may certainly be granted maximal access to the European markets. The Europeans are aware of the fact that they must act in favor of its maximal integration in the framework of the Association Agreement, to which Israel is a signatory."
The European Parliament, which represents the half-billion citizens of the EU, has in recent years amassed authorities and power. For instance, it is now blocking ratification of agreements to upgrade relations between the EU and Israel. Will the policy of exerting pressure on Israel continue during the period of your presidency?
"Yes. The Parliament's decision to block the agreements with Israel stems from the lack of progress in the peace process and from our ambition to pressure the Israeli government to alter this situation. If Israel would seriously act to get out of the dead end, the European Parliament would respond accordingly. As president, I will work to find compromises. Right now, it is my impression that the desire to find these sorts of compromises is greater in the European Parliament than in the government of Israel.
"Our biggest problem is that there is no consensus in the EU. As for Israel and Palestine, the EU is absolutely divided, as it always was. This is also true for Libya, for instance. We had voices for and against, and abstentions, in the Security Council. It went in every possible direction. As for Syria, we are imposing double standards here - what we did in relation to Libya we're not doing in relation to Syria. Here, too, the opinions of the Europeans are diverse and at times contradictory."
To what degree do you fear Islamization of the Arab world, and is Europe, which is now going through such a difficult crisis, at all capable of aiding the states that are liberating themselves?
"Europe is liable to miss a historic opportunity. After all, the U.S. is absent from the region. I myself was in Egypt in July. The people there want democracy, freedom, human rights etc., but mainly they want national insurance, employment and a future for their children. However, we are now in a stage of promises and not actions. Europe is liable to miss an opportunity to gain partners on the other side of the Middle East and to gain, incidentally, also our own growth. Investments in infrastructure in states like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria constitute an opportunity for those EU member states that are in crisis, like Italy, Greece and Spain. They can help create these infrastructures, which would generate growth and employment for them. We need a sort of Marshall Plan that will create a powerful momentum in the region. To my dismay, we are not doing so and since we are not doing so there is fear of the Islamization of these states that are breaking free. If the only ones offering solutions to the people in the field are the Muslim Brotherhood and the like, then it should be no wonder that they are getting votes."
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