The fourth interview for Next Europe takes place in the heart of the eurobubble – the European quarter of Brussels. Roland Freudenstein is the Deputy Director of the Centre for European Studies (CES), the think-tank for the EPP – the conglomeration of centre-right parties in the EU.
Important note: I went to the wrong building for the interview and stepped into the headquarters of the EPP, on the same street. Earlier this week, I was at the headquarters of ALDE, the liberal party group. And the contrast was quite stark. The EPP homes an entire building, whereas ALDE just has one floor and no shiny entrance. I think the ALDE and the CES offices are the same size. Keep this in mind, because it reflects the power base of the christian-democrats, who are by far the biggest faction in the European Parliament.
Back to Roland Freudenstein (check his bio). As you may expect from a politically motivated think-tank, his analysis of the current state of the EU is way more nuanced than for example Jan Techau’s. He played down most of my crisis-suggesting questions, and accentuated the difference between the centre-right ‘and the socialists’.
For instance, what about the lack of interest amongst European citizens? Trust figures are collapsing, is my analysis. ‘The problem is that the EU has not received the credit that it should get from the citizens.’ retorts Freudenstein. The EU decision-making process is very complex and needs compromise, ‘those are handicaps.’ Getting people onboard can be done by ‘sharpening policy alternatives’, according to the researcher, ‘making clear that the socialists don’t want the same thing as the centre-right.‘ Also giving the next EP elections a human face in the form of ‘top candidates for the post of Commission President’ will help, expects Freudenstein.
According to the latest polls, in many EU member states populist parties such as Front National, PVV and UKIP may come in first or second in the elections that take place in May 2014. Should the pro-European parties create a front européen, as influential politicians state? Freudenstein disagrees wholeheartedly. ‘If we all campaign for Europe, we actually corroborate the narrative by the populists that Brussels is just one big elite. We should use this time to make clear what the differences are between the centre-right and the socialists. They will be the main antagonists in this campaign.’
I felt triggered but Freudenstein continued with explaining the differences. ‘The socialists are against austerity, they want an economic government that sets tax levels and pension systems, they are not that committed to our values in foreign relations.’ But will there be enough room for these debates? Isn’t this EP election going to be 28 national elections between parties pro and contra Europe? ‘It is a paradox. We had a completely unprecedented level of attention for the German elections in countries like Greece. So we realize that we are becoming more interdependent, but this has also caused a lot of bad feelings.’
Populists use these emotions handily. But that’s not wise, warns the German researcher. ‘It is impossible to go back to the good old nation-state. Populists are problem-seekers, not problem-solvers. They do not have anything to offer as a constructive solution. ‘
The 2008 crisis will never happen again
So how to deal with the unrest amongst the 500 million Europeans? ‘We need to successfully overcome the crisis, that’s the only way to regain the trust of the citizens,‘ states Freudenstein firmly. And the signs are there. ‘We are on the right way. On a national basis we have a good strategy of consolidating finances and reform. In Europe, we have taken many measures that will bear fruit in the coming months and years. We have kept the eurozone together, and created a system that will prevent crisis like that from 2008 ever happening again. It will not happen anymore in this form, because we have become smarter. Also we have laid the groundwork for bringing Europe back to sustainable growth.‘
The race with the BRICS
No need for fear of losing out against the emerging economies. If Europe manages to innovate, invest in education and skills, and becoming more flexible on our labour market, we can play in a different league than the BRICS, thinks Roland Freudenstein. ‘We can’t compete on their level. But in services and industrial sectors we can be better.’ This is not a zero-sum game. ‘If we take the right attitude than we can create a win-win situation, both for Europe and for the BRICS.’
Will his children be affected by the race, even if it’s not a race? Freudenstein: ‘They won’t have all the state guarantees that my generation, the golden cohort enjoys. There is no certainty my children will live in the same kind of general prosperity. But they will have the chance to reach that level with their own means skills, though not with a state guarantee. It takes a lot of time in the West to get used to this idea.’
Check out the full interview (15 minutes) here: