Sunday

26th Jan 2020

Interview

Cohn-Bendit: still fighting for Europe

  • The Franco-German binational represented the Greens of both countries in the European Parliament between 1994 and 2014 (Photo: Parti socialiste)

It is hard to find a more passionate European than Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

The Franco-German binational represented the Greens of both countries in the European Parliament between 1994 and 2014 and is an unwavering advocate of EU federalism.

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  • Brexit could be a good thing for EU integration, Cohn-Bendit said (Photo: European Commission)

In August, Cohn-Bendit was offered the post of French environment minister by president Emmanuel Macron. But the former agitator, whose name will forever be associated with the 1968 Paris student revolt, is more interested in working for the cause of European cohesion.

Since the withering of France's Les Verts to near irrelevance, he has become a fervent supporter of Macron's pro-European stance.

There was speculation that Cohn-Bendit would run as a candidate of the French president's Le Republique En Marche (LaREM) in next year's European elections.

At 73, "Dany le rouge", as he was known during his revolutionary youth, said he preferred to take a back seat role as a commentator and campaign advisor for LaREM.

EUobserver caught up with him following his appearance at a recent conference in Berlin. We raised the prospect that the rise of europhobic right-wing populism could lead to the EU's downfall.

"There's going to be a political shift," he said.

"But, as you see in the behaviour of the Italian and Austrian governments, with this Brexit drama, no one seriously wants to leave the EU or the euro. What is being discussed at the moment is what the EU looks like. There are differences between right-wing forces who have a rather illiberal interpretation of democracy and those who stand for liberal democracy: this is going to be the confrontation in the EU", he added.

This struggle is currently being waged within the European People's Party (EPP) - as seen in the disagreement over whether Hungarian prime minister's Viktor Orban's right-wing populist Fidesz party should be excluded from the EPP parliamentary group.

"The right-wing populists are racists," Cohn-Bendit said.

"Our society has to clearly say 'no go!' These are just bad voices that have escaped from Pandora's Box and that are now poisoning our societies. The majority has to take a clear stance against them," he added.

Fears of a populist takeover after next year's European Parliament elections were exaggerated, he also said.

"They won't become that strong. I believe we'll have a majority of parties from the centre to the left and they will determine who becomes the next president of the [European] Commission. Right-wing populists or reactionaries or left-wing populists won't play a decisive role", he added.

Britain's future

Looking ahead to a fast-approaching post-Brexit state-of-affairs, Cohn-Bendit was conflicted.

"Let's just say that the EU will have one less problem when the British aren't in because they always had mixed feelings. They were for strengthening the common market but against the political sovereignty [of Europe]. We won't have this political ambivalence unless there is a second referendum in Britain and the British say 'we want to remain' and then Britain would bring in its strength without this ambivalence", he said.

Whether Brexit will really happen is "written in the stars", he noted.

Britain's fortune could lie in a collapse of the current Tory-led government, he said.

"If Ms. May [British leader Theresa May] loses her majority in parliament, there could be new elections. Then I would advise the pro-European political parties - the Liberal Democrats and the Greens - to wage a Remain election campaign together with joint candidates in the most important constituencies and together they could form a very strong group in a coalition with Labour, and take a very different, pro-European direction", the Cohn-Bendit said.

EU reform

Perhaps not unusual for a politician who holds French and German passports, Cohn-Bendit has tirelessly worked for a strong federal Europe.

The failure of all (at the time) 25 EU countries to ratify the European Constitution in 2005 was personal low for the MEP.

Other attempts to strengthen European institutions have also failed, he noted.

The introduction of the Spitzenkandidat (or 'lead candidate') system to elect the EU commission chief in 2014 was meant to bolster democracy on the EU level.

The reform was shot down by the EPP, but it did not go nearly far enough for Cohn-Bendit:

"Since the European People's Party rejected connecting the Spitzenkandidat with transnational lists so that people would have two votes in the European election, the European People's Party voided the Spitzenkanditat system. It would have been logical to have a Spitzenkanditat at the head of a list that could have been elected throughout Europe, That would have been a different form of legitimation", he said.

So how do you re-energise Europeans on political integration, EUobserver asked?

"By presenting clear arguments: We can only solve the issues of climate change, migration and security on a European level. People understand that. If we can bring together a clear defence policy, a climate policy, a social policy, one will be able to convince people because they sense that we need Europe," Cohn-Bendit replied.

What can be achieved at the EU summit in Bucharest next May when EU leaders meet for the first time following Brexit and the elections, this website also asked?

"The result of the election will determine that discussion," Cohn-Bendit said.

"I believe there should be a strengthening of the eurozone budget. We need a euro finance minister. In general, there should be a strengthening of European sovereignty," he said.

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