Monday

19th Feb 2018

Interview

The voice of the EU commission has 'gone soft'

  • Prodi (l) and his successor, Jose Manuel Barroso, take the floor (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

It was just eight years ago. In 2004, Romano Prodi, an Italian economics professor from Bologna, left one of the most powerful posts in Europe.

In his five year term as President of the European Commission, he oversaw the introduction of the euro, the enlargement of the European Union to eight countries from the former Soviet bloc and the signing of an EU constitution.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

But despite the new economic governance powers granted to the EU executive during the crisis, Prodi says that these days member states are increasingly setting the agenda.

"The European engine in my time was the commission," he told EUobserver.

"The direction was towards some sort of quasi-federal Europe. In the coming years, Europe will also make progress, but it will not be [led by] the commission but by the Council," he noted.

"There is a complete change of focus in the new Europe," he said.

Referring to the current German and French leaders and the head of the EU Council, he added: "The voice of the commission is very, very soft. Even when it proposed its last very interesting paper, it didn't give rise to a strong debate. There is interest only when Mrs Merkel and Mr Hollande … meet together. Van Rompuy, who was really unknown, is step by step becoming the centre of Europe."

And while the commission is becoming less political, national politicians are becoming more selfish, he warned.

"As in many other countries, things have changed in Germany. There is no longer the same passion for Europe - it is a completely different vision. Mrs Merkel comes from east Germany and not from the Rhine. It is a new phase," he said.

The 'stupid' stability pact

Despite leading the commission in what he sees as its heyday, Prodi's time at the EU helm had its difficult moments.

One of the best-remembered episodes was when he called the EU stability pact "stupid" in an interview with Le Monde.

The Stability and Growth Pact was created in 1997 to harmonise economic policy in the run-up to the launch of the euro.

It requires member states to run public finances "close to balance or in surplus," with budget deficits below three percent and debt below 60 percent of GDP.

Recalling the Le Monde incident, Prodi said: "For some weeks I was considered an idiot ... I was almost killed for that."

He added, however: "I was right ... the stability pact is an arithmetic rule, but politics is not arithmetics. You have nuance, you have problems, you have political change. You must have a political body, not a primary school master, which controls things. So, I think I simply told the truth."

When Germany and France could not meet the stability criteria, they changed the pact instead.

Prodi described Germany's behaviour at the time, in 2004, as "post-modern."

"They had pushed for the stability pact and yet they were the first to disobey it and to put it in the dustbin. I can't forget that night ... I was shy. I said: 'Look, but you can't go beyond three percent.' And I remember they told me: 'Shut up. We are the lords of this.' It was [EU] history changing," he said.

Chinese push for euro

The euro was introduced in 2000 in a move which Prodi described as "a change in the concept of the state."

Referring to the 17th century Peace of Westphalia, a treaty which defined the modern European notion of statehood, Prodi said: "The Westphalian state is basically dependent on its army and its currency. When you have a common currency, you have a different kind of state. I personally pushed for it [the euro], because it was a great step for the European Union and, even more, an absolutely necessary step in the context of globalisation."

The newly-born euro suffered a drop in value in its early years.

But China invested in it anyway because it wanted an alternative to the US dollar, the dominant currency in world reserves.

"I remember we had the annual visit to China, one of these bilateral meetings with big dossiers with everything from coal to steel and butter, but the Chinese President was interested only in the euro," Prodi noted.

"He said to me: 'Look, you have given me bad advice to buy the euro, but I shall go on doing it for two reasons. First of all, because the euro will go on, and it will go up [in value].' And he was right. But the second reason was even more important: 'I want to live in a world where there is not only one in command. Having the euro side-by-side with the Chinese yuan is better'," Prodi added.

The Constitution came too early

Prodi spoke of the euro-launch as a golden age in the Union's history.

But he said the next big leap in terms of integration - the European Constitution, which was signed by EU leaders in 2004, but rejected by Dutch and French voters in referendums in 2005 - was premature.

Prodi remembers his discussions with the German chancellor in power during the build up to the euro - Helmut Kohl.

Both men agreed that the single currency was not perfect but that it could be fixed over time. "It was almost touching to see how the chancellor was saying that his position is not popular. But he was thinking of the future. Of our children and our grandchildren," Prodi said.

The failure of the constitution broke the spell.

"Europe changed and the optimism changed into pessimism and then came the break-up of the European Constitution. It was too early to do it. The failure of the constitution created the idea of Europe on a stand-still," Prodi noted.

He added: "I understand now that if you want to change the concept of nationhood in a peaceful way, as we are obliged to do because of globalisation, then you need time. You need patience. You need to be flexible in your idea, you need to respect the weakness and the problems of people - this is life."

Prodi still hopes that one day the European Commission president will be directly elected, an idea frequently mentioned by federalists as a way of getting citizens more involved in EU politics.

"In the end, it must be like that. But I don't see it coming soon," he said.

"You need a point in which the most important national leaders say it is in our interest to see a strong new leadership to strengthen the EU's role in the world. The necessity of globalisation of foreign policy will push for this - but I don't see it happening tomorrow," he added.

The 73-year Italian says he remembers his years in Brussels as "nice, with intense, but well organised working days" which also included jogging in the Parc du Cinquantenaire in the EU quarter.

"I remember Brussels as a period of ordered life. I knew in the morning what I had to do in the afternoon. When I went back to Italian politics, you have an absolutely unexpected political life very day," Prodi said.

The first part of EUobserver's interview with former Commission President, Romano Prodi was published on 2 February, looking at his current role as UN special envoy to the Sahel region

Interview

Mali miracle: EU states in agreement

France did not consult anybody before dropping bombs in Mali, the UN's special envoy to Sahel, Romano Prodi, has said. But its level of UN and EU support is "unique."

Prodi to explain why Euro Pact is 'stupid'

Commission President Romano Prodi has accepted the invitation of the European Parliament political groups to address a debate on the Stability Pact in the Strasbourg on Monday. The debate had been foreseen for some time and the European Parliament said it wanted to give Mr Prodi a chance to clarify "apparent misunderstandings" after he recently referred to the Stability Pact as being "stupid".

EUobserved

Juncker too tight in his EU suit

The European Commission president floated ideas on what his institution could look like. But faced with the member state powers, he failed to lay out a structured vision.

News in Brief

  1. Merkel: Nord Stream 2 pipeline poses 'no danger'
  2. Spanish king in Barcelona next week
  3. Turkey jails journalists for life
  4. Make budget cuts in farm and regional funds, the Dutch say
  5. UN: Hungary's anti-migration bill is 'assault on human rights'
  6. Journalist Deniz Yucel freed in Turkey
  7. New organic farming bill not ready until late spring
  8. Commissioner: Western Balkans in EU is 'obvious'

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAA year ago UNESDA members pledged to reduce added sugars in soft drinks by 10%
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsUzbekistan: Investigate Torture of Journalist
  3. EPSUMovie Premiere: 'Up to The Last Drop' - 22 February, Brussels
  4. CESICESI@Noon on ‘Digitalisation & Future of Work: Social Protection For All?’ - March 7
  5. UNICEFExecutive Director's Committment to Tackling Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Children
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region 2018: Facts, Figures and Rankings of the 74 Regions
  7. Mission of China to the EUDigital Economy Shaping China's Future, Over 30% of GDP
  8. Macedonian Human Rights Movement Int.Suing the Governments of Macedonia and Greece for Changing Macedonia's Name
  9. Dialogue PlatformBeyond the Errors in the War on Terror: How to Fight Global Militarism - 22 February
  10. Swedish EnterprisesHarnessing Globalization- at What Cost? Keynote Speaker Commissioner Malmström
  11. European Friends of ArmeniaSave The Date 28/02: “Nagorno-Karabakh & the EU: 1988-2018”
  12. European Heart NetworkSmart CAP is Triple Win for Economy, Environment and Health

Latest News

  1. EU asks charities to explain anti-abuse measures
  2. ECB, Budget, EU elections This WEEK
  3. EU states stay mute on implementation of mercury bill
  4. Baltic states demand bigger EU budget
  5. Germany raises concerns over Hungary's 'Stop Soros' bills
  6. EU ties Brexit transition talks to divorce agreement
  7. EU divided over Western Balkan enlargement
  8. Facebook and Twitter weak on protecting users, says EU

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Free AlllianceEFA Joined the Protest in Aiacciu to Solicit a Dialogue After the Elections
  2. EPSUDrinking Water Directive Step Forward but Human Right to Water Not Recognized
  3. European Gaming & Betting AssociationGambling Operators File Data Protection Complaint Against Payment Block in Norway
  4. European Jewish CongressEJC Expresses Deep Concern Over Proposed Holocaust Law in Poland
  5. CECEConstruction Industry Gets Together to Discuss the Digital Revolution @ the EU Industry Days
  6. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Relations in the New Era
  7. European Free AlllianceEnd Discrimination of European Minorities - Sign the Minority Safepack Initiative
  8. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Diversity Shouldn’t Be Only a Slogan” Lorant Vincze (Fuen) Warns European Commission
  9. Dialogue PlatformWhat Can Christians Learn from a Global Islamic Movement?
  10. European Jewish CongressEJC President Warns Europe as Holocaust Memory Fades
  11. European Free AlllianceNo Justice From the Spanish Supreme Court Ruling
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Solutions for Sustainable Cities: New Grants Awarded for Branding Projects

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUTrade Between China, Belt and Road Countries up 15%
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersOresund Inspires Other EU Border Regions to Work Together to Generate Growth
  3. Mission of China to the EUTrade Between China, Belt and Road Countries up 15%
  4. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Calls on EU to Sanction Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Expel Ambassadors
  5. ILGA EuropeFreedom of Movement and Same-Sex Couples in Romania – Case Update!
  6. EU2017EEEstonia Completes First EU Presidency, Introduced New Topics to the Agenda
  7. Bio-Based IndustriesLeading the Transition Towards a Post-Petroleum Society
  8. ACCAWelcomes the Start of the New Bulgarian Presidency
  9. Mission of China to the EUPremier Li and President Tusk Stress Importance of Ties at ASEM Summit
  10. EU2017EEVAT on Electronic Commerce: New Rules Adopted
  11. European Jewish CongressChair of EU Parliament Working Group on Antisemitism Condemns Wave of Attacks
  12. Counter BalanceA New Study Challenges the Infrastructure Mega Corridors Agenda