EPP pushes for multi-speed Europe
By Eric Maurice
With three EU institution presidents and a German chancellor in its ranks, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) wants to weigh in on the current thinking about the future of the EU.
The EPP presented on Tuesday (7 March) the strategy it will adopt at its congress towards the end of the month in Malta.
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"The central narrative is that we want to keep our democracies, our societies, and our economies as open as possible," Herman Van Rompuy, who authored the report with Elmar Brok, told journalists in Brussels.
Van Rompuy, a former Belgian prime minister and European Council president, said that "the future of the EU has to be defined by the objectives we want to pursue", such as "protecting people better against new threats to their security and their prosperity" and defending "core European values inside and outside Europe".
Amid talks about a turn towards a so-called multi-speed Europe, in which some member states integrate more than others in some areas, Van Rompuy admitted that the option was "a second choice, not a first choice".
He added that the first objective would be to work together as 27, but "if this is not possible, there is a fallback," referring to enhanced cooperation, the legal name for the multi-speed mechanisms.
For the EPP, Van Rompuy said, in "key domains" such as the euro or the passport-free Schengen area, "more deepened integration and coordination among member states is necessary to preserve the acquis and to let them work better".
"We have no other choice," he insisted.
Le Pen would change Europe
The EU's effort to redefine itself comes while facing Brexit, Donald Trump's election and continued hostile actions from Russia. It also addresses the rise of anti-EU forces, with a possibility of Marine Le Pen winning the French presidency in May.
"We have to be ready to deal with the worst," said EPP president Joseph Daul.
"If France is under Le Pen, we'll have another Europe but Marine Le Pen will not stop Europe's evolution," the French former MEP said.
"If a country has to go through a far-right experiment, the only wish I have if that it doesn't happen in France," he said, adding however that "if the democracy wants to elect Le Pen, the French people will have to assume the consequences of their democratic decision."
In recent years, Van Rompuy pointed out, the EU kept the eurozone intact and managed the migration crisis, so it should be able to face anti-EU sentiment now.
"Nexit and Frexit will simply not happen," he insisted, referring to the potential of the Netherlands and France leaving the EU.
The EPP party, which is historically linked to European integration but now counts among its members strong critics like Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban, stressed the need for unity in uncertain times.
"None of the challenges [Europe faces] can be answered anymore by member states," said Elmar Brok, who until January chaired the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee.
"Both Luxembourg and Germany are too small," added the German MEP.
Brok assured that EU nation states "will survive, because it's important for cultural, political, historical identity".
Orban the 'enfant terrible'
"The debate is not Europe or the nation, as some populists try to make, it's the nation and Europe. We won't allow populists to run away with the word 'nation'," he said.
When asked about why the EPP kept Orban in its ranks despite his eurosceptic and anti-migrant positions, Daul said that "every family has its enfant terrible [and] if you want to keep contact with him it's better to keep him within the family so you can discuss it with him".
"But there are red lines not to cross," the party chief added, referring to when Orban considered reintroducing the death penalty. "I will do the maximum to keep him in the family but he has to respect the values and principles of our political family", Daul added.
"For now, I will deal with the enfant terrible," he said. But he suggested that the task was not always easy: "he is the head of state and government I have the most on the phone".