EUROPE'S FUTURE Too Much Talk, Too Little Substance

European Parliament Vice President Alexander Lambsdorff in an interview said punishing Britain could be counterproductive and called for a public debate on Europe’s path forward, following Britain’s decision to the leave the European Union.
It's time to pull together says Alexander Graf Lambsdorff.


As vice president of the European Parliament since 2014, Alexander Lambsdorff says there’s too much talk and not enough substance when it comes to critical issues facing Europe today, including terrorism, external borders and refugees.

The former diplomat is a member of Germany’s Free Democratic Party and was elected to the European Parliament in 2004. He is on the party’s executive committee and was its lead candidate in the 2014 European Parliament elections.

Before moving into politics, he held various roles in Germany's foreign ministry, serving on the policy planning staff and directing the ministry's parliamentary office.

Mr. Lambsdorff is among those most sorry to see Britain leave the European Union. In a speech in Berlin ahead of the election, he called Britain the "mother of liberalism." That made it a key ally for the European leader of an economically-liberal party.

In an interview with Handelsblatt, Mr. Lambsdorff said it would be counterproductive and anti-democratic to get tough on Britain after last month's surprise Brexit vote. Instead, he called for an open debate on the way forward.

He also rejected calls for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to resign, arguing there was little that Brussels could have done to influence the outcome.

Mr. Lambsdorff, we get the impression from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s post-referendum remarks that the United Kingdom can’t leave the European Union fast enough. Is punishment and deterrence a smart strategy in this deep European crisis?

I don’t believe in punitive action. Great Britain is still 33 kilometers away from the continent, and remains a close friend, ally and NATO partner. We must treat each other well and fairly. That means respecting the democratic vote and minimizing the economic damage.

Does that mean acting as if nothing happened? Why then were so many harsh words in Brussels directed at Great Britain?

Leaders in Brussels aren’t robots. No country was given as much special treatment as Great Britain. Most recently David Cameron negotiated for even more concessions just ahead of the referendum, only to have populists walk away with the victory. So patience with England was simply at an end. That might explain some of the unwise comments on the day after the referendum.

Does Mr. Juncker share the blame for a possible Brexit?

He couldn’t have prevented it. Appearances in England before the referendum weren’t even welcomed. The German chancellor, with her unilateral open-door refugee policy, is more responsible for that than the commission president. Demanding that Mr. Juncker resign because of Brexit is going after the wrong person. You may just as well call for the pope or the coach of Germany’s national team to resign.

Lately you have called for a European convention in response to the Brexit. What exactly do you have in mind?

We need a debate about what kind of Europe we want in the future. European treaties have to be changed after Brexit, if only because of the change in weighting the balance of votes on the council.

Demanding that Mr. Juncker resign because of Brexit is going after the wrong person. You may just as well call for the pope or the coach of Germany’s national team to resign.

A convention would bring together national governments, European parliamentarians and national parliamentarians. Right now there is a huge public demand for participation, transparency and democratic debate. For that reason, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) wants a convention as a congress on reform — not a technical meeting behind closed doors.

Mr. Juncker gives the impression that is exactly what he doesn’t want. He seems to prefer returning to work as soon as possible to negotiate the British exit without delay.

Yes, and that was also the reaction of the German chancellor — to keep the ball rolling and act as if nothing has happened. But what Mr. Juncker and Angela Merkel want here is not what the people want. The public wants an open discussion about where we should go from here, 25 years after the end of the Cold War.

What is your vision of Europe?

Europe must master the tasks that we have for it. It’s working well in the single market, but it’s running into danger on trade policies because leftist, anti-market, economic populists are gaining traction, particularly here in Germany. It is extremely important that “symbolic politics” stop. Fighting terrorism, for example. National security services are still trapped by their individual jurisdictions. Do you believe the police department in Bratislava, Braunschweig or Brindisi know exactly who they have to call when they detect a threat? It all takes too long if you’re not sure what to do. That’s why Europol (the European Police Office) must be made into a real investigative body with its own authority and responsibilities.

A sort of European FBI then?

Yes. It’s about the primary common jurisdiction in investigations in fighting terrorism and organized crime.

A second example for an end to symbolic politics is the joint protection of outside borders. Frontex (the E.U. agency that manages cooperation on external borders) is not enough, because it doesn’t have its own power to act.

Nevertheless, (German Interior Minister) Thomas de Maizière is selling a couple more job positions there as a security policy breakthrough. That’s what I mean by “symbolic politics” — a lot of talk and little substance.

What is your opinion of Mr. Juncker’s public statements after the Brexit decision? Our impression was that he conveyed nothing of the visionary mood that you have just sketched out for us here.

Well, Mr. Juncker is stuck in a dilemma. When he sketches out visions as commission president, he often faces harsh condemnation from the member states, particularly from Berlin. On the other hand, it’s his job to take the European Union to where the people expect it to be.

In our view, Mr. Juncker’s verbal blunders are becoming more frequent. Like his recent comments on the Canadian European free trade agreement, that he “personally couldn’t care less” about the national parliaments.

That certainly was extremely inept. But his actual problem is that E.U. member states often refuse to pool authority where it is meaningful for our common success.

Maybe the heads of government are acting that way because their voters don’t want Brussels to decide everything.

That isn’t what it is about. As a liberal, I don’t want the European Commission to control everything. But there is the broadest support in the general public, particularly on questions of internal and external security, for tackling these challenges together. To do that, we need more European capabilities.

And despite all the criticism about Mr. Juncker, there have not been any headlines about unmarked olive oil jugs, light bulb bans or toilet flush regulations during his tenure. His predecessor, (Portugal’s José Manuel) Barroso was put in office by Mrs. Merkel and consistently excelled in such nonsense. The current commission doesn’t even enter into such senseless regulation of details. That is a step in the right direction that the FDP has repeatedly insisted on.

You say the verbal gaffes don’t play an important role. But people apparently disagree. For example, his refusal to begin deficit procedures against France “because it is France.” That would seem to be a curious understanding of the rule of law, wouldn’t it?

I’ll have to give you that. That statement was totally off the mark and that’s also exactly what I said. It cannot be reconciled with the role of the European Commission at all, as the guardian of treaties. What are countries like Latvia, Portugal or Ireland supposed to think? They have gone through very hard times to achieve the stability objectives.

Apparently such behavior has few consequences for Mr. Juncker. There was no great backlash from the parliament.

This attitude of Mr. Juncker is precisely the reason why his commission didn’t get the votes of the FDP. Crucial in our decision to refuse to give this commission our approval was the decision to make the French finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, monetary affairs commissioner. Mr. Moscovici had stood for everything except budget discipline. But Mr. Juncker had the majority of the parliament behind him – including the (center-right) Christian Democrats and (center-left) Social Democrats.

It is high time that everyone involved pulls together and looks to the future. Otherwise our continent will find itself in most difficult waters.

As Mr. Juncker’s billion-euro program has shown, the head of the European Commission is a fan of Keynesian demand-side theory …

Mr. Juncker has always been a Social Democrat in Christian Democratic clothing. Fitting in with this is the latest demand by German SPD leader, Sigmar Gabriel, for lavish spending programs for Southern European states.

Isn’t one reason for the European Union’s loss of reputation the high-handed conduct of its elite, like Mr. Juncker in the case of the Canadian European treaty, CETA?

CETA is really the wrong example because it is clearly an E.U. agreement. Trade policies of past decades were, like the single market, so successful because they were organized communally. Both also logically belong together. After all, Canada certainly can’t conclude one trade agreement with France and another with Germany, if we are all joined together in a single market.

Mr. Juncker has now backpedaled and says that the national parliaments should give their consent. How did this turnaround come about?

Because ironically the German economics minister, Mr. Gabriel, vociferously demanded it. That shows the panic reigning among Germany’s Social Democrats. A re-nationalization of trade policy would severely damage the bloc’s ability to act and hurt our prosperity. What are the Canadians supposed to think about the fact that a regional parliament in southern Belgium can now decide whether or not an agreement negotiated with the European Union should take effect? We have a clear delegation of authority on trade policy, and we should keep to the rules.

Countries that are not a part of the old core of Europe have big problems with Mr. Juncker. Is Mr. Juncker still the right leader to, say, integrate Eastern Europe into the European Union?

I would have expected more presence and commitment from Mr. Juncker in Eastern Europe, in explaining the commission’s policies. He has largely left that up to his vice president, Frans Timmermans.

And is Mr. Timmermans the right person to do this job? Does he have enough power to initiate long-term institutional reforms?

That’s something that coming months will show. It’s clear that the European Union needs strong and constructive leadership now. I sometimes don’t see the strength in Mr. Juncker, and the constructive spirit is lacking in national capitals. It is high time that everyone involved pulls together and looks to the future. Otherwise our continent will find itself in most difficult waters.


Dr. Jens Münchrath, based in Düsseldorf, leads Handelsblatt's coverage of economics and monetary policy and has been with the newspaper since 2000. Christian Rickens is the head of Agenda, Handelsblatt’s magazine department. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected],