Since Martin Schulz's departure as European Parliament president, Manfred Weber, the floor leader of the conservative European People's Party, is the most politically influential German in the European Union legislature.
He sat down with Handelsblatt to discuss the major challenges facing Europe, including resurgent nationalism, populist parties, the election of Donald Trump and Brexit.
This year will see many crucial European elections, in France, the Netherlands and Mr. Weber's home country, Germany. The announcement this week that Martin Schulz, the former European Parliament president, is to take over leadership of the Social Democrats and challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel in September’s elections, has shaken up German politics.
The move will make German politics more Europhile, argued Mr. Weber, who is a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Ms. Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. “He is a committed European," he said of Mr. Schulz.
Even in times of rising nationalism in E.U. member states, Mr. Weber is certain elections can be won on a pro-European ticket. “Van der Bellen has just proved it in Austria,” he said, referring to Alexander van der Bellen, Austria’s new president.
“We have to provide answers to the big questions, not this petty talk,” he said, adding that the European Union needs to make progress on a common foreign and defense policy and must make the monetary union workable.
The European Union needs reforms, he insisted. Every European government has to be responsible for the consequences of its policy. Therefore, the European Union needs an insolvency law for states. “If a government lives beyond its means, it must be possible to deal with it,” he said. In addition, the European Central Bank must end a monetary policy that, in the face of rising inflation, gives highly indebted countries artificially low interest rates.
If Trump's message is: 'America First,' our answer must be: 'Europe First.' Manfred Weber, Head of the Christian Democrat EPP Group
A joint E.U. budget would mean Europe could also help countries undertake costly structural reforms, for example, the construction of a dual vocational training system in Spain. “It would be reasonable to have a common budget,” Mr. Weber said. In addition, a single euro-zone finance minister would be able to enforce rules such as the Stability Pact criteria, and allow the euro area to speak with one voice.
Talking about reforming the European Union and amending the Treaty of Lisbon, its constitutional basis, Mr. Weber said it was important governments explain to their citizens that the only alternative to the European Union is to put countries at the mercy of superpowers. He singled out British Prime Minister Theresa May. “London apparently seriously believes that an independent Britain will be able to be relevant at the global level.” He warned the United Kingdom would likely become a minor player without much influence: “Some Britons dream of getting their old Empire back, but that's history."
Mr. Weber warned of resurgent nationalism: “The only thing these parties are united by is hatred and playing with fear of the future." He plans to launch an initiative to withdraw E.U. funds from meetings such as one that took place in the German city of Koblenz last week, where Germany’s AfD, France’s Front National and other European nationalist parties met. “It's grotesque that we support those who want to destroy Europe with E.U. funds,” the 44-year-old told Handelsblatt.
The European Union must wait and see if the nationalist forces in Europe profit from President Trump. “But President Trump must know that if he does not cooperate with the European Union on an equal footing, we have the possibility to react," he said. “If his message is: 'America First,' our answer must be: 'Europe First,'” he argued.
Europe could look for new partners, the EPP leader suggested. In addition, the European Union can ask many questions: “How many American companies pay taxes in Europe anyway?" For example, if a U.S. company makes a lot of money in Europe, it should also create jobs in Europe, not only in California.
The CSU politician does not see a threat of a trade war. Europe wants America as a partner, wants more trade, and wants TTIP, the trade agreement from which Mr. Trump withdrew last week. “But one thing must be clear: We will not follow any commands from Washington,” he said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping offered China as a new partner when he campaigned in Davos for free trade and globalization. The European Union must first focus on issues such as reciprocity and investment security, before deepening trade relation with China. “If Chinese companies can take over the E.U. companies like Kuka, European companies should be able to do the same in China,” Mr. Weber said.
Until then, the European Union should better focus on other partners. “Trump’s isolationist policy offers Europe a tremendous opportunity to build new partnerships. Canada, Mexico, Latin America, and Japan are now waiting for us."
Politics is leadership, he believes. “My wish would be that we have more leaders who understand that we are in a historic period,” he said, adding that he regards Francois Fillon as a strong and promising French presidential candidate with a pro-European program.
If 2016 was the year of populism, 2017 will be the year of resistance. “We have to get ready for a fight,” Mr. Weber said. And the two biggest E.U. states, Germany and France, have management responsibility.
When it comes to Brexit, the European Union does not want to punish the United Kingdom, but it needs to be clear that whoever leaves the bloc will lose all benefits of membership, Mr. Weber said.
The European Union will do everything to avoid fractures in its relationship with the United Kingdom. But it is crystal clear that a free trade agreement cannot compensate for the access to the single market. “I cannot imagine that London can continue to be the central financial market for Europe,” Mr. Weber said. “I do not think the City of London will retain its previous importance."