Former EP president - successor must 'fight for prominent role'
by Francesco Guarascio
Having just stepped down from his role as president of the European Parliament – Jerzy Buzek talks to PublicServiceEurope.com about the trials and tribulations of his term in office, including a lobbying scandal and rows over the EP's second seat in Strasbourg
Your term as president of the European Parliament is now complete. What have been your main achievements over the last two and a half years?
"I handed over to my successor a much stronger and more influential parliament than it was two and a half years ago. First of all, I was involved in ensuring successful ratification and implementation of the Lisbon Treaty. Secondly, I made sure that the EP plays its proper role as a key European institution in all the internal negotiations. The parliament was the strongest advocate of creating an independent, ambitious European diplomacy. Thanks to our pressure, we managed to achieve it. Our strong position was also instrumental in getting a much better agreement over private data protection, which had been previously the field of negotiations between the European Council and the United States administration in Washington."
Are these results a consequence of the Lisbon Treaty giving more power to the parliament?
"Not only that. It was also a matter of effectively using all the political and formal means to protect our institutional strength. We even had to go as far as to break the negotiations on the 2011 European Union budget, in order to reach an important political result: influence of the parliament on the shaping of the multiannual financial framework. I saw this as extremely important for our citizens, since the EP has always advocated an ambitious EU budget. Also in the process of finalising the so called 'six-pack', the role of the parliament was crucial. Thanks to this, the final outcome has been so positive that currently the member states propose to use it as part of the international financial agreement – or fiscal compact. The automatic nature of the sanctions, which is its key component, was an idea of the European Parliament."
Yet the fiscal compact seems to reduce the power of the president of the parliament. The latest draft envisages a marginal role for the EP president. He may be invited to euro summits, but he is not a permanent member, as the president of the European Commission is? Why this imbalance? And will the parliament fight to change it?
"I hope that my successor will fight for a more prominent role. I managed to achieve the EP being involved in negotiations on the fiscal compact and the president of the parliament also being invited to the informal summit of the European Council next week, when the fiscal compact should be finalised. I succeeded in securing this platform on which we need to build. We want to be fully involved in the eurozone summits since we are certainly the parliament of the eurozone. In the last documents prepared by the council, there are important positive changes going in that direction. But the fact that the president will only be invited to eurozone summits is not enough. We should go further."
You are Polish and the first president coming from the Eastern Bloc. Unsurprisingly, one of the priorities of your presidency was the promotion of the eastern partnership. However, during your presidency, the Arab spring erupted creating a completely new scenario on the southern borders of Europe. Would you shift your priority to the south rather than the east if you were starting your presidency today?
"It is always necessary to respond to situations which emerge from political developments. Over the past year, North Africa has come into focus. I don't think our efforts towards the east made us work less hard with the southern neighbours. We opened the EURONEST - a parliamentary assembly bringing together the EP and the six parliaments of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus. We simply need a parliamentary dimension as our partners in the eastern neighborhood expect our assistance in building democratic institutions and procedures, as well as in strengthening the economy. But, at the same time, we know that the Arab spring completely changed the situation in our southern neighborhood. Building long-term stability requires democracy, growing prosperity and solidarity."
And more attention from the EU?
"Yes. We need to gradually build stability around the EU. It will bring more security and prosperity for our citizens. But only stability founded on democracy offers sustainable security and more fairly distributed prosperity for the citizens on the other side of the Mediterranean."
Therefore, the priority is now the south?
"I would not say so. I paid several visits to North Africa - Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. But I am sure both the east and the south are of key importance for us. There is a big problem with Belarus today, a country that lies just at the EU's border. We should not say that any of the two directions is more important than the other. "
Changing topic, your presidency was smeared by the worst corruption scandal ever to hit the European Parliament - with three MEPs pushed to resign for accepting bribes. Do you think this scandal affected the reputation of the parliament?
"That was a very difficult challenge for the parliament and for me personally. This scandal could have seriously hurt the image of the EP and it was extremely important that our response to it was swift and adequate. Investigations led by national prosecutors and the European anti-fraud office OLAF started almost immediately. The fact that two out of three MEPs facing allegations of corruption resigned from their mandates was very helpful."
Was this enough?
"That was only a part. We are a much more powerful institution today than some years ago. More responsibility, more competence to act necessitates more transparency and safeguards preventing of any conflict of interests. This is why I decided to prepare and propose, for the first time in the history of the EP, a code of conduct for MEPs based on similar codes existing in national parliaments. We were drafting those rules in a group of 10 MEPs, representing all political groups, for an intensive three-month period. By the end, we managed to secure a large majority in the parliament to vote for the result of our work. Transparency International, which is the most renowned independent institution in this field, recognised the positive rules presented in our code of conduct."
So you managed to turn a negative situation into something positive?
"I think so. The final outcome was positive and promising for the parliament. I see it as a major improvement for our institution."
Sticking with the subject of negative situations that could be turned into something positive: Strasbourg. Especially in a period of crisis, do you think it is still legitimate to have a second seat of the EP in Strasbourg?
"It's a pity that this issue is always perceived as depending on a decision of the EP. We cannot influence or change this situation. Any change in this respect is the sole competence of the member states. Without their decision we cannot do anything."
Not even a protest, for example a strike – not going to Strasbourg for one session and holding it in Brussels?
"We are members of the EP. We draft and decide on European laws. We simply must respect the law. You should not expect the members of the parliament to protest against the primary law of the EU, against the treaty on which it is founded - by holding a strike."
Yet the voices of MEPs can be heard more loudly on this issue and treaties can be changed, which we have seen happen often recently. Why don't you push in that direction?
"We must respect the regulations and the solutions, which are enshrined in the treaties, and not act against or undermine them. But let me add: Strasbourg is a very symbolic place, a strong symbol of European reconciliation and reintegration. This should not be forgotten and needs to be always underlined and taken into consideration."
What are your plans for the future?
"I will certainly stay in the EP for the next two and a half years and will join the Committee on Foreign Affairs as well as the Committee on Industry, Research, and Energy. I will remain personally engaged in promoting democracy, human rights and building stability in the EU's neighborhood and beyond. Those were my priorities as president of the parliament and they will remain so."