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Touteleurope.fr / MAEE : Michel Barnier, you were previously European Commissioner for Regional Policy: What is your frame of mind as you start your new mandate?
One can only be passionate when offered a role and a mission within the European Commission because it is a very original institution which has for the last 50 years been independent, in charge of proposals, giving impetus to and implementing decisions made my heads of state, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.
At this point in time, the project is fragile. We are at a moment of truth for the world has changed in the last 50 years. What lessons can be learnt from these changes? How can we protect ourselves? How can we make ourselves heard? How can we take part in a new world order? How can we achieve cooperation between nations? Cooperation is not the same as merging. We maintain our differences, our languages, our national identity but we are creating something more that gives strength to us all - and we are doing it together. That is the European project. In today’s world, I think that Europe is not an option but a necessity for each of our nations.
I am returning to the Commission under the authority of José Manuel Barroso, a man for whom I have great respect. I also return with the trust of my country and the trust of the president of the French Republic. I am also returning with a lot of passion, enthusiasm, resolve and also a little idealism.
Does the Lisbon Treaty affect the way that the Commission works?
Yes, of course. It consolidates, reinforces and sanctions the codecision power of the European Parliament in many areas. It also gives new power to the national parliaments. Codecision puts the Parliament on an equal footing with the Council of Ministers in the majority of legislative situations which will change many things. The Commission will have to pay more attention to the views, opinions and decisions of the European Parliament.
For this reason, I had wanted to be elected to the European Parliament and thus be a political Commissioner who has perhaps, in addition, this extra democratic legitimacy.
France was chosen for the Internal Markets portfolio after long negotiations. Why is this a strategic post?
First of all, France did not get this post as it is not France that is in charge of the Internal Market - it is a French person. And what’s more, a French person who is going to take an oath. This is an important and demanding moment in front of the Court of Justice. To be a European commissioner means leaving aside your national interests for the benefit of general European interests.
That does not mean that national interests and general European interests do not overlap. The more that happens, the better. I will keep my nationality; I am proud to be French. However, I will take an oath to be an independent European Commissioner with a portfolio that is indeed strategic.
Let’s not forget that since the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957, the common market has been at the heart of the European project. The common market has been the economic and social life that we share. As I asked the Parliament during my hearing, what was the impetus behind our European project (apart from the European Coal and Steel Community in the 1950s, the momentum of Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Adenauer and other great statesmen)? It was the desire to be together in the aftermath of the Second World War, to make lasting peace together, to create collective progress together and it was also the need and interest in working together via the economy. This was why coal and steel resources were pooled in the ECSC. This led to the common market, then the single currency and communal policies such as in agriculture, the environment, regional policy and others.
What I would like therefore is for us to rediscover this desire and need to work together. This is why the internal market is strategic - because it is the economic and social life of 500 million consumers and citizens and 5 million enterprises (90% of which are small enterprises).
What will your priorities be as Commissioner for the Internal Market?
I want to confirm, subject to being nominated (as the European Parliament has the final vote and at the time of this interview, the vote has not taken place), what I said to the European Parliament. I want citizens, consumers and small enterprises to take back the internal market. I want to be commissioner of a greater internal market, not a lesser one.
I want to revive, through this great portfolio, all the socio-economic dimensions of the market which are fundamental to the European project. Let’s learn the lessons of this crisis (which is not yet over) in terms of regulation, transparency and control so that it does not happen again. Even if we cannot prevent other crises from happening, we can at least learn from this crisis which has been the most serious one since 1929. I am going to work on different axes.
You announced measures to combat social dumping: what is this about?
I will be paying attention to everything that affects the men and women of Europe. Of course, every country maintains its freedom regarding certain areas in the social sphere but we have to have a common basis.
I stated, for example, that I am going to be very attentive to preserving the public service missions. I want to create a ‘Social Business Act’ which would help enterprises that want to both make a profit and at the same time fight social exclusion by employing young people, people in difficult circumstances etc.
Are you going to put back on the agenda the idea of a tax on financial transactions which you supported as an MEP?
I am not the only person interested in this idea. The Commissioner for Taxation, the Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Commissioner for Competition have also expressed interest in this. It is something that will probably be discussed and not just by us Europeans. President Barroso has given approval in principle to the idea.
The idea of a resource which, in one way or another, is linked to international trades is quite old. The famous Tobin tax, which was proposed, would have concerned or would concern monetary exchange. Another example, the idea of a tax on banks, was suggested by President Obama. A tax on financial transactions would be on a much bigger scale.
I think that these ideas are fair and that the world would be safer if it was more equitable. A very small tax on all international trades, of which there are a staggering number (derivative products alone which have been much spoken of during the crisis represent $600,000 billion exchanged in the world) could be used to tackle the major global issues facing us such as combating hunger in the world, climate change and development.
I am not saying that it is an easy thing to do as I think it would be very complicated but where there’s a will, there’s a way. We must find this way to make the world a fairer place. Furthermore, I think that Europe through proposals (we cannot do it all alone!) that we bring to the table at the G20 or at international institutions, has to make its contribution to this fairer world by leading the battle.
The way forward has already been opened. The debate on regulation of speculative funds, for example, is taking place at the moment led by the proposals of the Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.
The debate on financial supervision is key. This crisis is linked to a crisis of liquidity, to weaknesses, even failure, of the credit rating measures and the regulatory and supervisory systems all over the world. We are in the process of learning these lessons.
My roadmap is extremely simple. It takes up what was decided and recommended by the G20. The 20 most powerful countries in the world were in agreement with all heads of state of these great powers. I am therefore going to apply this roadmap to Europe, even if Europe is already somewhat ahead and is setting an example. I stated my conviction in front of Parliament, including for the European financial industry which is very important, that we need the financial industry - in London, Paris, Frankfurt and other capitals - to serve the economy. But this is an opportunity, and it will be an advantage, for the financial industry to be able to rely on solid foundations, good regulation and fair controls.
I am not going to regulate or legislate for fun of it. I am going to create intelligent regulation and efficient supervision. I will apply the G20 plan and I have clearly stated my mission that no region, no market, no product and no financial player will be outside of this intelligent and necessary regulation and this efficient supervision.
Do you expect to be challenged by countries such as the United Kingdon on the regulatory measures you are taking?
I heard all the comments that were made when I was nominated, particularly in London. Perhaps the fact that a French person might be in charge of the internal market and financial services for the first time has caused consternation. I can say (with a smile!) that it is not the fact that a French person will now hold this position (if Parliament so decides) that is surprising but that a French person has never held this position before! In fifty years, the Commissioner for the Internal Market has never been a French person so it had to happen some day!
Now, I am going to work with London because I know how important it is as a financial centre and we need London and its expertise for the economy of the United Kingdom and for the European economy. Furthermore, I think it is in the interest of London’s financial centre, as it is for the entire financial industry in Europe, to be able to rely on solid foundations. So we need to learn the lessons of the crisis.
Do you think that the members of Barroso’s Commission, including Barroso himself, are more favourable to regulation than during the last mandate?
We have entered a new era. What has been happening for nearly two years now is a financial crisis of unprecedented severity which is adding to other crises that we cannot allow ourselves to forget such as the environmental crisis, and the food crisis which affects 1 billion human beings in the world.
Certainly, the new team for this new era with its serious, growing challenges will have a very determined attitude.… with President Barroso leading the way. I was with Mr. Barroso when he made his first speech in Parliament the day after being named President of the Commission by an absolute majority of Parliament. Mr. Barroso gave a very determined speech and it is thus my duty, under him, to implement the G20 decisions.
As a former Minister for Foreign Affairs, do you think that the positions of President of the European Council and High-Representative will enable the EU to strengthen its international visibility?
Yes. It is one of the very progressive steps taken in the Lisbon Treaty as we will now have a stable president of the European Council instead of having a rotating president who changes every six months. What’s more, the chosen president, Mr. Van Rompuy, is an authoritative and intelligent man. We can trust that Mr. Van Rompuy will carry out his responsibilities with great resolve.
Another great step taken is to have, for the first time, one person (I think this is the main innovation of the Lisbon Treaty) who has the political initiative of High-Representative (Javier Solana has had this position until now) as well as the external economic action which was previously the domain of the European Commission.
From now on, one single person (Catherine Ashton, whom I hold in high esteem and who is authoritative and extremely determined) is in charge of political initiative and external economic action. It is an efficient step towards building a real foreign policy and a real defence policy. These are subjects which, as you can imagine, will continue to interest me within the college. I will therefore work with Catherine Ashton to create this great policy that is much needed.
The European Union reacted to the tragic crisis in Haiti with all the tools at its disposal. We can see clearly that these tools are not enough. There are lessons to be learnt from this catastrophe.
Immediately after the event, Catherine Ashton reacted and stated that the European Union, the governments and the Commission were in solidarity with Haiti. We made significant sums of money available and our representatives on the ground are very active in working with the United Nations and all the governments who sent aid.
But it is clear that we could do better and more if we had for example (and this is an idea I proposed in 2006 at the request of José Manuel Barroso) a European force for civil protection and if we had tools for anticipating such crises. And there will be other catastrophes in the years to come, like the tsunami 5 years ago, industrial catastrophes like in Chernobyl, massive fires such as those that affected Greece and Portugal, floods like in Germany in 2002 and maritime catastrophes like the sinking of the Erika. All these catastrophes are so violent and so serious that one country or one region alone cannot deal with them so solidarity must come into play. Solidarity is all the better when it is prepared, when teams have been put together and trained with common exercises so that they can be interoperable. All this is being worked on.
This is the idea for the European force for civil protection. And I know that Mr. Barroso wants, as do I, that the Commission take initiatives so that we can learn this lesson from the tragedy in Haiti.
Interviewed by Touteleurope.fr and Estelle Poidevin (MAEE)
Filmed by Kadir Demir
Further information (in French):
Michel Barnier réussit son opération séduction - Touteleurope.fr
Les commissaires nominés sur le gril du Parlement européen - Touteleurope.fr
Les commissaires européens : nomination et attributions - Touteleurope.fr