Blunt, straightforward, gregarious and, quite unexpectedly for his rank, escapes the redundant use of top politicians’ “safe words,” like “challenge,” “goal” and “strategy” (in fact, he hasn’t mentioned any of them during our interview!), Martin Schulz, a German politician and now the president of the Parliament of the European Union who reached the peak of his political career in 2012 after the EP’s Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, which he heads, won the right to chair the institution. He is a real pleasure to speak with. In this interview with The Baltic Times, the EP president spoke out on a broad range of issues, ranging from the Lithuanian Presidency of the Council of the European Union to the U.S. spying scandal and the gay pride march in Vilnius.
What are your expectations from Lithuania’s presidency of the Council of the European Union?
We’ve finalized a new EU financial framework for 2014-2020, the EU’s long-term budget, and now we need to quickly implement it so that poorer regions could receive EU funds to stiumulte growth and fight unemployment. Another key priority [involves] measures to fight youth unemployment. The situation is dramatic in this area and we risk having a lost generation. Growing poverty and unemplyment is undermining people’s trust in the democratic process and confidence in European integration. Various populists, demagogues and xenophobes are taking advantage of that. We need to act fast or the EU could unravel.
Do you believe that a small country like Lithuania has the resources and influence to make a considerable impact on the processes?
Yes, I do believe it. I saw big and small countries leading the EU. It’s not about the size of country. It’s about the efficiency of a particular government. When I was recently in Vilnius, I met a government very well-prepared for this mission, I have to admit. No doubt, your President Dalia Grybauskaite is a very strong personality, but the prime minister and ministers have made a very favorable impression. They are all prepared.
If you, from your dealings with other countries’ EU Council Presidencies, could perhaps warn Lithuania of any possible obstacles and setbacks on the way, what would they be?
For the time being, I don’t see any clear obstacles on the way. But in political life, all can change at once. So looking at the broader picture, the Egypt crisis can, for example, affect oil prices worldwide. And a price hike could have an adverse effect on the European Union’s economic growth. It is, however, too difficult to predict whether news in the morning is history in the evening.
One of the pillar events of the Lithuanian Presidency is the EU Eastern Partnership Summit, to be held in Vilnius in November. At this point, is it still unclear whether the European Union will invite Ukraine to sign the Eastern Partnership Agreement? What are the prerequisites for Ukraine to have it invited to the signing table?
We’ve been in very close relations with our Ukrainian partners. I’ve recently spoken to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. To answer your question: transparency, democracy and the rule of law are the major preconditions for the new agreement between Ukraine and the EU. The EU is looking forwards towards the Yulia Timoshenko case being resolved. This case will influence the negotiations and outcome. More than a year ago, we sent to Ukraine a European Parliament mission led by former Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski and former President of the EP Pat Cox to help build a stronger bridge in our relations. I believe we are on a good way with Ukraine, but we are not there yet.
Do you believe Belarus should be invited to the Vilnius summit?
This is a difficult question. No doubt, the bloody and cruel dictatorship must disappear for good. On the other hand, we cannot punish the people being ruled by a dictatorship. If the Belarus authorities wished to attend the summit, they should agree to embrace democracy and the European values of free speech, gathering and others. On the other hand, there’s a bunch of other dictatorships in the world with which the European Union maintains certain relations with. For now, I believe that only democratic countries should be invited to attend the Vilnius summit, but, frankly, the final decision on the Belarus participation has not yet been made. The final decision will be a hard one, as we need to reconcile punishing the dictatorship and helping the people under it.
We’re welcoming Croatia into the EU. Who’s next in the line? Turkey by 2020? Russia by 2030?
(laughs) I think that the European Union is looking first of all to welcoming the Balkans in the club. Croatia’s closest neighbors, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia and others, are the countries that are likely to join the European Union in the shorter, rather than longer, future. But I don’t see Russia in the European Union.
Should there be any limits to the EU expansion?
As you know, there are certain preconditions for it, such as respect for democracty and the rule of law, and a functioning market economy. The European Union, with its current institutions, is reaching its limit of the capacity to absorb more member states. Before further enlargement we have to reform the European Union to make it more effective.
If we were to look from now to a 10-year perspective of the EU’s development, do you believe the Union will be moving along the path of federation, or confederation?
It’s difficult to predict, as both scenarios are possible. My prediction of federation is possible in a distant future. For now we have to live in a confederation of sovereign states. For the time being, France will not turn into another California, or Lithuania to Illinois.
Which other sectors, besides energy and finance, do you believe need a more single and unified approach by the European Union?
First of all trade, especially worldwide trade relations. Economic development is of the highest importance.
I believe climate change as well as migration, tax evasion, human and drugs trafficking are also of utmost importance. It is clear that single member states cannot solve these issues on their own. Only by addressing the problems with a common approach can we expect to solve them.
Foreign policy is also among the areas where the European Union speaks in a single voice. Quite recently, the Foreign Affairs Committee of Lithuania’s Parliament voted for establishing Lithuania’s diplomatic relations with Cuba. Isn’t it a breach of the single EU foreign policy?
No, it’s not. As a matter of fact, it’s a reality that those countries that block lifting the embargo against Cuba are in fact in economic relations with it. So I cannot criticize the Lithuanian parliament or the committee, as they are simply taking the new reality into account.
When you think of Lithuania, what is the first thought that pops up in your mind?
Since I’m a German, when I think of Lithuania, it is our common, often difficult history. Just last night, in a German publication, I read a very interesting article about the Vilnius ghetto during World War II. It was one of the biggest and most active Jewish cultural centers of the time. Just the fact that Vilnius, at the beginning of the 20th century, had been called Jerusalem of the North tells a lot. Also, when I think of Lithuania, I have in mind the Lithuanian and Polish state, Rzeczpospolita, which had one of the first constitutions in the world.
So Lithuania, in my eyes, is a small country with an enormous historic impact for Germany and the entire Europe. I am also fascinated by Lithuania’s successful transition from communism to democracy and a free market.
Have you heard that ahead of the EU Council Presidency’s start, the Lithuanian Parliament, in the initial readings, passed draft laws on abortion and homosexuality propaganda bans?
Yes, I’ve been told about the debates.
Are you aware of any other conservative and puritanical country in the European Union that is like Lithuania?
(grins) Abortion has always been a very controversial and divisive issue, also in the rest of the European Union. This question depends on every member of the European Union. For many member states, the debate, frankly speaking, is a bit strange. In Germany, we solved this issue 25 years ago. But I remember very well how controversial it once was. I don’t think, however, that now we should be lecturing other countries.Personally, I am against the abortion ban. As for the ban on homosexuality, it is absolutely incompatible with the fundamental human rights and principles of the European Union.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the ongoing legal wrangling in Lithuania as to whether the LGBT community should be allowed, or not, to march on Gediminas avenue, the main street of the Lithuanian capital. What’s your take on that?
Absolutely, gays have the right. Homosexuality is part of human existence. Our nature is to be either heterosexual or homosexual. It’s really not up to the state or authorities to interfere into people’s lives. When I see people walk down the street, it never comes to my mind to ask them whether they are gay or straight. I simply accept them the way they are. I believe that everyone should do the same.
Can you be sure that some foreign intelligence service is not spying on you?
No, I cannot. In fact, I’ve just ordered a thorough sweep of a number of offices, rooms and bureaus in the European Parliament to check whether there are some installations that shouldn’t be there.
Did you call U.S. President Barack Obama after the U.S. snooping scandal broke out and tell him that it is not nice to eavesdrop on, and bug friends?
(grins) If I had the chance to speak directly with him, I’d have called him up. But I summoned a U.S. ambassador in Brussels and my message to him was quite clear: Americans should not treat their best friends as enemies.
Will the spying scandal bend, or is already bending, EU and U.S. relations?
It’s a burden for the relations. That’s for sure. If you discovered that your neighbor is secretly listening to the conversations you’re having at your home, you will certainly not be happy about it, to put it mildly. Between true friends, mutual respect is essential. If this is true, what Americans do shows a lot of disrespect. We still need answers as to why they are doing so. What is the reason for that? And, secondly, who is helping them in Europe? And perhaps the NSA leaker, Snowden, cannot be only blamed for revealing the facts. It appears that, asked by the Americans, some European countries spy on each other. And this seems to be very strange to me. I really question whether the 18 services under the NSA’s roof are really controlled by the American government. My feeling is some issues are really out of control there.
When are we going to see you in Lithuania next?
I think for the Vilnius summit in November.