Europe Daily Bulletin No. 13354

21 February 2024
INSTITUTIONAL / Interview ep2024
When it comes to climate, you can’t make any deals” says Nicolas Schmit, future candidate to head list of European Socialist family
Brussels, 20/02/2024 (Agence Europe)

The European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicolas Schmit, is also the only candidate for the position of ‘Spitzenkandidat’ for the European socialist family. His nomination is expected at the Congress of the ‘Party of European Socialists’ on Saturday 2 March in Rome. In an interview with EUROPE, he explains why he decided to get involved in the European election campaign. He is convinced that there is no alternative to the Green Deal, and thus the need to continue to take action to protect the planet. With regard to his current portfolio, he also says that he is still hoping for an agreement on the European framework for platform workers. (Interview by Solenn Paulic and Mathieu Bion)

Agence Europe - You are likely to be nominated as the ‘Spitzenkandidat’ of the European socialist family. Why did you decide to launch this campaign?

Nicolas Schmit - Things just came to me. And if I’m considered to be the right person to carry forward the social-democratic project for Europe, I'm ready to do so.

These are very special times. We are emerging from major crises: Covid-19, the not-so-distant financial crisis, the climate crisis. We’ve experienced an inflation we weren’t used to. And, of course, we have wars on our doorstep.

Europe faces major challenges and we need solid responses. This election is an opportunity to reach out to the public, because we all know that there are doubts about the role of Europe, about the need for it... We want a strong, social Europe, one that is revitalising itself economically, because we can see that the gap between Europe and the United States has widened.

So that’s the mission of the next Commission: to work on social issues, the economy, the modernisation of our industry and, of course, security. This is vital, given the uncertainties in the United States and the very real risks with Russia. So we need to move faster to develop a European Security and Defence Policy.

My final point concerns democracy. It is potentially under threat from Putin, who ultimately wants to destroy the European Union. We also have people within the EU who question the Rule of law and democratic values. So it’s also a time to defend our values and our democracy.

Ursula von der Leyen is seeking re-election as head of the European Commission (see EUROPE 13353/1). How does the programme of the Social Democrat family differ from that of the EPP?

At the very least, I hope that there is a basic consensus between the democratic forces on the main directions for Europe. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been able to govern together!

There are, of course, strong nuances, particularly in terms of the way we pursue the Green Deal, which for me remains a central element, even if we need to make adjustments and accompany it with more dialogue and exchanges with all the forces involved.

That’s what I’m criticising to some extent: the fact that there hasn’t been enough dialogue with farmers, industrialists and the social partners in general. We need social dialogue, not just in words, but in day-to-day practices.

There is no alternative to the Green Deal. If we give up, we will be putting our companies at a disadvantage compared with China and its electric vehicles, or the United States with its Inflation Reduction Act. We need to continue in a context of more intense dialogue. But let’s not sow this doubt by saying that we need to stop, to take a break. When it comes to the climate, you can’t make deals.

Under this Commission, especially under the impetus of the Social Democrats, we have made progress on social issues. And there should be no downtime. We can’t say that we’re now going to ‘let up’ a little on the social dimension because we need to invest in defence. You need both.

There is scandalous poverty in Europe and we need to fight it more vigorously, also for economic reasons, because we are excluding millions of Europeans. Housing is also a key area where Europe can help provide solutions.

In our family, we have this global view where economic and social issues go hand in hand. And that sets us apart from other democratic political families, whose only solution for Europe is to unravel it.

The Christian Democrats are highly critical of the Green Deal. Farmers also have their sights set on the proposed trade agreement with Mercosur. Do you understand these demands?

We blame the Green Deal for a lot of things. Farmers often believe that their problems are partly due to the Green Deal.

However, if the problem lies in production costs, which have soared due to inflation, particularly feed and fuel, and if the price paid for production remains the same or even falls, this is not linked to the Green Deal. It’s an imbalance in the markets. It’s the negotiating power of the middlemen, the distributors, and that becomes an absolutely unfair problem in terms of farmers’ incomes. So the Common Agricultural Policy needs to be adjusted to redress these imbalances to some extent.

We can discuss the set-aside rule, but should we continue to cut back on herbicides? You can’t have an anti-cancer policy on the one hand, and continue to use dangerous products on the other. If we relax, it’s a signal to the major chemical production groups that their products are good for decades to come. Instead, they should be encouraged to work on safe substitute products.

Blaming all the problems on the Green Deal, as the right and, above all, the far right do, who portray themselves as the protectors of farmers, surprises me. These right-wing families have held the Chairs of the [European Parliament] committees for several mandates. And suddenly they’re telling us that farmers aren’t protected!

On Mercosur, we need a balance. We cannot be in favour of a Europe that withdraws into itself, but we have to be realistic. I also question the point of transporting tonnes of meat for 10,000 kilometres. A new realism is also required if we are to measure the impact in terms of emissions.

And if we trade in agricultural products, they must be produced according to the same standards. Can we forbid our farmers not to use this or that substance in their livestock and then open ourselves up to meat that has not complied with these rules?

Europe needs economic and commercial partners, but this must be done on a new and balanced basis.

Is the revised Stability and Growth Pact compatible with the investment needed to make a successful transition (see EUROPE 13348/8)?

I would like to echo the words of the European Commissioner for Economy, Paolo Gentiloni: The Pact approved is not the Pact of our dreams, and it is not the one proposed by the Commission.

We can’t simply let public finances slide. So we need rules, but they need to be adapted to the need for considerable investment. If we’re talking about defence, it's not going to be at zero cost either. It will take years for Europe to rise to the challenge of ensuring its security.

And then there are the social divides. So we also need to restore social cohesion in Europe. None of this works without investment.

There is this idea of investment within the Stability Pact. We have also worked on integrated social convergence frameworks within economic governance.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t review certain areas of public spending, nor that we shouldn't apply a degree of rigour to public finances in other areas. Rigour does not automatically mean austerity, which would objectively be the wrong choice for Europe.

Do you defend the idea of a specific post-European Recovery Plan instrument?

This is something that needs to be discussed. Ideas are starting to emerge and need to be studied. But in any case, we’re not going to have a European defence and security at zero cost. No matter who is elected President of the United States.

 If you become President of the Commission, how would you reorganise the work and structure of the College of Commissioners?

We’re sticking a bit too much to the ‘silo’ approach. What is sometimes lacking is an overall, coordinated view. And that also means an important coordination role at the top to ensure this integration of policies, which I don’t think is optimal at the moment.

We also need to look at how we regulate. A lot of people complain about regulations, but when you ask them what needs to be done away with, it becomes more difficult. So there is a dialogue to be had with the sectors, with the various stakeholders. We need to look at what is absolutely necessary in terms of regulation and what is less so, given the huge projects that lie ahead.

The idea is emerging of a military defence pillar within the Commission. And it seems absolutely important that this is coordinated with our industrial policy in general, as it is in the United States.

So yes, it will be essential to review the reorganisation of the Commission in the light of these major priorities.

Should the European Treaties be revised to meet the challenges of the future?

We already have a major enlargement programme on the horizon, with a union of more than 30 Member States.

We have to realise that unanimity doesn’t work. The more you are, the more unanimity is a blocking factor. Unanimity is therefore no longer the rule, at least in most areas. Perhaps we need to take a new leap of faith to adjust the institutional architecture or decision-making methods a little on these points.

We may need to adjust a number of chapters in the Treaties where the European and cross-border dimension is obvious. We might also ask ourselves whether we shouldn’t be trimming back in a certain number of areas to a lower level of competence.

What should the EU do to give Ukraine more support?

We must not leave a millimetre of doubt about the fact that we should do everything we can to help Ukraine, which needs weapons. Our support is essential for Ukraine, for the future international order and for the security of Europe.

We know that the aggression will not stop at Ukraine, if it is defeated by this unspeakable, totalitarian and deadly Russian regime. We saw this with Navalny’s death.

On the war between Israel and Hamas, there is some confusion at European level and a feeling of double standards...

I was involved in the Middle East conflict when there was great hope after the Oslo Accords and the Washington Agreement. Unfortunately, the radicals on both sides, Hamas on one side and Prime Minister Netanyahu on the other, have sabotaged this prospect.

At the present time, our solidarity with Israel, its security and its existence is indisputable and must be total. But should this give rise to all the acts of war that Israel is perpetrating in Gaza, and not just in Gaza? No. I feel quite close to what [the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs] Josep Borrell is saying.

When dozens, even hundreds, of people die every day in Gaza, in a situation of absolute destitution, hunger, thirst and lack of medical aid, this is no longer a just war, it is not justified military action. And Europe must be in a position to express this to the current Israeli government.

I am also thinking of what is happening on the West Bank, which is just as disastrous. We need to exert pressure, get the fighting stopped, get supplies to the population, and try to find solutions with parties, with forces on the Palestinian side too, to start a process for a political solution, which can only be a two-state solution.

How do you feel about the recent failure of the digital platform workers directive? (see EUROPE 13352/1) Is there still hope under the Belgian Presidency of the EU Council?

We have to try and bounce back. We are in contact with the Belgian Presidency to see how this process should be continued. I have every confidence in the Belgian Presidency, but also in the European Parliament, to find a way forward.

Of course I’m disappointed. But we must continue to act, because there are millions of people, young people in particular, who had hoped that Europe would protect them better with this directive. And this hope now seems to be undermined by the perception that Uber and Deliveroo platforms are being given greater protection, which is quite a paradox.

I’m not against platforms at all. They offer a service that meets a real need. But if this service can only be obtained at the lowest social cost, then there’s a problem somewhere! What we wanted was to correct this problem, because if it is tolerated here, it will spread to other sectors.

We had also made a lot of progress on algorithmic management and it would be a real shame for the platforms to lose what has been negotiated. This issue is crucial to the future development of the world of work. That’s why we have to keep going.

Has the attitude of France and Germany in this matter bothered you?

I don’t want to comment on anyone’s position. But abstention - let’s not joke about it - is like a vote against. Each one must take responsibility for the millions of workers and their working conditions.

And while the platforms are in a sense celebrating their victory, there are questions to be asked.

The regulation on the coordination of social security rules is another failure (see EUROPE 13350/27). What advice would you give to a potential successor?

There was a series of missed opportunities. It’s a delicate issue, because there are quite different interests involved.

We need to start again with a realistic approach, both from Parliament and the EU Council. I don’t think an agreement is out of reach. We were almost there several times. You need a bit of flexibility, but you can’t give up. It’s regrettable that we’ve now spent eight years negotiating numerous trilogues, but we have to keep going.

Won’t the directive on minimum wages remain the only real social success of this legislature?

The directive on an adequate minimum wage is the flagship social dossier of this mandate, but it’s not the only one! There was a range of very important measures and proposals based on the pillar of social rights. Admittedly, not everything has been implemented, but the Commission has succeeded in relaunching social Europe, including in other policies.

One thing has gone completely unnoticed: the introduction of social conditionality in the Common Agricultural Policy, for example. We have also adopted a series of recommendations with a strong follow-up, such as those on the (European) ‘Child Guarantee’, on minimum income and on the social economy. We also covered the care sector and the quality of work of care workers. We have launched a platform on homelessness.

These are just some of the areas where Europe has shown its social face. And the challenge for the next Commission is to implement the measures to fight poverty, but also to focus on training.

We have achieved a great deal in a very short space of time, because let’s not forget that it was in the social field that the first joint borrowing arrangements were launched with the 100 billion SURE programme to support national short-time working schemes during Covid-19.

We’ve saved millions of jobs, we’ve saved businesses, we’ve helped stabilise the economy... We have also succeeded in changing the way we talk about employment, because we no longer subscribe to the idea that absolute flexibility is good for jobs. We know this isn’t true.