David Sassoli: "The EU's lack of powers in certain areas has left us with our hands tied"
BrusselsIn 2019 David Maria Sassoli (Florence, 1956) took over from fellow Italian Antonio Tajani as president of the European Parliament. Politically, however, they shared little more than nationality. Sassoli first came to the European Parliament in 2009 as a member of the Socialist family. Before politics he had worked for years as a journalist. Now, from the other side, he answers this newspaper's questions by email and reflects on the challenges facing Europe and the role of the institution he presides over in the conflict between Catalonia and Spain.
Looking back over the past year, are you proud of the EU's handling of the pandemic?
— The EU has shown that when it acts in a coordinated way where it has competences, it works. We have reached unprecedented agreements. Europe's response to alleviate the economic and social effects of the pandemic will mark a before and after in our history. Mistakes have also been made and we have to learn from them, but we have seen that it is where the EU has no room for manoeuvre that there are problems, such as the vaccination strategy.
What mistakes have been made?
— The crisis has reminded us of a lesson we should have learned by now: problems increase when the EU has to act in areas where it does not have full powers, a Europe with more competences is more efficient.
What do you say to the European disappointed that vaccines and recovery fund money are arriving late?
— The EU is doing its best to tackle the pandemic. If we look outside our borders, we are not the only ones with problems. The EU's lack of power in some areas has left us with our hands tied. It is incomprehensible that the same Europe that was able to articulate an economic response with the relaxation of state aid or the suspension of the Stability Pact in record time has not given the same response on vaccination.
President Von der Leyen says that the EU is the "pharmacy of the world", but it has lagged behind in vaccination. Some may think that domestic vaccination should have been prioritised and then exported.
— The export of vaccines has to work on the principle of reciprocity. It is essential that there is collaboration with the producing countries. However, we cannot talk about exports in a generic way, because we are also talking about getting vaccines to developing countries, and here the EU's actions cannot be called into question.
Despite these "unprecedented" measures, it seems that Biden has taken up the banner of social democratic values more characteristic of the Union. Is Europe lagging behind?
— This Saturday we concluded the European social summit in Porto. European leaders discussed with citizens and representatives of different sectors of society proposals to improve the implementation of the social pillar, which will always be a hallmark of the EU.
The Future of Europe conference invites debate but does not imply reforms. Do the treaties need to be changed for issues such as transnational lists, the role of the European Parliament or the Stability Pact?
— Europe needs to rethink itself. We need new forms of participation and decision-making. Parliament has already put on the table ideas such as transnational lists in European elections, the Spitzenkandidaten, the power of legislative initiative, an end to the right of veto and new European competences such as health. Now a debate with the citizens is being opened. The aim is to build a broad consensus on ideas and then move on to action, with reforms if necessary.
The European Parliament has been one of the places where Catalan independence has made its cause visible. In the debate on the future of Europe, is there room or willingness to discuss the need to take into account the specific characteristics or demands such as those coming from Catalonia?
— If there is one thing Europe stands for, it is diversity. I recently responded to a letter from the President of the Parliament of the Balearic Islands on the use of Catalan in the European Parliament on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Reding resolution. The resolution was passed in plenary without a single dissenting vote and resulted in what is now a fact: that Spanish citizens can communicate with the European Parliament in any of the languages recognised in the Spanish Constitution. I welcome the commitment of the Secretary of State for the EU to the use of the co-official languages in Spain on the platform of the Conference on the Future of Europe.
So you believe that we should not open this debate, despite talking about the need to "rethink Europe"?
— Wednesday at the Committee of the Regions I said that regions, cities and districts will have an important role to play on the road to recovery, economic growth and employment. Moreover, they are playing a fundamental role, in the pandemic, often at the forefront, and it has to be highlighted. The Conference has to be a space without taboos and I encourage the institutions and social actors of Catalonia to participate actively.
Catalan pro-independence parties have questioned the role played by the European Parliament. Do you fear that the complaints presented to the European Court of Justice will be successful?
— I have been criticised for my work by both pro-independence and anti-independence parties. As president, my role has been, is and will always be institutional, as I demonstrated on 19 December after the CJEU ruling by appointing Comín, Junqueras and Puigdemont as MEPs.