Romano Prodi: EU paralyzed every time it has to act decisively

The refugee crisis in Europe has put the spotlight on some major divisions within the Union. The decisions taken in Brussels are not something that all countries agree on. Major powers set the agenda and lesser states have to follow. But can the block withstand the growing tensions within it? What does it have to do to pull through? We ask former Italian prime minister and former president of the European Commission - Romano Prodi is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Romano Prodi, former Italian Prime-MInister, former President of the European Commission, it’s great to have you again on our show.

RP: It’s a pleasure!

SS: Once a year - it’s a must. Thank you for being with us.

RP: It’s really my pleasure.

SS: Thank you. So, despite strong objection from Central European countries, the EU Interior Ministers have voted for refugee quotas. What does it mean? Are interests of the countries, which are against, being ignored?

RP: No, they’re not being ignored, because the number of refugees taken is very small compared to the number.., and, also, compared to the previous engagement of the German government - I am surprised, I had to analyze the opposite fact, that for the first time we have walls and barbed wires not only between member of EU and an outside country, but also between two countries of the European Union. When you have an obstacle, a physical obstacle between Hungary and Croatia - look, this is against the EU! To have a Union in which you have a wall - it’s against all principles.

SS: So, do you think this whole “refugee crisis” is actually threatening the European unity, especially that, like I’ve said, some countries are against these quotas, they don’t want refugees…

RP: ”Threatening” is a strong word. Damaging -  yes. This is a moment in which each country inside the EU wants to have political strength with some sort of nationalistic behavior, you know. So, Orban is becoming stronger, because of a severe action against refugees, against minorities… And this is not a foundation of the EU.

SS: So, this refugee quota was voted on by the majority, but it wasn’t a unanimous decision - so what does it mean, if, in essence, issue of a country’s sovereignty is being decided by a simple vote, vote from outside the country?

RP: If you have a Union, you must have rules, supra-national rules, otherwise you have not a Union. In some case, you have a national authority and in this case, the minority is being respected. But in other case, either you take decision on the Union level or you don’t do anything.

SS: What do you think Czechs and Poles will do in this situation, where they are really against this whole refugee business?

RP: It will depend upon their internal political situation. I think that if the tide will in some way be regulated, then they can deal with the public opinion and so we, step by step, we may have an immigration policy. Also, for a simple reason - we need immigrants

SS: But do you need this much refugees?

RP: No, I am telling you when, if we arrive to regulate the tide and this will depend upon peace in Syria, or some sort of settlement in the Middle East - the anxiety inside this country will slow down and the other problem will come out - if there’s no change by the middle of the century, Germany that now has around 80 million people, around that, and France, 61-62 - they will have the same population, if there’s no immigrant balance. German population will go down. In Italy, in less than one generation, we shall lose 5 million people.

SS: So you need immigrants.

RP: We need immigrants

SS: But the question is how much more do you need? Because, talking about the new tide, Donald Tusk at a recent refugee summit has actually said that the “greatest tide of refugees” is yet to come. Do you agree with that?

RP: Yes, of course. When I was in my UN job in Sub-Saharan Africa, the President of Niger told me: “Look, our population will double, not in 21 years, as it was supposed to, but in 18 years. 18 years double! So, if you don’t invest here, if there’s no strong plan to develop our area, our people, we’ll immigrate. Where? To Europe.”

SS: As things are right now, you’re not handling it too well. What is going to happen if the new wave arrives? If things aren’t too good already?

RP: If there’s a settled Libya and some settlement in Syria, we’ll regulate the wave, step by step, and can increase investment - because we need a strong investment plan in Africa. Otherwise… but, the problem now, the situation, is similar to few years ago. The problem now is that we have two sources of immigration that are not under control: Libya and Syria and this area. When people come from the sea, you cannot do anything. It’s clear, because on land, you can build a wall - but on sea, you cannot push people in the water. The problem is to regulate from where they come. If not, please, there are also issues, in which we must say: “we can’t do anything!”

SS: But, how do you regulate? I mean, a lot of politicians, like you, they say: “in order to solve the refugee crisis, we actually need to regulate or improve the situation of the countries that the refugees are fleeing from”. I mean, can the EU fix Libya’s problems now, Syria’s problems? Can you really fix the North-African continent problems?

RP: No! But if you fix the Libyan and the Syrian problem, you’ll regulate the flow as it was before. We always had immigrants, but not a flood of them, and investing more you could regulate even more. You need a European plan, you need not one country, you can regulate the flow of people as, I repeat, I was doing before. It was not so big, the flow of people not so huge, but in any case, we could arrange, regulating it, and it was not a tragedy. The tragedy came because of poverty, let’s say, wars - they went together with the flourishing global terrorism, of non-controlled state it’s on - this is why it’s so important that we have an agreement between the U.S., Russia and the other powers…

SS: We’re going to get to that, but before: European leaders have pledged one billion euros to aid the Syrian refugees. Where will this money go and how will it help the refugee situation?

RP:  The Syrian case is a little different from the average, because they are, broadly speaking, more cultured and much easier to integrate…

SS: Syrians?

RP: Syrians, to be integrated into European culture, and especially in Germany, where manpower is more needed. I am rational, you know, I do think that we are obliged to tackle the Syrian problem and you will see that in that moment, the Syrians, they’d love to remain in peaceful Syria or let’s say, in some better situation, because you have more than one million of Syrians that are already in Turkey, and they don’t come here, because they hope to come home - only, let’s say, little number of people who have money and culture to come, they are coming...But the most part of them, they stay in countries around Syria, waiting for coming back. And it’s our responsibility to give them home and possibility to go back.

SS: You know, the way we see it from the outside, EU suddenly needs Russia to solve the Syrian crisis. Only now, when EU is actually faced with consequences - why did it take EU, or Europe, so long to actually involve Russia in the process?

RP: Look, my point is very clear: we have one enemy  - organised terrorism that is becoming a state, a nation. Everybody is frightened by terrorists. I do trust in rationality even in politics, and if there’s an agreement, the terrorists, they have no way, let’s say, to prosper - because there’s no agreement between the big powers, and even more between Russia and U.S. I repeat this simply because when you look at events - it is very clear! I repeat this from our previous interview about Ukraine - Ukraine will be safe it is a bridge and not a battlefield. If Ukraine is still a battlefield, the problem will never be solved. Of course, we could also go on in this situation, you know.

SS: Chancellor Angela Merkel is saying that “Europe needs Russia to solve the Syrian crisis” - at the same time, the sanctions business is being renewed. So, how do these two things go together?

RP: Look. The sanctions are a weapon, a stupid weapon, but they are a weapon - and when you talk about a deal, you must put everything on the table, clearly. So, even on the Russian side, you must make steps to give insurance. On the Russian side you must create the situation in which all the Western, European, Germany and the U.S., they can reassure their public opinion that there’s a stable deal.

SS: There are some European countries, who are not happy about these sanctions. I mean, it may not be a tragedy for them, but the sanction business strained their economies too, because they lost a huge market, which is Russia - it’s a huge market.

RP: Don’t tell me, because I don’t...and I wrote many times, you know, not only that they damage us, but also think that they are purposeless.

SS: But there’s also this one point in this whole sanction thing. Many would argue, in Europe and in Russia, that it’s the U.S. that is exerting pressure on the EU to continue and keep up with these sanctions against Russia. Would you agree? Would you say that, maybe, some European countries or Europe in general, has to pay economically for American foreign policy interests?

RP: No doubt about that.

SS: How do you feel about that? Not being able to make your own decisions?

RP: When you have an alliance, you have, let’s say, also to have good relations even in some chapters in which you have no interest or of which you think in a different way, you know. But, clearly, historically, the sanctions have been organised by the U.S. government and, in Europe, they have been endorsed by Germany and by a strong group of countries, starting from the former Soviet Union countries. So we have this complex situation, you know. Broadly speaking, for the long-term policy, there’s a lot of complaining, in many countries, in Italy, even in France, but in spite of that, there’s a long term…

SS: Alliance, okay.

RP: A long term alliance.

SS: But if it wasn’t for American foreign policy, do you think Europe alone would still impose these sanctions on Russia? Or the decision would be different?

RP: Look, if there’s a dialog, the sanctions can end in one day. In my opinion, Russia has all the interest in the deal. Clearly, U.S. is much stronger, militarily and economically, than anybody is - but, strategically, Russia is in the better position.

SS: You just said that sanctions against Russia, put forward by the U.S., were first and foremost, consolidated by Germany and then the other European countries - German former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer wrote that Germany is actually “turning the EU into its sphere of influence”. Do you agree?

RP: I don’t know how you could disagree. I’ll tell you, frankly, when I was a President of European Commission, I ended around 10 years ago - you had some sort of, let’s say, balance between Germany, France, UK, a little bit of Italy, a little bit of Spain...and the EU was born in order to have balance among different countries. The famous Thomas Mann: “Not a German Europe but a European Germany”. And, my definition of Europe ten years ago was “Europe is a Union of minorities”, and I do think that this must be the role of Europe. Otherwise, it’s difficult that the Union could work. This is why I, even in economic policy, I repeated so many times that we should have done an alternative growth policy with France, Italy, Spain. Not against Germany - but because of their own interests. So, politics is balancing interests, you know!

SS: But what worries you the most about the Union dominated by Germany?

RP: No, I am not worried.

SS: You’re not worried?

RP: I’m overly worried, but not because of Germany, because in any case, when you have a dominant guy, he will settle the rules under his own interests. United country, the strongest country, united inside…

SS: Economically very strong.

RP: And politically very strong. So, I am absolutely pro-German, but I am for balanced power - because, this is life! In economy, politics…

SS: But how does that balance finds itself in a real world, where, like you’ve said, this is the strongest country in Europe, economically and politically?

RP: Look, Spain, Italy, France have the same interest, they should act together.

SS: Then you should also pay the bills…

RP: Well, we pay the bill. Italy is an active payer to Brussels, and we pay more than we receive. It’s not only Germany paying big deal, you know. Everybody thinks that only Germany pays, it’s not true. But, I repeat, in a Union, we must balance the interests, otherwise, in long term, the Union will disappear.

SS: But looking at the other side - Europe has a lot of problems, right now it is a nasty place to rule. Does Germany even want to be the dominant force? Can it take all that trouble? Does it want to be responsible for Europe as a whole?

RP: Look, Europe is not working because of the divisions. This is another chapter, you know. You’re asking me about the German dominance and there’s a German dominance, but there’s no Union: and in many fields you need unanimity. So, simply, not having unanimity, you have a paralysis. This is a strong point: we must arrive to a supranational Europe, a Federal Europe, otherwise we are lost. We need step by step...and the euro, remember that the euro was the great first step to the Federal Europe. Then, this tragedy, combined tragedy of populistic parties, immigrants and economic crisis - now, everybody forgets that in the first years the euro worked well. And only after the crisis, we didn’t have the instrument to balance the European economy.

SS: So, what’s your final say, what should be done so that the prestige of the EU is raised in the eyes of its own citizens?

RP: Not at this moment, clearly, taking bold decisions, as Merkel did with the Syrians. You immediately understand that this is a common… but then, there’s  disagreement of East European countries to put down..I don’t think that in this moment you can take quick steps. In this moment you have to reorganize the power inside the block, give more power to the Commission and then step, by step…

SS: That will take so much time! Does the EU have that much time?

RP: This is a problem. Everybody knew that the EU...or anybody who was wise enough, that the EU needed decades and decades, when you have 22 languages, 28 countries - so to harmonise that you need time. But history brings it in this direction. I always repeat what happened to Italy during Renaissance. The Italian states were leading in all fields in the world, all the fields in the world. And, then the first globalization came, the discovery of America, and Venice, Milan, Genoa - they were not big enough to build big ships for the new trade, and Italy disappeared from the world map. Europe, even Germany, is now in the same situation, and the new ships are the big networks of the world: Google, Apple, Amazon, and Ali-Baba. These networks are American and Chinese. And, look, if we don’t build this network - we are lost.

SS: Romano Prodi, thank you  very much for this interview.

RP: Thank you.