Europe’s Leadership and Responsibility: Interview with President Sassoli

“Our goal is to ensure that European leadership can be maintained.” As Europe starts to recover from a year-long global crisis, we begin to look towards a stable, more sustainable and equitable future. We spoke to EU Parliament President David Sassoli about the future of the European project

by Margherita Concina | 08 Jun, 2021
David Sassoli President of the EU Parliament on the Future of Europe Europe

We live in fascinating times: New players and technologies are changing the international landscape. How is Europe's global role changing? 

The European Union was created in the spirit of responding to major global challenges, ensuring peace and prosperity. Around the world, conflicts continue, regardless of the pandemic. Indeed, this crisis has triggered even more tensions, and the healthcare emergency itself has proven that there’s a real need for cooperation among all global actors. The EU’s approach to international events has become more receptive. The idea of a more resilient Europe is linked with a Europe that’s more responsive to international politics, but always firm in the defense of certain pillars, such as human rights and personal freedom. This is what we do, even when we deal with more rigid systems: We hope for cooperation, dialogue and exchange of ideas, but we do not allow for any derogation from our fundamental principles. Trade and economic issues cannot take precedence over respect for the rule of law and fundamental liberties. This is the message we send to other countries, because we will continue to defend them – within our continent and around the world. Human rights are universal, indisputable and at the core of European values. 

In our evolving society, digitalization plays a key role. In your personal view, how can digital tools benefit society at large? 

COVID-19 has made one thing glaringly obvious: Digitalization doesn't wait for anyone. It is a tool that can empower citizens to have a role in the world around them, to be active, to continue to work. If we hadn’t had these instruments at our disposal during these months, we would have had a decline in all our performances, even in the democratic performance of our institutions. The question of digitalization is not whether or not it will happen, but whether it will happen for everyone. Access to the internet must be based on rules that ensure that it is fair, and not a source of inequality or marginalization. 

The ability to make the most out of the opportunities offered by digital technology to promote prosperity, human wellbeing and sustainability will determine Europe's place in the world. The European Parliament has set an example of this in recent months. It hasn’t been easy, but we adapted: We adopted new devices to allow democracy to continue to function, because it was essential to make important decisions for citizens. The transition to digital and the transition to sustainability are two of the biggest challenges facing us in the months ahead, and we need to be prepared. 

We cannot presume to face contemporary challenges with a compartmentalized mindset: Climate change cannot be separated from social justice and the fight against inequality.

That is the premise of the recently launched Conference on the Future of Europe, which aims to promote “a fair, green and digital future Europe”. How do sustainability, equity and digitalization go hand in hand? 

The Conference on the Future of Europe – which we launched in Strasbourg on May 9th, Europe Day – is a unique opportunity for all Europeans. It’s our chance to shape our common future, in a process where citizens and civil society are at the center of the conversation. And so are national parliaments, regions, local actors, social partners, academics, young people. 

This past year has shown us just how much a major crisis allows us to establish who we are, and to draw lessons from it. Europe has responded to the economic and social emergency by arranging funding for investments in a digital and green shift for member States – but the plan also considers the social dimension of these issues. We must not forget that we live in an interdependent world, and we cannot presume to face contemporary challenges with a compartmentalized mindset: Climate change cannot be separated from social justice and the fight against inequality. The same goes for digitalization. The Internet is not just a technology: it is synonymous with knowledge, opportunity, and empowerment. It is an essential part of life in today's world, but it must be regulated by rules that ensure its transparency. In short, the EU is equipping itself with the means to tackle structural problems, moving further towards a socially-minded future. 

How is the EU taking action to build a more sustainable and equitable society? Has the pandemic slowed down such initiatives? 

Europe can be glad of one thing: That we went into the health crisis with a certain reading of the contemporary, and the underlying knowledge that we still had challenges to address. The EU has made commitments for the future: To get to 2030 and 2050 as the first zero-emission continent, and with a transition logic that allows no one to be left behind. The Next Generation EU recovery plan is based on the commitments of the Green Deal, on a sustainable economy, not only when it comes to the environment, but in society as well. An idea of transformation that seeks to rehabilitate the disadvantaged, and functions through a digital single market, which in turn must operate within the full respect of our common European ideals, and protect our rights and freedoms. And the Europe we live in, as it has demonstrated in its response to the crisis, has the values and resources to do so. 

In your opinion, what are the biggest threats to the EU’s democratic future? 

I am concerned about the growing trend towards authoritarianism and the many attempts to destabilize democracy. Repressive powers are afraid of our core values and are trying to damage them. They are trying to influence our action for recovery and there is a clear desire to undermine our independence. In December last year, I had the honor of awarding the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to the democratic opposition in Belarus. The determination and courage of the citizens of that country are a lesson in freedom. We have an obligation to support their legitimate demands. Our citizens rely on us to defend these values. Democracy is an institutional and legal system based on the trust of citizens. But to deserve trust, you need unity and transparency. As politicians, our job is to do what is necessary to maintain that trust. 

Defending human rights includes promoting women’s rights. What is your take on gender diversity and equity in Europe? 

The data is clear: The measures adopted by certain European governments have exacerbated the gender gap in terms of unemployment, the burden of domestic work, financial security and personal autonomy. Women have been the first to lose their jobs and end up on unemployment benefits. Europe, the continent that led the fight for women's rights in past centuries, is called upon today to promote real equity for women as a battle for all, and the institutions must set a good example. We need to start with wage equality – equal pay for equal work. The same applies to the implementation of the work-life balance directive. We must strive to promote the inclusion of women, especially in those areas where they continue to be underrepresented. Within the EU Parliament, for example, we already apply the principle that in appointing managerial roles, the shortlist of candidates must always be gender balanced. Now that we are talking about recovery, it is more important than ever that women's issues are considered real societal emergencies, and therefore, that they are guaranteed the right amount of space in public debate. 

The digital transition is a key component of the EU's strategic autonomy.

As we build new systems and values after the pandemic, should digitalization be considered a new human right? 

Bolstering our citizens' rights is not inconsistent with digital leadership. As Europeans, we want to be global leaders of an anthropocentric digital transformation founded on justice. For example, when a country with limited democracy wants to intervene in the lives of its citizens, it limits their access to the Internet. This would never happen in the EU. 

Furthermore, the digital transition is a key component of the EU's strategic autonomy. We don't want to depend on technologies exclusively developed by others, we want to set our own standards, which is why we must defend our digital sovereignty and secure it. Our goal is to ensure that European leadership can be maintained. That's why we are fighting for internet access to be recognized as a new human right. We will make this one of the 2030 targets set by the European Commission. But our effort goes beyond that: We will also support this new common need with a series of ambitious policy initiatives that will help protect and empower citizens in the digital world, by promoting digital skills and investing in a secure and functioning infrastructure. 

Looking further ahead, what are your hopes for the future of the European project? 

Since the beginning of this legislature, one of the ambitions of this Parliament has been to bring citizens closer to the institutions, and to have the courage to reform the European project. We must not be afraid to make changes to our treaties if they are no longer suited to the historical moment that we are living in. And we can no longer afford to have taboos, because our systems are fragile. We must strengthen the role of parliaments as guarantors of the democratic expression of peoples, but also ensure the participation and involvement of citizens in democratic life. The EU Parliament enjoys direct democratic legitimacy, and the pluralism that our institutions embody allows us to best convey the concerns of citizens and the realities of the various regions. That is why we should strengthen the functions and centrality of this institution, particularly in its right of initiative. We should also increase the transparency of elections, and allow citizens to indicate their preferences for the presidency of the Commission. Similarly, the issue of unanimity in the Council must absolutely be addressed. We see geopolitical actors in the world who attack us and who take advantage of our divisions to weaken us. Only by overcoming our differences and working together, respecting our diversities, can we build a stronger, more resilient, more democratic and more united Europe.



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