‘Age of innocence is over’: EU must step up to challenges in shifting world order, says EPP sec-gen

Posted on : 2024-06-05 17:21 KST Modified on : 2024-06-05 17:21 KST
The Hankyoreh spoke to Thanasis Bakolas, the secretary general of the European People’s Party, ahead of the European Parliament elections beginning Thursday
Thanasis Bakolas, the secretary general of the European People’s Party, the top political group in the European Parliament. (courtesy of the EPP) 
Thanasis Bakolas, the secretary general of the European People’s Party, the top political group in the European Parliament. (courtesy of the EPP) 

According to Thanasis Bakolas, the No. 2 man in the European People’s Party, the European Union needs to “step up.” Greece-born Bakolas is an adviser to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and has been secretary general of the EPP, a center-right group and the largest party in the European Parliament, since 2022. Bakolas spoke with the Hankyoreh over video call on Friday, May 31. 

Hankyoreh: Recent polls show the EPP in the lead, but far-right parties are expected to gain more seats. What’s your take on those predictions? 

Bakolas: You never know what will happen [until the election]. But the polls suggest the EPP will stay stable, maybe gain a few seats, and the Socialists will remain stable as well, maybe lose a few seats. So the core of the centrist coalition basically stays strong. And lately, people have been asking themselves about the Green Deal here in Europe [policies for achieving the goal of carbon neutrality]. They’ve asked what we can do to make sure nobody’s left behind [by the Green Deal], and the Liberals don’t have good answers for that. As for the rise of far-right parties, a lot of that has to do with the failure of liberal governments, such as in France and the Netherlands. The people who are trying to make [the far-right parties] a bigger issue than are the ones who are losing — the Liberals, the Greens, etc. 

Hankyoreh: After the election, who will the EPP form a coalition with? 

Bakolas: In the end, the EPP, the Socialists, the Liberals and maybe the Greens will form a centrist coalition and take the top jobs and positions in the European Parliament and in the European Commission. So this majority will drive major policy decisions. What we want here at the EPP is a centrist coalition, not a right coalition. We need to build a majority that represents all people and all member states, and that’s why we’re so determined that this majority will be centrist, and not extremist. 

Hankyoreh: Does the EPP intend to cooperate with far-right groups like the European Conservatives and Reformists Party (ECR)? 

Bakolas: The far right includes groups that don’t want Europe and want to destroy Europe. Looking at the ECR, for example, there’s Law and Justice from Poland, a party that neither we nor anybody else can work with. But you also have [Italian Prime Minister] Giorgia Meloni’s party Brothers of Italy, which is a different situation, I think. I think after the elections we might see this area to the right of the EPP trying to sort itself out a little bit to produce some unity and cohesion. The EPP will have no formal coalition with the right. But we do have to work with them on the business of parliament and maybe on the issues. As for the Liberals, it’s us versus them, black and white, and they're doing it for political reasons to gain more strength but it’s not working. I believe the day after the elections, they’ll stop that and join us to form a majority in parliament. 

Hankyoreh: Polarization between left and right is likely to make cooperative governance gradually more difficult, even in the European Parliament. 

Bakolas: Business as usual is not an option for the European Union in a prolonged period of one crisis after the other, including the pandemic, the war, and the energy crisis. So the age of innocence for the European Union is over, and the European Union needs to step up because member states understand that they cannot do it alone. In terms of defense, for example, Europe can no longer ride on the American coattails for security through NATO as it did during the Cold War. We have a war next door in Ukraine with Russia, and we see the situation with the United States and China. 

Hankyoreh: After the EU decided to go back to the drawing board on the Nature Restoration Law [a Green Deal policy responding to climate change], the EU has come under fire for backpedaling on environmental policy. What is your party’s position on Green Deal policy? 

Bakolas: The EPP has voted for most of the Green Deal bills. We’re not against the Green Deal. But the farmers were saying to us, “Listen, this needs to be rational.” So what we did with the Nature Restoration law is say, “Hold on a second, are we doing the right thing here with the Green Deal? Let’s look at their issues and adjust because that’s what serious politicians do.” The Green Deal is also connected with energy issues, and we had to look at policies that have to do with Europe’s competitiveness and make sure they tie in with the Green Deal. If you place the environment first and don't care what price you pay for it, you may have success in the short term, but you won’t in the long term. If people lose their jobs, are they going to care about the environment? 

Hankyoreh: The far-right parties are asking for tougher immigration policies. How do you think the EU’s immigration policy will be impacted by the rise of the far right? 

Bakolas: Let me put it this way: Europe is an aging society. We do need more migrants and we do need younger people to come in, but we have absorbed a lot of immigrants over the decades and our capacity to absorb more is limited. So for Europe, I think the consensus right now is to have very strict migration policies. Politically right now, we’re seeing Russia instrumentalizing migration with Finland and Poland. What we need to do and what Europe is saying is that we will maintain our national integrity for sure and will also manage migration in a humane way, with asylum processes and measures. Now the far right wants to capitalize on this issue by saying, make it even tougher and have zero tolerance. They are not a constructive element in the public conversation, sure, but we have to deal with it with logical, reasonable steps. 

Hankyoreh: Do you think that Ukraine’s accession to the EU would help with security issues? What are the most important conditions for Ukraine becoming a member state? 

Bakolas: Well, Ukraine is a special case, there’s no question about it. We’re having an enlargement debate in the European Union, and this enlargement process needs to be merit-based obviously for the good of the EU but also for the good of the countries coming into Europe, and that’s a difficult process with Ukraine. There are certain economic standards the country needs to meet in order to be part of the European Union. But we don’t expect those of Ukraine, because of the war. There’s a fundamental commitment shared by all the member states to make Ukraine part of the EU because of the war and because of Russian aggression. I think very soon in the next institutional cycle it will be tied into the support that the European Union extends both financially and in terms of defense and security to Ukraine. It will highlight the commitment to freedom, it will highlight the commitment to our territorial integrity, it will highlight the commitment that Europe is one — and as one, we will defend the freedoms of every country that is a member of the European Union. 

Hankyoreh: How do you think that the EU’s relationships with China, the US and Russia might change after the elections? 

Bakolas: With respect to China, it’s very clear that our desire is to de-risk, not to decouple. This is part of our competitiveness strategy. Europe needs to do this also with respect to the United States, because the United States has its own challenges and will try to protect its own economy. We’ll need to deal with it in a constructive way, avoiding trade wars and conflicts. Now in terms of security, NATO is important, and it will remain important. But European countries need to do more in order to protect Europe and contribute to its security. When it comes to Trump, I think the relationship between the United States and Europe is an old traditional relationship that will survive any turbulence. Even if Donald Trump is reelected, ultimately the relationship between the United States and Europe will survive. At the same time, Europe will remain strong against Russia [and its invasion of Ukraine], there is no question about it. Anybody [in the EU] who is against our position on Russia is in the absolute minority.  

By Jang Ye-ji, staff reporter 

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr

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