London, Asharq Al-Awsat—European Parliament Vice President Gianni Pittella said that Europe and the Arab world must look to develop a new “project of cooperation” following the failure of the Union for the Mediterranean.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat in London this week, Pittella spoke about relations between the European Union and the Arab world, the Arab Spring and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria.
Gianni Pittella is an Italian politician from Basilicata, in southern Italy. He is a member of the Italian Democratic Party who has been a member of the European Parliament since 1999.
Asharq Al-Awsat: You have often highlighted the importance of cooperation between Europe and the Arab world. What is your vision for realizing this?
Gianni Pittella: The Union for the Mediterranean has failed, and we now need a new framework to develop a new project of cooperation between Europe and the Arab world. I think we should focus on more concrete and specific projects, in particular in the field of education. Human capital is the most important asset in today’s society.
Q: There is an ongoing debate about right-wing political parties in Europe gaining ground. Why do you think this is and how do you expect this to affect the Arab and Muslim communities living in Europe?
This is a complicated issue. I think that we need a symmetrical effort both from the political system and from the Muslim communities to marginalize extremist forces.
Q: The conflict in Syria not only poses a threat to regional stability, but has also had a terrible humanitarian cost. Although the EU expressed deep concern about the situation in Syria from the start, you have been relatively slow in working to resolve this issue. Why is that?
This is because the EU effectively has no foreign policy. In terms of humanitarian assistance, the EU Commission is already doing a lot, but we need a political answer and Europe will always be unable to respond politically unless member-states devolve more powers in terms of foreign policy to the EU.
Q: The Arab Spring has seen new stages of unrest in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. What are the main reasons for this?
The transition to democracy is a very complicated process and it does take years. It takes time. The previous authoritarian regimes left very weak political structures, and now it’s time to rebuild a democratic system. Let me add that these three countries are also experiencing very different situations . . . although in Tunisia the outcomes are quite positive.
Q: What do you think of the new Tunisian government, and the new Tunisian constitution?
It is a very important step towards a more democratic and free Tunisia. It is also an indication that the Arab revolutions are still an open process.
Q: What is your view of the idea that the Arab people are not yet ready for democracy? Do you agree with such views?
Not at all . . . Democracy is a universal value which does not belong only to the West. That is why we have experienced the Arab revolutions.
Q: Education and culture lead the way to improving society. How do you evaluate the state of education and culture in Europe today? Are European education and culture institutions coping well with new technologies and new media?
We have to do more . . . Non-material resources like the Internet should be supported in a more assertive way. I call for the launch of a special government program at the European level to support the digital society. The French government has already launched a proposal. Now, the Italian presidency of the EU in the next semester has to put into this issue at the center of its agenda.
Q: What about the EU’s take on Britain? In light of the growing public euroskepticism within the UK, what do you think the British public needs to hear ahead of the European Parliament elections scheduled for May?
The British public should not surrender to populism. The main economic players in the UK have been clear: the UK leaving the EU would be a disaster for the British economy. If the voters want to change Europe the best thing to do is to participate within the decision making process.
Q: The European economy has been a key issue for you—and indeed, all of Europe—during your time in Parliament, and you have long supported the issuance of Eurobonds even though this would widen the gap between the UK and the Eurozone. Do you agree that this move will only serve to further alienate Britain from the European community?
No one in Europe wants to exclude the UK, but sometimes I am under the impression that they want to exclude themselves. The debt service in the Eurozone is too high, and for this reason we need Eurobonds. If the UK wants to join the Eurobond initiative, they are more than welcome.
Q: With Europe still facing the after-effects of the economic crisis, do you think that that new legislation that helps open the door to others is vital now?
What does “others” mean? Who are the “others”? Romanians, Bulgarians, Italians, Germans? They are not the others; they are Europeans, since they have European citizenship. And let me remind you that hundreds of thousands of Britons live abroad, particularly in southern Europe. If the UK wants to close its doors to Europeans, the other European countries will do the same and that is not a good result.