EXCLUSIV. Michael Binyon, The Times: European and national governments have to work hard to maintain enthusiasm for the European ideal

Michael BINYON, writer at THE TIMES, thinks that the European and national governments have to work hard to maintain enthusiasm for the European ideal. One of the most experienced journalists in Europe, correspondent in Bruxelles and Moscow during the Cold War, analysed the European Union situation, in an interview for one of the most important European and Global Affairs in Romania, caleaeuropeana.ro, at Astana VI Economic Forum, Kazahstan.

michael binyonCalea Europeana: Thank you for your willingness to offer us an interview. We are sure that a represent an important part of the history that the journalism has and you know, maybe better than everyone else, how the Eastern part of Europe developed and its relations with Asia. What do you think about the steps that Europe took in the past 50 years?

Michael Binyon: It’s a very interesting question because I’ve seen it in various stages. I was correspondent in Brussels in 1988 and 1989, it was the time for all the changes in Eastern Europe so I saw these changes from the West European point of view, both the economic and political, and that was extraordinary. Also, I’ve seen how it used to be in Eastern Europe because I was a correspondent in Moscow for five years, in communist times, in Brejnev’s time, from ’77 to ’82. So I knew how far Eastern Europe needed to come to come to reach the kind of level of freedom and authority , experience, know-how that was already taken for granted in Western Europe. I think all the continent has come a long way. It’s been the joining together of two cultures or two parts of the continent that were separated by  force after the II World War and  think that now, any younger person, more or less takes it for granted, that Europe is one continent with one kind of aim and one ideal of prosperity and happiness whereas 30 years ago, it was two continents: Eastern Europe and Western Europe.

Calea Europeana: Is it a one way road? Some people say that it is not an irreversible process, so the peace and the prosperity in Europe can be affected, the Europeans should work more and pay more attention to this prosperity and peace.

Michael Binyon: I think it is a big danger, because if the prosperity gets stuck, if the Europeans can’t solve the problem with the currency, and if unemployment and austerity measures create real social dissatisfaction, and particularly unemployment for young people, we will see sever danger to the stability and prosperity and indeed the democracy that we have taken for granted, especially in Western Europe. Look at what is happening in Greece, for example, you can see the rapid growth of the Golden Dawn, far-right, kind of a fascist party, with all sorts of totalitarian ideas. You see tremendous anger among youth groups in Spain, France, and places where there is high unemployment among young people and a disenchantment with the political leadership of Western Europe. This could happen in the East and in the West, it depends whether the economic situation shows some sign of improving or whether long term outlook is very gloomy, and I think leaders of all Europe should do much more to try to understand the dangers and make sure that they don’t lead to political instability.

Calea Europeana: You talked about the Cold War that divided Europe at the time. Now, the economic crisis seems to split once again Europe between the North and the South.

Michael Binyon: That is very true because the South was always the poorer part of Europe, economically, the situation was a lot less favorable than for Scandinavia or Germany. They then had an almost artificially high rate of growth. After the EU was formed, many Southern countries came into the Union with tremendous opportunities for cheap money, investment and to really stretch their opportunities. Unfortunately they didn’t take the kind of infrastructure measure that they should of taken and also they didn’t make the political reforms that were needed. For example, in reducing bureaucracy, in fighting corruption in places such as Italy, where prosperity has masked the fact that actual state didn’t function very well and now we find the leadership of many Southern countries is not strong enough to take the measures that are necessary. For example, in Greece, it’s been known for a long, long time that there was a lot patronage in the appointment of people to the civil servants. People got jobs there because their uncle, their cousin was a member to the civil service. That was no way ro run a civil democracy. And those reforms should have been made, but they weren’t. When the economic challenge comes, the political leadership in Southern Europe, unfortunately, is not sufficiently robust to be able to find the answers. North Europe, particularly places like Scandinavia, which has had a great deal of prosperity and political stability for a very long time are in a much better position to deal with these challenges.

Calea Europeana: Do you think the next step, because I’ve heard a lot of opinions here, at Astana, saying that Germany should do something? Southern states started to push pressure on Germany, maybe even France. How long do you think Germany will resist to these pressures and which will be its response?

Michael Binyon: Well, I think the Germans would be a little bit angry with these calls for them do more, because the Germans say “look at the amount of money we’ve already put in the economies of South Europe, look how much the Germans have paid for Greece”. And there is a very understandable feeling among ordinary German voters that why should the Greeks retire at a much earlier age, why should they have such long holidays and why should German tax payers pay for that? If the Greeks want to live better, they should work harder, that’s their view. On the other hand, it’s perfectly true that Germany of all has had the most success and prosperity than all other states from the creation of the euro zone. And the euro zone, by definition, means the weaker members will be easy market for the stronger members. So the German prosperity is the result of them having access to the markets of Southern Europe and to some extent, they have exploited this prosperity for their own needs and their own end. So they do have a responsibility to help those countries that have suffered as a result to their lack of competitiveness. So I think that if the Germans want their big single market continued, they have to do a lot more to pay for it, in the sense of probably permanent transfers of money to the poorer countries.

Calea Europeana:  Do you think that after 50 years we will be paying the same respect to personalities such as Jean Monnet or Robert Schuman, the fathers of the European project? Looking to van Rompuy, Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy, will their political level seen through their vision as European leaders will be the same as the one 50 years ago?

Michael Binyon: I don’t think it’s the same urgency to create a European Union because the generation of Jean Monnet was the generation that lived through the II World War. When Europe was devastated by political conflict and by fighting, and that is not the memory of the general public, so as a result you are seeing that people taking European unity more or less for granted. They don’t see it as a great mission, they don’t see it as a civilising mission to bring Europe together, there is not the same passion attached to this idea and therefore, people still feel more attached now to their own home countries.

They feel part of Europe, but equally, they feel that what matters is what their own governments do and how they respond to their feelings in say France, or Netherlands, or wherever it may be. The Netherlands  is a good example, it was a country that was the most European of them all, the founding member to the common market and now you’ve seen a tremendous change in the mentality where a lot of Dutch people are angry at the way their own government has handled situations, especially things such as immigration and where there is some resentment to the central power in Brussels, a feeling of unelected bureaucracy, so I think that the European leaders today and national leaders do have to work quite hard to maintain enthusiasm for the European ideal.



Michael Roger Binyon is an English journalist and eminent foreign correspondent, known for serving as The Times’s Moscow Correspondent as well as reporting from Berlin, Washington and all over the Middle East. He is currently a leader writer for The Times and occasional arts and books critic.

He reported from Moscow in the 70s, and went on to cover the fall of the Berlin Wall and numerous Middle East conflicts. Other positions he has held at The Times include: diplomatic editor, Washington bureau chief and Brussels correspondent.

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