Guenter Burghardt Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The European Union and Transatlantic Relations: Conversation with Ambassador Guenter Burghardt, Head of the European Commission's Delegation to the United States: 3/7/02 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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The European Union

Looking back, in retrospect, can you say that you thought at the beginning that so much would be achieved by the Union in the course of your career?

No. Anybody who would say that couldn't say the truth. I joined the European Commission first as an intern in the mid-sixties and then as a full associate in 1970. At that time we were six member states, the six founding members -- the three Benelux members (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), and Germany, France and Italy. The six who founded the Coal and Steel community in the early fifties, who founded the European Economic Community at the end of the fifties, who failed to found the European Defense Community, which was our very big frustration, and who were still together in 1970, three years before the first enlargement which brought Great Britain, Denmark, and Ireland in. When I joined, we were still busy just to complete what we called at the time the Customs Union, which was the first building block of what has now become the European Union.

Looking back at your career -- and you've held important positions in the Commission -- is there one turning point that stands out for you, both in terms of what happened to move the Union to the next step and your involvement in that work?

Yes. I was very fortunate to be employed in positions where the policy was made in the Commission -- not in the very early stages. I joined as a lawyer, I joined the Legal Service; I then went into External Relations. The real turning point for me came both in terms of career and in terms of political events in the mid-eighties, when I was chosen by the then-president of the Commission, Jacques Delors, a Frenchman, a Socialist, as his Deputy Chief of Staff. We didn't know each other at all. He was given a list of people; he interviewed the people. I still remember my interview with Jacques Delors in Paris. He asked me where I came from, and I said to him, "Well, I am deracine, I am a derooted European. I'm a Christian Democrat." And he said, "Well, that's exactly what I'm looking for."

So we had established a very early-stage, very intense relationship. I worked for Jacques Delors for the ten years, from 1985 to 1995. These were the ten years which profoundly accelerated the European integration process and opened it up, potentially, to the whole of Europe.

Looking back, if you were to be asked what was the factor that made the difference in this movement forward, was it leadership, was it the international environment forcing Europeans to get together, or was it a changing of perceptions among the citizens of Europe that this was the way to go? Or was it actually the officials in Brussels?

Well, they had to play a role in that, because they are part of your first element, leadership. You need people dedicated. You need people who have a clear objective, who are convinced that this is the right thing to do, and who put all their energies into that. It's a night and day job. It's a 24-hours a day job. It's a seven days a week job. It's like similar jobs in high positions in government, if you have to face important challenges.

It is this so-called bureaucracy in Brussels who has a very strong stake in that; it is our political masters. In this case, Jacques Delors and the commissions he presided over had put in the visionary commitment, but also outlined the way to do it. In a way, Jacques Delors was in the continuity of people like Jean Monet and Walter Hallstein -- these great names who pushed the process forward. He was the one who came up with the objective, which was called 1992, which was to complete the whole of the economic integration process, crowned by the introduction of the single currency. And this was the old method of Jean Monet, to generate dynamics, to generate a momentum, and then to make this momentum make other objectives possible once we had reached that one.

The thing I have to add, and is part of your question, is that when we were fully engaged in that very ambitious program, 1989 and 1990 happened -- the implosion of Communism, the opening up of the whole of the European geography for political renewal, and looking for new structures. So we were fully involved in completing and achieving the economic unity of Europe, faced at the same time with the challenge to add to that political unity, because this is what those new candidate countries were after in the first place.

This is a process we can see today -- it is continuous, it never stops. So on the agenda of the Union today is enlargement, bringing in the countries to the east. You have just successfully completed the adoption by the Union of the Euro. So it's a process that never ceases, but increasingly comes together, moving toward the future.

And this is because of the other elements which you mentioned. We talked about the leadership path. The leadership can set objectives and it can explain how to get there. But then come in the constraints from the outside, the challenges with which you are confronted, and which you have to absorb as well -- enlargement, other people wanting to join. And the other very important element, to be in tune and respond to the deep expectations of the citizens.

Now, the introduction of the Euro, our single currency, makes us really very proud, because this is a very tangible result of our decade-long efforts. It actually happened, physically, on the first of January last year. I lived it on the 31st of December of last year, in Washington, in my new function, in our offices. We invited hundreds of Americans to come and have a party with us. And the afternoon of the 31st of December, with the time difference with Europe, we were able to show the introduction of the Euro three times, with the three time zones we have, starting in Athens and Helsinki, then in six more, in the other members states, and ending with Portugal and Ireland.

I have brought a coin with me, just to show what it means when the European citizen now has a part of Europe in its pocket. The coin typifies the way we want to construct Europe, which is unity and diversity. The unity is this side of the coin, it's the same for everybody, 307 million people. This [other] side of the coin has been left to the twelve member states who participated in designing it. This is the German version. We have twelve different versions; now people start collecting these. Ultimately, of course, all those coins will circulate throughout the European Union and in other countries, and will not be identified anymore as being German or Belgian or Luxembourgian. So this is one of our visible achievements, and one which is probably a landmark in European history.

With these changes in the economy, the notion is now that every Italian, every German, every Frenchman has in his pocket the same coin. It's setting you up to think about how you might want to change your Constitution. Tell us a little about that.

Well, that will be the next step, and hopefully we will be successful in that respect as well. Again, well, what is it about? It is about looking into the way the European Union is functioning, looking into our basic treaties, at the many laws which have passed in order to make all this possible, and simplifying all this, making it more readable to the ordinary citizen, ensuring that when we enlarge -- in the beginning, we were six in 1970, and we are fifteen now; those fifteen member states are still functioning on the basis of a Constitution which was designed in the beginning for six member states. Now, when we grow to be twenty-five or ultimately thirty, maybe even more, we need a Constitution which, on the one hand, allows everybody, big or small member state, to consider itself as a stakeholder of a system, which is not imposed on anybody, but in which everybody can fully participate. On the other hand, a system where everybody accepts to be in a minority at times. So to accept majority decisions, because on the basis of consensus we will not be able to run such an enterprise. And on the other hand, make it possible for all those candidate countries who are knocking at our doors to be part of it, without bringing the whole process to a grinding halt.

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