Enrico Letta: ‘So what are European governments doing?’

Enrico Letta: ‘So what are European governments doing?’

epa04958783 Former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta speaks during a media conference about the presentation of the 'School of Politics 'at the Foreign Press Hall in Rome, Italy, 01 October 2015. EPA/CLAUDIO ONORATI


PARIS — Enrico Letta says there’s a vast, empty political space between Marine Le Pen and Pope Francis, and he’s wondering why European governments aren’t doing more to fill it.

The former Italian prime minister is talking about what he calls the crucial problem for Europe and the rest of the world in years to come: immigration. And he says he will do his part to try and train Europe’s younger generations to grasp all the dimensions of the problem.

As it happens, he is in a position to do that: 49-year-old Letta now heads the Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA) at Sciences Po in Paris. The switch to academia is giving him an opportunity to reflect on what he sees as Europe’s major challenges — and to infuse the PSIA curriculum with his own preoccupations.

Two years ago, Letta took a step back from Italian politics after he was replaced as head of the center-left Democratic Party and as Italy’s prime minister by his rival Matteo Renzi, who claimed that Italy needed to reform further and faster.

“Of all possible topics of public policy,” he said in perfect French, sitting in his Sciences Po office on Rue des Saint Pères, “immigration is the one with the largest gap between perception and reality.”

Twenty years ago, we talked about Europe for the good it did — structural funds, the opening of markets, free circulation of people.”

“Le Pen has the political answers — the wrong ones of course,” said Letta. “And Pope Francis doesn’t dwell in politics. So what are European governments doing?”

Letta tells of a vote he organized recently in Italy after lecturing a class of about 500 high school students, asking them their estimate of the number of immigrants in Italy.

“I suggested three answers: 7 percent of the population, 14 percent or 20 percent. The overwhelming majority said 20 percent. The right answer is 7 percent. We’re talking here about a difference of 10 million people.”

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Students aren’t the only ones who seem to be missing the point on the issue of migration, he said. “The Commission and EU governments talk about fingerprints, hotspots, the Calais jungle, but where is the long-term policy?”

The paralysis on immigration, he added, is a reflection of Europe’s general problem: The EU is no longer associated with all the positive developments of the 1980s and 1990s.

Quite the opposite in fact: “Europe is perceived as only protecting the winners of the globalization game.” That allows [far-right National Front leader Marine] Le Pen to connect with people by saying: ‘I will protect you,’” Letta said.

“We have 1,300 students here,” he said of PSIA, “and many are here thanks to the [EU-funded) Erasmus program. How many know that Erasmus is a European initiative? How many students know that if they can buy a plane ticket to go see the Oceanogràfic aquarium in Valencia, Spain, for €20, it’s because of the EU and what [Jacques] Delors did in the 1980s to foster competition and create the single market?” Letta continued, referring to the three-term president of the European Commission.

“Twenty years ago, we talked about Europe for the good it did — structural funds, the opening of markets, free circulation of people.”

 On immigration, Letta intends to build a curriculum to train experts in the field.

“So far we have a strict separation between interior ministry officials to deal with security problems, diplomats to take care of international issues, and non-governmental organizations for the humanitarian aspect of things. We need professionals who can grasp the three dimensions of the problem.”

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One “great opportunity” for Europe which Letta pointed out, counterintuitively, is the debate about Britain’s  membership of the European Union.

Rather than a crisis that threatens the Union, he said, it is a chance to think of a Europe made up of two circles: the euro circle, moving towards greater integration, and, down the road, a full economic union; and a looser circle of countries like the U.K., with different goals, for which the treaty clause of an “ever closer union” was never taken seriously anyway.

“Note that I’m not talking about two-speed Europe,” Letta said, “because I think those two circles want to go in different directions.”

He remains deliberately discreet on Italian politics and doesn’t readily comment on his successor Renzi, the man from his own party who ousted him after just 10 months in the job. Still, he does admit to thinking Renzi’s new-found stridency in European affairs, based on fierce criticism of Germany, looks a bit vindictive.

The goal would be to harmonize the traditional divergences on the topic between France and Germany.

“I could understand why he does that for domestic political reasons,” he said, “but it is still scapegoating.”

For the former Italian premier, the direction should be clear for the eurozone: “We need a European finance minister who could not only manage a common budget — to begin with, the European Stability Mechanism — but also control and if necessary veto the accounts of individual member states. For now, there’s [European Central Bank President Mario] Draghi and no one else.”

The goal would be to harmonize the traditional divergences on the topic between France and Germany, which sees Paris always eager to promote a common budget and financial transfers, while Berlin insists on centralized control of individual countries’ budgets.

That places a lot of faith in the once-celebrated Franco-German partnership which hasn’t been vibrant in the last few years, as economic crises and political paralysis have taken their toll.

But Letta still thinks the two countries should take the lead in the effort to get out of the current euro funk, reverting to an Italian saying to illustrate his meaning (“Gettare il cuore oltre l’ostacolo”): “We need to ‘throw our heart beyond the obstacle.’”