Events

Director's Forum: Former Belgian Prime Minister and President of the European People's Party Wilfried Martens

October 09, 2009 // 11:00am12:00pm
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History and Public Policy Program
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Lorne Craner introduced Martens and praised his work as a European statesman, including his efforts towards European integration, and his role in making the EPP a highly successful movement. Craner said that he had found the EPP to be a natural partner in the International Republican Institute's (IRI) efforts to create stronger bonds with Europe, and hoped to continue the close relationship.

Wilfried Martens provided highlights from his autobiography Europe: I Struggle, I Overcome, which chronicles his time in Belgian and European politics, including his time as the Prime Minister of Belgium and as a leader of the European People's Party (EPP). Previously published in Dutch and French, the new English edition covers the years 1955-2008.

Martens touched on his early experiences in leadership at the Catholic University of Leuven in the 1950s, and then discussed the 1980s, when he was the Prime Minister of Belgium. He mentioned two specific challenges that he faced – the economic crisis of the early 1980s when he was forced to devalue the Belgian franc by 8.5%, and the controversy over the deployment of cruise missiles to Europe in the mid-1980s. NATO's deployment, in Martens view, led to the zero-option, which had been the aim of the peace movement.

Martens argued that the values of peace, reconciliation, and transparency were at the heart his European convictions. He argued that Europe's future lied with the EU, but cautioned against a supranational state and strongly argued for subsidiarity and devolution as guiding principles. According to Martens, the European Union should be built as a federal union sui generis. Martens credited European Commission President Jacques Delors for putting integration back on track after the Eurosclerosis of 1979-1984, and Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterand for introducing the Euro, emphasizing Europe's need for strong leaders who would not use the EU as a scapegoat for unpopular policies. Today the EU was again at an important juncture, confronting further enlargement and new institutions.

Martens described his own role in the expansion and further integration of the EU. After resigning from the position of Belgian prime minister in 1992, Martens focused on the European People's Party, which had been founded in 1976 by the Christian Democrats. The collapse of the Soviet Union led Martens to push for expansion of the EPP to include other parties, such as the social democrats in Portugal and Victor Orban's Fidesz party in Hungary. The EPP thus became an enormous new European political force, which won the June 2009 elections for the European Parliament.

The center-right political program of the EPP was defined by Martens as committed to democracy, transparency, and openness. EPP members were convinced Europeans who believed in the social-market economy and the dignity of every human being. A number of different religious denominations were represented in the EPP, which included Muslims members from Turkey (an observer state). Martens described himself as a proponent of transatlanticism and said that the EPP maintained a dialogue with the US, particularly through IRI. In July 2005, the EPP and IRI established a working relationship based on a program of cooperation, yearly visits, and frequent exchanges.

Martens concluded by pointing to the last chapter of his book as the one covering the EPP's relationship with the US. He also said that he feels strongly that people must learn from history so that mistakes are not repeated, and that this was a primary motivation publishing his book.

Drafted by Amy Freeman and Tim McDonnell
Christian Ostermann, Director, HAPP/European Studies

 

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant

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