STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The European Union continues to face a test of whether it can really work under pressure. The pressure comes from the financial crisis and the effort to bail out Greece. The test comes because there are 27 nations in the E.U.; 17 of them share a common currency, the euro. They remain sovereign nations, so on big decisions everyone in the eurozone must unanimously agree. This week the tiny nation of Slovakia almost held up the bailout, rejecting it before finally said yes in another vote. We discussed the challenge with the EU's ambassador to the United States. He is Joao Vale de Almeida. Does this system make any sense?
JOAO VALE DE ALMEIDA: Well, it makes sense because we are a democratic system, and we must respect the Slovak parliament as much as we must respect the Bundestag, the German parliament, as much as you respect the Congress.
INSKEEP: Although you've have taught us something that is distinct about the European system as opposed to, say, the United States Congress. In Congress you may need a majority, you may need a super-majority, depending on which house. But you need every single nation in Europe to agree on something major; is that correct?
ALMEIDA: On something major, yes. You have to understand that European Union is not a country. We are a body of countries that decided to share sovereignty. But they remain independent, autonomous and sovereign countries. So it's quite a complex structure. Taking decisions that have an impact on all these countries requires consensus, otherwise they are not sustainable.
INSKEEP: But as you know very well, people are beginning to question whether sharing sovereignty in this way is going to work, whether it needs to be changed, and a few people even ask if it needs to be abolished in some way.
ALMEIDA: Well, I don't think there is a case in Europe or a discussion about abolishing the European Union. I see a strong sense of belief and support for the European Union project. Of course people have doubt. We have to understand that. Consider that we are 27 countries. What we have realized with this crisis is that we were not yet fully equipped to face difficult times like the ones we're going through. And what we are doing, we are moving forward, changing a number of rules of the system, reacting to the crisis by not moving backwards but moving forward in terms of European integration.
INSKEEP: What's a rule of the system that needs to change?
ALMEIDA: Well, fundamentally we had a single currency, a single monetary policy, a single central bank, but we did not have enough coordination of economic policies, budgetary policies, fiscal policies, so there was a gap between one level of integration and less integration.
INSKEEP: Greece was allowed to set its own budget policies and borrow...
ALMEIDA: Yes, some countries were allowed to go through a path which was not sustainable. We are now correcting that.
INSKEEP: Does that mean that you need to give up some more slivers of sovereignty to the broader European project in order to...
ALMEIDA: That is the direction in which I believe Europe will go. Not moving backwards in terms of less integration but moving forward.
INSKEEP: Can you get unanimity for that? Not just from the smaller countries like Slovakia, but Germany, say, where there's been a lot of reluctance to let German money go over the border to help other countries?
ALMEIDA: Position of the countries and public opinions evolve. I believe it's in the interest of all member states to progress in this direction. And (unintelligible) the case of Germany, you know, I know the debate in the U.S. about does Germany really want Europe(ph) - well, Germany is among the most important benefiters of European integration.
INSKEEP: How do they benefit?
ALMEIDA: They benefit because Europe provides them with an internal market, a market of 500 million people.
INSKEEP: In other words, their very economic strength should make them the biggest beneficiary or make them feel like the biggest beneficiary.
ALMEIDA: I think it's obvious today, as we speak, that Germany is the biggest beneficiary of the euro area.
INSKEEP: Politically, people don't seem to think that in Germany.
ALMEIDA: Well, Chancellor Merkel was very clear the other day: if the euro fails, Europe fails. This is not in the interest of Germany.
INSKEEP: One other thing. You have spent decades working for the European Union and for predecessor organizations.
ALMEIDA: Almost 30 years, yes.
INSKEEP: In the last few months, have you had a moment where you've wondered if maybe this whole thing might not work out?
ALMEIDA: Never. I may be here and there more worried about the pace of things, about the complexity of the decision-making, but I never lost faith in this project. Because you understand, I come from a country that I live 17 years under dictatorship in my country. And I understand fully how joining Europe meant the big difference for Portugal, also for Greece, also for Spain, but also for the countries that were behind the iron curtain. This was the instrument, this was the process that led to freedom, democracy, peace, prosperity...
INSKEEP: You're saying that the opportunity to join Europe encouraged countries or pushed countries to open up their governance, open up their economies...
ALMEIDA: Absolutely. And in doing so bringing people closer together.
INSKEEP: Ambassador Joao Vale de Almeida, thanks very much.
ALMEIDA: Thank you.
INSKEEP: And European officials face more troubling today. Last night, Standard and Poors downgraded the debt rating of Spain because of weak growth and risks facing Spanish banks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.