‘The EU’s not rubbish, it’s the best idea we ever had’
Voters will go to the polls this week (May 22-25) to elect 751 members of the European Parliament, which handles some of the day-to-day elements of the lives of more than 500 million citizens. The European Union (EU) seems an abstract idea to many on the continent — in fact, voter turn-out is expected to fall for seventh time in a row, dropping to just over 40 percent.
But there are still Europhiles on the continent. One of them is Rebecca Harms, a German member of the European Parliament for over 10 years. “Europe is not rubbish. It’s the best idea politicians ever had on this continent,” the co-chair of the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance told the Herald in a recent interview.
Apart from bringing Brussels closer to the people, Harms’ heart lies in expanding the role of renewable energies and climate-friendly policies, as well as introducing alternative, sustainable models in the financial markets.
Her first encounter with politics was during her high school years in the small town of Uelzen in northwestern Germany, when she started fighting for her first cause, the anti-nuclear movement.
Germany’s Green party has proven to be a trailblazer over the last decade, helping to accelerate the country’s plan to phase out nuclear power by 2020, boosting solar power and bringing gender equality policies into the corporate and political worlds.
For this year’s elections, the European Green Party also wanted to set an example. They launched a pioneering new system of primary elections, in which European citizens were able to vote for their candidates for the European Parliament. Other political parties still chose the candidates themselves, without the participation of citizens.
Despite efforts to attract more supporters in the polls, the Green alliance is still a minority in the EU Parliament, it only has 57 MEP out of 765. According to the latest polling numbers, the Greens would garner 52 seats, which would represent almost seven percent of the total number of seats.
But Harms trusts her instincts and believes that it’s crucial to take the time to explain to citizens how the EU works and the advantages it offers.
The 57-year-old learned landscape gardener told the Herald about why she recently leaked confidential documents about EU-US trade pact negotiations on a website and why she is against austerity measures, as well as discussing the rise of the extreme right.
Why did you publish the documents about negotiations taking place between the EU and the US on a trade and investment pact (TTIP), which will likely be signed next year?
We are against trade negotiations that are conducted behind closed doors, negotiations that go much further than trade questions. We demand that TTIP negotiations take place with total transparency. This is why we published these document — as a warning.
Will you reveal more details about the negotiations?
If we come across more documents that the public should know about, we will publish them. With respect to the ongoing TTIP negotiations, we believe they threaten social and environmental standards in the EU. We are particularly worried about one item that is being discussed, that would allow corporations to turn to international arbitration tribunals to take legal action against state regulations, thus allowing them to avoid regular court procedures. We want to stop the TTIP project and would like all transatlantic negotiations to start from scratch. Transparency should be present from the beginning of talks.
What is your view on the imposition of austerity measures, coming especially from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in countries such as Greece, Spain and Portugal? What would be an alternative solution to the still present consequences of the financial crisis?
We have always been against massive austerity measures. They have had devastating effects on many citizens in the affected countries, most of all in the employment, social and health sectors. Of course, crisis states should implement reforms, but they should come with the solidarity of Europe and with an investment programme, whose aim is to make European businesses more sustainable.
Another critique that is often made of the EU is that is takes too long to make decisions, as was the case in the financial crisis...
The EU reacted to the financial and debt crisis with very good laws to regulate financial markets and we also improved business and financial policies. However, sometimes it takes a long time to find compromise among the 28 member states.
With respect to the financial markets, how exactly did you change policies related to the banks? They were ultimately the main cause of the crisis.
It’s an urgent matter for us to further regulate the financial markets. We would like to complete the banking union to avoid every taxpayer and saver having to pay for the casino mentality that some bankers and business heads have.
Are you worried about the rise of extreme right political parties in Europe?
Naturally the rise of extreme right parties with their anti-Europe, and, often, racist ideologies, is worrying. Its important to fight against extreme-right ideology and explain to citizens that the solutions they are giving (renationalizing, leaving the EU, discriminating against foreigners, the reintroduction of border controls, etc.), are not solutions for real problems. Instead they would take back Europe to the 20th century with its national conflicts and their resulting wars. Europe is not rubbish. It’s the best idea we politicians ever had in this continent.
How will you bring the EU closer to the people? The ordinary citizen seems to have no idea what members of Parliament actually do in Brussels.
One should take time to talk to citizens. It’s crucial to explain again and again the advantages of the EU and the work it does. It is also important to make clear that Brussels does not impose policies on member states. All EU nations participate in the creation of EU laws. Herein lies national governments’ great responsibility. National governments should stop blaming Brussels for everything that is politically uncomfortable to them while claiming everything that is positive for themselves.
What policies will your Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance parliamentary group at the EU Parliament fight to implement?
For the upcoming legislative period we would like to implement a more ambitious climate policy, in view of the UN climate summit of 2015. In order to do this, we need to widen our renewable energy sources and work more on energy efficiency. We believe that it is vital to expand energy independence, especially after our experience with the Ukrainian crisis.
Unemployment is also a structural problem in many EU countries such as Greece, Spain and Portugal...
We need more projects to fight unemployment, especially youth unemployment. We’re proposing a “Green New Deal,” an investment programme to make European business models more sustainable.
Are there any other issues you would like to introduce in the law-making agenda?
Another law that is much needed is a European immigration policy and a more human refugee policy, one that prevents the massive drowning of refugees in the Mediterranean. We would also like to finalize data protection regulation policy.