Road to the European elections: interview with P. Lamberts, co-chair of the Greens/EFA

@European Parliament, Flickr, CC BY 4.0

Interview by Francesco Chiappini e Sara Bianchi
Special correspondent in Brussels: Yauheniya Dzemianchuk

With the European elections two months away, it is time for us to look at the main players of the European representative democracy: the political groups of the Parliament. We have interviewed some of their leading figures in order to understand who they are, what values they defend and also what they think about the main questions of European political debate. This is what they told us.

Today we present you the Greens, a political force born in the 1970s and represented in the European Parliament since 1984, when eleven members coming from Germany, Belgium and Netherlands were elected at the european elections. Since 1999, the Greens and the European Free Alliance (EFA) are part of the same political group. Environmental protection, peace and social justice and the fight for human rights represent the main topics the Greens continue to promote.

Lo Spiegone met Philippe Lamberts, Belgian politician member of the ecological party Ecolo and co-chair of the Greens/EFA

Which political strategy are you/the Greens going to use to succeed in these elections?

The story that we are telling is this: in the last 30 Europe has been driven on an agenda that is basically adapting for countries with neoliberal version of globalization. So basically, if the policies starred up at the European level are neoliberal is because the majorities at the EU level are neoliberal. So, if you want different policies at the European level then probably the Greens are the alternative, because we have a track record defending both social justice and reducing our ecological footprint and by the way democracy. So, we have a track record of defending a more just, more sustainable, more democratic society, and so we are the alternative.

Being perceived as the alternative means indeed that you need to be perceived as not just having a right vision but also conveying a sense that you have what it takes to take responsibility. So, it’s not just like say a part of a more radical left which basically adopts the posture of criticizing of what is going on, demanding other policies but refraining from taking part in shaping them. Whereas the Greens would say, well if the citizens trust us and if we come back in big numbers, well we are prepared to take our share in steering Eu.

Do you think that increasing turnout should be a priority for European political forces?

Well, it’s obvious that as far as we are concerned, turnout is critical because many voters that we want to convince are at the moment non-voters. People believe who say that the choice is between Renzi, that is the orthodox version of the globalization, and la Lega. Both options are unsatisfactory, then voters will stay home. Because I despise Renzi I will not embrace Salvini. And many people are in this situation where they say well, if the choice is between Macron and Le Pen, no thanks, so I stay home. This is where our offer must be attractive enough for those people to say, well after all I may go out and vote and maybe try these people.

In which way are you/the Greens going to mobilize new voters into political debate?

It’s really about the appealing to the voters, so there are push factors and pull factors. Push factors of course is the environmental emergency. But the pull factor is where we must appear as the right response to that emergency. We are perceived as the best choice in town for environmental matters. But, when you look at society the social urgency seems to be much more burning than the climate emergency, and yes, sure the Greens are for democracy and human rights. But are you sure that the Greens are the right people to go to when it comes to social justice? Ad there we are dragging a heritage of image like: well the Greens are these well-off, highly educated people, because that’s all sociology that the Green members are people like me. I mean, well-off, so money is not really a problem, and we have good positions in society, and people then derive and they (The Greens) don’t care about us, they don’t care about the small people in society.

It’s not true. But to be honest the Greens have often reinforced that feeling, by talking ten times more about the environment emergency, rather than social emergency. So, we tended to confirm the presuppositions about us as someone who doesn’t care about the social justice.

And this is where we need to redouble our efforts to show that for us the social justice and environmental justice go hand in hand.

One of the methods that have been developed to increase the turnout is that of the Spitzenkandidat. What do you think about that?

Personally, I am not sure that the choice of the Spitzenkandidat is the thing by which you will increase turnout. Frankly, I believe that this is primarily a preoccupation of the Brussels bubble but not of the ordinary people. I mean if you go out and ask ordinary people about the European election, I don’t think that many of them will mention the Spitzenkandidat, let’s face it.


Because you know, however much I aspire to European polity the fact is that European elections are fought in national constituencies. I mean people want to identify with someone, and language is crucial. The language is the vehicle of democracy. All is about the emotional connection, and then you need to be part of the society.

But to increase turnouts there’s no miracles. I mean, you need to go out on the field. And again, democracy is about people, it’s about connecting with people. And there we need to take clues from the successful campaign in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and strategically going out in streets, going out to bang on people’s doors. Because the most powerful instrument we have in democracy is people talking one-another.

What do you/the Greens think about the problem of migrants that the Union is facing?

Well it’s one of the challenges that will not disappear. Thinking that you can ensure that challenge with simple responses is delusional. So, those who say “we can do fortress Europe” – are just lying.

First, people will always find their way to enter. Second, if you are really serious about the fortress Europe, the cost in terms of surrendering who you are would be enormous, because that would lead you up to basically do staff that Europe was built to avoid, that is send people to their death. No simple response, but that equally means that opening the door in Europe is also a no go. Because history tells us that living together when we are all different is not easy. And so yes, we can welcome, but it must be managed. There I want to be a pragmatist. A village in France tat welcomed 50-some refugees for a period of 3 years. Taking 50 people, was a challenge, but they did it. And every single refugee, or a family of refugees, had one local family taking care for them, their administrative difficulties, and all the rest of it. But if you would have said to the same village, it is going to be 500, they would have said “are you crazy!? We can’t!”. So, there’s a limit to what you can do if you want to do stuff properly. Good news that by enlarging Europe, we are not close to that limit, we have capacity. Bad news is that our capacity is not unlimited.

What we say, and that is the majority position of the Parliament here, is that we have to manage that collectively, so saying to the border-states, Italy, Malta, Spain, Greece “that’s your own problem, you deal with it “, is totally unfair. There’s free circulation in Europe, so if you let people in, they are free to circulate, and therefore we should manage them collectively. So, this assignment of migration should be handled by whole Europe. At least at Schengen level. And then we must organize legal entry ways, and a common asylum procedure, and yes indeed for the people who are not eligible for the asylum procedure they have to travel back. But for those who are eligible, well, we should welcome them.

And this is where we should play a courser: to do more what we do today but do it in a way that is mainly organized.

Which are the Greens/your positions on EMU functioning?

It can’t continue like this. The euro has no future if we don’t revise its architecture fundamentally. If you do an economic and monetary union, without any social and fiscal union, it can’t work.

For example, Italy can be kept together indeed because there are rich parts of Italy and less rich parts of Italy. And what keeps Italy together, is the fact that when you have a common budget, funded by common taxes and spent by the state, the budget would be funded mostly more than proportionally by the rich parts of Italy and it will be spent more than proportionally by the poorest part of Italy. So of course, Lega has built all its own history on these transfers, but then there’s the price of unity.

Now, it is true that financial transfers haven’t been used as effectively, and there’s a point there, so it’s not just due to the transfers it’s going to work. But Germany is working like that as well, I mean, some of the regions are the net contributors and some of them are the net receivers. In France there are net contributors and the net receivers. That’s life. If you want to keep the unity of the Eurozone, you would need that. If you don’t have that, all that you will see are the increasing divergence that shows that the country that benefitted most from the euro is Germany, and the country for which the euro has been the costliest is Italy. It’s a matter of fact and it cannot work longer.

The answer can be dual, you need coherence between monetary and fiscal policy. If you federalize the monetary policy but you don’t federalize the fiscal policy, they will be divergent. So, where will you reharmonize them? The national populist would say, national level of course!

So out of the euro we re-nationalize monetary policy, and we have the coherence again. Or we say we should rebuild the coherence or build the coherence, at the European level, and there is where we tend to agree with Macron: we need a strong European zone budget, funded by eurozone taxes and spend across the eurozone in a way to rebalance macroeconomic imbalances. That’s what we want to do.

Which reforms are you/the Greens going to propose in sectors as Eurozone governance and budgetary rules?

On budgetary rules we must recognize that they are, as Romano Prodi said, “stupid”. One should keep in mind that even though they are in the treaty the point is that they have no scientific basis at all. This rule that leads the budget deficit to 3% of GDP, and the state debt to 60% debt of the GDP, has no scientific basis. This is purely arbitrary, but it is arbitrary in a sense it is ideologically driven. It aims at reducing the role of the state, in favor of the market. So, showed in a way these rules are neoliberal. Yet, you need to manage your public finances properly, but what really counts is the quality of the public finances. I can have 3% deficit invested in fighting the climate change, or in R&D, or in education, or I invest deficit building useless airports. In one case is going to be an economic key meaningful, so it’s really about what to do and how do you use public money for. And we would rather urge to have budgetary rules that are much more intelligent, then of course much more difficult to apply, that look at the inherence imbalances in the situation and how the public finance is ready for them.

Look at the inequality, it is destructive even for the economy. I would like to have guidelines on the inequality of the budgetary rules of the EU. Make sure that the taxation reduces the inequality rather than increase them. And this is where this really becomes interesting.

Can we change the treaties? Certainly, I wouldn’t spend political energy on changing them and I would say why. You read the IPCC report, we have 12 years to face the climate change. I don’t want to spend 12 years to change the Treaties, because there are many things we can do without changing the Treaties

On which kind of strategy and priorities should be based the next Multiannual Financial Framework?

To us is very clear. We should gear not just the MFF, but all the regulator instruments of the European union towards the ecological transition. By that I mean our objective should be to make our societies to fit in the frameworks, the constrains that the nature imposes them, and do it in a socially just way. This should be the tool, the compass, of the MFF and of the European policymaking. On the MFF I really like to insist on a totally different approach that we have from the mainstream. The mainstream would say, “yes, climate is important, so let’s just allocate the 25% of the MFF to fighting the climate change”. Good, but the other 75% are doing the exact opposite, are fueling the climate change, crazy!

So that is the difference of the approach that I call apportionment – let’s dedicate a portion of the budget to fighting the climate change, versus our approach: no single euro of the European budget can’t help to the increasing of the climate change. So, we can consider funding activities as climate neutral, and of course we can and want to fund activities which aim to reduce the climate footprint, but we will fund zero activities that increase carbon footprint.

Which is for the Greens the future of the Union?

Well, it can be the slow death, but we should not just dismiss that possibility. Because, you know, of course there is the national populism, but this is not what worries me most. What worries me most, is what I see currently in European Council, where we have contradictory signals. But let’s take two topics: Brexit and migration. On Brexit you will find a degree of unity that you would have rarely see, and there you get to realize that actually the unity is. We are going to strive for this Europe, we are not going to allow the Brits to let us destroy the European contract. So, you have to think that heads of states and governments of the 27 will defend the European union. But think migration, they say that this is the most important topic, but they don’t agree so there’s a risk of disintegration. If we manage to steer the policies of the European union back towards defending human dignity, then we have the chance of saving the European union.


Photo credit: Philippe Lamberts website 

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