Interview conducted by Michelle Wiesner from the “Becoming Bruxellois from Afar” project
This article is part of a series of interviews conducted by a group of Groningen students as part of their Eurocompetence II project. The interviewees all work in Brussels institutions and were asked questions related to the Euroculture’s 2020 IP topic: “A sustainability Europe? Society, politics and culture in the anthropocene”. Here, Michelle Wiesner asked Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Daniel Freund about his personal experience in Brussels and sustainability in politics, especially regarding corruption.
Michelle Wiesner: Could you please give us a short introduction about your work at the European Parliament, for example in which Committees you are working in?
Daniel Freund: The two committees I focus on are the Committee on Budgetary Control (CONT) and the Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO). In the CONT committee, I fight corruption and fraud of EU money. In February, we went on a fact-finding mission to Prague, as Prime Minister Babis is suspected of having altered regulations on agricultural subsidies for his private profit. Corruption and fraud are deeply linked with the rule of law. Cronyism reinforces misappropriation of public money and autocratic structures might even be strengthened through EU money. Therefore, I advocate for a rule of law mechanism that conditions subsidies to democratic values.
As part of the AFCO committee, I was involved in the assessment of the new commissioners’ integrity. In the end, we were able to prevent three candidates, which had severe conflicts of interest. In the long run; however, I fight for the creation of an independent EU ethics body whose purpose would be ensure the integrity of the EU institutions. Another topic that I continue to push in the AFCO committee is the improvement of the lobby register tool in order to make decision making more transparent. I am also in the TRAN committee where our goal is to make transport more sustainable. My favourite project is the expansion of the European night train grid.
On Monday, April 29th, the first official debate of the European elections took place in Maastricht, in the Netherlands. Organised by Politico with their usual partners, it featured five out of the six main groups running for the upcoming European Parliament elections, which are set to happen from May 23rd to 26th.
This debate was meant in every way to target young voters, for a number of good reasons. One of them being that young people are currently getting more and more involved in politics worldwide, be it through the Fridays for Future demonstrations or other “channels”. Therefore, the three main themes of this debate were picked accordingly: Digital Europe, Sustainable Europe, and the Future of Europe. Here are some observations pertaining to the content – but also the general atmosphere impression.
Stable Leader: Frans Timmermans (S&D)
Very honestly, Frans Timmermans was the most well-prepared candidate for this debate. He knew all the topics thoroughly, he was able to articulate specific proposal for each main question, and he did not wasted time on any unnecessary argument. However, it is easy to be in this position for someone who is currently dealing with all these topics as Vice-President of the European Commission. Slight advantage that he definitely seized. Showing leadership at every level, he called for Europeans to “vote Green”, reminding everyone that “there is no competition”. Indeed, the Dutch politician chose to be transparent about his intentions in case he was to become the next President of the European Commission: alliance with the Greens, the Left, and an open-door to negotiations with ALDE. Timmermans did not forget to build on the momentum created by the Spanish general elections on Sunday (28.04) evening – including regarding gender equality, which seems to be among the top priorities of all five candidates.
Katharina Geiselmann (2017-2019, DE) or also known by her classmates as Kat, spent her first and second semesters at Uppsala and Krakow. Kat studied English Studies in her Bachelor’s, with a minor in Languages and Cultures. After her Bachelor studies, she looked for a completely interdisciplinary Master’s programme that allows her to live in more countries and become familiar with more languages, which led her to start her Euroculture adventure. Kat has just finished her internship at the Permanent Representation of the Federal Republic of Germany to the European Union in Brussels, Belgium, which she did for her third semester. Thanks, Kat, for taking the time to share your experience!
1. Why did you decide to do an internship for your third Euroculture semester?
To be honest, I was quite undecided about which option would be better for me, simply because I did not know if I wanted to pursue a PhD after this programme or work. In the end, I chose to do an internship because I was offered one with the German Foreign Ministry, which has been on my wishlist for quite some time. They also only take interns who can prove that it is an obligatory part of their studies, so I might not have had the option of doing the internship at another time. In the end, I think you can have great experiences both with the research track and the professional track, as long as you find a vacancy that makes you curious. I found that it really helped me to talk about my options with friends, because sometimes you only realize why you want to do what only when talking about it.
After discovering the various perks of the hidden gems and the Northern wonders of Euroculture’s consortium, it is time to discover the last two EU universities: Bilbao and Strasbourg. Both are extremely different due to their location; both are amazing picks to study. From the rainy shores of Spain to “La Petite France” picturesque architecture, here is what to expect from these two cities.
Bilbao: The Other Side of Spain
When heading to Spain, most students expect sunny and warm days. Perhaps it shouldn’t be your main motivation for picking Bilbao, though, since the city is among the rainiest of the country – “don’t forget your umbrella” is the main recommendation, quite accurately. If this is the price to pay to get both the sea and mountains at the same time, though, it might very well be worth it! Time is a notion that Spanish people learned to design according to their lifestyle. This also applies to Bilbao and to student life there. It might be rainy, but you will experience what Spain does best: tasty food and joyful leisure time. Not that studying will be any less important than elsewhere, don’t be mistaken – deadlines will just be served with a side dish called “work-life balance”. Continue reading “Euroculture: From Seaside to Europe’s Heart”→
On September 12, the European Parliament voted on the triggering of Article 7 measures against Hungary. With 448 votes in favor of the motion, 197 against and 48 abstentions the required majority was achieved. Now, the Council of the European Union has to approve the vote unanimously in order to launch possible sanctions. The Hungarian government, accused of silencing critical media, targeting academics and NGOs as well as removing independent judges, said the decision was an insult to the Hungarian nation and people.
What is the Article 7 about?
Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union states that the EU can take measures in case “there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2“. These include “human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”. Members of the European Parliament must support the resolution by two thirds in order to launch the Article 7 procedure as it happened last month in Strasbourg in the case of Hungary. With this vote, it is now possible for the Council of the European Union to make demands to the Hungarian government in order to improve the situation and even launch punitive measures if the requirements are not fulfilled. Possible sanctions may be a harder access to EU funding and can even lead to the loss of voting rights in the EU institutions. Continue reading “The European Parliament Triggers Article 7 against the Hungarian Government”→
Participatory democracy is the new trend. With the European parliament elections on the horizon, do citizens still have faith in representative democracy?
The Rise of Participatory Democracy
At a recent European Parliament event to celebrate the International Day of Democracy (18 September), statements proclaiming the merits of participatory democracy abounded. This might seem strange in the meeting rooms of one of the world’s biggest houses of political representatives, but participatory democracy is making waves in Brussels and beyond.
Citizens’ assemblies, participatory budgeting, public consultations…These are the buzz words that are bringing legitimacy to contemporary democracies. On the model of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, propelled to fame thanks to its role in bringing about the Article 8 referendum on abortion rights, citizens’ assemblies have begun to pop up across the continent. The number of municipalities setting up participatory budgeting is on the rise, with some cities, such as Paris, handing over as much as 5% of their resources to publically-decided projects. And of course, high-profile citizen consultation processes have started across the EU, largely inspired by Emmanuel Macron’s consultations citoyennes.
In his recent article, Stephen Boucher even goes as far as to propose that, post-Brexit, the remaining forty-six British seats in the European Parliament be reassigned to “a contingent of ordinary citizens from around the EU to examine legislation from the long-term perspective.” But isn’t this precisely the role of an MEP? What happened to the concept of electing a trusted figure to represent your views in parliament on your behalf? Continue reading “Is There a Crisis of Confidence in Representative Democracy?”→
In the midst of a nasty break-up in the West and moves by Hungary and Poland towards ‘illiberal democracy’ in the East, a unique opportunity might present itself: a pan-European list of MEPs. Because let’s face it, the European elections do not rouse the spirits of most European citizens. Very often, European elections are hijacked by national quarrels that transform the European elections into an evaluation of respective national government’s performances. While we know all about Trump and American affairs, European issues do not get a seat at the dinner table. With the United Kingdom (UK) leaving the European Union in March 2019, 73 seats will become available in the European Parliament. Notwithstanding the trauma of Brexit, these free seats can be used to create a pan-European list of MEPs to be voted upon directly by European citizens. Such an electoral college will strengthen European democracy, thereby bringing the EU ever closer to its citizens and put a halt to the nationalization of the European elections.
More than being just a fancy idea, it provides a firm response in the face of recent illiberal moves by Hungary and Poland. Over the last year, ruling Eurosceptic parties Fidesz and PiS have taken several highly controversial measures. For example, by taking government control of NGO funding. Recently, their close bond was confirmed when Mateusz Morawiecki, freshly appointed Prime Minister of Poland, decided to use his first bilateral visit to meet with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Together, their deep resentment and distrust of Brussels increasingly poses a threat to Europe’s core values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Continue reading “How Brexit could pose an opportunity for the EU”→
After President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker finished his third State of the European Union speech on the 13th of September, the thing that stood out to most people was the almost unchecked optimism in his message compared to his gloomy address last year, when – in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum – the general sense that the EU was heading to imminent disintegration seemed all too real. According to Juncker, the EU now has “wind in our sails” and he urged to “make the most of the momentum”. He did so by proposing a wide range of initiatives, some bolder than others, but all encapsulating this sense of optimism and determination. Nothing showed this more clearly than Juncker’s reluctance to talk about Brexit – the hour-long speech devoted only one minute to the painful issue. The looming threat of inertia and disaster that marked the State of the Union speech in 2016 seems to be replaced by a general sense of growth and hope. How can it be that the tables have turned so drastically in only a year? And is this truly the state of today’s Union?
The State of the Union speech is – in a true European fashion – a product of import. In the United States, the State of the Union is an annual event that is deeply ingrained in the American political tradition. In Europe it was only introduced in 2010, when the Lisbon Treaty stipulated that the President of the European Commission must address the European Parliament annually to reflect on and discuss the successes and failures of the European Union in the year before, in order to stimulate transparency and democracy in the European political arena. Continue reading “Blowing the wind into your own sails – Juncker’s State of the European Union”→
In the world today, English, in all its variations, occupies an undeniably central place. From the offices of multinational corporations, to university classes and research teams, to local marketplaces and cafes like the one I’m sitting in. In a town in the middle of Denmark, my cafe table numbers Danes, Spaniards, and Germans – guess how we’re communicating?
When it comes to English, communication is precisely the point. English is a means of communication in the globalized world. According to the Harvard Business Review, business today speaks English. Even when a company in Germany is dealing with another German company, there is no guarantee that the employees will be German speakers. If you visit an industrial farm in Denmark, the working language isn’t Danish – it’s English. The presence and importance of English as the working language globally is so apparent thatfour out of five Europeans consider English the language worth learning for the future. English today is not the property of its native speakers, it is the lingua franca of the world. English transcends cultures and borders, and the assertion that the EU should drop English as one of its working languages is therefore highly problematic.
Two recent rulings in France have put the country and its citizens at the forefront of waste and excess food disposal in Europe. According to Angelique Chrisafis of The Guardian,“France battles an epidemic of wasted food that has highlighted the divide between giant food firms and people who are struggling to eat.” The result of this battle is a rare unanimous political consensus that made it illegal for supermarkets to throw away food that is approaching its expiration date. More specifically, this food will now go to charities that, according to center-right parliamentarian Yves Jégo, “are desperate for food” and will help curb the vast number of unemployed, homeless, and even students who regularly forage through the bins of supermarkets in search of food. The ruling has been well-received, especially by French food bank Banques Alimentaires.
Another recent ruling has seen the French ban the use of plastic cutlery, cups, and plates in a bid to reduce the country’s environmental footprint. Although this law will not come into effect until 2020, it will see a significant reduction of non-biodegradable plastic waste in France. In effect, France has undertaken two major steps in creating a better Europe, both environmentally and socially. Therefore, if these rulings are considered successful, similar policies should be implemented by other European Union members in their efforts to achieve a better, more sustainable Europe.
The European Parliament’s Zero Waste 2020 initiative,enacted on 24 May 2012, is one of the ways through which the EU is pursuing this very goal. This initiative calls for Europe to “bring residual waste close to zero.” However, this initiative is marred by the fact that in Europe, subsidies, incentives, and other economic stimuli go towards incineration and energy generation over recycling. Furthermore, this initiative is just that – an initiative, and thereby not legally binding. Effectively, if the French rulings were made into European policy, it would help Europe achieve its Zero Waste 2020 initiative without impeding on any of its market incentives. This would make the rulings much easier to implement without affecting other areas of the European economy and/or waste management. It would also signal to European citizens and to the rest of the world that “we as Europeans” take an active stand against the destruction of food and of our environment, and are not scared to lead on the important issues. This might, in turn, help to strengthen the bonds of the EU.
Crucially, if the French rulings were to be made European, Europeans themselves would benefit tremendously. First and foremost, it will help still the hunger of thousands of homeless and poor scattered across Europe, as homeless shelters and food banks will now be able to provide better quality food for more men, women, and children in need. A recent report in the Euractiv made evident the fact that French supermarkets currently throw away €16 billion worth of food every year. This “waste” could in fact be used to help those in need and deter them from foraging in bins. This is a point stressed by Arash Derambarsh,who says that he is “outraged by the sight of homeless people […] scrambling in supermarket bins.” Derambarsh is a young center-right politician who helped start the movement in France.
The ruling also creates new opportunities in biodegradable and sustainable product markets, while at the same time providing a new venue for European conglomerates and supermarket chains to create a better image. Prior to this ruling, supermarkets were known as great wasters of food, going so far as to contaminate unused food to deter scavengers. Former food minister of France Guillaume Garot stated, “It’s scandalous to see bleach being poured into supermarket dustbins along with edible foods.” With this ruling, supermarkets have the opportunity to change their image and use their new status as an advantage. At the same time, as plastic cutlery and utensils will be banned by 2020, businesses that focus on biodegradability and sustainability as alternatives to plastic find themselves in rapidly expanding markets. This is an important development, as it is fundamentally important that we stimulate the decrease in our carbon footprint while, at the same time, creating opportunities for fresh talent and business ideas that will help create the Europe of tomorrow.
In pursuit of Europe’s goal to reduce its carbon footprint, it should look to France for guidance. France’s initiatives on how to deal with waste, waste creation, and previously disposed-of food products serve as an excellent example to follow. If these new pieces of legislation are deemed successful in France, it opens up the opportunity to stimulate similar rulings in the rest of Europe. This will not only help us achieve the Zero Waste 2020 initiative and a greener, more carbon-friendly Europe, but will also create new opportunities whilst helping those who need it most.
Paul Hoffman has a bachelor in American Studies, is currently in his first year of the Euroculture Master, and aspires to work on the Digital Agenda for Europe. He has lived in Spain, Ireland, and The Netherlands, and is planning a move to France.