Speaking to ECR deputy Assita Kanko less than a year into her five-year tenure as an MEP, it is hard to believe that only back in September she was one of the “rookies” we interviewed as part of our “Class of 2019” feature. Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson said that “a week is a long time in politics” and never has that held truer than now, as the Coronavirus pandemic creates the biggest global challenge since the Second World War. With Europe in the eye of the Coronavirus storm, Kanko explains how she thinks the European Union has fared, faced with such a formidable and unprecedented crisis.
“Firstly, I wish to express my deepest condolences to those that have lost loved ones to this awful virus. My heart goes out to those that have suffered during this time. The impact on people’s health, livelihood, and quality of life has been huge. While the EU has lived through a number of serious crises before, such as the migrant crisis and the financial crisis, this situation is unlike anything we have seen in our lifetime.”
She adds, “It was clear that the response of the EU institutions was led by the actions of European leaders in the early days of this crisis. Closing national borders, national social security systems, putting in place emergency measures, healthcare and education are all areas dominated by national governments. However, in the days and weeks that followed, the EU quickly sought to coordinate areas where it has competence and can add value; this included state aid, common procurement, and repatriating European citizens. Was the response perfect? No. should the EU have anticipated better? Yes. Do tough lessons need to be learned for the future? Without a doubt.”
Kanko says that these are incredibly challenging times for Europe’s citizens, adding, “we will be stronger and serve them best if we seek to look at what unites us, and how we can better work together from now on. In a world that is already learning to live without US leadership, it is essential that the EU provides a global democratic steer. If it does not, China will seek to fill that void.”
Asked about her recent comments in a newspaper column where she said the COVID-19 crisis demonstrated that US President Donald Trump is “an emperor without clothes,” Kanko says that times of crisis tend to show people’s true colours. “Their weaknesses are magnified under the pressure, the uncertainty, and the intensity of media scrutiny. The Coronavirus crisis has exposed those that tend to exaggerate or lie, highlighted those that are decisive, have natural empathy and compassion, and those that see it as yet another opportunity to grab power and authority.”
Turning to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose government has come under fire for passing an emergency bill granting it the power to rule by decree indefinitely, she says, “It is essential that emergency powers remain just that; emergency ones. Powers that are temporary in order to protect citizens during a crisis. Any emergency laws must respect the principles of necessity and proportionality and the broader legal framework and international rules that Member States commit to within the EU.” This is a worrying development in Orbán’s leadership, Kanko says.
"While the EU has lived through a number of serious crises before, such as the migrant crisis and the financial crisis, this situation is unlike anything we have seen in our lifetime"
“Concerns over his approach to running a democratic nation have persisted for years. Should the EU do more? Perhaps instead the question should be why have the actions taken by the EU so far failed to resolve the situation? Nuisance isn’t necessarily a popular commodity these days, but we cannot avoid the complexity of the situation. Orbán is a popular leader with a large majority and every time Brussels condemns Orbán this is viewed as an attack on the people who voted for him. Domestically it is seen as an attack on the beliefs and values of voters and this only serves to increase the distance and the trust between Brussels and Budapest. The EU needs to ensure Orbán complies with EU law, but it also needs to work to win back the trust of the people of Hungary and address the entrenched nature of populism and disinformation around Europe.”
An active and vocal advocate for Africa, Kanko says that the continent has been abandoned in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis. “Africa is always the forgotten element of most crises. Yet I believe it is a fundamental element in formulating Europe’s own strategic response to this and many other crises. People in Europe may ask the question: how can we afford to help African nations with ventilators when we do not have enough for our own European nations? Malawi has a population of 18 million but it has only 13 available intensive care beds across the entire nation. With many nations already stretched to breaking point following Malaria epidemics and Ebola outbreaks, there simply isn’t the capacity to face another health crisis. Thousands and thousands of people could needlessly die.”
She warns that with oil prices dropping, trade links broken, currencies devaluing, and jobs lost within Africa, Europe risks democratic and economic instability on its doorstep. It also runs the risk, she says, of another migrant crisis, and the risk of African nations turning to China and Russia more than ever for investment in the wake of Europe’s failure to act. “Beyond the geopolitical implications for the EU, there is a simpler compulsion to act. We have a moral obligation to help those in a less fortunate position than our own. I believe that is how the EU builds international respect and moral authority for the future. If Coronavirus continues to circulate anywhere in the world, it will be a problem for all of us, including the EU.”
Staying on the subject of protecting the vulnerable during the Coronavirus crisis, Kanko says that the sharp rise in domestic violence during the lockdown period has been a concern for her since day one. “For the majority of people during this crisis, locking the front door makes them safe. Yet for many others, behind that locked door nothing but fear, violence and anxiety exists. This crisis has highlighted just how serious the situation of domestic violence is around Europe, and how abuse and exploitation online persist and increase. We still have much more to do, to ensure that women, men and children suffering abuse in their homes have somewhere to go and someone to turn to.”
On a positive note, she mentions a number of inspiring initiatives that have emerged around Europe, such as hotels providing shelter and increasing resources for national and regional helplines for domestic abuse victims. “European nations need to look at schemes around the world for inspiration and see what could be introduced in their own country. The European Commission has just released its new Gender Strategy; my hope is that in the coming months and years, this is an issue that we can tackle with renewed determination.”
With women on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, making up some 70 percent of healthcare workers and shouldering the burden of domestic chores and childcare responsibilities during the lockdown, Kanko says that her hope is that this crisis is highlighting just how important women are to our economy and our workplaces. “I believe that as a society we need to change who we celebrate. The women caring for our sick and our elderly, stacking shelves in supermarkets, and cleaning our hospitals, have for too long been classified by our society as ‘low-skilled workers.’ Now they are finally recognised as ‘essential workers.’ We need to look at how we value, respect and remunerate those who do the toughest jobs in our society. These women have been the backbone of this crisis and their bravery and compassion must never be forgotten.”
Turning to the reported increase in racism during the Coronavirus crisis, Kanko says, “We have seen COVID-19 labelled the ‘Chinese virus’ and we have seen the public war of propaganda among some international leaders. There have been reports of people of Chinese origin being verbally abused on the street, of Africans in China being targeted and evicted from their homes following the lockdown, as well as reports of a disproportionate number of African Americans dying from Coronavirus in the US than any other population group.”
"For the majority of people during this crisis, locking the front door makes them safe. Yet for many others, behind that locked door nothing but fear, violence and anxiety exists. This crisis has highlighted just how serious the situation of domestic violence is around Europe"
She adds, “It has not only highlighted racism in society, but the broader social and economic inequalities that exist around the world. If we are to come out of this crisis a stronger, more tolerant society then we need to realise that no matter what we look like or where we come from, we are all human beings; we are all fallible. Racism and xenophobia are often driven by fear of the unknown and a lack of information. When we are fearful and uncertain we look for someone to blame. That is why politicians, the media, and every one of us have a responsibility to be careful with the language we use and add value through our actions. There is one thing we all have control over and that is our own behaviour and the compassion we can show others.”
The European Parliament recently implemented, for the first time, a remote voting system following the Coronavirus lockdown. Asked whether the wheels of democracy can still keep turning under these conditions, Kanko says, “I believe it’s not a question of whether the wheels can keep turning; they must. With so many emergency powers in place and so many huge political and legal decisions being made around Europe, democratic scrutiny has never been more important. My experience of the remote voting system has had its challenges - mainly how temperamental my home printer is - but it has worked well and I am thankful for the staff and technicians within the Parliament for their hard work which enables us to keep doing our jobs from home. I am also hugely grateful to all those people who continue to work from home and have adapted how they work, allowing our economy to keep functioning and ensuring that the world keeps turning.”
When the Coronavirus storm eventually retreats and a semblance of life as we know it resumes, Kanko believes we have tough times ahead. “The impact of the crisis on our economy and our job market is something that will dominate the work of our governments and the EU. What we have experienced has been unprecedented. The months and years ahead will require us to address issues such as mental health, crossborder medical research and global crisis preparedness. But we will get through this.”
She says that while the return to our ‘normal lives’ may be slow and gradual, we will also return to the things that bring joy and happiness. “Whether that is a drink in your local bar, hugging friends and family, getting frites at your local square, carnivals, birthday parties and Christmas markets. The more patient we are, respecting social distancing, washing our hands and following guidelines, the quicker that return will be.”
"In a world that is already learning to live without US leadership, it is essential that the EU provides a global democratic steer. If it does not, China will"
As for the lessons we can glean from the Coronavirus crisis, Kanko says that we need to be a more compassionate and more considerate society. “We need to recognise who the real heroes are in our society and we need to value the little moments in our lives, as they often end up being the most important and are far more precious than we thought.”