From hands-on commissioner to free-speaking MEP... That's Danuta Hübner

She is one of parliament’s most senior MEPs and, as Martin Banks discovered, Danuta Hübner is not afraid of holding back on even the most sensitive of issues.

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

06 Jul 2021

Abortion laws akin to “political violence”, LGBT-free zones branded as “insane” and the “bad faith” of a post-Brexit UK. Yes, senior EPP deputy Danuta Hübner is never short of an outspoken view on one thing or another. When it comes to MEPs, there is nothing much new in that, of course. But it could be argued, the big difference with Hübner is that she can back it all up with a particularly heavyweight track record.

A former EU commissioner for trade and for regional policy, this is her third stint as an MEP. She is also a former Polish Minister for Europe, spent three years with the United Nations and was chief negotiator for Poland’s entry into the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“From time-to-time Europe has needed a big change, based on thorough, difficult debates, embedded in a road map and sometimes leading to treaty change”

Hübner is credited with having made a significant contribution to Poland’s transformation towards democracy and a market economy. The title of Prof of Economic Sciences was bestowed on her in 1992 by the then Polish president, Lech Walesa. The first Polish member of the Commission (2004-2009), she has been an MEP since 2009.

When she holds forth on an issue/happening/debate, it is probably worth paying attention, with Brexit being but one example. She was a senior member of the European Parliament’s influential Brexit steering group (latterly the UK Coordination Group) and believes the protracted Brexit negotiations have left a bad aftertaste.

She explains, “For most of the Brexit negotiating period, I’d hoped that somebody would call from London and call the whole sad process off. The aftertaste is strong. Unfortunately, I doubt whether the current issues we face are just teething problems. I would agree with former UK Prime Minister Theresa May, that Brexit does mean Brexit. There are consequences for which we must find the right path and I do not see good faith on the British side. In fact, the political environment seems to be worsening and I now doubt whether the implementation of the Irish Protocol is still on the British agenda.”

“I do not see good faith on the British side. In fact, the political environment seems to be worsening and I now doubt whether the implementation of the Irish Protocol is still on the British agenda”

She warns, “Without trust we cannot recover and build what we all need, which is a long-term relationship based on a truly cooperative approach. Despite all the current problems, I would still insist that there is no other option.”

Hübner, equally, does not pull any punches on another issue which is particularly close to her heart: the recently adopted legislation in her native Poland, which stipulates that a woman can only access an abortion in the case of rape, incest or serious birth defects.

“My reaction,” she states, “not only as a Polish woman but also as Prime Minister of the shadow cabinet of the Polish Women’s Congress, can only be this: the way Polish women are treated by their government can only be interpreted as political violence.”

She notes that instead of protecting their rights, those women who protested against the new law were physically attacked by Polish police forces, “This is beyond words. Such irresponsible actions not only harms women and limits their rights, but also undermines trust in the law and the constitution which exists to protect people against their governments.”

Hübner adds, “The only positive thing about this unfathomable ruling is that it has mobilised thousands of people, young and old, who have stood and marched together.” It was, she recalls, “a beautiful sight to see the Polish nation at its best, defending what is right and good and what should not be trampled on.”

She also becomes inflamed at the perceived rollback, both in women’s and LGBTI+ rights, in her homeland by the incumbent PiS government. Last month, the outgoing Portuguese EU presidency moved forward on the Article 7 suspension procedure by organising what many saw as long overdue hearings on Hungary and Poland. But many also argue that closed-door discussions will not be enough to stop the rule of law backsliding in these, and potentially other, Member States.

In Hungary, for example, attacks against LGBTI+ people, judges, journalists, academics and activists are said to have dramatically intensified since the beginning of the pandemic.

So, is it now time for the EU to finally get serious about sanctions to bring Poland and Hungary (and others) into line with those much-loved European values? “Any rollback in respect for human rights, the rule of law and democracy,” she says, “do not align with the EU’s Union of Equality. But they do not align either with a simple sense of decency and even with pure political pragmatism. It is additionally painful that similar examples of rights abuses can be found beyond Poland where we can see a similar sense of injustice.” 

One such example, she believes, is the Hungarian government, which has also moved “very far in this direction,” particularly with its own recent new law, passed by some 157 votes to one by the national assembly, banning gay people from featuring in school educational materials or TV shows for under-18s.

“Fortunately,” she says, “in Poland, such legislation, if the governing party thought of something like that, would not have passed with such a damning result. But this is no consolation.” The challenge for the EU and international community goes beyond sanctions, she says, adding, “sanctions simply mean that values are put on the market: you can ‘buy’ the right to not respect the fact that the Union is a community of law and values.”

Last March, the European Parliament declared that the whole of the EU was an “LGBTIQ Freedom Zone”. It was a symbolic resolution passed in response to local authorities in Poland labelling themselves “LGBT ideology-free zones” in recent years. Hübner, whose impressive CV also includes a three-year stint as executive secretary for the UN’s Economic Commission for Europe in Geneva, says that the “LGBTIQ freedom zone” idea has “great symbolic value”, but other urgent measures need to be taken - and not only in Poland.

“For example, all those who voted for the infamous educational ruling in Hungary should not be received by anybody from the EU on any visit to Brussels,” she says. LGBT free zones in Poland were declared locally, and some local authorities have already rescinded that insanity. Others lost their city partnerships with cities in Europe. But what is also needed is an educational effort on a very basic level to show people that LGBT people are just that, people, and not ideology as the President of Poland said in his electoral campaign. 

And this she believes is, in a roundabout way, where the newly launched Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) comes in, as a rare chance to look again into the EU treaties. 

The conference, after a year-long delay caused by inter-institutional wrangling and the pandemic, has now finally got going, the idea being to pave the way for radical EU reforms, something many see as vital in the wake of Brexit and an ever-growing rise in support for “populist” political parties in many parts of Europe. Some, though, doubt that the conference, particularly in its current set up, will result in any real, tangible changes.

Hübner, though, remains quietly optimistic, saying, “The Union is not only a ‘Union of States’ but also ‘Union of Citizens’. “The EU has an obligation to protect all its citizens against those who do not respect citizens’ rights,” says Hübner, who prides herself on a long engagement in the field of gender equality, which includes being co-creator of the Congress of Women in Poland.

“As an EU Commissioner, first for trade and then for regional policy, when I travelled quite often to Belfast, I developed a conviction that as long as people want to talk there is a hope.” The conference, she beams, is “in reality, an unprecedented process of public dialogue. It is a chance for citizens to take stock of what Europe has done so far for their security and quality of life and who want to share their worries and hopes with us, politicians and institutions at local, national and European levels,” says the MEP who, for years, fought to bring Poland into the EU.

While it will be important for all involved “to listen to each other” there is also “a risk that citizens will not be interested, that their recommendations will be lost on the way to the follow-up phase and that anti-democratic and anti-European populists will capture and destroy our dialogue.”

Despite such fears, Hübner, who is a member of three parliamentary committees (INTA, ECON and AFCO), adds, “I am optimistic, the opportunity is in our hands. I hope the dialogue will give us all the feeling of ownership of Europe. With this, responsibility will come, and we will make Europe fit for the 21st century.”

But, for this to happen, Hübner insists that an often-sceptical media, “is with us on this journey of changing Europe.” “We need the media to help us to create a beautiful narrative about a Europe of the future. Political and institutional solutions are cold and depersonalised, so we should be open to involving artists, writers and creative people who can augment a message of change and engage our emotions, in this process. We need to expand communication in the conference debates towards all those who care for Europe and who have a special space for Europe in their minds and in their hearts. 

“You cannot go back to the limits of national borders once you have tasted Europe and have her in your mind and heart”

European integration is a “history of change”, mostly delivered on a step-by-step process. “From time-to-time Europe has needed a big change, based on thorough, difficult debates, embedded in a road map and sometimes leading to treaty change.” Twenty years after the last similar debate about the EU’s future - the failed Convention on the Future of Europe – Hübner says the current conference offers ‘a new framework’ for discussion. “The CoFoE should become what Olga Tokarczuk, the Polish Nobel laureate, called ‘a tender narrator’ of our common future on this small continent. 

Looking to the future, she believes that “real reforms” will come only when Europeans are “ready to accept them.” This, for her, means “not just as legislative proposals but something that touches our individual lives at the deepest level.” Hübner is among that relatively rare and elite group with experience on both sides of the EU legislative loop, both as a Commissioner and MEP. So, how do the two jobs compare?

“As minister in charge of Europe, and before we joined the EU, I participated in numerous Council meetings as well. So, indeed I looked at Europe from different institutional angles. All were fascinating. In the EuropeanCommission you can be hands-on and have a huge impact on reality. But your competence is limited.”

“In Parliament, you can embrace a much broader part of the European realm, see better links and dependencies – and your political freedom of speech goes beyond the limits of a Commissioner.” Without revealing if she will seek another term, she beams, “I appreciate it and enjoy. You cannot go back to the limits of national borders once you have tasted Europe and have her in your mind and heart.” 

Read the most recent articles written by Martin Banks - New EU regulations on AI seek to ban mass and indiscriminate surveillance