Iratxe García Pérez Interview: Things can only get better

This year has forever changed Europe. Iratxe García Pérez tells Lorna Hutchinson that what the EU rebuilds, post-pandemic, will have a stronger foundation of social justice, equality and sustainability.
Iratxe García Pérez | Photo credit: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

27 Nov 2020

Iratxe García Pérez has seen a number of significant changes take place in the EU since her election to the European Parliament in 2004. From the three enlargements of the bloc, which saw thirteen new Member States join the fold, to the controversial exit of the United Kingdom, the Spanish-born leader of the Parliament’s Socialist Group has borne witness over the past sixteen years to a Europe very much in flux.

Asked what attracted her to the world of politics in the first place, García Pérez says she felt compelled to fight injustice and inequality. “When I was 17 years old, I joined the Spanish Socialist Party because I wanted to change things, to ensure all people have the same chances, and make sure that those who are in need are protected. That is why I studied social work, which was my first job. But early on in my career I became active in my town council and I came to realise that I could have a bigger impact through politics. And when it comes to overcoming centuries of a male-dominated society, I realised I could do my part by giving women the place they deserve. Women make up half of the population, yet we have been structurally excluded from decision-making, and even today women in Europe make less than their male counterparts – and this is only one aspect of gender inequality.”

“Women make up half of the population, yet we have been structurally excluded from decision-making, and even today women in Europe make less than their male counterparts – and this is only one aspect of gender inequality”

Though she learned a great deal from local politics, García Pérez says she realised early on that much more is played out at the national and European level. “My region is mainly rural, and many young people leave because they don’t see a future. So I arrived in Brussels in 2004 with the idea of representing all of those people who are not part of the urban elite, and I worked intensively in the agriculture and regional committees. I was responsible for several reports in these committees. What many people don’t realise is that the Parliament’s committee work takes a lot of effort and energy, even if it doesn’t often receive much coverage in the news. I feel that the core business of this Parliament is in the discreet work of so many MEPs, while some others only take the floor to make bold statements. The hidden, everyday work to improve citizens’ lives taught me a lot about this House.”

Sixteen years is a long time in European politics and García Pérez says that her mandate as an MEP has seen its fair share of highs and lows. She calls her 2019 election as President of the Parliament’s 145-strong Socialists and Democrats Group “a true honour,” adding, “it comes with a big responsibility, and I am grateful to my colleagues for their trust.” But there have been difficult times, she admits, describing the departure of British MEPs in January of this year as “the saddest moment.”

“We had worked so much together, our Labour friends worked so much for the Union we have today, and also for the British people, that I felt it was so unfair that they had to leave. Of course, we have to respect the decision of the British people in the Brexit referendum, but I still have the impression that it was not a debate based on facts; there was so much disinformation and it is a historic and painful mistake.”

Back in the days when “Brexit” was not yet a part of the European lexicon, García Pérez says that the EU enlargement process of 2004, 2007 and 2013 gave her a real sense of optimism and expectation, “like a family gathering after a long absence.”

“The democratic transition in the former communist countries had been smooth, and there was eagerness among their populations for freedom, prosperity and fundamental rights. That is why it is sad for me to see the Hungarian and Polish governments using democracy to reduce freedoms and challenge basic principles like judicial independence. These are pre-conditions to join the EU, so it is unfair and dangerous to try to go backwards once you are in.”

“Both physical and psychological violence have only worsened during the pandemic, because the lockdowns have forced many women to stay at home with their abuser. We must ensure financial support for women who want to leave a situation of violence but are economically dependent on their partners”

Another great leap for Europe in modern times was the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, she says. “This meant a bigger role for the European Parliament, and I feel that my Group has really contributed to making the most of the new powers introduced by the new Treaty. For example, when it comes to international trade, I remember the battle on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement that we had to reject, and how the European Commission and Council didn’t quite fully understand the new role of the Parliament. Since then, my Group has pushed to introduce human rights, environmental and workers’ rights clauses in all trade agreements if the Commission expects consent from the Parliament.”

Asked whether the EU’s new mechanism which makes access to funds from the EU budget conditional on respecting the rule of law will help convince Member States such as Hungary and Poland to adhere to fundamental EU values, García Pérez says that every Member State must respect the same principles that were demanded of them when they joined the Union. “Article 2 of the Treaty establishes these principles, so we are not asking for anything out of the ordinary. It should not be seen as some kind of punishment. It is a way to remind some politicians that the EU is not a cash machine; it is a community of law, and you have to abide by the rules.”

“We are partners and friends, and this means that we trust each other and the word we have given. I hope that these two governments will understand that now more than ever we need to be united to provide help and support to citizens and businesses to face the COVID-19 pandemic. With the next multiannual budget and the Recovery and Resilience Facility we will be making life easier for millions of people in Europe, including in Poland and Hungary.”

Turning to the ruling of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal in October, which imposed a near-total ban on abortions in the country, García Pérez says she is very concerned about the situation and, referring to her recent protest against the draconian move, she explains, “this is why you will always see me supporting Polish women. They have led the protests against the attempt to curtail basic freedoms.”

She explains that there are two things that can be done in this situation. “The first is to condemn a law that is barbaric and only responds to a purely political calculation and ideological motivation. Poland already had a very restrictive law on abortion, but now depriving women of the right to terminate their pregnancy in extreme cases of severe birth defects or foetal abnormalities will only put women’s health at risk. Secondly, we also have to look at the deterioration of the rule of law in the country, because the Constitutional Court that decided on the issue is not independent - it is controlled by the government’s Law and Justice party.”

With the approach of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November, García Pérez cites some sobering statistics: “One out of three European women have experienced physical violence from the age of 15, and 43 percent of women in the 28 EU countries have experienced some form of psychological violence by an intimate partner.”

She points out that both physical and psychological violence against women have significantly increased during the Coronavirus pandemic, “because the lockdowns have forced many women to stay at home with their abuser.”

“We cannot go back to what we had before the pandemic, we have to move forward. One of the founding fathers of the EU, Jean Monnet used to say we should be neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but determined. And I am determined to make things better”

She adds, “This is why I have been insisting on redoubling our efforts especially now. Women should have access to shelters and helplines, digital platforms and phone apps. We must allocate emergency funds to ensure that these important services remain open. We must also ensure financial support for women who want to leave a situation of violence but are economically dependent on their partners; a circumstance that has also been aggravated during the COVID-19 crisis and the subsequent job losses. My Group has insisted that all measures adopted to combat the crisis must take the gender perspective into account.”

Despite a persisting gender pay gap in the EU - which currently stands at over 14 percent - and the Women on Boards Directive stuck in the legislative pipeline since 2013, García Pérez is confident that women will achieve gender equality in the near future. “The road to equality is long and bumpy but it continues steadily. We do advance, even if it is sometimes very slow. Even though some governments try to roll back women’s rights, more and more women across Europe, as well as many men, are raising their voices and taking to the streets. The Commission will present two very important proposals in the coming months: a Directive on adequate minimum wages and another one strengthening equal pay between women and men through pay transparency.”

“The first will deliver on a basic principle of the European Pillar of Social Rights; that every job deserves a decent salary. The introduction of fair minimum wages in the EU is good news for all of the people struggling to survive on low wages and those who are most affected by the COVID-19 crisis; in both cases the majority of whom are women. The latter will represent a giant step towards equality, especially if binding pay transparency measures are envisaged. As regards the Women on Boards Directive, we are working hard to achieve an agreement in the Council that can lead to its final adoption and implementation. We have also seen an improvement in the percentage of women in decision-making, especially in countries that have established binding measures such as quotas.”

Looking back on what has been an extraordinarily challenging period for European citizens, García Pérez says, “It has indeed been a very difficult year. But every crisis can be turned into an opportunity, and this is our responsibility as politicians. First of all, we must urgently help those in need, but at the same time COVID-19 has unveiled many weaknesses in our Union and also in the current economic model. We have already reacted by proposing a Health Union, and also by strengthening our social policies and a scheme to help workers keep their jobs during the lockdowns.”

“We are also going to reinforce our economic governance by issuing shared debt, and I hope that very soon we will also agree on new own resources to finance crucial EU policies. Now is our chance to use the extra funds to accelerate the transition to a more sustainable and humane economic model, reducing inequalities and using new digital technologies to create more opportunities for all, for example in rural areas, and also to create more decent jobs. We cannot go back to what we had before the pandemic, we have to move forward. One of the founding fathers of the EU, Jean Monnet used to say we should be neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but determined. And I am determined to make things better.”

Read the most recent articles written by Lorna Hutchinson - Parliament delays Brexit trade deal ratification; MEP says ‘cool heads must prevail’

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