Why are you not standing in the next European Elections? Is it a political or personal reason?
I began working in politics at an early age and developed a passion for representing people. I have been elected nine times in my life, always with preferential votes, starting at the local level, moving on to provincial level in Noord-Brabant (NL), all the way to the European Parliament. This has shaped my personal perspective on Europe and politics. I enjoyed my three terms in the European Parliament - never a dull day. In the first term you learn a lot, in the second you become more influential and you are able to achieve good results. For instance, I was the leading rapporteur on the European Structural and Investments Funds 2014-2020. During my third term I took time to look to the future, post 2020. I mentored young people within my party, like Andrey Novakov (EPP, BG), who is now co-rapporteur for the Common Provisions Regulation for the European Structural and Investments Funds 2021-2027. The EPP group is very active in encouraging the new generation in politics. It is time for new talent to take to the European stage.
You were first elected in 2004. How has the European Parliament and the role of MEPs changed over the years?
Well, the European Parliament changed dramatically in terms of size during my first term. This was a period of hope and positivity, a period of change. In 2004 and 2007, MEPs from twelve new Member States, like Poland, Bulgaria and Romania joined. The colleagues from these new Member States were trying to help their countries access the internal market efficiently and spend Structural Funds properly. They looked at representatives from the older Member States for advice on how to get things done. With their support, I was elected as EPP coordinator in the REGI committee. When the Lisbon Treaty came into force from 1 December 2009, the Parliament gained greater influence. It became a co-legislator with budgetary powers, on equal footing with the Council. My most satisfying moment was the inclusion of my proposal for the third dimension of Cohesion Policy in the Lisbon Treaty: territorial cohesion. With this breakthrough, economic and social cohesion was complete; it is still the glue that holds Europe together. We do not accept EU Member States and regions falling behind.
“The European Parliament changed dramatically in terms of size during my first term. This was a period of hope and positivity, a period of change”
On a personal level, what is the one achievement you are most proud of as an MEP and why?
Cohesion policy has always felt a bit like ‘my’ budget. Cohesion Funds made up the dominant part of public investments in the new Member States. The European Parliament played a key role in changing how we spend; not just investments in bricks and mortar but in knowledge infrastructure. It took me more than 100 trilogues and much persuasion. In the end, we achieved a shift in the new regulations, from the ‘old century’ way of thinking to an obligation for structural change and smarter and greener investments. For this achievement, I was recognised as ‘Parliamentary Member of the year for Regional Development’ three times.
In the Regional Development committee, you highlighted smart villages. Why is this important to you?
As a social geographer, I always highlight the territorial dimension. Recent studies have shown that over 8 million people in the EU leave rural areas to move to the ‘big city’; several regions in Europe face strong de-population. The recent trends in urbanisation are bringing opportunities but also challenges. With my colleagues Franc Bogovic (EPP, SL) and Mercedes Bresso (S&D, IT) we prepared stronger direct representation for villages in Brussels politics. Only last month, the plenary agreed on a budget of €2.4bn for rural areas in the EU (as part of the ERDF 2021-2027). With this, we will facilitate the new ‘Pact for smart communities’ in line with the ‘Pact of Amsterdam’ for cities. Being smarter means being connected and fully integrated. Politically relevant, because people in parts of rural Europe feel disconnected and left behind. Youngsters leave and don’t come back; this is not the future I aspire to in Europe. No one should be left behind.
“The European Parliament played a key role in changing how we spend; not just investments in bricks and mortar but in knowledge infrastructure”
You have initiated “Let the Stars Shine”. Can you explain this initiative?
I initiated the EPP project “Let the Stars Shine” shortly after the Brexit referendum. I saw that certain regions in the UK had voted in favour of Brexit, even although they had received substantial EU funding. Look at Liverpool, for example. With the help of European funds, Liverpool - many years neglected by London - recovered and became a hip, cool city. But did their citizens know that? Unfortunately, no. The British media and politicians didn’t talk about the many projects, but neither did the EU. I went out to interview a range of people, from academics to journalists, from policy makers to project beneficiaries. They all came to the same conclusion: the EU’s communication is outdated. Therefore, we brought together 40 European projects from nine countries in the European Parliament in Brussels and ran social media campaigns to show citizens what is happening in their city or region. Project beneficiaries were very willing to talk about their results. However, until now, Europe doesn’t ask them to do it. Based on my amendments, we adapted the EU Financial Regulations to allow EU funding to be used to communicate, including after the finalisation of a project. I am sure this will contribute to bridge the gap between the EU and its citizens. I am happy to see that others are following suit. The European Commission and the EPRS (the EP’s research service) recently launched the website www.whateuropedoesforme.eu, which shows what the EU is doing on your doorstep. An excellent initiative because out of sight is out of mind.
Why have you been pushing the European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT) and the European Innovation Council (EIC)?
Coming from the Dutch region of Noord-Brabant, I learned about the superb programmes in the 7th Framework Programme and later in Horizon 2020, but I saw how Europe underestimated innovation. It was a ‘European disease’; putting a lot of money into research and knowledge, but falling short when it comes to commercialisation. It was time to act. To counter this, I became President of the Knowledge4Innovation Forum of the European Parliament in 2008. Every year we organised a high-level European Innovation Summit (EIS) in the EP in Brussels, with industry, academics and decision makers. The second European disease is that we don’t have sufficient start-ups, not enough entrepreneurial spirit. We had to change, and we did. In 2004, Commission President Barroso came up with the idea of creating the European equivalent of the US Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), although Member States were not enthusiastic. Based on my amendments, the European Parliament managed to put innovation at the centre, reflected in the current name - the European Institute for Innovation and Technology (EIT). With the EIT and the new European Innovation Council, we are better placed for supporting necessary qualifications for the jobs and businesses of tomorrow. That’s the way it should be.
“With the EIT and the new European Innovation Council, we are better placed for supporting necessary qualifications for the jobs and businesses of tomorrow”
As a key supporter for digital innovation through your role in the European Internet Forum (EIF), how can Europe keep pace with its global competitors?
Former MEP Malcom Harbour (UK) invited me to join the EIF in 2004. During that time, the influence of the internet on the new economy was immense. Together with the EIF, I went to Silicon Valley for the first time. Later, we visited other ‘valleys’ in Boston, Israel, China and South Korea. What could Europe learn from their success stories? These experiences influenced my way of thinking. Europe is more diffuse than, for example, the US and China. I believe in concentrating and building on your territorial strengths. Therefore, every region formulates its own ‘smart specialisation’, the new approach in EU Regional Policy. With smart specialisation, we can achieve both focus and speed in Europe. Other parts of the world, like Latin America, follow this approach in the framework of the OECD.
The Netherlands and other European countries have seen the rise of extreme right-wing Eurosceptic populist parties. How can pro-EU centrist parties counter them?
First, we have to bring citizens on board. The EU achieves many wonderful things, so let’s talk about it and ‘Let the Stars Shine’. Second, we need to get out of the bubble. I have been elected and re-elected in my career because I have constantly worked on relationships with my constituency, citizens, industry, NGOs and interest groups. I think the quality of this relationship determines the breeding ground for nationalism and populism. How do you foster these relationships? For example, every Monday I received people with coffee: people with complaints, ideas, questions or problems. I have done over 1,000 of these ‘Lambert’s coffee talks’. Every Friday, I experienced the practical side through working visits in the Netherlands. Each month, I record radio slots, which are broadcast on regional and local channels. By focusing on European topics relevant to my constituency, I brought Europe closer to the citizens. It is simple, subsidiarity at the centre. This is my EPP approach to countering the influence of Eurosceptic and populist parties.
“With this breakthrough, economic and social cohesion was complete; it is still the glue that holds Europe together”
What advice would you give to a new MEP, and what are your plans for the future, after you leave?
I would say to them, “Work for the benefit of Europe as a whole. Try to specialise yourself, become an expert in a policy field and play an important role in your political group.” Other advice that I would like to pass on is that whenever you attend a meeting or a conference, leave something tangible behind. During the past 15 years I have written a series of booklets - number 35 is on its way. In every meeting, I left a testimony and worked on building longer-lasting partnerships with my audience. What’s next? I will remain active in my national Dutch party, the CDA. Moreover, I am a guest professor in China, where I teach urbanisation and regional policy at the Beijing Normal University. And, of course, I’ll keep a close eye on my successors in the European Parliament. Therefore, don’t be surprised if you ever meet me while travelling in Spain and Latin America. During my period in the European Parliament I learned Spanish and I would love to use it more and travel around Latin America.