Loucas Fourlas: An unbreakable promise

Loucas Fourlas, Chair of the MEPs Against Cancer Interest Group, tells Jon Benton and Ana Gallego what drives him in his fight against cancer, his campaign to help those affected and of his own personal tragedy.
Loucas Fourlas (CY, EPP) | Source: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Jon Benton and Ana Gallego

Jon Benton, Content Editor, and Ana Gallego, Junior Reporter, at The Parliament Magazine.

01 Feb 2021

It’s hard to believe that a year has passed since Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan was officially launched. And we will finally see the devil in the detail as the Plan’s Communication is expected to be published on Wednesday (3 February). On that day one year ago, the hemicycle was packed with deputies, uniting behind an issue that affects us all in one way or another. Cancer is a deeply personal issue and a source of great pain for many; however, Loucas Fourlas is determined to transform his own personal anguish into action that saves lives. “There is no choice for me; I would rather transform my pain into power,” he explains, adding, “My commitment and highest priority is the fight against cancer, particularly childhood cancer. The battle is a highly sensitive and personal issue for me, and is a life promise that I will never break.”

Since joining Parliament in 2019, the commitment of the former Cypriot TV anchorman has been recognised by his colleagues, resulting in him becoming one of the institution’s key deputies on cancer, working as a chair of the influential MEPs Against Cancer Interest Group. “It was a great honour for me that my colleagues from different countries and political groups gave me the opportunity, but also the obligation, to strive to achieve all the goals we have set as a European family against cancer, for the next few years,” says Fourlas. Among the group’s priorities, he explains, are the prevention, early diagnosis, psychological support, funding for research and equal access for all patients to innovative treatments. Fourlas is also a shadow rapporteur on Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan in the Employment and Social Affairs Committee and a member of the Special Committee on Beating Cancer (BECA).

“My commitment and highest priority is the fight against cancer, especially childhood cancer. The battle is a very sensitive and personal issue for me and a life promise that I will never break”

All of this work has not gone unnoticed; he was recently nominated for an MEP Award in the health category – a source of great pride for him. “The nomination was unexpected,” says Fourlas, adding, “It was a high honour for me, particularly as I come from a small country and I’m a newcomer in the European Parliament. It was a very good sign, which let me know that I am on the right path when it comes to implementing all those things that I had promised the citizens of my country during the European election campaign.”

On 3 February, Fourlas will be hosting the virtual conference for the European Society for Paediatric Oncology’s (SIOPE) International Childhood Cancer Awareness Day. According to SIOPE, there are more than 35,000 children and young people diagnosed with cancer each year and 6,000 young lives lost– sobering figures that show that paediatric cancer has become a major public health and societal issue in Europe. He explains that the conference, which will look at ways of reinforcing paediatric cancer care, is an opportunity to “discuss the European Commission’s Evaluation of the Legislation for Medicines and Rare Diseases and the launch of the Pharmaceutical Strategy for Europe.” Fourlas will be joined by a number of high-profile EU policymakers, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides, EPP Group leader Manfred Weber, BECA Committee chair Bartosz Arłukowicz, as well as representatives of the Commission, scientists and other stakeholders.

He explains that his work on childhood cancer began well before entering Parliament. In 2017, he set up his own charity “Little Heroes”, which organises fundraising events to support children who suffer from cancer and are hospitalised at Makarios Children’s Hospital in Nicosia. One such event he organises is a charity swim along the Cypriot coast, to raise awareness and support children and families affected by childhood cancer. Fourlas explains that he began the initiative “after losing one of the most important people in my life”. His own deeply personal experience of tragedy and how it unfolded is what drives him today. He campaigns because he feels that “no child should fight cancer alone, and no family should struggle alone”. He adds, “Little Heroes was embraced by many people and I would like to thank them from the bottom of my heart."

Moving on to the topic of Cyprus and the Turkish occupation of the north of the island since 1974, Fourlas emphasises that this “is not a matter of bicommunal differences” between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities. For him, the issue is clear: “This is a matter of illegal invasion and continued occupation of our territories for 47 years.” He is calling for stronger EU action, arguing that the bloc “must not ignore this, and should not - even indirectly - accept the currently unacceptable situation”, adding, “It is also a violation of the Acquis Communautaire, as well as a repeal of United Nations Security Council resolutions.” His comments come as talks are set to restart in February, under the auspices of the UN, in an effort to find a solution to the long-running issue. On the prospect of a solution, he tells us, “Our Turkish Cypriot compatriots had protested the situation, demanding the reunification of our homeland,” adding, “However, these voices were drowned out by Erdogan, imposing his own positions and his own interests. For our part, we clearly want a solution and peaceful coexistence.”

“Erdogan is a troublemaker who creates conflict throughout the region not only to simply ‘satisfy his intolerance’, but also to dominate and conquer. I believe that the only way to stop Erdogan’s bad behaviour is to apply financial sanctions and to isolate him completely”

Fourlas has been an outspoken critic of Turkey and its President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to the extent of taking part in a recent #StopErdogan rally in Brussels in January. He argues that “Erdogan is a troublemaker who creates conflict throughout the region not only to simply ‘satisfy his intolerance’ but also to dominate and conquer. I believe that the only way to stop Erdogan’s bad behaviour is to apply financial sanctions and to isolate him completely.” He continues, “Only if Turkey is confronted on this basis by the EU, along with the international community, and undertakes its responsibilities will the communities be able to coexist harmoniously.” Fourlas is also concerned by Turkey’s foreign policy in the region, saying, “We are watching the escalating Turkish provocation in the Cypriot exclusive economic zone, in Evros, in Syria, in Northern Iraq, in Libya and in Armenia. We are watching the migrants, with whom Europe is being blackmailed, on a daily basis.”

He argues that Turkey has been able to “completely ignore Europe without any consequence,” and this has resulted in an increasingly “greedy behaviour” that avoids its obligations to the EU while disrespecting European principles and values. In light of this behaviour, he asks, “Who exactly are we dealing with? Is this a country that wants to join the EU, and where we sell weapons?” He adds, “It is time for Europe to decide the kind of relationship it really wants to have with Turkey. Turkish provocation, whether manifest through military operations in neighbouring countries or through extreme rhetoric, can no longer be tolerated.”

Again, he argues that sanctions would be the most logical response and cites the EU’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which saw substantial financial sanctions levied on Moscow, as one that should be employed against Turkey. “A series of measures and sanctions were imposed on Russia. We do not see the same reaction to everything that Turkey is doing. Turkey’s responsibilities are very heavy, and verbal condemnation has no effect.”

“Turkish provocation, whether manifested through military operations in neighbouring countries or through extreme rhetoric, can no longer be tolerated”

Another foreign policy topic where Fourlas has a keen interest is the ongoing dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno- Karabakh region. The territory has been disputed since the countries gained independence more than a century ago. Tensions have escalated since the late 1980s, even resulting in all-out war as recently as last year, which saw thousands killed on both sides. As President of the Armenia- European Parliament friendship group, he says that he is “deeply concerned about the Armenians who remain in this area and are subjected to violence and mass persecution - I hope that all this will end as soon as possible. Our anxiety for the future in the region continues, as the instability that is being created throughout the South Caucasus can have unpredictable consequences. We must bear in mind that this is a corridor of pipelines that transport oil to world markets. However, there is also a civilian population there, and, unfortunately, they are being forced to survive in conditions of terror and uncertainty.”

He explains, “Finding a peaceful and effective solution is the ideal scenario for the EU’s principles and values. I want to be clear: we are not in favour of violence and its use under the threat of weapons. The only way to achieve this is through diplomacy. And the EU cannot be absent when such critical changes take place.” The EU’s ability to take decisive international action, such as in Cyprus and Armenia-Azerbaijan, is a major challenge, argues Fourlas. He points out, “the EU is one of the largest international organisations in the world. However, it continues to focus on its economy, while a common foreign policy has not yet been adopted.”

More recently, Fourlas’ work has focused on migration, serving as a shadow rapporteur on Parliament’s “Human rights protection and the EU external migration policy” report, which called upon the European Commission to take action on third countries committing human rights violations and exercise greater Parliamentary scrutiny. He stresses that the EU’s external migration policy should be based on fundamental rights, with special attention paid to children’s human rights, adding, “There should be no question about it.” He also argues that greater parliamentary scrutiny on the cooperation agreements with third countries on migration management is vital, as one of the means to improve human rights. However, when the final version of the report was eventually put to vote, Fourlas voted against it, because “The opinion was very negative towards EU migration policy. There may be shortcomings and problems, but it would not help to put in jeopardy and risk destroying all the EU’s migration agreements with third countries.”

“Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democracy and I strongly believe that it’s our moral duty to safeguard press freedom”

Instead, says Fourlas, “I believe we rather need to ensure close cooperation with countries of transit and of origin based on the ‘carrot and stick’ approach. Additional efforts by third countries must be rewarded with increased cooperation and additional support. And similarly, where cooperation is lagging behind, the support should also be reduced.”

Migration will be under the spotlight this year, especially under the current Portuguese EU Council Presidency, which has just begun negotiations over last September’s Commission proposal for a new pact on migration and asylum. Fourlas believes that EU migration policy should address the root causes of migration, such as poverty, hunger, lack of democracy and human rights abuses in the countries of origin.

However, one aspect that desperately needs addressing is burden sharing by Member States, he says, calling for “the inclusion of a strict obligation for Member States to automatically relocate applicants on the basis of a fixed and predetermined percentage.” He adds, “The EU should consider limiting access to European funds for those countries that refuse to participate,” perhaps referring to Member States such as Hungary who have refused to fulfil their EU obligations to take in asylum seekers. Fourlas also calls for the EU to “negotiate centrally with third countries the possibility of returns” and “to effectively demand from Turkey,” - who, he says, uses migrants to blackmail the EU - “the observance of the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement on the matter.”

Finally, we turn to the topic of media freedom, a topic close to Fourlas’ heart. Last year he was a shadow rapporteur on the “strengthening media freedom” report, which looks at addressing the protection of journalists in Europe, hate speech, disinformation and the role of platforms – especially online ones. He explains, “The opinion, of which I was the shadow rapporteur for the EPP Group, highlights the necessity for collaboration with Member States to improve media literacy, in order for it to be streamlined and integrated into other EU programmes that support education and media as a tool for people to develop critical thinking. At the same time, it stresses the importance of ensuring online and offline media pluralism and tackling disinformation. It also calls upon the Member States to ensure better protection of the personal safety of journalists. The EU has set concrete actions to ensure the protection of European values in this context, including the Action Plan on disinformation and the European Digital Observatory platform.”

This is also a personal issue for him, having worked as a journalist for more than 20 years. He says, “The protection of journalists and freedom of expression are two topics that I am particularly interested in because I am a journalist by profession, and I had worked for many years as a TV anchorman in my country. So, I know first-hand that journalists are usually confronted with threats in their attempt to reveal the truth. Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democracy and I strongly believe that it’s our moral duty to safeguard press freedom.”

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