Martin Schirdewan interview: A fighting chance

It’s been a devastating year for many Europeans. Martin Schirdewan tells Lorna Hutchinson why he believes EU leaders must step up and utilise the full firepower of the Union’s arsenal to combat the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic.

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

13 Oct 2020

Martin Schirdewan stands up for social justice. The German-born co-chair of GUE/NGL, the European Parliament’s most left-leaning political group, isn’t shy to take aim at the bloc’s leaders and policies when he feels that Europeans are being left short-changed.

With the global storm that has been the Coronavirus pandemic, wreaking widespread havoc including mass unemployment, a spike in suicides, domestic violence and homelessness, Schirdewan says that citizens have clearly borne the brunt of the crisis and the EU must step up to the plate.

"We have 45 million people - around a quarter of the workforce in the European Union - that has been applying for short-time work schemes and who could suffer if there is no real economic recovery. The situation is really dire and the EU must prove its worth now; not only for European citizens but also, and most importantly, our small businesses - in order to protect jobs and the economy. We are witnessing a situation where, during a time of extreme uncertainty, almost every day bigger companies are announcing mass layoffs and SMEs are struggling, especially in certain sectors like tourism and the event industry - all those who are self-employed and who cannot work properly for the time being are the most affected."

"What we need is the full firepower of the institutions; the European Investment Bank needs to support SMEs and we need an extension of short-time work schemes. That also means putting an end to the economically and socially harmful Maastricht criteria and the Stability and Growth Pact. The recovery can only be successful if there is a clear timetable for the implementation of own resources in the European Union. Because if we do not succeed in implementing and raising European taxes - implementing our own resources - in the end the debt will be paid back by either the national budgets in the European Union or via the Multiannual Financial Framework, meaning that there will be further cuts. So we need a proper own resource system."

Turning to the European Commission’s new Migration Pact, which was announced shortly after the disastrous fire at the Moria migrant camp in Lesbos, Schirdewan calls it, "a pact of shame, a document of failure of the so-called community of values." He explains, "Instead of following a solidarity approach and a policy that aims at no more Morias, there is no return to a humane approach in European migration policy; instead we see that 'Fortress Europe' will be further extended with an external dimension by brokering agreements with Libyan warlords or authoritarian presidents like Yar'Adua [former President of Nigeria] and there will be more of this. We all know the consequences and we all see the horrible images from the camps - like those in Libya, which have been described as slave camps."

"Member States no longer support those who are in need anymore - the migrants - instead supporting those who refuse to help those in need - the so-called deportation sponsorships. What is being put forward in this EU Migration Pact is a complete perversion of the principle of solidarity. The Commission has delved into Orwellian language here and I never thought this could be possible in the European Union. With the so-called 'community of values' they are actually becoming Orwellian in their politics. But this is what we see - deterrents, defence, and deportations of 'solidarity.'"

Moving on to the upcoming US elections, Schirdewan says that it is not just about the choice between Joe Biden or Donald Trump, but rather the American people deciding between democracy and an authoritarian power grab. "Donald Trump does not only support white supremacists; he also supports all kinds of conspiracy theories and is a Coronavirus denier. This is a President who is actually posing a threat to his own people. And you could see this authoritarian power grab in progress over the past year, with a clear strategy to produce chaos, to produce no clear political way forward by demoralising political opponents and by labelling peaceful protestors as radicals. We see clear attacks on the freedom of the press. So, yes, this man really poses a threat to US democracy and I think that his strategy is actually built on an authoritarian regime."

Schirdewan says that the silence from EU leaders, including Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, has been deafening. "I am one of the few who actually raises this topic and says that we [in Europe] have to be aware of what is going on in the US politically. As the EU we have to take a clear stance if we consider ourselves defenders of democracy, human rights and basic civil rights. As such, we also have to say that what Donald Trump is doing in the US is the opposite of defending democracy and basic human rights."

Caption: Martin Schirdewan addresses German chancellor Angela Merkel in the European Parliament

While Donald Trump is famous for withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, the EU considers itself a global climate change trailblazer. Ursula von der Leyen announced with great fanfare in her recent State of the Union address that the EU is proposing a 55 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Asked if this new target is ambitious enough to protect the climate in the long-term, Schirdewan says that while every step taken in the right direction is more than welcome, the demands of the Paris Agreement are much higher.

"A 55 percent reduction of carbon emissions by 2030 is not ambitious enough to meet the requirements of the Paris Agreement. We also need to be more ambitious by clearly focusing on implementing the Paris Agreement in all European legislation, because otherwise we will be facing existential threats to humanity - this is what we are talking about. We need to reduce carbon emissions in order to give both the planet, and future generations, a fighting chance. There is a compromise with industry in this and this is what Ursula von der Leyen tried to present, but it’s not ambitious enough."

Remaining on the subject of climate change, Schirdewan describes the European Parliament’s so-called "travelling circus" to Strasbourg once a month - estimated to emit between 11,000 and 19,000 tons of CO2 emissions annually - as a waste of time and public money. "It has always proved to be inefficient and unecological - I think we just need to stop this travelling circus. I am in favour of a one-seat Parliament - whether it is in Strasbourg or in Brussels is not that important."

As a member of the European Parliament’s UK Coordination Group, Schirdewan is distinctly unimpressed at the UK’s recent antics, which prompted the Commission to launch an infringement procedure over the highly controversial Internal Market Bill, which overrides the Withdrawal Agreement. Asked if the sputtering Brexit negotiations could be pulled back from the brink in an eleventh-hour reprieve, Schirdewan says that playing games is part of the UK’s Brexit strategy.

"I think the Internal Market Bill is also part of its strategy. It is clearly in breach of international agreements but also jeopardises the Northern Ireland peace process by being in breach of the Good Friday Agreement. I think this is part of the UK’s strategy in the case of a hard Brexit, taking back control over Northern Ireland and also the customs regime applied in Northern Ireland. From my perspective, as a European politician, I think that there cannot be any blackmailing by the British government, by Boris Johnson. I have been very clear about the withdrawal of this Internal Market Bill and also about the parts referring to Northern Ireland and the Irish protocol. Until this is withdrawn there can be no future agreements, we have to be very clear about that. The EU cannot be blackmailed into a bad future trade deal which could lead to a deterioration of certain standards that we all agreed on in the past: social standards, environmental standards, consumer rights, and so on."

"So, the infringement procedure launched by the Commission is the right step, but I doubt that sending a letter to Number 10 Downing Street will be sufficient to make clear that this is not just a warning shot. The EU must prove its value here, its worth for European citizens, without forgetting about those British citizens who are also negatively affected by Brexit. Now it is about putting in place measures to protect jobs, to secure the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Irish Peace Process and to mitigate the negative economic effects on both sides of the Channel. If Boris Johnson is not willing to act accordingly then it is up to the European Union to do so."

Caption: Martin Schirdewan addresses the European Parliament

Turning to the Commission’s recently- unveiled Rule of Law Report, which comes on the back of rising concerns about rule of law breaches in some Member States, particularly Hungary and Poland, Schirdewan says that, as is the case with Donald Trump in the United States, there is an authoritarian transition taking place in certain EU countries.

"What the German Council Presidency has presented as a new Rule of Law mechanism is really disappointing in this regard. Because even if there is a qualified majority in that proposal, that could, say, take a decision on cutting subsidies for Member States who are in obvious breach of the Rule of Law, then those Member States who oppose this could still take it back to the Council and then the principle of unanimity would apply again."

"It’s a very weak proposal and I really have serious doubts that we can defend democracy and basic rights with this weak instrument. There needs to be more effort put into it; there needs to be a mechanism that clearly prohibits any violation of democratic and civil rights in the EU. This is not only a theoretical discussion about the Rule of Law mechanism; it’s actually about how we want to live here in Europe."

Read the most recent articles written by Lorna Hutchinson - MEPs come out in force against Hungarian anti-LGBTIQ law at Budapest Pride