Stelios Kympouropoulos only joined the European Parliament following the last elections, but the Greek EPP member has already made his mark in several policy areas, well beyond the one you would expect from a 2019 newcomer. As his group’s shadow rapporteur on Parliament’s position on “employment and social policies of the euro area 2021”, he was not entirely happy with the outcome, praising, however the resolution’s call for a European care strategy with a strong gender dimension, and for renewed efforts to close the gender pay gap.
Coming from a medical profession - Kympouropoulos is a clinical psychiatrist by training - he switched to full-time politics only three years ago when he stood for Parliament. He is clearly someone for whom pragmatic and practical solutions provide the benchmarks for success. It is an area where he feels the employment and social policy resolution could have delivered more.
He tells me: “It was a good report, but - in some parts - it failed to acknowledge the importance of competitiveness, and to press more for investment-friendly policies as a means of creating quality jobs”. By this he alludes to investment in fields related to the digital transition, for example in AI or semiconductors that would “unlock the power of data”.
“We have a duty to call out the issues, and we need speak up for ourselves, with our voice, rather than relying on proxies. We need to make ourselves heard”
However, another emphasis of the resolution that meets with his full approval and engagement, namely what he views as one of the biggest challenges of our times. “We need to keep investing in our people, and to provide them with the right skills so that our workforce can harness the benefits of the digital and green transitions”. What Europe needs, Kympouropoulos believes, are “good and productive life-long-learning programmes to create a proper framework of up-skilling our European citizens”.
Education lies very close to his political heart, and he is convinced that it is “the crucial key to practically every problem”. It comes as no surprise, then, that he welcomes Parliament’s own-initiative report, authored by his Czech fellow group and Committee on Culture and Education (CULT) member Michaela Šojdrová, on the planned European Education Area (EEA) which was approved at the last Brussels mini-plenary session.
While recognising education as a Member State competency, Kympouropoulos nevertheless believes that a European dimension always adds value. “This is, of course, a subsidiarity issue, and we can just create a framework of where we want to go, not the precise legislation”. He insists, however, that “I am not afraid of that, and I support these kinds of initiatives, which aim to create minimum standards. We need those because we are all Europeans and as such need a common starting point”.
He takes the same view when it comes to another domain of national competence – one, however, where the need for a European dimension had been sharply highlighted by the pandemic: health policy. “We need to protect and promote our health systems, even if they are different in each Member State”, he argues, adding that ultimately, cooperation and EU level action has delivered against the pandemic. “Europe is the only continent that not only created vaccines for all, but also distributed them around the world, because we know that if not everybody is vaccinated, nobody will be protected”.
In light of recent troubling developments in some Member States, particularly in Eastern and Central Europe, where low vaccination rates have led to worrying numbers of infections ending in fatality, Kympouropoulos is again pinning his hopes on education.
“We need to keep investing in our people, and to provide them with the right skills so that our workforce can harness the benefits of the digital and green transitions”
“We need to trust the experts and continue reaching out to citizens to convince them of the importance of getting vaccinated. This is the only way of getting back to normality, but also towards ensuring a speedy social and economic recovery from the pandemic.
All stakeholders should, therefore, act responsibly and play their role in making the case for vaccine safety and efficacy, debunking misinformation and helping convince those that are hesitant to get the jab’’, he believes.
The pandemic also shone a harsh light on the vulnerability the elderly and of persons with disabilities. For Kympouropoulos, it was the latest confirmation of a crucial home truth about how society traditionally – and misguidedly - deals with these at-risk groups. “Institutionalised people were at much greater risk of death, especially before the vaccines arrived. When people are in an environment such as those institutions, where they are not free to make their own choices, to create their own patterns, something is profoundly wrong”. He advocates for a different approach, saying, “I support the idea of personal assistance and independent living, to have people that support us where there is the need, to support us implementing our way of living, and help us fight deterioration”.
As a member of the Committee on Petitions (PETI), and EPP shadow on the report on the “Protection of persons with disabilities through petitions: lessons learnt”, he called for the EU to come up with “common definitions of disability and independent living”. The PETI committee is an extremely important one for European democracy, he believes, because “it is bringing the people into the legislative procedure, giving them the opportunity to change something they think needs changing”.
“We have the right to full and equal participation, at any level of our society, and we have to speak out about it”
Yet he also points to the fact that only one percent of all petitions received by the PETI committee each year are on disability issues, while there are around 87 million disabled people in the European Union. For his work as a politician and disabled persons’ rights activist, Kympouropoulos draws two main conclusions from this mismatch; make the PETI committee more widely known, and raise awareness of its work – but not only among the non-disabled.
Of course, the most blatant examples of this lack of awareness are still to be found in how society has chosen to organise itself as non-disabled-centric, and Kympouropoulos referred me to the latest high-profile incident at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. The Israeli energy minister Karine Elharrar, a wheelchair user, arrived on 1 November as part of her country’s governmental delegation – i.e. not exactly unexpected – but was unable to access the conference premises, despite frantic efforts by the organisers.
There were simply too many steps and too few ramps. The problem was solved the next day, and Prime Minister Johnson apologised, but still, “What can I say?”, Kympouropoulos quips.
He himself is still waiting to have the necessary infrastructure installed in the plenary chamber in Strasbourg that would allow him to address the house in the same way as his colleagues who do not need to use a wheelchair, at the central front speaking lectern. However, the Glasgow incident offers another insight into what needs to be done, this time on the part of the disabled community, he believes, simply because Elharrar made a mighty fuss about it. “We have the right to full and equal participation, at any level of our society, and we have to speak out about it”.
Too many people with disabilities, he argues, are still afraid of claiming their rights, of taking full advantage of education opportunities, or of simply going out and joining public life. “But we have a duty to call out the issues, and we need speak up for ourselves, with our voice, rather than relying on proxies. We need to make ourselves heard”. This is perhaps something to keep in mind for this year’s International Day of People with Disabilities, on 3 December, under the motto “fighting for rights in the post-COVID era”.
“We need to protect and promote our health systems, even if they are different in each Member State”
Kympouropoulos points out that this day should not be misunderstood. “It’s not an anniversary”, he tells me, “it’s a day of measuring the problems that still exist”, adding that one of the most important steps for the EU would be to make Member States introduce monitoring regimes that can testify to the progress made in the implementation of inclusivity legislation, and, again, make the education system fit for purpose in that respect.
“We need to make society understand what disability means, and to change how the society is built, especially when it comes to the workplace”. But, he adds, “the perception is the problem, not the people”. To him, our society has the potential to be truly inclusive. Most legislative tools for this are already in place, most notably the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. But we have yet to learn the essential lesson: “To understand what being human means”.