The sun of the Indian Summer streaming into his large corner office befitting a committee chair did of course help, but it was hard not to be charmed by Tomas Tobé, as the 43-year-old Swedish politician welcomed us with his winning smile and his open, friendly manner.
I had noticed these traits before when watching him in committee meetings and was more than a little surprised to see that -when he presented his report dealing with some of the main proposals for the new EU Migration Pact in the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) Committee just two days before our interview - he received a frosty reception from his shadow rapporteur colleagues.
“It’s quite well known that we all have strong opinions when it comes to migration, and that it is hard to find a political compromise on this issue in Europe. But it is, of course, one of the biggest challenges that the European Union is facing at the moment”
Again, his response was to be completely unfazed and simply employ his trademark pleasantness. But did it make him worry about the outcome of this crucial legislative dossier? Not really. “It’s quite well known that we all have strong opinions when it comes to migration, and that it is hard to find a political compromise on this issue in Europe. But it is, of course, one of the biggest challenges that the European Union is facing at the moment, in my opinion.”
As for the reasons behind the frosty reception of his proposals, which at times bordered on the hostile, Tobé homed in on his central shift of approach. “In the European Parliament’s previous position, the main issue was the mandatory relocation of refugees, but that has been proven to be insufficient in finding a political agreement in Council. So, what I have tried to do is to move away from mandatory relocation as the main issue, because I’m here to try to find a political solution, not to make political speeches.”
The team working on this report, interestingly, consists almost entirely of newcomers to the Parliament. Like Tobé himself, all except one shadow were elected in 2019 but, again like the rapporteur, they all have impressive back stories: among them a former long-time mayor of Strasbourg, a medical hero of the migration front line on the Italian island of Lampedusa, and the French mayor who helped build the first humanitarian-standard refugee camp near Calais. “I personally like them all”, Tobé says, “because they are highly engaged, and they do have a lot of knowledge of the issues”.
However, he insists that if there was to be movement and progress, new approaches must be agreed upon. “I fully understand the call for mandatory relocation, but everyone who’s been working on this knows that it will not happen; the political landscape is not moving in our direction.
“I fully understand the call for mandatory relocation, but everyone who’s been working on this knows that it will not happen; the political landscape is not moving in our direction”
What we see is that some EU Member States are now seeking their own solutions, they are moving away from a European solution.” Those Member States also seem quite happy with the stalemate at EU level but for Tobé, this is unacceptable. If the principle of mandatory relocation cannot produce what he calls “impactful solidarity”, other mechanisms will have to be found: “We have too many Member States that are not contributing in any way. We have the frontline ones shouldering a very high burden, and then we have others that are taking responsibility with secondary movements, and for the rest to not contribute at all. It is not the way to deal with this issue.”
Tobé is confident that he and his fellow shadows will succeed, ideally during the next rotating Council presidency to be held by France. “This question will not get easier with time”, and by forging a large majority in Parliament for their approach, they can create the momentum needed to make the Council move.
“Before I was elected to the European Parliament, I was in Swedish politics for 13 years, and I would say that most people would describe me as a bridge builder. For me, it’s not unusual to make political agreements in the middle, working also with political opponents.”
With a background in media and communication as well as youth wing activism representing the centre-right Moderate Party (Moderaterna), Tobé entered national politics when he was elected to the Swedish parliament at the age of 28. There, he served in several committees, chairing three of them in succession - on employment, on education and on legal affairs - before crossing over into European politics. He also led Moderaterna as party secretary 2015-17.
As is almost always the case with such high flyers on the national stage, Tobé was elected to influential positions within the EP, and for him this meant - apart from the rapporteurship on one of the most important aspects of the Migration Pact - chairing the Development Committee (DEVE).
“It is a very complex world that we live in today, with a more aggressive Russia and a more powerful China, having gone through the pandemic, facing climate change as well as the questions on migration. All these issues find their way into the DEVE committee. For me it’s been quite good to both have this as rapporteur and also be DEVE chair.”
“It is a very complex world that we live in today, with a more aggressive Russia and a more powerful China, having gone through the pandemic, facing climate change as well as the questions on migration. All these issues find their way into the DEVE committee”
He describes the committee as one “built on a culture of consensus” and being in the process of a transformation reflecting a changing global environment. “We are trying now to go from the traditional donor mentality to more of a partnership mentality, particularly with Africa. I think that is important because we can really make an impact in people’s life with our aid.”
Tobé also confirmed to The Parliament Magazine that he will stand again for the DEVE chair at the upcoming half-term presidency elections, adding that he actually appreciated this practice: “This mid-term reshuffle, where everything is up in the air again, is quite interesting and something perhaps for national parliaments to also think about. It’s good because it keeps people on their toes.”
While clearly happy at the intersection between development and migration, Tobé showed, during Parliament’s last plenary session, that he has not lost the all-rounder talents that had been on display in national politics.
He intervened passionately in the debate following the speech by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki trying to defend his country’s controversial stance on the Rule of Law: “Listening to Mateusz Morawiecki in plenary was worrying and, quite frankly, unacceptable. I’m really worried that the strategy of the ruling PiS party in the end amounts to one heading for Polexit.”
Any aims to leave the EU have, of course, been vehemently denied by all PiS leaders, but Tobé believes it is important to insist in pointing out that - he believes – this is the trajectory of “the steps that they are taking. And they are taking these steps without the support of the Polish people so it’s really worrying”. His plenary intervention culminated in the cri de coeur “Please respect the rule of law and come back to Europe”.
How confident is he that his call will be heeded? “I would like to be optimistic, but in reality, I am very pessimistic”. He adds, “Poland is a big country, and it is important to keep it in the EU.” However, he adds that it is not a choice for Europe to stand up or not for the rule of law. “I think you cannot compromise on that. On many other issues, like the budget, for example, you can find a middle ground, but you cannot do so on the rule of law. We can disagree on many issues, and we should disagree, we are democratic states, but this is the foundation of our Union.”
He admits that a strong stance by the European Commission, whose duty it is to protect the treaties, will likely escalate the conflict but, again, it is not a matter of choice because “if we are not strong now, then we will give an opportunity for other governments to go in this direction and that we cannot allow”.
“Listening to Mateusz Morawiecki (the Polish Prime Minister) in plenary was worrying and, quite frankly, unacceptable. I’m really worried that the strategy of the ruling PiS party in the end amounts to one heading for Polexit”
As for the outgoing German chancellor’s plea for continued dialogue, Tobé responds to his prominent party colleague. “Of course, we need to talk more, and try to find a solution in the end, but I find it very hard for Europe to be polite in this situation”.
And he takes care to remind me that, for him, party political affiliation must not prevent speaking out when the foundations are being undermined. “I was one of those within the EPP who said that Fidesz (Hungary’s ruling party) has to leave the group and the party, because even if I could always find political agreement with many of their MEPs, on questions like the budget or nuclear power or whatever, for me, you cannot abandon the rule of law, you cannot abandon European values like the protection of minorities. This is not something that we can negotiate about.”
But in the end, there might be a glimmer of hope for the Swedish moderate. “We have a good chance in Poland to that another government gets in at the next elections. We know that there is a huge opposition, and it was interesting to note the demonstrations that we have been seeing in Poland.”
In Hungary, the seeds of change also look like they’ve been sown: “What we see in Hungary now is also the opposition coming together in a way that we haven’t seen before. So, history tells us that, yes, sometimes it can seem hopeless to see change but history often proves us wrong also in a positive way.” Tobé pins his hopes on the people here, because, he says, “my sense is that the people of Hungary and the people of Poland want to be part of the European Union”.