Madi, what did you think when you first heard that Donald Trump won the US elections?
I had a bet on that he would win. He is a clever man. He knows how to tell people what they want to hear. Whether he delivers is another question, of course. But I was most disappointed about the fact that a great country like America puts up two of the worst candidates possible. Donald Trump is the worse of two evils. It’s sad for the world, it’s sad for America, but that’s democracy. If we believe in democracy, we have to believe in the vote of the people.
Do we have to rethink how democracy works?
I think there should be reforms made in several directions. The system does not allow people with passion for change in their countries to be successful in politics. Who becomes a candidate is decided by money and by who is able to get on the lists. The lists are not fair. Thus the system is against young people. This flaw is a priority for me. I’m worried about the French elections in April and May next year. What are the alternatives to Marine Le Pen? The other candidates are all old men. Estonia, in turn, is a positive example: The population has a high share of young people and that’s why they have a stronger voice in politics. We need fairer access to politics by people who are passionate about changing something in their countries for the better.
How can we grant fairer access to the political system?
The electoral process has to be changed. One thing is quotas. I’m not a big fan of them, but sometimes they are the only possibility to get things changed. We need quotas not only in the prime ministers’ elections, but also in the decision-making process. Any decisional body has to have at least 40 % of each gender. I can give you an example of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC): Last year, 46 000 votes were cast by men. These concern policies on transport, infrastructure, maternity and childcare. The number of votes cast by women was 13 000. This way it is impossible to have a non-biased decision-making process! The problem is: How can you change the process in the first place? In the EESC, 110 men would have to leave their jobs if we enforced the quota.
Are there other citizen groups who need to be more involved in EU decision-making?
We need a much more inclusive society. In the EESC for example, 60 % of the members are white males. There are three black people, there are no Muslims. I don’t think there is anyone under 35. We are discussing Islam without Muslims! We have to ask ourselves: How can we all work together for the benefit of everybody? We have to communicate more and listen more to ordinary people, not only elites. The way the EU has dealt with trade agreements is a good example for this. Trade has to benefit everybody. If an agreement benefits only one side, be it the elite, be it big businesses or others, this is not a good trade agreement. The impact on people from the lowest socio-economic background is neglected.
Can the civil society play a key role to connect people and politics in the EU?
Europe is supposed to be engaging civil society, it is a unique block of countries with the intention to listen to its citizens. But even in the EESC, which should represent civil society organisations in Europe, there are mainly big businesses, lobbyists and trade unions. There is little voice of women, youth, small companies and entrepreneurs. Brussels should be representing the citizens, demographic representation, cities and regions of the 28 member states, not lobbyists and big businesses only. It should ensure safety, equality and peace.
The EU is built on firm structures, processes usually work slowly and hierarchies are well established. How can young people bring new ideas to this system?
They have to lobby much harder. Young people mainly get into the system through traineeships, they come with fresh energy, but then they quickly adapt to the existing regime. Why? Because it is more comfortable! Also, they come to a great extent from privileged backgrounds. The question we have to ask ourselves is: How can we engage more young people back in the member states? I tend to say:The youth are not the future, they are the present. They will have to live through the policy-decisions that are taken now. This is why the youth should be part of this process now. When there are decisions on pensions, the youth has to stand up and say: This is our money, too!
In Brussels they are often saying that the young people don’t know what they are talking about. But they do, and we have to go out and speak to them and tell them to get involved. I suggest a quota for employees in the Commission: There should be one third for each age group, young, middle-aged and older administrators, civil servants and commissioners. This would be one of the only ways to move.
How can we get young people to unite and work together to change politics?
Try to get inspiration from movements like the “Self Employed Women’s Association” in India. Or look for other role models: There are so many examples of great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. If they could change the world, why can’t we do anything today? We live in a time of apathy and this is dangerous. Hitler came to power in a time of apathy.
What can youth organisations do?
Youth organisations are, unfortunately, also part of the system. The EU is clever: They give money for projects, so the organisations have to be nice to the EU, because they want the money. Once you are funded by the EU, you are not independent anymore. I’m independent, because I make my own money. You have long been an advocator of women leadership and written an opinion on the proposal of the EC on gender balance on company boards. Yet the proposal was blocked by the member states in 2015.
How much can you really influence the EU decision-making process in your position at the EESC?
There are two things to point out on this. Firstly: Even though the proposal hasn’t gone through the council, many member states have adopted similar measures in their country. There is a slow positive move into the direction of more women on company boards. But the biggest mistake the EU-institutions made is the following: They should have insisted on a 40 % quota in the public sector first. I myself worked hard to establish my company, so why should I have the Commission telling me what to do? If policy-makers are dictating a policy they are not implementing themselves, something went wrong. Where is the equality the EU is advocating if not even half of the EU Commissioners are women?
Secondly: I strongly believe that the small things we state in the EESC filter through. I’m not only working on the gender balance, but also on the EU-India trade agreement. We as EESC have achieved that the text of clauses on pharmaceuticals was released. Moreover in TTIP, for example, there is now a clause on SMEs we already asked for in the EU-India agreement. I’m most proud of my report on travelling sex offenders. Due to this report, even the law in Europe has been changed.
Madi, you write on your website that everything you do has to make a change or your day has been wasted. What kind of change does the EU need most?
There needs to be more engagement of women and youth. That would bring enough change on its own. I believe that if more women and young people were involved in the EU, we would have more sustainable and equitable growth. Women will bring greater transparency and less corruption. Europe needs to start being accountable for its actions… No Excuses!
Thank you for the interview, Madi.