Towards a Changing Europe
On 11 March 2017, Vice-Chair of the European People’s Party Esther De Lange spoke at the fifth edition of the European Conference at Harvard University about the future of the European Union and EU-US relations. In her interview with the Fletcher Forum, De Lange spoke more about her role in the European Parliament and shared her insights on recent political developments in the EU.
Fletcher Forum: You’re a member of the delegations for the EU-relations with the US and with Russia. Could you tell us about the nature and extent of these delegations’ engagement with both countries presently? What does this engagement look like from the point of view of your political party, the European People’s Party?
Esther De Lange: We’re part of Interparliamentary Delegations, as they’re officially called. The aim of these delegations is to make sure that there’s communication between parliamentarians. The problem now is that a lot of my colleagues are on the sanctions list in Russia. They’re not allowed into the country and we have, as an expression of solidarity with our colleagues, decided not to travel to Russia. So, the work of the delegation concerned with EU-Russia relations is now limited to talking to Ambassadors, experts on Russia and the EU, civil society members and so on.
The EU-US delegation is very different. The US is our oldest ally. The Transatlantic Legislator's Dialogue provides many opportunities to deliberate and discuss. Aside from the work on delegations, we as the European People's Party, our engagement with Washington comprises of contacts with the Democratic Party and its institutes as well as the Republican Party. It’s great to have all these communication channels but, to be honest, the national conventions last year were quite a challenge. Politically speaking, most of our contacts have been with the Republicans. However, last year was the only year that we went only to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Since the discourse of the Republican candidate was just so anti-transatlantic relations and anti-cooperation, we felt that it would be the wrong signal at that time to go. However, we are still very interested to meet with parts of the Republican Party that are supportive of cooperation with Europe. We know that they exist but for now, they’re just not at the forefront.
FF: In the aftermath of Brexit, Europe’s boundaries face significant tensions. The discourse of a divided Europe with further secessions appears to be gaining momentum. What does the future of the EU look like to you?
EL: In terms of its borders, Europe has always been a more difficult exercise than the US. The US has very clear borders to its north and south, surrounded by water on the other sides. We only have that luxury in the south with the Mediterranean Sea. Although with the migrant crisis, we have seen that the Mediterranean isn’t a hard border and Europe needs to get its act together to manage that.
Of course, to the East of Europe, things are a bit more complicated. These states are in two spheres of influence. Russia already feels that the fact that the Baltic States are a part of the EU invades the Russian sphere of influence. That’s a matter that concerns NATO, and requires Europe taking responsibility when it comes to military organization and spending. Then, we’ve seen a country on the far West leave– the United Kingdom, as you mentioned. All we have is a treaty that says anyone who is a European country and can fulfill the conditions of membership can be a member of the EU. That’s not very clear. For instance, is Turkey European or is it not? Turkey cooperates and has a customs union with Europe; it has cultural ties that go as far as Central Asia; it’s in the Middle East and does certain military exercises together with Israel. So Turkey is, like we say in Dutch, playing chess on four different chessboards at the same time. And that’s understandable considering Turkey’s location on the map.
At the same time, it doesn’t make it easy to determine Europe’s borders. It does show we have certain responsibilities to those countries that might never become a member of the EU but are still our closest neighbors. I’m talking about the economic aid we’re giving to Ukraine, the human rights dialogue that we have with Belarus, the customs union I mentioned with Turkey and the many other ways we engage with our neighbors.
After Brexit, support for holding a referendum in the Netherlands actually went down because saw the implications of leaving. Brexit made it very tangible to see what it means to leave the EU. So, support for that among a number of states is actually declining. But, what it all means really is that the EU has to keep proving its relevance to its citizens. Is the EU able to adapt to changing times and is it able to reinvent itself? We need a different EU now in the 21st century than we did in the 1950s and 60s.
FF: Earlier on in the panel, you mentioned your discomfort with the word “populism”. Could you elaborate on that?
EL: There’s a lot of talk going on in the European institutions about fighting populism. You first need to know what populism is and where this feeling of unease among citizens comes from. Why did people vote for Donald Trump? Why did people in the UK vote to leave the EU? Why did people vote for Geert Wilders? You need to understand the reasons why and then address these reasons rather than fighting the people. In one of the previous panels, one of my colleagues said, “If people feel under threat, they will always want a strong leader”. I think there’s a lot of truth in that and we should address the threats felt by the middle class in the US and Europe. They fear that their children could potentially be worse off than they were. They fear the threat of globalization. They fear that jobs are going to be disappearing. To fight populism you have to fight these fears.
FF: The European Parliament voted to end visa-free travel for US citizens a few days ago. How do you see this policy playing out?
EL: I just voted on that in European parliament only a couple of days ago. We have this agreement on visa reciprocity. This doesn’t mean that the borders are open and uncontrolled. Much like the US has the ESTA system of registering people when they enter and leave, we are setting up a system that’s very comparable to that.
Visa-free travel is important.The problem is that the reciprocity isn’t fully fulfilled as five EU members are now excluded from this. My political group was very involved in toning down the rhetoric of that famous resolution that the European Parliament adopted because what we don’t want the same things some other political parties might want. We don’t want to have a very fired up resolution that makes it impossible for the administration on both sides to do their job– to get together,sit down at a table, and sort this out. The worst thing would be that we either don’t talk to anyone anymore or declare that everybody needs a visa. That’s not a price either side is willing to pay. There’s no need to make this an issue that fires us up and makes things worse. We’ve got a problem here and we need to fix this.
About the Interviewee
Esther de Lange is Vice-Chair of the European People's Party (EPP) in the European Parliament, representing the Dutch political party Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA). She is currently a member of the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs (ECON) and the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE). She is also a member of the Delegations for relations with the US and Russia. As a Rapporteur for the European Parliament on the European Deposit Insurance Scheme (EDIS), she is leading the negotiations for setting up a mechanism for insuring consumers’ savings in case of a failing financial institution. She is also leading the negotiations on behalf of the EPP on a future revision of the EU’s Emission Trading Scheme (ETS). As Vice-Chair of the EPP she is furthermore responsible for the relations with the national Parliaments.
Esther de Lange was born in the Netherlands on February 19th 1975 in Spaubeek, in the very South of The Netherlands, close to the German and Belgium borders. She studied European Studies in The Hague. During this study she participated in an ERASMUS exchange program and studied Political Science at the University of Lyon in France. In 1998 she finished the political-administrative specialization of European Studies in The Hague cum laude by writing a thesis on the Amsterdam Treaty. From 1999 until 2001 she studied international relations at the French-speaking University in Brussels.
During her studies Esther de Lange held several jobs at the ANWB, a Dutch traffic and transport organization in Lyon, and at the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless in Brussels. In 1998 she worked as a lobbyist for two German associations in Brussels, representing the food industry. Since 1999 she worked as a policy officer for the CDA delegation at the European Parliament, where she focused mainly on themes like Food Safety, Environment, Agriculture and budgetary matters. In April 2007 Esther de Lange herself became a Member of the European Parliament and was subsequently reelected in 2009 and 2014, when she was the front-runner of the CDA list.