"People realise that only a stronger European Union can solve the problems we face today"
Philippe De Backer, 37, is one of the younger members of the European Parliament (MEP). As a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), the group led by Guy Verhofstadt, De Backer is a part of the most pro-European integration party in the Parliament.
Europe HOpes on 8 December had a talk with the Belgian MEP in his office in the Altiero Spinelli building of the European Parliament in Brussels. A conversation about frustrations, hopes and a Christmas wish for the European Parliament.
Interview by Rick Van Assel
It does not happen very often that a PhD in biotechnology ends up being a member of the European Parliament (MEP). However, for Philippe De Backer this is the case. Fascinated by science, he started his academic career studying biotechnology at Ghent University in Belgium, while at the same time he became politically active. De Backer was a student’s representative at Ghent University and during his PhD he became president of the youth wing of Open VLD, a Belgian liberal political party known for its pro-European integration stance. Thus, a biotechnologist in the European Parliament (EP) does not seem so strange after all.
"As a scientist, I was in contact with universities from different European countries when I was participating in a European research project. So I was aware of the scientific and economic opportunities that the European Union could offer. At the same time, I saw the political difficulties of the EU, that was in the process of its first big enlargement round. Those two factors combined have made me want to become politically active on a European level", Philippe De Backer reveals.
After completing his PhD, he started working for an investment fund specialized in health care for a few years. But in 2011, De Backer’s life drastically changed when he entered the European Parliament, replacing an Open VLD MEP that retired. Four years later, a combative and resolute De Backer has high hopes for the European Union’s (EU) future. "The EU is in crisis. Things are going bad on more than one issue. But at the same time I am optimistic. A big part of the European population realises that a strong European Union is necessary to tackle problems such as climate change, terror and migration. You do not think that a region as Flanders, or large countries as Germany and France, can solve these issues on their own? However, therefore the European Union needs to be given the instruments, so that we can implement strong policies."
The turnout for the European elections has been decreasing ever since the first elections. In 1979 62% of European citizens showed up, whereas in 2014 a small 43% turned to vote. At the same time the European Parliament has become an important co-legislator. How do you explain this paradoxical evolution?
DE BACKER: "I think that people are disappointed, because they expected more from the European integration project. We have promised economic stability and growth, but the EU has not delivered on these fronts. There are many explanations for these problems, but the main reason lies in the fact that the EU is an unfinished project. Europe lacks the necessary instruments to achieve such ambitious goals. It is still too dependent on the goodwill of the Member States. So I do understand the disillusion of people. However, people do not see the advantages of the European Union anymore either. They do not realise how easy it is to cross boarders without passports or to be able to pay with a single currency."
Education might also play an important role. Do you remember if you had any classes on European integration during your time in secondary school?
DE BACKER: "No. But education is indeed important. The political history of the EU should be a part of the standard curriculum.Youngsters from all over the EU should realize that something is happening and that the European Union also has an impact on their life. The Erasmus programme for example allows young European citizens to see that the EU can offer an added value to their life. Education is becoming more important, which is a good thing."
Do you think that by 2050 the European Parliament will still be making a trip to Strasbourg once a month?
DE BACKER: "No, because this is just not tenable. This issue actually represents the failure of the EU in miniature. I do not want to go to Strasbourg. I oppose this monthly trip. I always vote against it. Yet, I need to explain to my constituents why I have to go to Strasbourg every month, while at the same time I am not able to do something about it. I am dependent on the goodwill of the Member States. Because if I want to change this, I need their permission. This issue really needs to be addressed in the next treaty change."
The EU has been described as a peace project, or as an economic project. Others mainly see it as a club of countries that share common values. How would you define the nature of the European Union?
DE BACKER: "It entails different aspects, but there are two core elements that are complementary and that shape the EU’s nature. In the first place it is a project about common values, including fundamental human rights, emancipation, freedom and equal chances. In order to give people these chances, you need to take down as much barriers as possible. That is what the European Union is about. If you want to go work in France, or go study in Spain, you are free to do so. So the fact that it is a project of freedom and values automatically implies certain choices with regard to economic freedom. These two aspects are strongly tied to each other."
As a liberal, you want to proclaim an optimistic discourse, unlike conservative powers that try to exploit the fear that people hold. But what are the things that European citizens can be optimistic about today?
DE BACKER: "About a lot of things. We are living in the most prosperous region of the world. We have a high standard of living. A lot of EU countries have a well-developed social security system, offer excellent education and provide a lot of chances. I do realize, however, that the EU is not having its finest hour and I understand the problems of citizens that today lack perspective. But I got into politics to change things. We face a lot of challenges today, and it is our duty as politicians to come with solutions. I would love to see some political families acting with a bit more voluntarism than they do today."
Which political families?
DE BACKER: "Every political family apart from the liberals (starts laughing)."
ONE CHRISTMAS WISH
I presume you consider yourself a European federalist, just as your ALDE group leader Guy Verhofstadt.
DE BACKER: "Yes. We should make clear that on a number of issues, the EU needs to be fully handed the power. There should be a fundamental debate on which tasks the government can fulfil a role and if so, on which political level this should be dealt with. For a number of issues this clearly is the European Union. We need rules for our internal market. Further integration is required for the economic governance of the Eurozone. And when it comes to the freedom of movement, Schengen, there you should also guarantee safety. Especially on these three topics we should get the EU to take the lead."
The political climate in the EU is becoming more right wing. Do you feel that it is becoming more difficult to proclaim a story about a unified Europe?
DE BACKER: "I do not think that the political atmosphere is becoming more right wing. It is radicalising and becoming more and more polarised. The debates are being narrowed down to yes or no and pro or contra. This makes it harder for our political group, the most pro European integration one, to bring solutions forward that cannot be presented in one catchphrase. But when you look at Eurostat polls, you see that citizens expect more from the European Union on the issues where we as ALDE group are coming with proposals. Think about the terror attacks for example, with politicians that are proposing false solutions to this issue. While everyone realises that enhanced cooperation between member states and the establishment of a European intelligence agency is the path that we should be taking."
Christmas is coming, so I will be generous. You may pick one policy domain on which the European Parliament does not have a say today. What do you choose?
DE BACKER: "(laughs) That is a good question really. I should think about this for a minute (pauses). Perhaps, when it comes to the EU’s economic policy, I think that the Parliament could play a bigger role. The European Parliament should be able to monitor the implementation of the goals that are set with regard to a European common economic policy. We do have debates sometimes with finance ministers, but this is merely on a voluntary basis. We should have a much more important monitoring function."
ENERGY WORRIES AND OPPORTUNITIES
You are a member of the Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) committee in the European Parliament. That committee is working on a very important initiative at the moment: the European Energy Union. Jerzy Buzek, ITRE’s president, is dreaming of trading energy between Portugal and Finland. I suppose that you share his dream.
DE BACKER: "Yes. Interconnectivity is the key to a real Energy Union, so we need investments in transport infrastructure between countries. That way we can build a large energy- and gas network. The production on this network should be more rational than it is the case today. Explaining it with a witticism: solar panels should not be put in some basement in Brussels, but in Greece or Spain. And windmills should be located near shores, no longer in the inland."
What could the Energy Union mean for us, the European citizens?
DE BACKER: "A lot. The Energy Union will make it easier to complete the energy transition. We know that we will have to shut down coal power plants and that we should consider leaving the era of nuclear energy behind us. The Energy Union will also have a positive impact on our energy efficiency and consumption. And when it comes to energy prices, there will be more perspective for our citizens."
This all sounds promising. But Poland keeps investing in coal and in Belgium the nuclear power plants remain active, despite former promises to shut them down. It seems that there is a lack of European solidarity. This must be frustrating, especially as a member of the ITRE committee.
DE BACKER: "Of course, but this frustration counts for a number of topics. National politicians often claim that they are looking for a European solution and that cooperation between member states is essential to solve certain issues. And then they arrive in Brussels to negotiate with us, the European Parliament. The first thing that they do, is remind us of their national competences. And when they arrive back home, they say that the EU is doing nothing. This is exactly what is happening with the Energy Union. After the European Commission proposed its plans for the Energy Union, the Council of the European Union came with a statement. The first line of that declaration said that the Member States remain sovereign over their energy mix. How is it possible then, to conduct a solid European policy if Poland can decide to keep their coal power plants open? Or if Germany unilaterally decides to shut down all its nuclear power plants without considering the effects this has on its neighbouring countries? I am not saying that the Parliament is not to blame either. I do not want to turn this into a blame game. However, after three years in the European Parliament, I regret to see that it is still very hard to persuade Member States to entirely support a European approach of problems."
There is a constitutional problem of course. The treaties define energy as a shared competence between the EU and the MS.
DE BACKER: "That is true. But it is not my intention of moving all the energy competences to the European Union level. I do not want the EU to decide where the city of Antwerp should install an electricity cable. I am also a liberal. When I say that there has to be more power at the European Union level, I do not mean more governmental interference."
The Energy Union could also be a weapon with regard to tackling terrorism funding. Saudi Arabia, a well-known financier of the extremist Wahhabism, exports a small 9% of crude oil to the European Union.
DE BACKER: "Indeed. The Energy Union will also increase our energy independence. We would be playing less into the hands of certain regimes on which we are very dependent for our energy supplies today. But this requires an energy transition, while at the same time we also have to ensure the security of supply. The fact that the nuclear power plants in Belgium remain active should be seen from this perspective. We simply cannot permit ourselves that the light goes out in Europe. On the other hand, we do need to conduct a policy that ensures a decrease of our energy dependency. With the Energy Union, the EU has launched a trajectory of ten years to deliver on these issues. I hope that the member states start implementing and that things will be different when we meet again in a decade."
I will ask your assistant to make an appointment for an interview in 2025.
DE BACKER: "Great. That means that I will get re-elected (laughs)."