Ska Keller is in the middle of a pan-European campaign and is facing some political heavyweights in the EU ‘presidential debates’. But the main question facing the European Greens is what role will they still play after 25 May? A question Keller answers in an interview with EurActiv.
Ska Keller is a German MEP for the Greens group and one of six ‘ Spitzenkandidaten’ who are campaigning across European member states to become the next European Commission resident. She spoke to EurActiv’s Laurens Cerulus.
In the presidential debates between the different lead candidates, like the recent ones in Maastricht and Brussels, you are competing with politicians Jean-Claude Juncker, Martin Schulz and Guy Verhofstadt. They have a lot more experience in EU politics than you do. Is this a disadvantage?
Certainly not. I feel it is rather an advantage. I’m sure they have experience, they have been around for ever. If we want change the European Union, we need different voices and new ideas.
It is almost impossible that the Greens will get the EU Commission presidency. Why did you enter this race as lead candidate?
Because European democracy and the European elections are extremely important. This shows that we have a European campaign; that we are not 28 different parties with different campaigns.
The Lisbon Treaty has put us on track towards more democracy. We now have debates with all lead candidates and these will matter in who becomes the next commission president.
This is essential for European democracy. So why would the big parties only debate amongst themselves? Europe is bigger than only conservatives and social-democrats.
After the elections, the two major parties (EPP and PES) will take the initiative. What role can the Greens play?
We will always aim to defend the issues that we are fighting for in this election campaign. If any of the parties want our support, they will have to lay out how they will respect the Greens’ demands on climate, on austerity, on green energy or on the free trade agreement with the United States, TTIP.
What changes in the trade negotiations with the US would you demand?
In our opinion, the mandate is completely wrong. We are certainly not against trade, nor against cooperation with the United States. But what we have here is a negotiation mandate that is set to lead to lower standards on environment and consumer protection.
The mandate also foresees an investor-state dispute settlement [affecting whether companies can fight state decisions under international, not national law] which is absolutely not acceptable for us. We don’t want lower standards. And with the mandate as it is now, that is exactly what is going to happen.
What other issues will determine where the Greens’ votes on the next commission president will go?
The other main issues are the way out of the crisis, how to end austerity and how to invest in green jobs. But also climate targets, since the targets that the current European Commission has proposed are absolutely ridiculous.
We’d also have to see what efforts the other parties are willing to go to to make Europe more democratic, to involve the citizens more.
How would you do that?
The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) was a good first step, for which we fought very hard. But at this point, the hurdles are too big and the outcome is too meagre.
Another key issue in which there are differences [between mainstream parties] is immigration. We want to have an area of protection. One that offers legal support to people. It is absolutely unacceptable that we let people die in the Mediterranean and at the centres at the EU’s borders.
Since the other groups haven’t shown any action here, we’d have to see where we can move them.
Austerity versus income
One promise that the next EU Commission will have to fulfill is the creation of a so-called ‘social dimension’ of monetary and economic policy. Who do you consider the cause of the austerity-driven response against the crisis?
It is the legacy of all the austerity measures; of the wrong answers to the crisis. This policy has been pushed by conservative policy, especially the German conservative party of chancellor Merkel, but also in part by social-democrats.
I think it is extremely important that we get a social Europe. I continuously get questions during the campaign on why we are not guaranteeing the right to [decent] incomes. We have standards on single market issues, but don’t have social standards.
For example, it is important that we have a minimum income in all member states; not different ones in different countries. The aim is to try and achieve higher standards, not lowering them through the backdoor in trade agreements.
The German model has proven to create jobs and growth throughout the crisis. Can it be a model for European governments?
Not at all. Germany has a very large low-income sector. It is competitive because it exports a lot of goods, but inside Germany few people experience the benefits of this because the wages are so low.
We are competing with other European countries by dumping wages. That is not neither fair towards other countries, nor to the German work force.
Is the influence of Berlin in EU decision making too big?
Europe consists of 28 member states and I think all member states should have a say. Not that they are confronted with one or two member states that decide and propose, and offer a yes-or-no choice towards the others.
History has shown that EU integration is subject to a strong Franco-German relationship, though.
Well, of course they should cooperate. But if you have Merkel and [French president François] Hollande – or even Merkel on her own – proposing something to which other countries can only agree, the system is not working.
Seeking influence in opposition
Latest polls predict that the Greens/EFA group will lose 16 seats in the upcoming elections. How big are the challenges for you and the pan-European campaign in the coming weeks?
First of all, the polls show that in the United Kingdom we might double our number of seats, as could also happen in Sweden. In Austria we can gain too. So there is potential to gain more MEPs in several countries.
We might also gain seats in places we are not yet represented in like the Czech Republic, Ireland or Croatia. I think it is really important that we get more countries represented in our group. And I am quite optimistic we might even get a stronger Greens group in the next European Parliament.
Many believe the mainstream parties will have to form a strong ‘grand coalition’ in order to legislate efficiently. Will the Greens be pushed into opposition?
The current legislature shows that Greens have a much bigger impact than our numbers suggest. Our MEPs are really active. This matters in the European Parliament, where you don’t have strict coalitions or a government against an opposition.
I think this will remain the case in the next parliament too. We will pitch in ideas and serve as a big counterforce to the grand coalition that we might see after the elections.
As you are campaigning, what are you doing to counter the rise of eurosceptic parties in EU member states?
What I am doing on a daily basis is campaigning – that is what it’s about. We are trying to convince people to go out and vote, but also to let us know which Europe they want.
What I hear from people in the campaign is that they expect a lot from the European Union. They very often don’t see their needs fulfilled. This can be interpreted as euroscepticism, but if you listen closely it is often because people have different expectations of the EU.
The debate is not only about who is against and who is in favour. The issue is what sort of Europe people want and what proposals we have to tackle the challenges.
What will you do after the elections?
Sleep. (laughs) But right now, we are in the middle of this election campaign. So I’ll especially be watching the results come in.