Delegates from the European Greens will pick their two Spitzenkandidaten in Berlin on 23-25 November, hoping to build on the Green parties’ unexpected surge in Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium.
Here is a portrait of one of them, Petra De Sutter, a professor of gynaecology at Ghent University and head of the Department of Reproductive Medicine at Ghent University Hospital (UZ Gent).
Her professional career forms the backbone of her political commitment.
“This is how I saw how that a degraded environment can impact our health, this is how my ecological awareness grew,” she explained.
“Then I read the novel ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson [published in 1962, it documents the adverse effects on the environment of the use of pesticides] which convinced me even more about the environment and health nexus,» she said.
“Take breast cancer, for example, you can never prove that there is a direct link between the disease and the use of pesticide but we, medical experts, see the statistics and we see that the numbers are rising,” she observed.
“The question I then asked myself was that why is there so little being done at the political level? And you realise that you have to deal with lobbyists or with conflicts of interest. And quickly, you reach the European level,” she said.
“So I did what Stéphane Hessel urged us to do in his book ‘Time for Outrage’ – I got angry,” she recalled.
A publishing sensation in December 2010, the French book is a political call to arms by former resistance hero Stéphane Hessel, 93 at the time, whose 30-page essay, Indignez-vous!, calls on readers to get angry about the state of modern society.
De Sutter explained that the roots of indignation, or angriness, lie in a strong feeling of injustice. It is this feeling she had to endure herself after she openly said she was transgender.
“For 40 years, I had been stuck in my own prison, then I came out. My experience makes me sensitive to justice, minorities, human rights,” she said.
In order to be able to make some change, there was no other way than to get politically active, De Sutter continued.
“You have to reach the political level in order to be able to take some decisions and make things move,” she said.
«As a health expert, I have worked in numerous committees. But what happens with these committees? We write reports and studies, hand them over to the political leaders who might start doing something until the next government is being elected, or who might also put the report in a drawer and leave it there,» she said.
«Being politically active is adding an additional layer to what I have been doing during my life as a gynaecologist and reproduction expert,» she stressed, adding that having an expertise always serves in politics.
De Sutter has sat in the Belgian Senate for the Flemish Green Party since 2014. She also serves as a member of the Belgian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, representing the Socialists, Democrats and Greens Group.
Her political agenda evolves around migration and refugees, as well as integration, rules of procedure and public health, sustainable development and ethics.
She also served as the Assembly’s rapporteur on children’s rights in relation to surrogacy arrangements, on the use of new genetic technologies in human beings and on the conditions of reception of refugees and migrants.
At the same time, she said she wants to put the fight against climate change at the forefront of her political engagement as global warming also has a significant impact on our health.
“There is also this combination of our planet getting worse and worse and this feeling of injustice I was mentioning earlier on,” she continued.
This means the environmental and climate dimension cannot be cut from the social question, a field De Sutter feels Europe has left behind until now.
“I see the European project as a purely economic project, without any real social component. This is because of the neo-liberal agenda that currently prevails at the European level,” she said.
“Of course, there is a social agenda. But we must put the social dimension higher on the political agenda and we have to go deeper and act faster. We must be able to answer the question of what does Europe do for me?” she continued.
She said some recent examples hailed as a big success, like the end of roaming tariffs and Erasmus “meet the need of those who are already privileged. Roaming tariffs are for those who travel a lot, Erasmus is for those who go to the University,” she pointed out.
“What about the others? Who is taking care to tackle poverty? These are the people who live on the outskirts of cities, inhaling exhaust fumes from heavy traffic, these are the people who have to eat bad quality food,” she stressed.
Compared to her two contenders, she said she was an outsider and a fighter.
“When I am convinced about something, then I go to the very end, I don’t give up,» she said, quoting Nietzsche’s ‘That which does not kill us, makes us stronger'”.