MEP: EU attracts politicians fed up with ‘ya-boo’ UK politics

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Female politicians in the UK do well in the European Parliament as it offers “the sort of politics women like to be associated with” and is “much more collegial, much more consensual and less confrontational ‘ya-boo’ boy politics of Westminster,” the leader of the UK Labour delegation in the European Parliament, Glenis Willmott, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Glenis Willmott MEP is leader of the UK Labour delegation in the European Parliament.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.  

Despite some improvements, surveys show that women are still not very visible in EU politics. In the past elections, in 2004, only a third of MEPs elected to the European Parliament were women, despite the fact they represent half of the EU population. Do you think the upcoming elections will see a change in the gender configuration of the chamber? 

I would hope things would change, certainly in terms the British delegation. At the moment we have 19 MEPs, of which eight are women. We have a higher percentage than average, around 40%. We are on the right track. 

But it is worrisome that after all of the debate we’ve had on equality, when you look at top tables, whether it’s in politics, or in the boardroom or anywhere else, there are still not enough women. 

I am also concerned that despite all the work we have done on equal pay, we’re still not there yet. Women still aren’t getting the same pay as men. I think we need to be a bit more vigilant. 

Recently, a report talked about naming and shaming employers who didn’t pay women and men equally. I think we ought to do a lot more to ensure that we don’t just talk, but we actually do something about it and make sure women are represented on equal terms. 

In politics, if you don’t see women politicians, you don’t have role models. You have young women who don’t aspire to it, as it is mostly middle-aged men. 

To follow up, some politicians have advocated imposing quotas to ensure women are equally represented. Do you think quotas will bring more women to the polls and get more women elected? 

Absolutely. It has worked in other places, and it has certainly worked in the UK, in the Welsh Assembly and other areas. Our own list for the European elections is zipped, so we have man-woman, man-woman […] That ensures we have equality in the European elections, but that is not the case in other elections. 

More women are getting frustrated that although we hear a lot of warm words, when it comes to action, we really aren’t represented. It is not just women, by the way: there are other groups in society that aren’t represented fully, and we should look at it and take some positive action to remedy it. 

What kind of issues do you think women would be more likely to feel more engaged with? 

It is quite interesting. I think the EP is the sort of politics women enjoy being associated with. Certainly in Westminster, in our own parliament, it is very much confrontational politics, but the European Parliament is more collegial, much more working together, much more consensual. 

I think women do well [there], and enjoy it much more than the confrontational ‘ya boo’ boy politics. 

You have to look at the way we operate, and I think the way we operate in the EP is a good model, it is a good way to encourage women to get involved in politics. I think women are concerned with the same issues as men, but their focus is different. I think they’re focused more on things to do with families. But they’re obviously interested in the same issues as men. It’s just the way they operate is different. 

What are the chances of Labour winning in the UK, and a PES victory across Europe? Does the current economic crisis improve your chances of showing a different set of priorities for the future and reverting the trend of past years? 

I think we’ve got a difficult situation, but it’s an interesting one. I don’t have to tell you that there are many eurosceptics in the UK. 

People often think that because we are on an island, Europe is somewhat remote, and don’t understand the work we do. The financial crisis has switched a light on in people’s minds. 

Although we have said for many years ‘we can’t deal with these issues on our own, we have to cooperate with our neighbours on climate change and on all sorts of issues,’ only now are people realising that we can’t deal with everything on our own. I am hopeful that that might make a difference in the European elections. 

People will suddenly realise that they should engage, as this is actually important for our future. So hopefully we will have more engagement in the UK, and that’s probably the same throughout Europe. People are very concerned about the situation, and realise they can’t deal with it in isolation. They have to work together. They have to have common solutions. 

And in terms of the PES manifesto, for example. There are things that obviously you can’t campaign on in the UK. There are issues that aren’t even portrayed in the manifesto. For example, the Socialists in France said they will campaign for an EU budget increase. What are the issues you are going to campaign on? 

Well, I think everyone will focus on the financial situation. Whether we want to talk about other things or not, that is the focus that will be there during the campaign. So it will be talking about the economy, people will be concerned about their jobs, people will concerned about skills in order to be able to resolve problems if they lose their job, people will be concerned about keeping their houses. 

So jobs, skills, housing: that will be our agenda in the European elections. I would think in most countries that will be the agenda. Will I be made redundant? Do I have the skills to get another job? Will I lose my house? These are the questions people will ask. 

You know, people are very fearful, and so we have to do everything we can to allay those fears. We will campaign on solidarity. There have been talks of division among Central and Eastern European countries. 

I think we have to make sure we don’t leave anybody out. This is a problem that affects us all, and what we don’t want is to put up barriers and say ‘let’s deal with our own problems, forget everybody else’. This is a real problem, this is a problem that affects us all. 

It is very important that we address this problem collectively. There is a real danger that people might think that we have enough of our own problems, that we have got to sort out our own problems out first and forget about everybody else. This is not the way to deal with it. 

One solution could be to fast-track some countries into the euro. Some of the criteria for euro accession have been criticised for being too inflexible. How can we be more pragmatic at times of crisis? 

It is difficult. As Britain is not part of the eurozone, I do not think that it is in my role as a British MEP to deal with this. It is really for the countries inside the euro zone to sort this problem out. I think that it is a bit arrogant to sit and tell other countries what they should do when we are actually not part of it. 

With regard to the visibility of the past elections, the media coverage was very low. Do you see new trends happening in the new social media? Do you think this will make a big difference? Although the Socialist manifesto was launched last December, it does not seem that the campaign has started yet. Isn’t it a little too late now to engage with citizens and ensure a higher turnout? 

I think it depends on what you mean in terms of campaign. In terms of the media campaign, we have been having meetings with all sorts of people about the European election campaign. 

It will be a fairly short campaign for the media, I think. 

But we have been campaigning on the doorstep for a long, long time in the UK and I am sure it is the same elsewhere. We have been delivering leaflets. Our campaign has been running for some time. The difference is that the media campaign will indeed be a much shorter campaign. But there are so many things happening on at the moment that this is not surprising. There has been so much on the media agenda, such as the American elections and the financial crisis. 

The media has been so busy that it is not surprising that they have not had much time to focus their minds on the European elections. But we have been talking to them constantly, so let us hope that they will start picking up the pace and giving this a little bit more coverage. 

After all, it is not as if these elections are insignificant. They are very important. This is a democratically elected body and we want people to engage in it. They will not engage in it if they do not know what is happening. 

Rumours has it that the Tories might leave the EPP-ED group in the European Parliament. Others in the UEN are also thinking of leaving the group to join ALDE. What is your vision? What is the next parliament going to look like? Will all this have an impact on the Socialist Group? 

That will have an impact on how the parliament operates. The Conservative group is quite a large part of the EPP. Cameron [UK Conservative party leader] has made a commitment that he will leave, but his MEPs are split on this. Many MEPs would not want to leave the EPP because it gives them a lot of influence. 

They are much less likely to get important positions such as chairs of committees if they are part of a much smaller group. But it will also have an impact on the EPP and it will end up becoming a smaller group in itself. 

Again, it will not have the same kind influence that it currently has. For the Socialist group, we could end up being the largest group when we come back if the UK Conservatives leave, which they seem committed to doing. 

That move is bound to have a massive impact on the politics of the European Parliament. 

But do you think that they will still be able to form a group? Who would be their potential allies? 

At this moment, the way we are looking at it, it would not seem as if that is possible. They [UK Conservatives] seem pretty confident that they can. You would have to ask them that question. 

I would not like to say whether they are going to do it or not. I do not understand the benefit to them. I understand that they are not pro-European and they feel the EPP is too pro-European for them, but they are going to lose all their influence. 

People back in the UK are voting for the Tory party, thinking that they are going to influence European politics. They are not going to be able to influence as much if they are part of a much smaller group. I think that people are not quite aware this back at home. 

I do not think that they understand that if they leave the EPP, that gives them less say in what happens in the European Parliament. 

So it will definitely be a good thing for the Socialists? 

The Socialist group may well be the biggest group as a result of it.

Over the years, the European Parliament has gained more powers, but this has also added items to the agenda. MEPs have more work, but much less time. It seems much is decided informally before first reading. Does this actually have an impact on the democratic workings of the Parliament? 

I think that there are a lot of things happening at the moment. 

For a start, we do not know what is going to happen with the Lisbon Treaty, which will give the Parliament a bit more say in the committees. 

What we want to see is an open government, democracy and transparency. So we are delighted if we have more co-decision committees. 

This is a positive, good thing. But you know, this Parliament is run by consensus politics. You do have to compromise. You do have to get agreement, because there is no single party in government. It is not run as a national parliament. 

Whatever work we do, we want it done in a democratic manner. That is the one thing we can’t lose. It is great that we are having more co-decision committees, because that gives us more of a say. 

And we are the only democratically elected body of the European institutions. It is a magnificent achievement to have an elected Parliament and so it is good that we have a greater say. I think that so much is in flux that we will have to wait and see happens with the Irish vote and a whole range of other imponderables. 

So it is difficult to know how it is going to pan out until we know some of these things. 

It seems that some Socialist leaders favour Barroso for the next Commission presidency. Now the winds are changing. Isn’t it peculiar that you as a political group do not have a Socialist candidate for the top job, which is going to be key in the next five years? 

Other people will have to speak for themselves. I do not think that it is up to me to say whether they are supporting or not supporting Barroso. 

And there is a lot of discussion in lots of groups about whether Barroso should get support or not. But Gordon [Brown] has come out categorically to say that he supports Barroso. I know that Gordon Brown is very supportive of Barroso’s candidature. That is all I can say on that. 

It is for other people to say what their member states feel about it. There has also been a lot of discussion in the Socialist group of whether Barroso should be supported or not. People have different views on that. 

Things are changing so rapidly. Quite frankly, at this moment in time, I think that people are focused on other issues. The financial crisis is what all heads of state are focusing on right now. Prime Minister Gordon Brown is certainly focused on that and I think that has got to take precedence at this moment in time. 

The French Socialists said they would support Poul Nyrup Rasmussen.

The Socialists may come up with their own candidate. I do not know if Rasmussen is interested in it. It is fine to say that they would support somebody, but you have to find out if he is really interested in it first and foremost. 

All I can say is for the UK. Gordon Brown is certainly supporting Barroso. I can’t say what the French are going to say or do, or whether Rasmussen is going to stand or not. 

What about having a woman president of the Commission?

When you have a woman in top position, it sends a message no matter what that position is. I think that to have Hilary Clinton in the role of secretary of state is fantastic. The same applies for Obama. 

We have moved a long way if you think about it. Who would have thought that was possible? We had a fight between a woman and the first black to be president of the United States of America. We would not have even dreamt of that a few years ago. We had a choice of either/or. So we have moved a long way. It would be nice to see that being translated into some of our European countries as well in all sorts of levels, not just in the Commission but in governments as well. It would be really amazing if we could have a few more women at these high level positions. 

Would European leaders have the courage to let more women emerge? 

It is good to have equality and it is good to see women in these top jobs. But what you do not want is to have women put there just for the sake of it. You do not want a token woman. 

You want a woman who has the ability to do the job. You have got to get women up there who can act as role models and who people can see. We will have to see if other candidates appear on the horizon. I do not know. 

Labour, as you pointed out has more women than… 

Indeed, UKIP has no women and the Tories have gotten one and she is standing down – Caroline Jackson – for the next election. In terms of our delegation, we are miles ahead of the game, quite frankly. 

Now we have got a woman leader, the third woman leader in our history for the Labour delegation in the EP. It is sixteen years since we have had a woman leader. 

We are progressing, but we are not progressing as fast as we would have liked. I think probably fifteen years ago, we would have thought that we would have been further on than we are at the moment in terms of representation of women and other groups. But it would be a massive step forward if one of those top EU jobs would be given to a woman. 

A recent Eurobarometer shows that women across the EU are not really interested in European affairs. 

That is the point. This is what I say in the UK. When you talk to women there about the practical things that we do, like equal rights, rights for part-time workers, maternity and paternity provision, consumer and environmental issues, these are the issues that women are really interested in. But they do not realise that it is happening here. 

We have got to raise the awareness so that they are interested in the EU. So it is about getting that awareness raised in our own member states, so that women do think ‘Well, actually, that really does appeal to me. That is something that I would like to know about’.  

Do you think eurosceptic parties such as UKIP and Libertas will have a chance? And if so, how is this going to change the debate in the European Parliament? 

I do not think UKIP will come back with as many seats. They will lose quite a lot of seats. It is difficult to assess quite frankly what is going to happen, because their vote was very much distorted. 

Last time round, they had a celebrity, Robert Kilroy-Silk, who was a very well-known television presenter who people saw on TV every day for many years. People knew who he was and that pulled their vote right up. 

Now they seem to have gone down a blackhole, quite frankly. I can’t see them getting anywhere near the same number of seats that they have at the moment. Instead, we have to make sure that we do not have any far-right candidates coming in. What we do not want is a BNP MEP, for example. 

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