20 years as an MEP: Jean Lambert on the UK’s bizarre plight and the growth of the Greens

, by Madelaine Pitt

20 years as an MEP: Jean Lambert on the UK's bizarre plight and the growth of the Greens
Jean Lambert in 2015. Photo: Euranet Plus / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Could British MEPs be in a stranger situation? The referendum result of June 2016 lit a shaky fuse on their mandates, which are supposed to have been terminated twice, once on 29 March and again on 12 April. And now British candidates are fighting European elections with the knowledge that they may be ousted within two months, on 31st October, or potentially serve the entire five years. It is something of a zero-hour contract for politicians.

With the wealth of twenty years’ experience representing her home constituency of London in the European Parliament, Jean Lambert of the Green Party shared her insights on the peculiarity of the British situation within the context of her journey in European politics.

Firstly, with an inkling of rueful solidarity as British citizens, we agreed that things were “totally bizarre”. I asked her what on earth she made of it all.

“Fighting the elections is really good as it gives us another chance to engage with the public about why the EU matters and, if we’re moving towards a People’s Vote, that’s very valuable. On the other hand, it’s worrying watching the two major parties in the UK stepping back from these European elections, leaving the field too clear for others arguing for us to leave.“

While we were discussing over Skype, my poll card dropped through my letterbox at my home in Germany. It was (yet another) nudging reminder that the huge dilemma facing Remainers is still staring at us starkly from the polls (and now also from the doormat). Many are seething over Labour’s ambiguous approach to Brexit, a party torn between its leadership support of a soft Brexit and its overwhelmingly pro-European membership and MEPs. Swathes of Remain voters are therefore stranded between the centrist Liberal Democrats, the hastily-founded Change UK and the Green Party. In the absence of a Remain alliance, websites urging tactical voting have sprung into action. Should Remainers vote tactically or vote with their hearts?

“With your heart!” urged Jean. “Being tactical with a proportional system with new parties in it is really difficult, so you may as well vote for the one who you think will do the best job! British MEPs may represent us for the whole five year mandate; it’s not just a yes-no referendum again, but what sort of European Union will they actually work to achieve? Voting Green is a ‘Yes Plus’. It’s a yes to the EU plus combatting climate change and social inequality.”

Jean was first elected as an MEP in 1999 and has served in the European Parliament ever since. What has the journey been like across the four mandates? “It’s been fascinating and exciting. Within that time, so many countries joined after emerging from years of Soviet domination. The European Parliament itself has more power – when I was first working on issues of asylum and immigration, the Parliament was only ‘consulted’ and the Council didn’t have to pay any attention to us whatsoever! Now it’s co-decision (whether we make the most of that opportunity is a different issue!) and there’s more work, more opportunities, more challenges. It makes the European Parliament an important place to be. Who is here really matters.”

Having watched plenary debates at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on several occasions, I admitted I found it to be a surreal and intimidating stadium as well as an enthralling amphitheatre of dialogue. Jean, however, has never been fazed. “I used to teach, and frankly, standing up in front of the European Parliament is easier than standing up in front of some of the classes I used to teach!”

As MEPs in the European Parliament sit with their political groups distributed on the traditional “left to right” spectrum around the hemicycle, and are not clustered by nationality, this gives Jean a lot of distance from a certain populist candidate we both avoided mentioning. I wanted to know what it’s like coming together with other Green parties from all over Europe.

“Again, really exciting. I’ve been involved with the Greens since their early days in Europe and seen many of our current member parties forming, and now GroenLinks for instance is the biggest party in Amsterdam. There’s a real sense that it’s a family that’s growing and becoming much more important. We’ve also learnt to work together better in spite of our national differences – we can now focus on the bigger messages and find a common way forward, even on issues like terrorism which are difficult for the Greens. It’s not to say we don’t drive each other mad at times! But there’s a lot of respect and affection within the group.”

Is it just me, or has public awareness of climate change cranked up a notch recently? Demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion successfully cluttering up commuting London, widespread school walk-outs and student strikes, the practically cult-like status of the precocious Greta Thunberg, and the tempered exasperation of David Attenborough seem to be beaming out the Green Party’s main message. I asked Jean about fighting climate change on the European level versus the national level, and she shared my concerns over the state of the UK’s climate policy should Brexit occur.

“If we look back to the Labour government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, there was a lot more pressure from the British on the European Union to ramp up its policies on climate change. The British used to be leaders in pressing others to think about the impact of climate change on everything else – jobs, security and agriculture. Now we’ve moved to a time where the British are…not too enthusiastic, to be polite. If we’re in there together as the 28, it doesn’t stop us being more ambitious at the national level, and we can learn from each other. For instance, Sweden has introduced a Climate Change Act, after the UK was the first country to do so under Labour. We might not even be there to influence that debate any more. And if we’re not there being influenced, we might start going backwards even faster, as some may argue, than we’re going now.”

Jean’s most recent interventions in plenary debates include advocating for the co-ordination of social security systems and more transparent, predictable working conditions throughout Europe. However, she has also been critical of the role of the Council.

“I’m worried about what the European Union might look like after elections with the new balance of forces in the Parliament. The new EP will have a really difficult job in getting the Council to concentrate on what matters for European citizens from a cross-border point of view and what is important internationally. With the social security issue, we really did see a number of member states, who ought to know better, pushing a purely national story. ‘We are having to pay family benefits and their children don’t even live here!’ Yes, but they’re workers, they’re working for your economy, these are their entitlements. This issue of the Council not looking at the general good but at what plays back home is a real problem. We need leaders who don’t just look within their own national borders. And we really need a more transparent Council so countries can’t hide behind others and can be held accountable.”

Tough decisions lie ahead. In the meantime, predictions for the Greens in the upcoming elections? On the other end of the Skype call, in her Brussels office, Jean starts looking for wood to touch. “If the polls are right, it could be a very encouraging election. My husband always says I’m so grumpy and miserable to live with at election time! But the endorsements we’ve been getting are really significant for the party – including the Archbishop of Canterbury! People in the streets are happy to see and we’re getting great responses on the doorstep. I’d be very happy to see more Greens elected – and even happier if they were to be here for longer than two months!”

Jean won’t be among them. Aged 68, she is stepping aside to endorse Scott Ainslie as the Green candidate for London. I have a hunch that she will be following the fate of the Greens in the freshly formed Parliament pretty closely. I also suspect that her dedication to fighting climate change, greater social equality and the Remain cause will last far beyond the end of her mandate.

Jean Lambert can be found on Twitter at @GreenJeanMEP. Her website is at https://jeanlambertmep.org.uk/.

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