As Part of our Monday Talks series, we have conducted an interview with Gabi Zimmer, Chair of Conferederal Group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left, to discuss about Brexit, the upcoming European Elections, migration issue, Russia, Turkey and many other critical issues.
Vocal Europe: We are here today with Gabi Zimmer, Chair of the European Parliament group European United Left – Nordic Green Left. Thank you for having us. During this interview, we are going to touch upon the issues of Brexit, migration, populism, the upcoming European elections, and some of the external challenges that the EU is currently facing.
The next European Council meeting is set to discuss Brexit and internal security issues. Last week, in the EP plenary, you said that the EU and the UK are reaching a deadlock in the Brexit negotiations, and that the British government is unable to present a clear proposal. In your opinion, which measures should the EU adopt to overcome such a stalemate in the discussions?
Gabi Zimmer: First of all, we need to understand that we need a decision in the negotiation process in the next 2-3 weeks. Only if there is a progress in the negotiations, the Chief Negotiator Barnier is able to make a proposal to the Council. Then, we will have an additional summit of the Council in November, and November is a deadline for us. It’s we at the EP that are able to decide about the withdrawal agreement, and the withdrawal agreement should also be combined with a political declaration about the future of the relations between the EU and the UK.
I see a lot of problems. First of all, I have not seen yet a good proposal by the British government to the Irish issue. I have the feeling that they try to avoid fulfilling what they signed in December 2017, that they will accept a backstop, and that they will also accept the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts. That would mean to avoid the hardening of the border between Ireland and the North of Ireland.
Today I will have meetings also with representatives from the 3 Million Movement, i.e. the EU people living in the UK. They are waiting for concrete answers, how the agreement should be organized in a way that they can still benefit from all the conditions from which they are benefiting now.
The living conditions will not be worsened in the coming times, and for that we hope that there will be some kind of progress, but we have not seen it at the moment. We do not want a no-deal, it would not be good neither for the EU nor for the citizens of the UK. What we need is a stable agreement and to work on future relations between the UK and the EU.
Vocal Europe: Let’s now turn to one of the major internal issues that the EU has been dealing with: migration. Your party has expressed concerns about the mayor of Riace, in Italy, who was recently arrested for aiding and abetting migrants. The “Riace model” has been a symbol of successful integration of refugees and asylum seekers to the rest of the world. What do you think the EU should do for this situation not to occur again anywhere in Europe?
Gabi Zimmer: My group was 10 days ago in Naples, in Italy. For us it was very interesting also to meet with social initiatives, migration initiatives, and with the mayor of Naples. All of them were saying: “We, as a city, are an open city, and we will keep on saying that if migrants are coming to us, we will try to help them, to integrate them.” A lot of Italians are also migrants in the world. When we came back to Brussels, we heard of the arrest of the mayor of Riace. We are protesting against this political decision. And of course, the “Riace model” is very interesting, because it shows that it’s not a question of borders between the EU and third countries, but it’s a question of integration. It’s hard to guarantee our future in the EU if we have a look at all the problems we have inside the EU, especially the differences between regions and Member States. In this way, a kind of model like the “Riace model” could help us show that if people are coming from other countries and they need support and help, then we are able to do it, but we need concrete programs and instruments in order to concretize this help.
We need solidarity, a common understanding that migrants are not the enemies, and we should not do something that plays off migrants against the peoples of our countries. It’s not right to say: “First we have to look after our people, and then we have to look after migrants.” We have to avoid any kind of impression that the migrants are the reasons behind poverty in our countries. We have to face poverty in our countries, for our citizens and for migrants, and we also have to say that human rights are indivisible.
I am proud that now in Germany there have been many manifestations against racism, this week in Berlin for example. Thousands of people are standing in the street demanding that we have to guarantee the rights to all migrants and asylum seekers coming to us. The EU has not found political ways to do it yet but EU has to do it. The main issue is to guarantee is that human rights are indivisible.
Vocal Europe: Furthermore, what do you think about the recent call by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to work on a new migration policy together with Germany and Italy?
Gabi Zimmer: We had a conference of Presidents 2-3 months ago in Vienna and discussed with the government of Kurz. With all his ministers, he presented his programme for the Austrian Presidency, naming it “Europe that protects.”
But this means only that external borders between the EU and the rest of the world will be strengthened. “We will protect our borders, and, in this way, we will protect our citizens”, they say. This is a totally wrong ideology, and I don’t share this position. We have to guarantee all human rights, the UN Resolutions, all the international agreements regarding how to deal with asylum seekers and migrants.
For that I am sure also that also Internal Ministers of Germany and Austria are having talks to strengthen the border between the two countries, and between Germany and other EU Member States. This means to stop Schengen. And this is a problem.
This weekend the citizens in Bavaria have the right to vote for this kind of policy, and I hope the voters will send a strong signal in Germany that the majority will not support this kind of policy. I hope there will be no deal between this kind of representatives from Austria, Italy, Hungary, and Germany, and that we will defend an open EU, that we will work for our responsibilities in the world, that we will support development in countries, and that we will change our trade policy, and all the other reasons for many problems in the countries where many migrants are coming from.
Vocal Europe: There has recently been speculation that the European Socialists (S&D) and your party, GUE/NGL, are having talks to form an alliance for the upcoming European elections. First of all, may I ask you whether there are such ongoing talks? And secondly, could Eurosceptic and far-right tendency across Europe be halted through such an alliance?
Gabi Zimmer: I never heard about this kind of speculation. I can say that between the S&D group here in the EP and my group, there are no negotiations, no talks about any kind of closer cooperation, as only in the sense that we are working together on special points as we do it now. We are working together, for example, with the Greens on migration issues and climate change, we are working with parts of ALDE concerning migration issues, with Social Democrats also on social and workers’ rights. This is the way we’re cooperating in the EP, we’re open for cooperation to get new majorities here.
Looking to the current situation in the EP, if we are working together on some issues, we are able to have a very fragile majority. But looking after the next election, yes, I see the right extremists might be also supported by Orban and AFD, that they try to get a stronger political family, and to introduce more a nationalist view to the EP. I hope we will stand against that.
But the elections are in May and we have to use now the moment, we have to use now all of our forces to make clear here and in our Member States, that the EU can be an alternative to improve the daily life conditions of the people, to fight together against climate change, to find a base of solidarity on the migration issue. It is not possible to solve these problems only at the national level. For example, we could introduce inside the EU, in all the Member States, a minimum income, that’s possible.
We could do it and show the right extremists that they are wrong, if they are saying that our social resources are only for our national citizens and not for the others. We have so many arguments that are better in the sense of more democracy and more solidarity, social coherence between our Member States, that we can win our voters for our view onto the development of the future of the EU and not the so-called “right alternative”, but we have to take up this fight – now, we have to do it.
Vocal Europe: And finally, the EU is currently facing a rise of authoritarian regimes in its neighborhood, as it is the case with Russia and Turkey. Firstly, what do you think the EU should concretely do to address the issues of human rights, rule of law, and freedom of expression in these countries?
Secondly, both these regimes seem to target their critics not only internally, but also abroad. In that respect, many find a similarity in terms of approach between the Salisbury incident of March 2018 and the abduction of Turkish political dissidents abroad by Erdogan’s administration. What is your take on that?
Gabi Zimmer: First of all, I would like to underline the position of myself and my political group. We are fighting for the guarantee of human rights, social rights for all citizens and people living in the EU. We don’t want to accept that anyone is dividing the people, that anyone is violating human rights, democracy, the rights of the opposition, and the possibility of being an authoritarian regime.
Secondly, we also have to keep relations to the citizens in the concerned countries. You are speaking of Turkey and Russia. Concerning Russia, we know that it would be very important to have a direct line to citizens´ organizations, social movements and civic organizations to strengthen them, and to have a dialogue. But, we also have to start again a dialogue between the parliamentarians. If they would like to convince the majority of voters to vote for democratic system against authoritarian regimes, they need also the cooperation with democrats outside of Turkey and Russia. For that, we need to find a way how to do it.
However, there are also differences between Turkey and Russia: yes, they are both authoritarian regimes, but the systems are totally different. Looking to Russia, you have the base of a failed system: 20-30 years ago, there was a big lack of democracy and of democratic organizations. You had the system in the 90s with big poverty among the people and that the property and the goods of Russia were divided among oligarchs. There is an oligarchic system which is sometimes used by Putin and other times he is fighting against it.
In Turkey, the system is totally organized for Erdogan. He has organized his own power, he is fighting against big groups, against ethnic, religious groups. And he is also fighting against the opposition in the Turkish parliament. And that is a problem. Since we have all these differences, that’s why we need differentiated answers. However, what we have to do is to say clearly to the members of the governments of our countries, and to the European institutions, that we need a clear strategy facing all kinds of violations of human rights and democracy in both of these countries.
We have to give clear answers, and not depending on our economic interest or the interest ,looking to Turkey, of the migration issue, we would be blackmailed by the Turkish government, and that’s not good. We have to find a clear stand by all the Member States, and it must take in account the different systems, and taking into account also the different groups in the Turkish and Russian society. We have no interest that Russia is going to Asia, that we break all of our bridges to Russia. Russia is part of Europe. But, it’s not easy to find the right answer.