Speech by Sophie in 't Veld at the I Am Europe Convention

Met dank overgenomen van S.H. (Sophie) in 't Veld i, gepubliceerd op zaterdag 26 januari 2019.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, democraten,

The environment is indeed a wonderful example of what these European elections are all about. Because it says a great deal about how we see the world and politics' role in it. Let me give you one example of how much we can really achieve, if we get the politics right.

I was recently reminded of the hole in the ozone layer. I’d forgotten all about it, I must admit. But in the 1980s, when it turned out we were destroying our environment through the use of ordinary, everyday things like fridges and hairspray, and there was a lot of hairspray in the 1980s!

But we took action:

We got rid of some substances – We developed others that were just as good.

We shifted our economy a bit – Without slowing it down.

We changed people's behaviour – Without lowering their aspirations.

Today, it turns out the ozone layer is steadily improving, quicker than we expected, and in about ten years will be restored entirely. Not because there was no problem to begin with. Not because it went away by itself. But because we made it happen. Because everyone – governments and companies, cities and civilians, international organisations and NGO's – they all got behind that one, overarching, all-important goal.

That is how you solve problems – even intractable problems.

That is how you make progress – also in politics.

Therein lies the strength of an open, democratic society.

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That is just one example. But it shows us what is at stake at the European elections:

A world view

An idea of the way the world works

How it should work

How we make it work.

All too often, the terms of debate are set by populist and nationalist forces in and around EU politics: They don't believe in us shaping our future – they want to take us back to the past. A past, which, in reality, never quite existed. You know: women in the kitchen, gays in the closet, eastern Europeans behind a wall, and everybody in church on Sundays... A simple world.

They don't believe in the power inherent in people, in free societies – they believe in disempowering people. In a world made simple because people don’t get to make their own choices about who they are, how to live, who to love.

They don't believe in us being a force for good. In fact, if you listen carefully, they don't believe in any progress at all.

Managing migration properly? That, they say, will only lead to more immigration – and nothing good can ever come of that.

Tackling climate change? They see only costs, not benefits or investments, or even the necessity of change. Because for all the talk of realism, they refuse to face the reality of climate change, and the challenge of preserving our natural environment.

And yes, Europe is where their reactionary outlook is most obvious: the achievements of the past are taken for granted. As if peace and common markets are self-evident. As if we never had to fight for them, never had to make painful compromises, never had to convince our electorates.

But they are against making any further progress. Things can only get worse, is what they tell us.

They are wrong.

The past ten years we had turbulent times in Europe. A financial crisis that ravaged our economy, terrorist attacks on European soil, unprecedented migration flows, Brexit, war in Ukraine, and of course Trump. But Europe is still standing. As strong as ever. A few scratches here and there maybe, but Europe has shown the world it can weather the storm.

And it If you look at the recent past only, it’s incredible how much we have achieved. We have created the best continent in the world.

But what is their alternative - the populists - what do they actually achieve?

Trump has achieved the greatest government shutdown in history

Orban has achieved the slave law, in 21st century Europe

Brexiteers have achieved that Brits are stockpiling food and medicine.

The government of Great Britain, unable to ensure the most basic needs of the people. And they call that sovereignty?

Every time, populists have proven themselves totally unfit for government. And every time, the most vulnerable are hit the hardest.

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That is the real divide of this year's elections: populists have simply no belief in the power of politics to tackle challenges.

No self-belief, as politicians.

They claim to be ‘realists’ - well, they are the exact opposite. What they’re saying is: ‘Stop the world, I want to get off.’

That’s not realism. That’s dreaming. Dreaming of the past. At least we are dreaming of the future.

That future will come. Challenges will be there.

The real question is: will politics tackle them pro-actively? Or do we just sit back, watch the spectacle and hope for the best?

Now that’s not what we are in politics for.

The populist world view runs counter to everything we have achieved in recent years and decades: individual rights and progressive values, multilateralism and European integration, strengthening democracy and the rule of law.

So we, progressives, have to use our own story as the starting position.

Our own narrative.

Our own world view. Based on the faith we have in people, in trust between people, our confidence in progressive politics and our self-confidence as politicians.

Our belief in Europe and in Europeans.

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Now, what is that story? In short, I would say:

As a liberal, I passionately believe in an open society's power to adapt and improve.

As a progressive, I believe politics can make a real difference in doing so.

And as a European, I know we can move mountains if we join forces.

That’s my story.That’s what I believe in. It is both pragmatic as well as values-based.

And I also believe that these values are as strong, as relevant and as attractive as ever. And yes, we will win this battle of ideas.

Just look at the challenges ahead of us in the years to come. I see three main themes emerging:

One is climate and energy.

The economy will make the transition to a more sustainable, circular, greener model. Simply because it will have to.

The real question is: will we be in the lead – politically and technologically – so that the transition is also equitable and based on our needs?

And will the economy be driven by our values, our consumers, our companies as well as our technology? Or will it be too little, too late, and will we end up following models, rules, standards decided by others?

We know we need to turn away from Russian gas and Saudi oil, without turning towards Chinese solar panels and technology instead.

And it is happening already.

Across Europe, young people are taking to the streets to demand immediate action.

Across Europe, there are mayors, local governments, NGO's and companies taking the lead.

They are changing the way we produce, save and share energy. They are cutting down on their own use of carbon, cars and waste. They see the need of turning green, they see the benefits, and they act accordingly.

So society is ready. Time for our politicians to act.

Now lawmakers and governments have to take up the challenge. Regulation has always been the biggest driver of EU innovation and integration.

And we, progressives, will be in the lead to make it happen.

Second is the question of who really shapes Europe's future.

In recent years, we have seen that the real threat to our sovereignty, our rights and even our democracies comes not from the EU institutions but, to the contrary: from uncontrolled and virtually uncontrollable multinational businesses. American tech giants or Chinese state-funded companies.

They decide what they do with our private content.

They refuse to pay into public budgets.

They pick and choose from our laws and institutions what suits their interests, not ours.

They decide what we see online. They literally decide on our ‘world view’. And they certainly don’t start from a European perspective.

We are the largest single market in the world, but only 18% of the largest digital platforms are located in Europe. In terms of value, the European share is only 2% of the worldwide platform market.

These companies have grown far beyond our reach, as individual nations.

But as a European Union – and only as a European Union – we can take back control.

Margarete Vestager has shown that we can confront a massive company like Apple with its ridiculously low tax bill.

As Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy has proven, we can hold the likes of Volkswagen accountable for breaking our environmental rules.

And both Marietje Schaake and myself have led the way in recent years, so that we actually oblige the Facebooks of this world to respect the rule of law, also on the internet.

This will be one of the fights for the next few years. Rules and laws are slow to adapt. Companies and technology often run rings around regulators.

We need to keep up the momentum. Because the conservatives of the EPP have, and always will, protect vested interests of the old economy, such as coal.

That’s why we need a strong and united progressive block to push for change.

Third, I would say these elections are about something even more fundamental: about the standards and values we share as Europeans.

Because many, even at the centre of politics, still describe the EU as at best a sort of shotgun marriage: ‘we don’t like it any more than you do’, they tell voters, ‘but we have no choice’.

Now, that is not only bad marketing: why on earth would anyone vote, let alone campaign, for a totally unattractive but supposedly ‘unavoidable’ political fact. Especially while Brexit has shown us everything is reversible.

Even worse, it is bad thinking, because it's simply untrue: 

We are a community of values, not of necessity.

Core beliefs, ideals and aspirations are what keeps us together, as Europeans.

We have much more in common than what divides us.

From Hungarian protesters fighting against the crazy laws of Orban to the Belgian youth taking to the streets for the climate, we all believe in bottom-up democracy, unity and the fairness of the rule of law.

Across Europe, people see the EU as an opportunity; a chance to get together and shape our own society; a chance for them to shape their own lives within society.

They know that we are Europe, and the future is ours to make through Europe.

As progressives, we won’t settle for anything less.

Our brave friends from Hungary have become the symbol of this struggle, as we heard from Katka her speech earlier.

They have been let down all too often:

Or on the right, by politicians who speak of democracy but prefer backroom deals with Orban, as long as it helps them lay claim to power within the EU institutions. Juncker and Weber have always protected their buddy Orban in the end, because he is part of their base, and power games are more important to them than democracy and the rule of law in Hungary.

On the left, by people who speak of values but lack the backbone to act against the Hungarian government. Like Frans Timmermans, who now tells us he wants to lead the European Commission. But for the past five years, he sat idly by. He talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk.

Let me be clear: we will not give support to any candidate for the Commission presidency who will not halt the destruction of European values in Hungary and any other member state.

The real momentum in these elections lies with the people who stand for progressive values and European unity.

To the people of Momentum I say: we will never let you down.

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Ladies and gentlemen, friends,

Populism will not call the shots in this campaign, nor will the parties at the political centre who fail to distance themselves from those populists.

They are loud, but they are not a majority.

They grab people's attention, but they don't have the answers.

The real way to voters’ hearts is, quite simply, through unashamedly democratic, unequivocally progressive politics.

We have the convictions necessary to reach out to people.

We also have the sense of compromise to make sure those convictions lead to actual change.

That is the essence of democratic politics: know where you start, but also know how to find the common ground, for that is where voters really want us to be.

I wholeheartedly agree with the words of En Marche’s Arthur Corbin this morning. If nationalists are able to join forces, then surely we are too. It is more important than ever to create a strong, progressive, future-oriented, pro-European group in the centre. And not just after the elections. And not just in words, but also in actions. We have to make a common proposition to the voters in May. The door is open to all those who share our values, our message, our goals.

No party embodies that combination as well as ours does.

We too can win this battle by being sensible, smart and constructive.

And in May, we’re gonna prove it!