Belgian politics is at first glance an indecipherable labyrinth of different levels of governments and laws. But it does not have to be this way! Check back in regularly with The Brussels Times as we try to shine some light on matters.
In an attempt to help the uninitiated navigate such a complex system, we will be speaking regularly with politicians from the regional, national and European level. If there is a particular topic you would like us to put to those in power, get in touch!
This time out we spoke to Saskia Bricmont, a member of the European Parliament, about her work, how she represents Belgium at European level and what links exist with her colleagues in national politics.
What was behind your decision to become a member of the European Parliament?
When I picked what I wanted to study, it wasn’t with a view to becoming a politician. I studied political science and European studies because I was interested in the courses and I went to Canada, as part of the Erasmus scheme, and Madrid, where I was an Oxfam activist at one of their shops. I volunteered mainly because I was interested in social issues, how to build a better world and fair trade. That was a very good first taste of these issues and it is how I started really being involved with people that were active in politics and for the greens. I eventually joined the green political party in Belgium, Ecolo, on the French speaking side, and I quickly started being active in the party first at local level and then, after my studies, as a political advisor on European affairs and international issues. Step by step, I took part in the different elections, because you know, at Belgian level, there are many elections, local elections, regional elections, federal elections. In 2014, I was a candidate in the European elections, but did not get elected as we had just one MEP, Philippe Lamberts. Then in 2019, we were both elected.
When you made this step to European level politics, did you see that as a progression or a lateral move? There is this idea in politics that some people have, that European politics is a step down from the national level.
As I didn’t really plan for a career in politics, I just see my work in European politics as a way to contribute to policy-making. Just before I was elected, I was working at regional level, on things like renewable energy with the municipalities. This experience on the ground was really incredible and really helped me realise the importance of EU legislation. That is when I decided to stand in the European elections, because of how important European decision-making is for day-to-day life in all member states.
When you started your term as an MEP, what topics did you choose to get involved in, was this based on your background or were there other factors?
I chose the International Trade committee, which was related to my work with Oxfam on fair trade. Making our international trade compatible with human rights and environmental rights has been my priority. The second committee I chose was the LIBE committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs, where migration is a big topic for me. It's very related to issues in my own region and I found it important to be their voice in the Parliament, which is a minority voice, because the mainstream is too conservative towards migration and asylum policy. One of the far right’s victories has been associating migration with security issues. I think we have to be human again and approach this issue through a human rights lens, not a security lens. I also work a lot on data protection, because the more I work on the surveillance issues, I see how they are related to human rights and respecting fundamental rights, the rights of journalists, freedom of expression, and so on. The current evolution is going towards more security, more surveillance, which is detrimental. The EU is one of the strongest legislators when it comes to data protection. We have GDPR and other regulations, which protects personal data. But still, it's a daily challenge to make sure that the legislation is compatible with data protection, individual rights and the fight against terrorism.
We've all heard of the Brussels bubble. Have you found yourself drawn into this EU world where one can almost forget what's happening in the real world, or as a Belgian MEP is it maybe easier to anchor yourself?
Yes, it helps. It was one of my points of attention from the very beginning, not to only focus on the European Parliament and Place de Luxembourg, and enter the Brussels bubble, even though I have nothing against the bubble. But as a Belgian, I think it makes it easier to stay connected to where I come from, as I also don't live in Brussels. That was a voluntary choice I made, so that my family can keep living a normal life. I think it's our duty and a part of our job to stay connected to the stakeholders, to civil society, to the NGOs, to the citizens and to go to see them and hear what is the impact of our policymaking on them. It is impossible to be a good policy-maker without this. As a new MEP, I notice that for some MEPs that have been there for several terms, they are in this bubble, as they always work and rely on the same contacts, the same network, and this network doesn't evolve anymore. I don't think it helps innovation or helps policy-makers take into account the evolution of the sectors that we work on.
How have you actually remained in contact with the voters you represent and other stakeholders in your first two years of being an MEP? Have you relied on social media, has COVID complicated matters?
There are many ways, including visits, events, conferences, debates with other politicians. That includes European colleagues, as well as national and local politicians. I've met many young people as well, who are really interested in our work. That's really amazing and it's always interesting to talk with them because they don’t really have any barriers up yet, so you get an actual meaningful exchange of ideas. My political party Ecolo also has local sections, so I can stay in contact that way. I also make it a priority to remain available for my town and for my region. This is probably easier for me because I live in a small country, and I'm elected for the French-speaking parts of Brussels and Wallonia, so contacts are easy. The COVID period was challenging and that's where social media probably took on a bigger role in how I communicate my work, whether it’s Facebook Lives or webinars.
A language question: what languages do you typically work in? Is it mostly French or English?
I would say both, because with my team, we always speak French because we're all French speakers, but of course they speak English and they work in English too. Negotiation meetings are usually in English because they're not interpreted. When there are interpreters available for things like debates, they ask us to speak in our own language, first of all, because they're there and it's their job to to interpret, but also because the subtleties of languages are complex, especially for complex legislation.
What does the intersection between EU level and national politics look like? Are there any opportunities to share the work you're doing, say on data protection, with your national colleagues?
It exists and I find it really crucial to be able to exchange with national colleagues like this, especially on upcoming legislation. Belgium will always need a position in the Council on legislation, once the European Commission proposes it, so the Council can then negotiate with the European Parliament, which can also amend what the Commission has suggested. So in one way or another, we'll have to be coherent between the line I follow in the European Parliament and the line that will be followed by my green colleagues in the national parliament and by governments, of course, as the greens are in the federal government and in the governments of Wallonia and Brussels. I'm always in close contact with politicians working on the same files as I do, which includes the Pegasus case, which is a cyber surveillance software that was initially created to help fight terrorism and crime. But it has been used by governments to spy on journalists, lawyers and political opponents. This misuse led to the arrest of journalists. There is a link with Belgium because Belgians have been victims of the software too. More transparency is crucial and so this link between my work at EP level and their work at national level is very important.
Where is your favourite place in Belgium that you like to visit? Do you have a ‘happy place’ that you go back to?
Oh, there are many nice places in Belgium! COVID means we’ve had time to explore this country discover new places, whether it is city trips to Antwerp, to Bruges, to Liege or Namur. But the beauty of Belgium is that very quickly you can be in the countryside. So from Brussels, you can take the train to my region, Wallonie-Picarde, and it's a very nice place to visit by bike, plus there are lots of local breweries. So for beer lovers, this region is really interesting to visit. My hometown is obviously one of my favourite places too.