’Europe’s biggest challenge is climate’: Conversation with ALDE’s Morten Helveg Petersen

, by Flavia-Gabriela Sandu

'Europe's biggest challenge is climate': Conversation with ALDE's Morten Helveg Petersen

As the European elections approach, national parties have one by one decided to nominate their own top candidates to lead them to the polls. Today, TNF is presenting an interview with Morten Helveg Petersen, the top candidate for the Danish Social Liberal Party (Radikale Venstre) which is part of the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament. Or for the ones unfamiliar with Danish politics, Margrethe Vestager’s party.

Flavia Sandu / The New Federalist (FS): You have already been a member of the European Parliament for one mandate. Would you say that it brought you a new perspective on the European Union or the European institutions?

Morten Helveg Petersen: I used to be a board member of some Brussels-based organisations, so I had frequent contact with MEPs prior to the elections. But still, I was really not that much aware of what this would imply. So I think it turned out to be quite different, but so exciting. And I think my expectations were that it would take, you know, several years to get to know the workings of the house and the proceedings, how to effectively work in committees, and in this house in general. And it was a long process to learn all this.

But I also have been quite happy and satisfied with the outcome and extent to which we have succeeded in many of the areas that we choose to do so. I was quite conscious that I wanted to work with the areas where the European Parliament is co-legislator rather than the ones where the Parliament doesn’t have any influence, say foreign affairs or taxation. I was quite conscious about wanting to get into it. I have done a lot of work on energy-related issues with the Energy Union as well as in the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs committee on some of the policy related matters. So to say, I was conscious about wanting to do actual legislation and this has more than lived up to my expectations.

FS: You have been a Vice-Chair of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE). what is your opinion on the way the Energy Union is going at the moment? On our, so to say, quest to become energetically independent from Russia, for example, and maybe transition to more green energy. How do you see it as an insider?

Morten Helveg Petersen: I believe that, in hindsight, it is quite extraordinary what we managed to accomplish given that 2-3 years into the mandate the Commission came in and presented the clean energy package. Which is literally thousands of pages of legislation in energy efficiency, renewable energy, energy market. I think it is quite astonishing that we came through and managed to adopt all this given the complexity and given the workload.

I would have preferred higher ambitions in terms of renewable and energy efficiency. I’ve been pushing for this green transition to be even faster than what we’ve accomplished. But still, I think it is quite impressive and to my knowledge, you don’t see this anywhere else in the world, that you have such a comprehensive “Energy Union” way of thinking. For sure they don’t have it in the US, China, India, Asia at large. So I believe from a policy perspective it is quite impressive what has been going on. Even though I would prefer the ambitions to be even higher.

FS: Do you think there should be more pressure on the member states with regard to this?

Morten Helveg Petersen: Yes, I do. The general pattern has been that the Commission has presented whatever, then the Parliament has increased the ambition and then we had negotiations with the Council and the member states. I think it is fair to say that over the five-year mandate, the Parliament has consistently been greener than what the member states would want. So it has been the Parliament who has lifted the ambitions in all negotiations all across the field, on all the green issues and energy issues in this mandate.

FS: On the research front, we have Horizon 2020. But talking with the general public, many people still feel like we are quite behind in the field of research, especially if you compare it with China and Japan. Do you think this is another field where we could be more ambitious?

Morten Helveg Petersen: I think it is underestimated how big Horizon 2020 and the research programs are. I think we tend to forget that if we do this together, and we ensure the budget is there for this (it is a big fight with the next budget) it will be gigantic funding. And I think it is something we should be proud of. It is underestimated in the general perception that we have these ambitious programmes. I want us to [show] the world that this is really something we can be proud of.

FS: People tend not to be well-informed about the doings of the EU. Tying this to you mentioning that the EP is generally the more ambitious body, the EP is also the only directly elected body of the EU. The presence at the polls in EP elections is relatively low, depending on the member states, but still quite disappointing in comparison to national elections. How do you think we can get people to go out and vote for this?

Morten Helveg Petersen: That’s a great question. It is really frustrating. It is difficult for me to understand how this is the case. In my country, in Denmark, we vote on a Sunday while for national elections we vote on a Tuesday or Thursday. The low attendance might be related to the fact that we vote on Sunday, but this is minor. Still, given the significance of the legislation that we work within the EP, it is a surprise that attendance is not higher than it is the case.

Some of the areas I have been working on, energy efficiency, for example, we have some world class Danish companies in this field. The impact on legislation we make in the EP has a direct impact on the job creation back in Denmark. So given the importance of the legislation which translates directly into jobs back in Denmark, I have a hard time understanding why we don’t have higher participation in the elections. Because what we do affects people in their daily lives. I think it takes time, I hope to see an increase next time around. But it is not a given.

FS: Do you think it might have to do with the fact that people feel disconnected from the EU? Generally speaking, public do not what is happening on the European level. What do you think the EU should do better to get in contact with people?

Morten Helveg Petersen: I have to say compared to 5 years ago there is more interest this time around. My sense is, at least when travelling around my own country, young people are preoccupied with climate issues, but not only. They are also really occupied with general international affairs. They are interested in what’s happening with Putin, Trump and Brexit. I sense a bigger interest in these issues compared to 5 years ago.

It is on a sad background, but it is good to see all these young people being interested to participate this time around and get into debates. I think it has a lot to do with these very uncertain times we live in. We’ve seen an increase in trust for the EU in my country, jumping up 10 per cent or so. The support for the EU has never been higher in Denmark so I hope that translates into higher participation rate in the elections.

FS: You mentioned Putin, Trump and Brexit. What do you think it is the biggest challenge Europe is facing at the moment?

Morten Helveg Petersen: Climate. We see emissions raising globally, not least due to China and India opening up coal-fired power plants. So Europe has to lead the way and to show how it is possible to make the transition to a green economy. And I consider this to be the number one issue in these days and times. We also have to realise that climate change is happening right now. Even in my country, you can see raising water levels, an increase in storms. And in the medium term, if we do not address this we will see people migrating from African countries, moving north. The pressure Europe has experienced in migration is nothing compared to what will happen over the next decades if we don’t do this right. So in my opinion, short and medium term, climate change is the biggest issue.

FS: The youngsters protesting every Friday would agree with that. You are saying the EU is a leader when it comes to climate action?

Morten Helveg Petersen: Yes, I think we are, given what we have done with the Energy Union and the clean energy package. You do not have a comprehensive package anywhere else in the world. On top of this, we have a governance structure where now member states have to submit their plans for how to comply with the Paris Agreement and the objectives in there. And to my knowledge, you don’t have this anywhere else in the world. Again, I have been pushing for this to happen, at a greater speed and higher ambition in many ways but still, I’m quite impressed with what we came through with. I think it is important that Europe shows and leads the way if we have to inspire China, India, the US to follow this path. It is extremely important we do this together.

FS: We have to cooperate a lot. How do you see the future of the EU, in the context of all the issues in the last years? Do you think these challenges will make it stronger or will they make it slowly disintegrate? Or is there a middle way?

Morten Helveg Petersen: Yeah, that’s a good question. I am quite worried in the sense of having experienced what happened in 2015 when the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean was peaking. I noticed how fragile the European Union is and how divisive this issue has been and still is among member states. At the same time when we see what’s happening in Poland, Hungary, Italy, we cannot take this cooperation for granted.

I think we have some gigantic obstacles. And I think we are in the middle of an existential crisis that we haven’t seen since the creation of the European communities back in the 50s. I am very much aware how difficult this is. And unless political leadership is there, we might experience some sort of disintegration of this entire project also considering Brexit. We have to be very careful here, to not take it for granted. It is a daily fight to keep this project together.

FS: Who would you say plays the most important role in keeping the project together? Is it the Parliament, the Commission, or does it depend on the civil society?

Morten Helveg Petersen: I think it is hard to pinpoint one single institution. Because we have to work together on this. Obviously, the Commission is important because of its right to propose legislation. On the other hand, I think it is extremely important you have a directly elected body like the European Parliament in this, in order to ensure that you have transparency. And coming back to one of your previous questions, if we have to increase participation rates, the public has to have a greater sense of what we do in the EP.

It is a reflection of what’s going on in national parliaments. Because we have these political groupings, conservatives, socialists, liberals as well here as in national parliaments. So I think it is hard to pinpoint and say “this is the most important institution”. We all have to work together to ensure transparency and it is important to have a directly elected body in all of this such as the EP.

FS: Besides the ITRE committee, you have also worked for the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) committee. This is the one fields that is quite divisive across Europe. We see a problem with the rule of law and civil liberties in Poland, Hungary, Romania or Bulgaria. It seems there is a divide between east and west, and north and south. How do you think we should come together at the end of the day, as it seems the issue is just getting deeper?

Morten Helveg Petersen: It is really a sad development in so many ways. I think that we have to be tougher in the next mandate on countries violating these basic principles. It is not sustainable in the long run to have an EU where you have member states openly violating principles from the treaties such as media freedom, freedom of expression and independence of the judiciary. We have to be tougher.

I think there is an economic dimension to this. You cannot have a situation where countries violate these laws but receive the funding they do in structural funds for examples. If you take Hungary, for example, I think they receive about 3% GDP in structural funds. We have to be stricter. And then eventually it is up to countries if they want to stay in the EU or not. But in the long run we cannot have a cooperation where countries do not respect the basic principles.

FS: Do you believe that in the long run, the EU might turn more into an alliance of the willing, with just member stays which are eager to stick together? Do you think it might be easier to proceed in decision making and common stances on external affairs for example?

Morten Helveg Petersen: Yes, I do. And I think we will go down this line and I cannot see any other way out of this. If we have to solve the problems ahead of us such as climate and migration, there are certain areas where we need to strengthen the cooperation. And if individual member states don’t want to do this, they shouldn’t hinder other countries in moving forward. So yes, I can see in the future a coalition of the willing. Which is, by the way, a challenge for my own country given we have all these opt-outs that we try to navigate around and it makes it difficult for us. But yes, I see tendencies and I think it is right for countries that want to move forward that they are able to do so.

FS: Regarding Denmark, when the UK leaves, whenever that might be, Denmark is the only country with opt-outs left. Do you foresee such a thing as Dexit?

Morten Helveg Petersen: No, I do not. I don’t see it and again, we see support for EU membership skyrocketing over the last years. We have some parties that have been flirting with this idea, but it is not serious in Danish politics nowadays. We have been discussing how to possibly abolish these opt-outs, there are contrary opinions on how to proceed on this. My party is very aggressive in getting rid of them. But the government and other parties are more hesitant in doing so. But even with these difficulties, no. No Danish exit at all.

FS: On a finishing note, what is your message to voters out there?

Morten Helveg Petersen: I would say that these elections are extremely important given that we are seeing coalitions of far-right parties with Salvini and Danish People’s Party and other parties joining forces. So it is a very basic choice we have next time. Do we want to disintegrate or do we want to do this together? And I am advocating for the latter. We need to do this together if we want to address great issues. For me, I hope the election campaign debates that will take place will address this sufficiently.

The New Federalist is the web magazine of The Young European Federalists (JEF), a non-partisan youth NGO with over 13,000 members active in more than 35 countries. Founded in 1972, the organisation strives towards a federal Europe based on the principles of democracy, subsidiarity and rule of law. JEF promotes true European citizenship, and works towards more active participation of young people in democratic life. JEF is a transpartisan organisation and is not a political party: it is not running in the European elections but campaigns to make European citizens aware of the elections and their stakes.

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