One of the two leading candidates of the European Green Party for the upcoming European election later this month, Dutch MEP Bas Eickhout, talked to N1 television's Ivana Dragicevic on Tuesday in Zagreb about the election platform of his green alliance, and explained his views on the surge of both the green and the populist options across Europe.
We've seen what perhaps we may call a wave, or a surge, of green parties across Europe. Because in countries like your country, the Netherlands, or in Germany, we can see greens polling at up to 20 percent of the vote. What is the reason for that?
"First of all, it's the topic of climate change. I think that's on everyone's mind, prople are concerned about climate change, and they know the party fighting climate change is the Green party. So that's certainly one of the things. But I think another thing that explains our popularity is that in many countries you see that the trust in centrist parties is going down. So in a lot of big European countries the parties of the centre are losing popularity. A good example is the UK, where now the Tories and Labour combined only get 25 percent support in polls. They always had a large majority, but now they only get 25 percent.
And that means there is room for new movements - on the one hand there's the populists rising, but they have a very negative answer and a 'breakdown' answer, and then you have the more optimistic future-oriented green answer. And for example, now in the UK, in polls, the Greens are higher than the British conservatives. And this shows that there's more and more countries, like Britain, Germany, France - so we see that this green surge is part of the positive answer to this a bit of a paralysis of the centre."
You have challenged the framing of 'it's us or the populists' on the European election ticket.
"The centre parties, they have built this Europe. It's now election time - so you will hear that from the Christian Democrats, from the People's Party, and the Social Democrats - and they suddenly want change. But they have run this Europe for decades now, together. So people see that something needs to change.
And then you have the populists, they have one answer, saying 'Okay, we change Europe by just going out of it.' And then the only ones that is challenging that vision offering real change - a pro-European but also a pro-change answer - are the Greens. So the Greens and the populists are the ones challenging the centre - but then I am part of the more optimistic future-oriented answer (between the two)."
You talk about climate change, taxation, inequality in Europe, agriculture... All those topics are high on the list of priorities for Croatian voters, according to polls. But then why aren't green political options stronger in countries like Croatia - which normally likes to brag about its natural resources, beauty, environment, and so on.
"That's a good question, of course. I can't fully answer that. That's also why I'm campaigning in Croatia, to make it clear that there is an alternative to these centre parties. That is I think one of the problems that I see in Croatia, that centre parties are dominating the campaign, and they pretend that the choice is just between 'Merkel's party' or the Social Democrat party.
What I'm showing and what we need to show is that the political field is much more diverse, and that you do have your green vision, where you want to have the protection of the environment but at the same time fight against inequality - which can and should go hand in hand - that there are political movements offering that. And we have to make that clear in this campaign, in Croatia too."
Another thing we are seeing recently in Europe, one of the biggest conflicts, is between so-called core and periphery within the EU, old and new member states, we see the rise of populist parties in the former eastern bloc countries. What's the Greens' policy to tackle that?
"What we need more is a stronger Europe that can overcome these inequalities. It is absolutely true that there are inequalities. There are inequalities between the periphery and centre countries - it's there. But the point is - you can blame Europe for that, of course, but on the other hand, Europe, for example, cannot do taxation. And this means that we are seeing countries on the periphery trying to attract companies by offering increasingly lower tax rates - but that's a race to the bottom. And in that race, in the end, companies end up not paying any tax at all. That means the price will be paid by people, by consumers. And that is creating further inequality within our societies.
Our Green answer is saying: We can create a new economy, new green jobs, we can fight unemployment, but we need to do that in and equal and just way - which means polluters should foot the bill. And that means companies should pay taxes, which should also be a European (level) competence. So a stronger Europe can help overcome these inequalities, as opposed to what the populists are saying, 'Well we want to get rid of Europe.' That's no solution for the future at all."
Unemployment is a huge issue in Croatia, but for our future, for our economy, the brain drain is emerging as a key problem. What would be your policy to maybe attract people who emigrated back to the country, or perhaps bring in new people who could help in creating a sustainable future?
"I think here the most important answer is in an investment programme. We need an investment programme, certainly in countries like Croatia, an investment programme to creating a future-oriented sustainable economy. And I see that here in Croatia, the government still thinks the future is in investing in a fossil (fuels) economy. But a fossil economy, in the end, makes you dependent on imports of oil, gas, coal, from other regions - it means giving money to the Middle East, giving money to Russia, and it's also not giving you many jobs.
An investment programme would mean bringing sustainable economy, industry, to countries like Croatia and making sure that those jobs, meaning innovation, or in ICT, get created across Europe and certainly in Croatia. That's our programme."
How do you bring in these type of investments here, knowing that corruption is a rampant problem down on Europe's periphery?
"This is another big problem in many countries. We feel that the stance that the European Commission took on this is too weak. We had huge discussions about the European Commission not taking action against Poland, but we've also seen problems in Hungary, we see it in Bulgaria, Romania, we see it also in Italy and Austria.
We need a much tougher European Commission fighting corruption, because as long as corruption is there it's eroding our democracies. And democracies are fundamentals that our European society is based on. So fighting corruption is part of our Green Change agenda."
It certainly seems that the new European Parliament assembly will see a different political makeup in the near future, with populist and right-wing parties making gains around Europe. But some see you as potentially the king-maker, because if your group wins about 60 seats in the European parliament, with mainstream parties probably dropping, you will have to compromise with someone. Are you ready to compromise with for example the EPP?
"We are ready to debate and to discuss. Whether we are ready to compromise, that depends on what will be at the table. But the most important development in the new Parliament will be that the two centre parties, which always had the majority, will now lose their majority.
So they will have to look to other parties to form a majority, and that includes green parties. And we have put our demands on the table - climate change, social justice, and democracy. And if the EPP is willing to change their agenda in that direction, then we can talk. But if they just want to stick to their own agenda and want to use us to get numbers, then they are talking to the wrong people."
We have recently heard President of the European Council and a member of the conservative EPP group, Donald Tusk, say that he would be in the street demanding action like the Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg, is he was her age. But we gave also recently seen a different response from European right wing groups in terms of the issue of climate change, who offered a rhetoric similar to, for example, Donald Trump's in the United States.
"The climate change is becoming an increasingly divisive topic. And it makes sense, that if people say we need more action, we will also see counter-action. And the same populists who are anti-EU, and anti-refugees, and anti-climate action - we see them as opponents. The way we see the European society is totally different from their vision. I think the question is where the centre parties will position themselves. And I think that was interesting that Donald Tusk, being from the People's Party, that he is now talkig about climate change for the first time ever. But also, that 's because in Poland, the greens are in coalition right now with Tusk's party. So what we are seeing is greens changing the debate. In the end, climate action is important for our future economy, but it also means mainstream parties need to make a decision - are they going to stay in the statues quo, are they going to move closer to the greens, or to the populists?"
One of the figures who championed the issue of climate change is French President Macron, but you haven't been on the same page as him?
"No. I think what he has been very vocal about is climate, but he has not been very vocal about social justice - and that's where we differ. Because we are saying that the green transition needs to be a socially just transition. And that needs to go hand in hand. And I think Emmanuel Macron found out that that needs to happen in France. He might be changing, but until now he has been good at rhetoric, but he is yet to deliver his agenda on the ground. And from our perspective, this green transition needs to be a socially just transition."
How do you see the framing of the issue of immigration in Europe, considered currently one of the most pressing issues in Europe, in the context of the green parties' agenda?
"Well we see that Europe has been challenged - can we deal with the people that are seeking asylum as refugees in Europe? And here a big majority of Europeans wants to help real refugees. But if you want to help refugees you need to have a very good procedure to judge whether someone is a refugee or not. That we need to do that together. We cannot leave Greece or Italy to do that alone. That's what we have done on the European level - we left those countries do all the work, which they cannot possibly do. So we now have camps with people piling up in them, living in increasingly inhumane conditions, and this is not the Europe that we want. We need to offer a place for real refugees, but that means speeding up our process of determining who is a refugee, and that must be done together, on a European level. That's the only way to give people certainty quickly, to see whether you are a refugee - and then you can seek shelter in Europe - or whether you're not a refugee, in which case you will have to go back."
How do you see the architecture of the new Commission, or the role of the new European Council President evolving, considering that Tusk had already called for a summit on May 28, only days after the upcoming election.
There is always a bit of a struggle on who is going to determine what, but the rules in Europe are clear. It's true that the Council, the heads of state, will propose someone, but it's also clear that they need to take into consideration the election results. So these EP elections will also determine how the heads of state will look at what kind of candidate they can come up with, but it is also clear that the European Parliament will decide on the President of the European Commission, who is going to lead Brussels.
And we have been clear that if you want to lead the European Commission, you have to be active during the European campaign, so that voters know that if they want to vote for a Christian Democrat, they are going for Manfred Weber, if they want to vote for Greens,they will vote for me, or if they want Social Democrats, it's Frans Timmermans. Those people have spoken out, campaigned, and made clear where they stand. That's part of the elections, and the European Parliament will hold heads of state stick to that process of having a spitzenkandidat.
We have seen a huge pan-European campaign from the current European Commission urging young voters to turn out to vote. Do you think this might backlash, because according to polls in Croatia, young voters, if they go out to vote, they are likely to cast ballots for far-right and populist options?
I don't know. It could be, but for me - if young people want to vote populist, it's democracy. The most important think is that people come out to vote. And that people realise that their vote will determine the direction that Europe is going to take. In the UK, young people did not vote in the Brexit referendum, and they found out what happens when you don't vote - then it's older people, the older generation, determining your future.
And I think a strong Europe, fighting climate change, making it socially just, providing future jobs, that's the Europe which is in the interests of young people as well. And I'm campaigning for that, and I'm pretty sure that if young people go out to vote, they will take the right decision.
If you were campaigning only in Croatia, what would be the main topics of your platform here?
It's very clear, it would be youth unemployment, that's very important. It's also agriculture - if you look at the possibilities of food production here - where Europe isn't doing a good job either. So agriculture, youth unemployment, and of course fighting climate change, fighting fossil dependency. Also, these new LNG (terminal) plans that the Croatian government has, I would fight that.
You took part in several campaign debates, but in the final debate on Wednesday in Brussels your Green Party co-runner Ska Keller will face off against other candidates. What will be her main points and who do you think is your party's main adversary there?
Our main points are climate change, social justice and democracy, and you will hear that from Sky Keller as well. Our main opponents, partly will be anti-Europeans but also Manfred Weber, who is now talking about change as well, now after Christian Democrats and Social Democrats have been building this Europe that we have today. How can they be credible when suddenly they talk about the need for change. So we will attack populists, but also we will attack mainstream parties who are defending status quo.