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  • Writer's pictureEuropean Waves

Reinhard Bütikofer Interview

Interview by Joseph Slattery (European Student Think Tank) and Greta Scott (European Waves)

In this collaboration with the European Student Think Tank, Joseph Slattery and Greta Scott discuss topics ranging from vaccine mandates to climate change, to EU-China relations with German MEP Reinhard Bütikofer

Foto: Stephan Röhl

Reinhard Bütikofer is an MEP from Germany, who has been serving in the European Parliament since 2009. He is a representative of Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (The Greens, Germany), which is a member of the European Green Party. He is currently the chairperson of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with the People’s Republic of China, and a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Delegation for Relations with the United States. He is also a substitute member in the International Trade Committee and the ASEAN-Delegation. He has previously been a parliamentarian in the state parliament of Baden-Württemberg, Germany. In November 2011, Bütikofer was awarded the Fray International Sustainability Award at the Fray International Symposium in Cancun, Mexico, for his work in sustainable development in politics. 

Joseph Slattery: What is your opinion on introducing vaccine mandates in EU countries where vaccine scepticism is high, and vaccination rates are low?

Reinhard Bütikofer: I think governments in different EU member states should adapt and accept their responsibilities. I’m not going to make policy prescriptions for Sweden or Finland or Malta, but I do know that, in the context of the German debate, there has been an increasing willingness to opt for mandatory vaccination. For a couple of professions, this would have a very high and strategically relevant protective effect, and also more widely. I’m personally open to that option. 

Greta Scott: Will proportional representation [PR] be key for the green movement to progress in countries like the UK and the USA? What do you think the impact of PR has been on the Green Movement? Do you think that PR is something that Green parties should advocate for across the world?

RB: Proportional representation, if the minimum threshold is not too high, allows new parties, new voices, to be represented in the formal political institutions. I strongly believe that this has helped political systems that have adopted proportional representation, to accommodate changing expectations in the electorate and changing challenges in the realities that surround us. I personally believe that proportional representation is helpful in keeping a political system flexible and responsive to new developments. 

JS: As a member of the Green Party, if global temperatures rise above 1.5 or even 2 degrees Celsius, which they are predicted to do, would you be ready to commit to degrowth to drastically cut emissions and hopefully save the planet?

‘The prevailing presumption that growth helps us overcome the challenges we are up against is obviously not correct’

RB: No! I am not a fan of the concept of degrowth. I would say that some fallacies are so bad that even the opposite is not correct. The prevailing presumption that growth helps us overcome the challenges we are up against is obviously not correct, but to believe that just by negating growth we would be better off is just a belief that I cannot share. I believe we need to transform our economies in a qualitative, not a quantitative way. And frankly, there are several dimensions to growth. There is growth in the throughput of resources. There is growth in emissions. There is growth in producing value. All of that is not specifically connected by necessity. So I believe that there can be growth of producing value without increasing the exploitation of resources, or the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.  

GS: Part of the crux of climate change is that we should all make changes, for example taking fewer flights, being vegetarian etc. As an MEP, is there pressure on you to change how you act? 

RB: Frankly, I don’t really see that much pressure on me personally. I still try to change my behaviour. I try to opt for more climate-sensitive practices in my own life. But at the same time, I would warn against putting all the responsibility for creating climate-compatible lifestyles just on individuals. And I’m afraid a discussion about how virtuous an MEP or minister is might lead in the wrong direction. It is not about individual virtue. The decisive factor that we must address is creating a framework of economic, cultural and political conditions that allows individuals to live healthy and climate-compatible lifestyles. So instead of putting the onus on the individuals, we need to focus on the policies that shape our lifestyles.

‘I would warn against putting all the responsibility for creating climate compatible lifestyles just on the individuals.’

GS: I completely agree. As an individual, I often come back to this quote, ‘If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.’ I wonder, do you think that Green MEPs feel that, or are they mainly focussed on institutional change?

RB: I’m not saying that individuals don’t have a responsibility. I do believe that there is an obligation to reflect on what you, individually, contribute to the problems that we are up against, and to draw consequences from that. But that cannot be the only, and the main, focus. If you create a framework that is conducive towards living better lifestyles, then it can be a measure of freedom to change your own lifestyle. If, however, this is being conceived as an oppressive obligation on individuals, then people will rebel. I strongly believe that it is not possible to win the battle over the minds of people, and over their expectations, if you allow climate change to become the opposite of individual freedom. If freedom and climate responsibility don’t go hand in hand, there is no way to achieve either goal. 

JS: COP26 [The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference] just recently finished. Were you there, and what do you think about the outcomes?

RB: I wasn’t there. My own assessment can be captured in a famous quote. ‘Try and fail. Try again, fail again. Try again, fail better.’ We failed again, but we failed better. We made some progress, but this is insufficient. This is revolting on the one hand, but the fact that we did make some progress shows that we didn’t get stuck. This is a very positive thing. By mobilising more energy towards more action, we can still pursue the ambitious goals that science tells us are needed in order to avoid catastrophic, runaway climate change.

JS: Some countries were less willing to make changes than others. How would you assess the EU’s response at COP26, and overall? Is enough being done, and is progress being made?

RB: I don’t think we should pursue a self-congratulatory stance. The “Fit for 55 package” that the European Commission has proposed [the EU’s plan to reduce its emissions by 55% by 2030] has not yet been put into action, and it is by no means guaranteed that there will be enough willingness among member states’ governments to really pull this off. So we are in a position where we can share experience because we have tried stuff. We have had success and contributed because people can learn from our mistakes. But we can’t be hypocritical. In a way, the fact that some countries are reluctant to move forward can only be overcome if we, as self-proclaimed climate change policy leaders, enhance our own ambition and find ways of striking partnerships and alliances with less economically developed countries that are bound to suffer the most if climate change continues. I believe that if we build a very strong partnership with the island states, developing countries from Africa, and the bulk of the G-77 group [a UN economic coalition of countries from the Global South], there would be much better leverage to push China and India into not standing in the way. But this would require that we fulfil the promises that we made to these countries, with regard to financing their adaptation, their loss and their damage. And in that regard, we are still lacking.

GS: COP might be seen to give off a sense of progress that governments can hide behind. Do you think that unilateral approaches, perhaps led by the EU, would be preferable?

‘A climate change policy that does not address the development needs of so many countries is bound to fail.’ ‘If we do not take their concerns into account, we cannot lead’

RB: No, I would not say so. I believe that there is a certain dialectic that we can’t avoid. We need everybody to act, but we don’t have the authority to tell everybody that they need to act. We need to combine efforts that are authorised, and meant, and implemented, by individual governments. And at the same time, we need to create a bandwagon that makes it harder for the laggards to stay behind. I think we need the multilateral framework, but in that framework, plurilateral and minilateral or even unilateral can be the salt in the soup, but they cannot substitute the soup. 

The role of the G7 is tainted by the fact that it’s just seven highly industrialised countries. If I represented a developing country, my argument would probably be, ‘look guys, you’ve had the starter, main course, dessert, and now that we’re talking about the final coffee and the cigar, you’re telling us how to drink our coffee.’ This is historically unfair. If we do not take into account the perspectives of the countries that obviously see a need to develop, and are challenged by the fact that this development, if it is done in a conventional way, would contribute greatly to the negative impact of climate change. If we do not take their concerns into account, we cannot lead. And that is why we have to cooperate with these countries, and not just paint ourselves into the role of the virtuous seven that have committed so many crimes. If [we] look back at our industrial history, and now pretend that the problem is with the other players, and that we are called upon to tell the rest of the world how to act… You have to lead by being inclusive and by sharing the perspectives and understanding the perspectives. A climate change policy that does not address the development needs of so many countries is bound to fail.

JS: You’re on the Committee for International Trade. What do you think is more important for the committee: economic growth or sustainability? And can these two be achieved simultaneously?

RB: Traditionally, trade was not expected to contribute to sustainability. That’s quite a novel conversation. You hear it when you listen to what the European Commission says. But de facto, trade has so far been almost exclusively about growth, assuming that the more we trade, the better for the world, the better for the people. The dimension of sustainability, the need to trade greenly, is just being discovered. We [the Greens] have been preaching that forever, but only now [is it] becoming a conversation in the political mainstream. That doesn’t guarantee progress, but it gives us a shot. I believe the idea of using trade for the abolition of climate negative fossil fuel subsidies is something that should be explored. Traditionally, when you try to fight fossil fuel subsidies, you’re being countered by the argument that this is impossible, because our neighbour is not going to do that, so how could we possibly risk putting an additional burden onto our industry, at the expense of business and the workers, while everybody else goes on wasting fossil resources and enhancing emissions? There are ways of reducing fossil fuel subsidies in a step-by-step way, in a coordinated fashion. You could use trade measures to push for that kind of new development. A plurilateral or multilateral reduction of negatively impactful subsidies. And that could be just one dimension of green in trade. Differentiating between products that look the same but represent very different CO2 footprints—you could make that a distinctive trade measure that is being addressed when regulating trade. These issues are now coming to the fore, and I welcome that. 

JS: Several countries, including Germany, are some of the biggest arms exporters in the world. Is exporting weapons abroad compatible with ‘European’ values?

RB: I would make a distinction between exporting German arms to Norway, or Switzerland, to name a few innocuous examples, and exporting arms to Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states and countries that are involved in the bloody war in Yemen. Unfortunately, Germany is presently the number four arms exporter in the world. My party has been opposing that for a very long time. In the coalition contract that we recently negotiated, we won a certain victory in convincing the other partners that they would agree to the goal of creating an export control regime that is much more restrictive than anything we have seen in the past. We have also published proposals for how that issue could be addressed in unison by member states of the EU. We do have, and have had for 14 years now, a so-called common standpoint for the EU on arms exports, that enumerates a number of criteria that should be taken into account for when you have to take such a decision. Unfortunately, that is not binding European law. So, every single government interprets and reinterprets these guidelines very differently. We want to turn these guidelines into binding European law, so you can go to court and sue arms export decisions, if you find that they are not compatible with the criteria of the guidelines. 

‘Unfortunately, Germany is presently number 4 arms exporter in the world. My party has been opposing that for a very long time.’

JS: You are Chair of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with the People’s Republic of China and the Delegation for Relations with the USA. Could you talk to us about your role here, and the different approaches each delegation takes to these two very different superpowers?

RB: Between the European Parliament and the U.S. Congress, we have had long-standing bilateral relationships. We have had a so-called Transatlantic Legislative Dialogue for decades. That’s not a very intense exchange, but this is of course one piece in a big puzzle of relationships, in which committees of the European Parliament often visit Washington and talk to American colleagues. This is an intense, closely knit web of relationships. With regard to China, that’s very different. The relationship is not very long-standing, nor is it very intense. The tradition was that every year, there would be one visit of the European Parliament’s China Delegation to China, and one visit from the delegation of the National People’s Congress to Europe. That hasn’t happened in a while. First, the Chinese refused to visit Brussels because they were up in arms about the fact that the President of the European Parliament had met the Dalai Lama, and they demanded that we should apologise for that gesture, which of course we refused. After they finally came to their senses, and we were just about to begin a new effort in meeting again, the pandemic struck, and everything was blocked. We have made a proposal to meet online, which has not been answered by the Chinese, and more recently, of course, the relationship has also been negatively impacted by the sanctions that China has put on five members of the European Parliament, besides other European individuals, and a number of institutions, including the human rights sub-committee of the European Parliament. That is not acceptable or helpful. We are open for business and dialogue, but we will not allow the Chinese to dictate the terms of reference, to dictate what could be on the agenda, to tell us that human rights are off the list of topics that can be discussed. Obviously, that doesn’t live up to our expectations. I’m not sure we will have an exchange before the end of this legislative period. Of course, we are doing other work. I am trying to organise events where people can learn more about China and EU-China relations. The last thing we did in the Delegation was an event where we had experts analysing China’s contribution to the COP26. 

GS: What do you feel is the most important thing you do in the European Parliament?

RB: The most important thing has been helping to shape and develop the EU’s China policy. We have developed the European Parliament into a real voice in that regard. We have been able to create a lot of consensuses between the five most important [party] groups (the European People’s Party, the Socialists and Democrats, the Conservatives, the Liberals and the Greens) and that has allowed us to take clear and strong stances on China-related issues, from Hong Kong to Xinjiang.

The most important factor that facilitates this kind of work is the fact that, in Brussels, there is a strong sense of committee between parliament members of different political groups. In my own experience, I spent two legislative periods in the regional parliament of Baden-Württemberg, in the south of Germany. That was always a very very stiff antagonism between government and opposition. I spent eight years in the regional parliament, and I won only one vote in eight years. And I recall the Finance Minister, a very conservative man, saying, ‘I don’t know why you are always so emphatic in making your proposals; you know full well we will vote everything down.’ And that was indeed the case. And this is not the case in the European Parliament. In the European Parliament, there is a widely shared effort (I’m not talking the extreme right and extreme left) to use compromise as the main tool for achieving progress and bringing people together. This is what makes the European Parliament extremely exciting. 

JS: Do you think that the EU should still be aiming to absorb new members into the block, considering the discord at home with Hungary and Poland?

‘There has been this negligent assumption that once a country gets in [to the EU], everything is fine. And that’s not necessarily the case. And we have been ill-prepared by tendencies in Hungary or Poland.’

RB: Yes indeed, I do think we should mean business when we offer the countries in the Western Balkans a future as normal members of the European family of nations. Over the past 20 years, I think European policy in that regard has been predominantly cynical, pretending that this is going to be their future anyhow, so it doesn’t matter whether we take three, five, or seven decades. And they reciprocated by pretending that they were moving our way. Just look at what Serbia is doing at the moment. The Nationalist leader of the Republika Srpska is trying to dismember the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and he is being openly supported by [Serbian President Alexander] Vučić in Belgrade, by the Russians and the Chinese. I feel that our reluctance to act on our promises, which was most obvious to North Macedonia – where we promised that they would be given an accession opportunity in 2005, and they still have not – where we allow nitty-gritty national games to stand in the way of European progress, nationalist games… I think that is a really bad mistake. There is a famous quote from a French revolutionary, ‘this is worse than a crime, it’s a mistake.’ What we are doing there is a real mistake, because it is destabilising these countries, and making them prey to foreign interference. I think we should change track, and really be serious about opening an accession perspective, and at the same time be serious in implementing the criteria that have been defined in that regard, namely the Copenhagen criteria that clearly spell out what we expect from a future member. Of course, we also must make sure that the inner functioning of the European Union will be improved. There has been this negligent assumption that once a country gets in, everything is fine. And that’s not necessarily the case. And we have been ill-prepared by tendencies in Hungary or Poland, where leaders are pursuing what their leaders call ‘illiberal democracies’ as their goals. We are learning to fight back. I think we are in the process of changing that. But we cannot make our internal difficulties an excuse for not working earnestly to include countries in the Western Balkans. As for countries beyond that, I am relatively sceptical. I cannot see a European future for Turkey at the moment. I am not excluding that, and I am always against rupturing the accession talks completely. I would want to leave the door open, if conditions change [his emphasis]. But certainly, that is not a realistic idea at the moment. Similar scepticism would be valid for countries that want to join, like Ukraine and Georgia. There are politicians in Ukraine that talk about starting the accession process in 2024. That’s just not realistic. I know this is tough, but we should, I think, focus on the Western Balkans. And maybe, happily, after so many failed attempts, Switzerland will reconsider too.


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