SP Euro-MPs Anne-Marie Mineur and Dennis de Jong talk about their work in the European Parliament
SP Euro-MPs Anne-Marie Mineur and Dennis de Jong talk about their work in the European Parliament
Don't forget! On 23rd May elections will be held for the European Parliament. The SP's two MEPs are both standing down, and as well as offering a few tips to those who will be seeking to replace them, they discuss their achievements.
Monday 18th March, something after twelve, the agreed time for the interview. The shocking news of the fatal shooting in a tram in Utrecht spread like an oil slick. From his apartment in Rotterdam, SP Euro-MP Dennis de Jong phones his fellow MEP Anne-Marie Mineur, who is still on her way from Utrecht. Her thoughts return immediately to the terrorist attack in Brussels just under a year ago on 22nd March, and in Strasbourg on 11th December, at a time when the European Parliament was meeting in the French city. A few minutes later the doorbell rings. Anne-Marie has arrived safe and sound. The interview can begin.
Neither of these SP politicians will be returning to the European Parliament after the elections. A new team, led by Arnout Hoekstra, currently a senior local councillor, will pick up the baton. The candidate list was confirmed on 19th February, with Jannie Visscher and Geert Ritsema in the next two places.
'Get a wheelie bag'
What advice do De Jong and Mineur have for the new generation of SP Euro-MPs, and in particular for Arnout Hoekstra?
De Jong, laughing, says “well first of all you have to get yourself a wheelie bag. He notes that his successor has expressed the fear that he will “mutate into a tie-wearing astonished outsider with a wheelie bag who will slowly but surely lose touch with people's daily experience of the world.” But for the much-criticised (especially by the SP) money-gobbling monthly trips from Brussels to Strasbourg, the wheelie bag is, according to De Jong, extremely handy. “If after that seven-hour train ride he has to lug all his stuff about...well, good luck to him.”
Mineur: “When I was asked to stand for the European Parliament, I already knew a lot from activism and also what it means to be an elected representative, but not much about Brussels. I had to take the time to learn hoiw the Parliament works.” That brings her to her first piece of advice for Hoekstra. “Don't be afraid to ask as many people as possible for help. Every newcomer has to find things out for his- or herself. It's a shame to waste time because of that.” Fortunately the new MEPs will get a great deal of support from a staff of ten, all of whom are well-versed in the EP's ways.
Close to the party membership
De Jong remembers the agreements he made with Jan Marijnissen, the party's leader at the time, to stay close to the SP's members, despite being hundreds of kilometres away. “What I thought was great was the tour of 'Europe evenings' from branch to branch,” he says. “At the time there was a great deal of interest in the financial crisis and the future of the euro. We also had a lot of branches as visitors in Brussels.” Mineur too was often to be found at the SP branches and felt that interest among the members was growing by the day. “You learn a lot of new things,” she recalls. “I felt too that I could explain complicated topics, such as free trade treaties, reasonably well. Enthusiastic reactions from the many SP branches that I visited always gave me a lot of satisfaction.”
Many people assume that both SP Euro-MPs will pack their bags after the European elections on May 23rd to return definitively to the Netherlands, but nothing could be further from the truth. “In June a lot of decisions will be taken,” De Jong points out. “Which committees will our MEPs sit on? Who will be president of the group in which we participate, the GUE/NGL (European United Left)? And then there are all sorts of other positions which will have to be shared out.” Behind the scenes there will for a time therefore be plenty to do for the current SP chair, who is at the same time vice-president of the GUE/NGL and for the moment will be involved in finalising a new set of rules of procedure for the group. “That might seem rather dull, but it concerns preserving our right to differ from the rest of the group. For the SP it's essential that we aren't dictated to by other left parties within the GUE/NGL, such as those for example who favour a federal Europe.”
Dull, but certainly important, as is, in the view of the SP politicians, much of the less visible work that they do. “The Secretary-General of your group makes a preliminary proposal for the committee to which you'll belong, which will be connected to your main points of interest as a politician,” De Jong explains. “For Arnout it's hard to tell whether he'll end up in the fisheries or agriculture committee – not themes traditionally associated with the SP – or an environment or budgetary committee. It's not as if you're choosing what courses to take at school.” When De Jong himself first entered the EP in 2009 he had his heart set on the internal market portfolio. “In part to expose the power of big capital and lobbyists in Brussels.” De Jong strove to expose the influence of lobbyists and introduce rules to bring about more transparency. “I was able to make a start but step one was to make their work in the back rooms public.”
On the basis of his earlier expertise as a diplomat and executive official he was able to draw on his knowledge of topics such as justice, asylum and migration. “But I had a role in the budgetary control committee dumped in my lap by a Danish colleague,” he continues. “I got a glimpse of the enormous luxury and the pomp and circumstance that's coupled with European politics.”
In 2017, for instance, it turned out that only 8% of MEPs were prepared to be open about how they spent the so-called General Expenses Reimbursement of €4,300 per month – spending for which they are not obliged to show receipts. An investigation into the matter by a team of forty-eight journalists revealed that of all the Dutch MEPs, De Jong and Mineur made the least use of this ridiculous handout.
Making the invisible visible, that is a theme running through the work of Mineur and De Jong during the last few years. From the making visible the behaviour of MEPs in relation to their expenses to making visible the consequences of free trade treaties. Or, in the case of De Jong, making visible the exploitation of lorry drivers. “Long before legislation was being considered,” he says, “I was already saying that surely this is a form of exploitation? That these eastern European drivers have to cook their meals on a camping stove on the roadside, and that quite apart from the low wages, many are working with false papers?” In 2014 Dutch Labour MEP Agnes Jongerius 'hitched a ride' on a meeting for drivers in the SP headquarters in Amersfoort. “At the time she was rapporteur on the Detached Workers Directive, which covers all sectors in which workers can be employed by a firm in one country to work in another. And Jongerius took it on herself to say that workers brought in from another EU country should get more or less the same wages as people doing the same work in the host country. But nothing was done about the difference in social payments and pension contributions. Detached workers remained some 30% cheaper! And in addition, Jongerius agreed that the improvements wouldn't apply to truck drivers. They were simply sacrificed because of a compromise,” De Jong sighs. “The Labour Party acted as if thanks to her, equal pay for equal work had been won, while all the time the exploitation and oppression continued, and the drivers said, we're seeing all sorts of celebratory press releases coming out, but for us nothing has changed.” The SP group remains determined to see drivers, when they're working in another member state, earn the going rate for that country, unless the rate in the country from which you come is higher, in which case of course you keep that wage level.”
Also invisible to many people is how Brussels obstructs political decision-making by your local council. Local SP politicians attempt to counter the domination of chainstores and multinationals so that town centres remain full of life. “Particularly in Amsterdam tourist shops and addresses rented by Airbnb have reached the point where they constitute a nuisance. But council decision-makers who want to do something about this are 'restricting freedom of movement',” De Jong explains, heresy in a Europe in which the free market is sacrosanct. The so-called notification directive furthermore, has since 2017 specified that such measures must be submitted in advance to Brussels, potentially restricting the power of elected local decision-makers. “Thanks to the uproar which the SP caused, this entire policy is being examined closely,” says De Jong. “This also means that what we've done has spread the disquiet to other member states.”
Exploding the free trade fairy tales
When she first arrived in the Parliament in 2014 Mineur chose to closely study the proposed free trade treaty between the EU and the US, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) “This had already been a pretty major theme in the European campaign, and I had the feeling that this was now where the class struggle was being fought out. Via this kind of treaty multinationals were attempting to grab more power and undermine hard-won rights and laws.” In Brussels, Mineur dug deep into the TTIP dossier and in doing so worked closely with organisations such as Friends of the Earth, the Dutch group Milieudefensie (Environmental Defence) and Greenpeace, as well as trade unions. Along with volunteers from the SP, she took part in actions against the TTIP, such as a mass demonstration in Brussels in September 2016.
Since then there have been negotiations between Canada and the EU over another free trade treaty, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA ). One of the biggest dangers that the SP recognised in both the TTIP and CETA was the plan for arbitration panels under the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). Investors can bring claims for damages against states via these panels, amounting to the creation of a separate system of law for foreign firms under which independent arbiters will operate above the laws of the land, imposing fines if the countries I question won't do what the multinationals want them to. “The negotiations around TTIP were in the meantime pretty well stuck,” says Mineur, “but CETA came in, despite our best efforts. We've not done with the fight against these treaties. The SP needs to explode the fairy tales about them, so that people understand that these treaties have as their primary goal to ensure that businesses are hindered as little as possible by regulations and all that 'burdensome' democracy.”
‘You can wake people up'
A public consultation – a process in which citizens of the EU member states are invited to give their views – was conducted on the ISDS in 2014 and provoked 150,000 reactions, of which 97% were extremely critical.”What was really noticeable then was that when the SP joins hands with our allies, you can wake people up,” says Mineur. “And then something happens.” It led to a new proposal from the European Commission, though one which she has always described as 'botox'. “They offered no response to our fundamental objections to ISDS. There are ample points where Arnout will be able to pursue this struggle. People are going to become ever more doubtful. Not long ago we had to decide in Strasbourg whether the EU should reopen negotiations with the US on a ‘TTIP-light’. And it's notable that the chair of the Committee on International Trade, who's always been a big fan of free trade treaties, is now, with the elections in sight, suddenly putting his foot on the brake. So you can see that we've really put pressure on over this matter.”
In Mineur's view it's a pity that such successes don't receive rapid attention on the front pages of national newspapers. “The focus isn't ever on Brussels,” she says. “So what you have to do is cooperate with your colleagues in the Dutch national Parliament.”
Mineur's fight against TTIP and CETA fitted seamlessly into her broader mission to ensure that the interests of ordinary people weigh more heavily than those of big capital. For human rights, for instance. “I was recently in Geneva campaigning for a binding treaty to safeguard human rights in relation to big business,” she says. “That treaty must serve as a counterweight to the enormous hold corporations have on European politics.” And all the while support for such a treaty among the member states is growing.
Promises on trade union rights
“Anne-Marie has really revealed that with these ISDS arbitrage panels corporations are being put first, says De Jong. “They're getting the chance to take states to court. But workers who are exploited by the same firms, for example in the textile industry in Sri Lanka, haven't got a chance of doing the same.” Mineur visited Sri Lanka in 2017 and spoke to what she calls – in loose translation – 'a lot of big cheeses.' As a result of serious human rights abuses directed at the Tamil people, trade advantages granted to Sri Lanka by the European Union were ended. The Sri Lankan government did all that it could to repair its special trade relations with Europe. “But the people behind the Clean Clothes Campaign had huge concerns regarding trade union rights, which weren't being guaranteed in the country. With a colleague from the Spanish party Podemos, I succeeded in exacting a number of commitments from the Sri Lankan government.”
To summarise, as a result of the SP's work in Brussels, graft and lobbying were brought into the light, sand was thrown into the wheels of the relentless machine that is European market fundamentalism and more attention is being paid to exploitation and human rights. Hoekstra and his team will often find themselves asking advice from their fore-runners. They won't find everything ship-shape and ready to go when they arrive,but with all the work which has been put in, there's already a fine basis for breaking the power of Brussels.
By Lesley Arp. This article first appeared in the SP magazine Tribune, in the original Dutch.