Marietje Schaake is a Member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands, representing the liberal party Democrats 66. Her work in the Parliament centers on international trade, foreign affairs, human rights, and the digital agenda, and she has been called “Europe’s most wired politician.”
The Politic: Could you share a little bit about your background and how you ended up in the position you hold now? Did you think you would be in this position twenty years ago?
Marietje Schaake: No, not at all. Twenty years ago, I had just returned from spending a year at a liberal arts college in Ohio, in the middle of the Rust Belt. I had just started my studies at the University of Amsterdam and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after studying. I was actually quite curious to find out what my purpose was, so I tried many different things. I did a lot of volunteering, I went to an art school during university for a year, I studied new media–which had everything to do with the emergence of the World Wide Web and globalization.
What I didn’t know was that I was very committed to doing something for other people, not only focusing on myself and my career and thinking about how much money I would make. That was never of interest. I wanted to make the world a better place. First, I thought that maybe the UN would be an interesting place to work, but then did I an internship at the Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and I found out that that was not the environment that worked best for me. After that, I spent some time working on Capitol Hill in the U.S. House of Representatives, which was very inspiring.
TP: When you were working with the UN, what was the environment like, and what did you think didn’t fit with what you wanted to do in the future?
MS: I think the heavy bureaucracy was a disappointment for me. I think the goals of the United Nations–especially trying war crimes suspects–are something I very much believe in. I think justice, advancing international law, raising the bar when it comes to respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, those goals are crucial for me. But I also saw how much work it took and how challenging it was to get results. And I guess I was more impatient and more eager to get results faster. I think it would have frustrated me to work in such an environment.
TP: What inspired your interest to work in human rights? As you mentioned, it can be a very frustrating field where things take a long time.
MS: Yes, you have to be very persistent. In politics, you have to have stamina and not give up. But I think that when I look at the place where I was born, the Netherlands–it was one of the most free, prosperous, gender equal, entrepreneurial, wealthy, well-functioning, uncorrupt countries in the world. There’s just so much to celebrate. When you look around at how people just like you are living in other places, the repression they face, the sometimes terrible circumstances they live in, I think we have to do what we can to improve the lives of others.
Human rights are for me a basic foundation of human life. It is very important that we look across borders. Clearly, international developments, instability in other countries, the lack of respect for human rights–those things are impacting us as well. We should try to improve the lives of others and raise the bar in a common interest of more civility and freedom.
TP: The political environment in Europe and the rest of the world seems to have shifted against that goal in a way. Do you have any theories or thoughts about why this is happening and why it is happening at this time in particular?
MS: I’m pushing back against limiting space for human rights. I think it is not smart and not right to have so-called interests, or to have short-term interests prevail over longer-term goals. We see this especially when it comes to countering terrorism, but also in very hot topics such as the question of quote-unquote “managing migration,” dealing with refugee flow but also applications of migrants who would like to come for other reasons. That, combined with the financial crisis in 2008, has caused a movement towards looking inwards and seeking scapegoats.
Unfortunately, in that political climate, oftentimes the interest in and support for working outside of borders and thinking to advance the rights of everyone, regardless of who they are, is shrinking. We know this from history, and we should know very well what’s at stake and never repeat the mistakes of the past.
TP: And what do you think can be done at this point to push against these developments?
MS: We are actually pushing back, and if I look at the [Dutch] polls, my political party is doing well. In France, there are more centrist candidates for the presidency who are successfully challenging Marine Le Pen, who is more of a nationalist. I do think there are many counter-movements that are successful in Europe.
I wouldn’t say there is a sense of defeat at all–I think there is a great pushback on the political level but also in society. Even though there are concerns about large numbers of refugees or migrants coming to Europe, I also know of many organizations and charities who have so many volunteers signed up, they can’t even assign them all projects. There are also a lot of people in society who want to donate children’s toys, blankets, and clothes, and who want to spend time helping refugees learn the language and find their way in our society. I’m really encouraged by those people because it’s not a black-and-white situation, thankfully. It’s not that everyone is afraid of these refugees. There are a lot of people who are eager to help and understand that the biggest crises exist for these [refugees] who are seeing the most awful war, in Syria for example, that we have seen in many, many decades.
TP: It’s a really hard time and a really important time, I think, to be working in immigration and refugee policy. What are your views on the situation in the U.S. in particular?
MS: We are all looking to the U.S. to learn day-by-day what the presidency of Trump and his administration is actually going to amount to. And so far, the signs are very concerning. Attacks on the rule of law, attacks on the media, and attacks on minorities are going against what I and, I think, many people in Europe long believed were not only American values but transatlantic values, values of open societies, open economies, the open internet–all based on open-mindedness.
What we’re seeing from the U.S.–not only attacks against the rule of law, media, and minorities, but also questioning security cooperation. There are people very close to the president attacking the European Union and backing challengers to sitting governments in many of our member states, whether that’s Nigel Farage, who celebrated the outcome of the referendum in the UK, or other nationalist politicians like Marine Le Pen in France or Geert Wilders in my country.
The developments coming from the White House are followed very closely. At the same time, we know the U.S. well enough to know that it’s not only in the White House where policy is made, and we’re looking very closely especially at what Republicans in Congress are going to do. We are very clear on what we believe is important about our transatlantic cooperation.
TP: Even before Trump was elected, with situations like Brexit, there was a sense of a weakening of the European Union. Do you think the EU is weakening and if so, what are some of the ways in which it can be strengthened?
MS: There’s definitely a turning point that we have reached, and it is important that we proceed with EU cooperation in a very deliberate way. Last week, [Jean-Claude] Juncker, the President of the European Commission, talked about potential directions for the EU. The idea was that the member states, as well as the citizens of the EU, should be given a clear choice as to what the Union’s role should be.
Clearly, the status quo is not working. I agree, I think there are many areas where we get stuck, where member states’ governments are not living up to the agreement that they themselves made on the European level. We have reached a point where tough decisions have to be made. I think we need to go through that exercise to make sure that many further steps of strengthening the EU have legitimacy from the bottom up. A stronger EU with clear legitimacy from the bottom up could mean one that is more focused on specific areas, but it could also mean a Union that will actually integrate more. I think it is very good that it is now up to citizens, civil society, and governments of member states to say the next chapter will look like this.
TP: To me, there seem to be a few different ways to affect political action. The first is through law and running for office. Then there’s another way that seems to rely more on changing the hearts and minds of individual citizens. I was wondering what you saw your role as–whether more change can be effected through changing law or through changing the hearts and minds of individuals? Especially with regards to immigration policy, a lot of the issue relies on changing the hearts and minds of people.
MS: It’s hard to put law on one side and changing hearts and minds on the other because essentially, our laws, our norms, our regulations, our political systems are reflections of our society. They don’t come falling out of the sky; we build them ourselves. Of course, there are frustrations sometimes with how things work, but we have to constantly improve our own democracies. I think there’s a clear relation between societies and the political and legal structures that govern them.
But having said that, as a people’s representative, I work both on seeking to adjust laws and change regulations as well as engaging with people and convincing them or discussing with them what the best solution is. When I look at my own role, I think I do both–changing people’s minds and engaging in changing the law. I believe that in order to change people’s minds, it’s also very important that we listen to people and understand in a thorough manner what is important for them, what is keeping them up at night, what they’re wishing for but also what they’re concerned about.
In analyzing what happened in the last presidential election in the U.S. and also analyzing what’s going on in the EU now, there’s a risk that there are simplified conclusions. And that’s not really going to help our understanding. People also don’t want to be boxed, to be seen as a certain person or another. They want to express who they are themselves, and I think that’s an important liberty that they have, and we have to cherish that.
TP: A lot of the questions that are very prominent politically now are very complex issues, and a lot of times, the media uses snippets of people speaking for a few seconds, which can simplify the issues in a very harmful way. At the same time, there’s so much going on that it’s really hard for people to focus and gain all the information they need. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on this tension between limited amounts of energy and time for people to do their own research and their roles as political actors?
MS: I think this is essentially a challenge of all times. Twenty or forty years ago, politicians relied a lot more on media that were top-down such as television, radio, and newspapers, and I’m not sure if they got more airtime then. Twenty or forty years ago, you also got a small snippet in the media. Then, there was not as much you could do to complete the story or counter the argument as you can today.
I see lots of politicians filming their own clips, tweeting their own thoughts, blogging and linking to documentation to prove their point. It may be that the wealth of information is actually a challenge to navigate, but I don’t think there is less access to information or less opportunity for politicians to express themselves today than in the past.
TP: I wanted to ask you about your own frequent use of Twitter. What do you think the role of Twitter should be in politics?
MS: I think it’s up to individual representatives to use media and technologies in the way they think is fit. For me, it has been a very useful way to not only share what I am doing, but to interact with other people and learn about what people are reading, what they’re thinking, what people are sharing. It’s a very important way to stay connected.
TP: With platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, there are many articles written about how if you’re “blue” or if you’re liberal, you only see liberal news feed articles and that puts you in a “bubble.” Are you concerned at all about this?
MS: I’m very much concerned about how profit models such as those of Facebook or Google are negatively impacting the public sphere. This has to do with their algorithms but also with other aspects like their market share. If, for example, 95% of people were using one search engine and that search engine has a very particular algorithm to sort information–for example, positive messages about one political candidate and negative messages about another, then you can say that it has significant influence on society.
The challenge is that we cannot assess what the influence is because these algorithms are secret. I’m concerned about how the business and profit models of some of these very large tech companies are influencing our democracy. At the same time, regulating speech is something we should be very careful about; I fundamentally believe in free expression and other fundamental values that involve accessing information and nondiscrimination. We are looking at ways to make sure that access to information is not dominated by one business model or one party at the expense of democracy.
Photograph by Bram Belloni.