‘EU withdrawal symptoms’: Interview with Jean Lambert

After 20 years as London’s Green MEP, Jean Lambert has stepped down. Green World caught up with Jean to discuss her long career in the European Parliament, her hopes and plans for the future and why Brexit does not have to mean the end of Green co-operation in Europe.

Jean Lambert sign
Jean Lambert sign
Green World

If a week is a long time in politics, then 20 years is a veritable lifetime. June’s elections saw the European Parliament welcome a raft of new faces, while saying goodbye to some rather more familiar ones – foremost among them Jean Lambert, Green MEP for London, who brought her uninterrupted two decades of service in the seat of European democracy to a close last month.

It was something of a stop-start departure for Lambert, who had been hot-desking in London following the closure of her main constituency office at the end of March – when the UK was originally meant to have left the EU. The long goodbye has certainly not been easy: “Because we’ve had this stop start, it’s been additionally difficult, not just for MEPs but for our staff involved as well,” says Lambert. “When is the appropriate time to cry your eyes out?”

Unsurprisingly, Lambert, who entered the European Parliament in 1999 as one of the first MEPs from the Green Party of England and Wales alongside Caroline Lucas, is conscious of the exceptional nature of her longevity. “I didn’t expect to still be here,” she says. “In politics you can never guarantee more than one term, there’s always that point of having to prepare both to lose and to continue. You’re there because there’s a job to be done and you think you’re the one to do it, but you can never expect to remain in place.”

Lambert was initially motivated to stand for MEP through her involvement with the International Greens at the European level, when the movement was in its infancy, spurred on by a desire to do “big picture work on directives and frameworking that were going to have a wider effect across Europe”. The list of achievements from her time in Parliament is considerable, testament to her commitment to ensuring that Europe is a welcoming continent for all.

Decent work and decent pay

As MEP for London, Lambert says she “took a decision that I didn’t need to represent the rich parts of London and focused instead on equality and anti-discrimination bodies”. Positions on two European Parliament committees – Employment and Social Affairs, and Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs – mean she has contributed to important gains in these areas for all European citizens, such as achieving greater protections for temporary agency workers. The Working Time Directive, for instance, sets limits on how long employers can make employees work for and establishes mandatory breaks for the benefit of workers.

Jean Lambert Sangatte Red Cross
Jean Lambert at Sangatte refugee camp in Calais.

Lambert’s work on the Working Time Directive allowed her to link up her London constituency and European work, taking the argument for a living wage (run by East London Citizens in the English capital) into the European Parliament. “The argument from opponents of the Working Time Directive was that people need to work long hours to earn a decent wage,” recounts Lambert. “But we said that if you were paid a decent wage you wouldn’t need to work that much. We made the case for decent work and decent pay.” 

Further action on welfare and employment by the Greens in the European Parliament includes work towards a European minimum income, which would provide a framework and guidance for governments on how to meet the basic minimum needs of their people. “When you look at a lot of member states’ welfare systems, the benefit levels are not set in relation to how much people need to live a dignified life. We shouldn’t be one of the richest parts of the world where people live on poverty incomes.”

Though the EU has no direct competence over wages, setting these principles and firing the starting pistol on a race to the top on welfare should be crucial to a ‘social Europe’. A minimum income directive would add robustness to EU proposals on social policy, making the “social pillar proposal a solid pillar rather than a cardboard archway” to uphold European citizens’ rights.

Migration and the advance of populism

Probably the largest aspect of Lambert’s work has been on the area of migration and asylum, with Lambert proving herself to be a tireless voice for the rights of refugees within the European Parliament. During her time as an MEP, Lambert has brought concerns from the European Network on Statelessness before Parliament, making it a priority for the cross-party group on children’s rights to ensure no child is left stateless. She has also pushed for rights for family members to accompany migrants from outside the EU, as well as being integral to the work on the regulation that set up the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), which Lambert says has been “really important in terms of standard-setting” when implementing asylum policy across Europe.

“You now have all member states with asylum law on the books,” says Lambert. “For a lot of countries that will have come direct from the EU. The UK has long-standing systems, while for Poland, for example, this is something new; having common standards there is a step forward. And if you have a common standard you need to have a common high standard. There is a difference in what states can provide, however, as some are richer than others. You also have the way in which different member states have different views on foreign policy.”

These differences on foreign policy have increasingly seen a hardening stance against refugees and migrants in general, says Lambert, leading to “demonisation and seeing these people as a threat”. And the perception of refugees as a threat, particularly those fleeing conflict in Syria and the Middle-East, has advanced hand-in-hand with the rise of populist governments and an authoritarian turn in the national politics of many EU member states. 

“We have to challenge parties like UKIP and Fidusz, we have to step up and protect the EU institutions that uphold our rights”

The advance of right-wing populism espoused by the likes of Victor Orban and Matteo Salvini poses a direct threat to the EU’s reputation as a beacon of liberal democracy, tolerance and openness. Does Lambert remain hopeful that this threat can be resisted? “Hope depends on the day of the week,” she laments, though remaining resolute in the determination that resist we must. “It’s a struggle you’ve got to have.” 

Added to an illiberal turn against immigration is the reluctance on the part of right-wing populists to tackle climate change. The EU, despite questions over whether it has been ambitious enough, has been vital in keeping the commitments made in the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Climate Commitment moving forward, or at least afloat, says Lambert, and it’s not surprising that right-wing populists are against it. 

Jean Lambert UNHCR

“Parties such as UKIP and Fidusz are parties that don’t want to take strong action on climate change… They will see feminism, diversity and environmental concerns as their enemies. And we have to challenge them, we have to step up and protect the EU institutions that uphold our rights.”

There are a number of member states, Lambert adds, that want to move forward but have “the dead hand of Orban” holding them back, killing off any chance of progress. Lambert hints that a broad coalition will be needed to face down the authoritarian threat, but this poses its own issues.

“You want to uphold the values of the parties that uphold human rights, but you are also in a position where you don’t want to be upholding their economic models,” muses Lambert. “For Greens, it’s about working at the EU level with partners on values and fundamental rights, but doing that without getting co-opted into being part of a particular economic model is the challenge for Greens.”

“You want to uphold the values of the parties that uphold human rights, but you are also in a position where you don’t want to be upholding their economic models”

Part of the Greens’ response to this is to promote alternative forms of development, which favour environmental sustainability while generating new jobs. Some areas are resistant to the closing down of fossil fuel industries due to the impact it will have on jobs. Poland, for example, is reliant on coal; simply dismantling the Polish coal industry, along with the jobs that it provides, is not going to win any long-term supporters for climate action, and would provide ample ammunition for populists.

As Lambert says, rather than just shutting down the coal mines, you have to “help people move forward and show them an alternative with a just transition”. Support, through measures like a transition fund, will ensure that the jobs lost in polluting industries are replaced by sustainable, green jobs. “You don’t have to have a choice between jobs or a clean environment, you can have both.”

Brexit: ‘We have been lazy when it comes to the EU’

The economic marginalisation felt by many Europeans in areas experiencing deindustrialisation, exploited by right-wing populism and which Greens will have to take into account when making the case for climate action, of course also fed into Brexit – the mention of which draws an understandably wry sigh from Lambert. 

The EU has taken much of the flak for economic stagnation in ‘left-behind’ areas of the UK, especially in areas hit by deindustrialisation such as the coalfields of South Wales and Yorkshire. But for those that see the EU as a source of their financial woes, Lambert is adamant that they should direct their anger at the UK Government. EU funding is available, she says, for a multitude of projects, from support for marginalised communities to climate mitigation schemes, but the government chooses instead to deflect criticism for its inaction onto the EU, while failing to make use of available funds or not giving credit when it does.

“The UK never looks at the EU and asks for help on flood relief in Lincolnshire nor for flood prevention funding,” laments Lambert. “There is money available that we could make better use of. But now London will lose half a billion a year of EU money designated for social fund and research purposes.”

Not that the government is solely to blame – the whole UK political class and even the EU must accept responsibility for the way Europe has been cast as the source of all ills. “We have been lazy when it comes to the EU,” Lambert admits. “There has been a lack of joining up what’s happening at EU level and national level. I have Labour colleagues who say part of the problem of Brexit was that MPs were too relaxed as they didn’t understand the importance of the EU. And indeed, many saw the European Parliament as competition. So it is vital that those links are made.”

Looking ahead

Where do we go from here? We appear to be on the brink of a Boris Johnson government, peddling fantasies of a Brexit deal that will solve the Irish border problem, bring untold riches to the UK, take back control, provide every citizen with a state-issue unicorn and so forth. It is clear to anyone that cares to listen that the EU will not be renegotiating, and any goodwill that lingered in the European Parliament may have been extinguished in the latest turnover of MEPs.

As Lambert states: “I think there has been a lot of sympathy in the previous Parliament. 63 per cent of the MEPs in this Parliament are new, and with a bigger Conservatives and Reformists group and a bigger Identity and Democracy group, it might be more of a different atmosphere, one more willing to just let the UK go.”

She continued: “I also think there is a growing exasperation. The Withdrawal Agreement was negotiated on the UK Government’s red lines, and the extension granted has not been used effectively, with the Tories holding a leadership election. This indecision is hurting us at European council level, at the level of national governments. I think there’s a feeling of ‘please, just make a decision’.”

“Brexit Party MEPs are coming in as wreckers, while the Greens are there to work”

And, while the prolonging of Brexit may be a source of exasperation for some – Brexiteers and the EU alike – it did mean that the UK participated in June’s European Elections. Lambert can hardly hide her distaste at the failure of the Conservatives to campaign seriously, effectively opening the door for the Brexit Party – an act that could have fatal repercussions for both the Tory Party and European democracy, as Lambert quips: “You don’t invite vampires over the doorstep”. At the same time, however, seven Greens were elected to the European Parliament, a Green wave reflected across the continent as the Green/EFA Group returned its largest ever number of MEPs, stymying the predicted far-right surge.

The new crop of Green MEPs have set to work immediately, with Alexandra Phillips campaigning for a Green New Deal, Majid Majid working on asylum and Gina Dowding pushing for green energy. Their attitude makes a strong contrast to the infantile antics of the newly-elected Brexit Party MEPs: “They’re coming in as wreckers, while the Greens are there to work,” notes Lambert. “Their time may be short in the European Parliament so they want to maximise their time there, not simply act as whingers who’ve written the story before they arrived.”

Even if Brexit does come to pass, that should not be the end of Green involvement in Europe. The climate crisis recognises no borders, and nor should Green solidarity, says Lambert. “We’ll likely be hosting COP26 in 2020, which is a huge opportunity to demonstrate Green networks and openness. We’ll also remain members of the European Green Party, which covers countries outside of the EU as well. We can keep those links and strengthen them at EU level and Global Greens level, while we also need grassroots organisations to stay part of umbrella groups such as the European Anti-Racism Network. There will be a lot still happening there.”

While that Green future won’t involve Lambert in the European Parliament, there’s no chance of her slowing down. Having already agreed to continue working with a number of groups on a voluntary basis and join the board of the European Citizen Action Service, Lambert also intends to keep working with the EU Network on Statelessness, as she has been there since it was set up. And though the UK may be cutting ties with Europe, Lambert will remain as close as ever: “I’m at a stage where if I don’t pack a suitcase every couple of weeks, I get withdrawal symptoms.”