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Interview with Philippe De Backer, Liberal MEP

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Philippe de Backer has been a Member of the European Parliament since September 2011, representing the Belgian Liberal Party Open VLD. Having studied biotechnology at the University of Ghent, where he was also one of the founding fathers of the university Model United Nations, he has always been a passionate and proactive liberal. As a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), led by his Open VLD colleague and former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, he deals with Transport and Tourism and the Economics and Monetary Affairs Committee. During an interview at his office overlooking the Eurobubble, he was kind enough to shed some light on his thoughts about youth unemployment, climate change and the future of Europe.

Youth unemployment obviously is a topic dear to our hearts. What can be done to create more jobs?

That's the million dollar question, of course. I feel like nowadays, all politicians are looking for THE solution, but more than one fundamental change has to be made. First of all, you have to stabilize and cure your economy; you have to ensure that jobs will actually become available, not only for the youth but in general for the whole labour market. There will always be a correlation between general unemployment and youth unemployment, youth unemployment almost always being twice as high. So if you invest in general economic growth, you will see that the percentage of youth unemployment will lower. A second point of action, one which isn’t taken enough nowadays, is to quickly accommodate and guide fresh graduates and to prepare them adequately for the job market. You can work on a programme where the government and the industrial sector collaborate on bottleneck jobs. Those kind of jobs require skilled people that aren’t always as easy to find, so better synergies between education and the job markets are essential. Thirdly: there is too much of a reluctance nowadays to start new businesses, mainly because a lot of the regulations are based on the old economy. A lot of young people are bursting with new ideas, with new business plans. That’s why we should make it easier, both on a national and European level, to bring these ideas forward. There is a whole new sector developing and lots of people should get encouraged to participate.

So do you think the European Union is doing enough to tackle this problem? What do you think of initiatives like the Youth Guarantee Scheme for instance?

If you really want to effectively battle youth unemployment, you don’t just throw money at the problem. You don’t simply create 100,000 subsidized jobs, that won’t be able to keep being financed in 5 years’ time, recreating the initial problem. You have to think in a sustainable way. You have to look at the roots of your economy. Let’s take Spain as an example, where people were hired for 3-5 years in the building industry and as soon as that sector collapsed, lost their jobs and couldn’t start a new job requiring different skills. You need programmes to bridge these professional gaps and it is Europe’s task to invest in such projects. You have to work with the member states to ensure that people are being followed up and trained for new jobs in new sectors. Invest in occupational resettlement.

That’s why I feel that training internships are so important: they are a great medium to introduce please such as yourself to the labour market. In a period of 3 to 6 months, you stimulate the contact between an employee and new businesses, machines, production methods and so on. Is Europe doing enough to stimulate this? Europe is definitely trying to intervene as much as it possibly can, but there is no use in simply asking for money. You have to think the process in a structural way. You have to invest in skills and capacities to create worth on the labour market and not simply “buy” short term solutions.

As you touch on the subject of internships, one of the main problems is that a lot of them are unpaid. Some might be lucky enough to get subsidies from their state, but those usually don’t cut the costs of basic living expenses. How do you feel about those unpaid internships?

First off, I think there are different kinds of internships. You have internships that are embedded in your studies. I personally sometimes have student interns who, for a shorter period of time, are keen to take a peek behind the scenes of the Parliament. I’d say that is a win-win situation. Secondly, with jobs that are more technical, an internship can help you develop certain skills that make you more attractive to be recruited afterwards. Finally, the group of people that enter the labour market and can’t find a job and would rather work unpaid than do nothing at all are indeed a vulnerable group. It’s essential to work together with civil services that offer traineeships but also allow you to still receive your unemployment money. It would turn into a win-win situation, because the offer of internships would increase, thus better preparing you to (re) enter the job market and lowering unemployment rates once the internship is finished.

A lot of campaigns are underway to convince young people to vote. What do you think is the reason that young people aren’t as enthusiastic anymore about Europe? Why has European voting decreased so much?

There are lots of different reasons. And this won’t change unless we change a couple of fundamental issues. First and foremost, we need to clarify and adequately explain what it is exactly that the EU is doing. We do indeed sometimes fail to do that. I’m trying to personally change that by organising 4 to 5 events a year where everyone is invited to join and to see what it is I am doing and how Europe works concretely. However, this only works when people themselves are engaged. Politicians don’t point out quite often enough that simply saying “I’m not interested” isn’t enough. As a citizen, you have to be engaged, try to follow up on files, and try to open the debate, to find the right information. It doesn’t necessarily have to be political; you can achieve a lot of great changes on a local level. I do see this engagement in a lot of people, but the real question is how to capture it. I have a lot of (young) people asking me what it is exactly that Europe does for them. A striking anecdote was a group of young entrepreneurs asking me this question, all while they were getting European subsidies, a European chair and so on. In the end, when starting a business, you also have to be willing to invest in your own engagement without always looking at the government for help.

So, essentially, two major issues need to be tackled: a better explanation of the concrete work we do and engage more citizens to be a part of the European debate. We are in need of a mentality switch and a clear translation of the people’s standpoints through politicians. As politicians, we’ve never been as accessible as we are nowadays; just think of the social media. You have the tool, so use it.

So do you feel an event like the European Youth Event in Strasbourg is a good way of reviving political engagement?

A very good one. As a politician, I’ve always been keen on going into the field and being confronted with the problems, so I only think its natural the opposite should be open to citizens as well. If you’re interested to know how the institutions work and if you want to get a behind-the-scenes feel, such events can stimulate new debates and show what it is that Europe does concretely. Moreover, it lowers the threshold to participate. And being immerged in the Eurobubble gives you the best perspective on the work we do.

Talking about the more concrete work the Parliament is trying to establish: the targets for reducing carbon emissions have been set at a lower rate than the Parliament originally proposed. Is the liberal party going to actively pursue raising them again, what is your standpoint in the matter?

Of course there are different standpoints, depending on the country you represent. My personal view has always been that climate change is represented in different factors. CO2 emissions are one of those factors and a very important one, but by drawing all our attention to that topic, we are losing sight of the other issues, greenhouse gas just to name one. You need a wide range of environmental topics to tackle. So my opinion is that the target established at this point is a realistic one. We still have a very ambitious target, the most ambitious one in the world in fact. At the same time, they’re targets that push our industry in a certain direction. It’s not as if those targets can be achieved tomorrow (snaps fingers), but it’s a good basis between the two. It’s good to be ambitious, but there’s no point in destroying the industrial sector. So I think we’ve found a good balance for our climate change action plans. We have an ambitious target that simultaneously offers perspectives to actually achieve it. It would be too easy to install an unrealistic target and then have to revise it every 5 to 10 years.

What are the liberal party’s priorities concerning climate change?

On a European level, we are in desperate need of an efficient energy strategy. Nowadays, it’s still too focused on the separate countries and as a result some of the initiatives are a lost cause or cost too much money. This is why a European strategy around energy policies is mandatory. The production needs to be more European. It’s the classic solar panels in Spain, wind turbines at the coast… We have to be prepared to share this energy and invest in a growing energy network.

So the future of sustainable energy is one you truly believe in?

Absolutely. We are going to have to make it a tradition. We will still need other resources, also as a baseline in the industry, but I’m convinced that with the necessary mentality switch it is the way forward. For example, the creation of low emission urban zones helps the cause of climate change. So we need to stay ambitious while still creating a realistic timeline for our targets.

Talking about timelines, as a conclusion: what will be the focus of the European Parliament during and after these crucial elections?

To realize that if you want progress and the ability to tackle the real issues, more collaboration between the member states is necessary. Some reforms need to be undertaken and some barriers need to be breached. But in the end, it’s not about having more resources, but about organising the usage of those resources as efficiently as possible. The question is how to organise so the value of an integrated Europe shines through. 

Gladys Vercammen-Grandjean is currently an intern at the United Nations regional Information Center (UNRIC).


Last modified on Thursday, 22 May 2014 11:21

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