Sunday

23rd Feb 2020

Interview

Ponytailed green MEP joins 'the other side of the table'

  • Claude Turmes was one of the few male MEPs with an unconventional hairdo (Photo: EU PVSEC)

Luxembourgish Green MEP Claude Turmes was not planning to join the Grand Duchy's government.

If he had not been called on to succeed his mentor, state secretary of environment Camille Gira, who died on 16 May, Turmes would have run for re-election as an MEP in 2019.

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  • Turmes in 2003, at a rally promoting biking (Photo: European Parliament)

"It is really because of this personal connection to my friend who died in government. … I just had no choice," Turmes told EUobserver in an interview.

Turmes, born in 1960, became an MEP in 1999. Had he remained an MEP for two more years, he would have been a euro-deputy for more than half of his adult life.

On Monday (25 June), the activist-turned-politician makes his debut at the Council of the European Union, representing his country.

The council, where national governments meet, is the parliament's counterpart in negotiations on new legislative files – which means Turmes is becoming part of the institution which he has often criticised as lacking green ambition.

A week before Monday's Environment Council meeting, he sat down with EUobserver in his office in the European Parliament building in Brussels, to look back on his long career as an MEP.

"I came here because I was an activist for this blue planet," he said.

Turmes had worked since the mid-1980s with the Friends of the Earth NGO, which made a point of lobbying the European Parliament for environmental protection.

"One summer during a holiday I had this idea: why don't you go yourself to the European Parliament?"

"What I do here is nothing else than what I did before: it's fighting to get Europe moving on environment and energy, on lobbying, transparency. But with maybe a 'longer arm' than if I would have stayed within NGOs."

Turmes quickly made a name for himself as interested in energy, and became the parliament's rapporteur for many important energy files – which means he would write the draft of parliament's proposed amendments, and negotiate with the Council.

The EU parliament system of appointing rapporteurs – and shadow rapporteurs from other groups – allows those MEPs to have a disproportionate influence. An MEP can become more than just one of 751.

"Academics speak about the parliament as a parliament of experts," said Turmes.

"For people like me, who come with a very clear agenda to this parliament, the good thing is: in this parliament it is not the 'elephants' that rule," he said - referring to the big groups of political parties.

"It is these six, seven, eight, ten legislators who work hard as rapporteurs and shadows. They are the power in this house, not the elephants," he noted.

Greens - a hit in Western Europe only?

The above notwithstanding, Turmes' political family received only 6.7 percent of the vote in the 2014 parliament elections.

Should the green group become more mainstream, or should the mainstream groups become more green? To Turmes, both are fine.

"What I'm interested in at the end of the day is: do we have a majority for green politics? For that, I don't mind to do coalitions with liberals, with social-democrats, with conservatives, with [the far-left] GUE."

He acknowledged that the greens had trouble getting a substantial voter base in southern and eastern EU member states – although Turmes noted that Italy's Five Star Movement could be seen, at least partly, as a green party.

"We are largely today, and that's a bit our failure, a Western European brand," he said.

"The greens in Western Europe became strong in the university towns, in towns where you have a lot of highly-educated people and that is where it started. I haven't given up the hope that greens will be the party of the 21st century," Turmes noted.

Turmes' old friends from the environmental NGO community are often critical of the final compromises that come out of the EU's legislative machinery.

And the Luxembourgish MEP acknowledged that it would be challenging for the EU to produce the "rapid and far-reaching" transition which, according to a leaked draft of the UN's climate change panel said was already needed by 2040, to prevent a global average temperature increase that will leave some parts of the world inhabitable.

"Climate change is unfortunately too abstract until it really hurts," said Turmes.

But he noted that there was good news too, mainly the success of renewable energy and energy savings – known in the Brussels bubble as 'energy efficiency'.

"We have, with the renewable directive of 2009, … created a mass market, which is so big that innovation was triggered in industrial processing, and that prices have fallen. It will be the roll-out of renewables, solar and wind, and big off-shore wind also, which will basically be the game-changer."

"The second thing which gets better understood more and more is that energy efficiency is a job machine. It's a real job machine for Europe, because it replaces imports from oil and gas and coal from outside Europe, by jobs in Europe."

"Energy efficiency and renewables are geopolitical game-changers. … The strong countries in geopolitics tomorrow are those that have the green technologies."

Passion

The Luxembourgish MEP will leave the parliament after almost 18 years. He stood out among many of his male colleague-MEPs by rarely wearing a tie, not shunning brightly coloured shirts, and with his trademark pony-tail.

He also had a passionate debating style, that sometimes got him carried away.

He was an active member of the parliamentary inquiry into the 'Dieselgate' car emissions scandal, where several times he would give such a long and outraged speech, that he had no more time to ask the witnesses any questions.

Turmes: 'I have my style.' (Photo: European Parliament)

"I have my style. ... I don't get it always right, but I always try to be passionate. I try to [stick] to the facts."

He laughed hard when this website pointed out that as government member, he may need to reign himself in.

"I think my friends in the government and friends in other governments will have to get used to my style," he replied.

"Being passionate, being transparent, calling a bluff a bluff, I think that's important for the credibility of policymakers," he said.

Dieselgate - 'these people have lied'

Dieselgate – which saw millions of diesel cars approved to drive on EU roads when in fact they were emitting far beyond EU limits – is a case in point.

"I think we will have to go back to the answers of the car industry in EMIS [the inquiry committee]. These people have lied," said Turmes.

"It is criminal, criminal, criminal. These people should go to jail for having created hundreds of thousands of early deaths," he added.

"We have 35 million manipulated cars [on European roads]," he noted.

He promised that the issue was going to be part of his first item when taking the floor in the environment council of Monday – which is due to discuss new CO2 targets for passenger cars and vans.

"I will be there, as state secretary of my government, and I will speak on CO2 in cars, and in this speech I will of course make the link with Dieselgate and this which I consider really the worst lobby history we have seen in the last decades," he said.

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