Dr. Katarina Barley is vice-president of the European Parliament, the European Union’s law-making body, and describes herself as a European, Social Democrat, and feminist.
In the European elections in May 2019, she was the top candidate for the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).
Prior to that she was a member of the German Bundestag from 2013 to 2019 — during which time she was, among other things, SPD Secretary-General; Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth; Executive Minister of Labour; and Federal Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection.
Before her time in politics, the lawyer worked as a research assistant at the Federal Constitutional Court and as a judge.
We spoke with Dr. Barley about her lifelong activism, as well as the role of the European Union in global events like COVID-19, the anti-racist movement, achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, Brexit, and more.
When did you first become politically involved?
I was about eight years old when I started my first petition. All we had back then in the neighbourhood was a small, boring playground. So I collected signatures for an adventure playground — with success. This playground actually still exists today.
What would you say to young people today who want to take action?
Today, online activism is an important tool that we now can’t imagine life without.
It’s very enriching that we can inform each other and exchange information quickly and easily via social media. The dynamics are much faster online and it's easier to get real power behind something.
At the same time, it takes very little time to sign a petition online. Just one click and it’s done. That can be an advantage, but I also see the danger that people no longer deal with the topics and issues sufficiently, and people don't know what they are signing.
With models like Global Citizen's, the informational aspect helps. It gives young people the opportunity to inform themselves and learn more about different issues related to the Sustainable Development Goals. In addition, Global Citizen is a trustworthy organization that has shown that one voice can make a difference together with many other voices.
Let's talk about justice: What is the EU doing to ensure greater justice — both in Europe and globally?
Justice is one of the fundamental values of the European Union and one of the reasons why the EU was founded. The EU wants to create equal opportunities, give more opportunities to young people and ensure gender justice.
But also beyond Europe, the EU has the ideal of being a fair player. European history has not always been positive. Now is the time to take responsibility.
The distribution of a potential vaccine against COVID-19 also has to do with justice. What contribution can the EU make to ensure that everyone, everywhere in the world benefits from a vaccine?
The strategy of China and the US with their "America First" policy is well known. As the EU, we must act differently. We must ensure that all people have access to a vaccine as soon as it is available.
This requires a joining of forces, close cooperation, and a great willingness to cooperate, which we — as the EU — want to fulfil.
What role does the EU play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations (a.k.a. The Global Goals)?
This is a complex and multifaceted issue that cuts across all areas of the EU’s work.
Take the example of foreign affairs: we always have to weigh up whether we are talking about accession negotiations, or cooperation with non-European states, and ask ourselves the question: Do we agree to this or that deal and reward the progress made, or do we first have to press for further improvements?
We must pay particular attention to empowering youth and ensuring greater gender equality in order to create a sustainable, successful future — that is where we as the EU have a strong contribution to make.
What are the advantages of the EU in a crisis situation like the current pandemic — and what are the weaknesses?
In times like these, people's expectations of the EU are high — but as a Union we have limited room to manoeuvre at the moment.
We could do much more if the member states gave us more powers and scope. So weaknesses and advantages are close together.
Germany is a comparatively small spot on the map, but as a large association of states we as the EU can help to procure intensive care beds and play an important, coordinating role in the global world.
We do see that member states are learning, but it takes time. After the financial crisis (of 2007-2008), we saw then that there was a rethink (among member states).
Now we have a health crisis and we have to get rid of vanity and ask ourselves instead: what is actually useful? And aren’t we not much stronger when we are working together?
Brexit has been a hot topic in the media in recent years. Not only as a politician, but also as a citizen of Britain and Germany, what do you think hasn’t been talked about enough yet?
The rights of citizens. There has been a lot of talk about the consequences for the economy and trade — but far too little about people.
This should be the priority: what status do they have, what rights do British workers have in the EU? The lives of millions of people will change abruptly when the hard Brexit happens.
The violent death of George Floyd has once again triggered an essential debate on racism — not only in the US but also in Europe. What is the political role of the EU here, and what action is being taken?
We always have issues of exclusion, discrimination, and racism on the agenda. At EU level, the protection of minorities, especially the behaviour towards Roma, is an ongoing issue.
We often have to start from scratch and work to agree that there really is a problem. From the ranks of [Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor] Orbán you can hear things like: "Roma are not discriminated against at all".
The latest developments in Poland, where some people are proud of having created "LGBTQ+ free zones", is also a big issue that we are concerned about.
As the EU, we are responsible for contributing to the better integration of all minorities and the tolerant treatment of all people.
Up to now, we as the EU have mostly relied on addressing grievances openly. Where this approach reaches its limits is also the question: do we have to cut grants, and when do we need financial sanctions?
We must get the member states to protect all people and always weigh up what is the best way forward. And of course we all have to ask ourselves every day how we can counter everyday racism.
The EU Commission has announced that it will put the issue on the agenda in the future. I welcome this, because we can and must all work on it.