March 4, 2018, 10 min read
Interview by Sarah Wagner
She is one of the youngest Members of the European Parliament, the only representative for the Pirate Party: Julia Reda had to learn the hard way how to make her individual voice heard.
In this week’s interview, you will learn about how to overcome sexism, ageism and the importance of knowing one’s topic well in order to be ahead.
Could you start by presenting yourself and outlining shortly your responsibilities as an MEP?
“I am Julia Reda, I am the only member of the European Parliament for the Pirate Party, which is a party that ran for the European elections in 15 countries in 2014, so it’s quite a European movement. A big part of my responsibility is actually representing a European constituency rather than a German one. I think that distinguishes me a lot of from other MEPs. Here in the European Parliament, I joined the Greens/EFA group and got elected as vice president of the group. I am also a member of different committees, e.g. the legal affairs committee ‘JURI’, where I focus on progressive online copyright legislation.”
Why exactly did you choose to join the JURI i.e. the legal affairs committee?
“I have been personally confronted with the problems of copyright reform at several points in my life, e.g. during my studies as a student assistant. I think that the copyright regime still does not work very well for universities. And even before that: I think the first time I got in trouble with copyright was when I joined a translation project for the Harry Potter books to German, I was about fourteen years old at the time. Every time a new Harry Potter book came out, a group of volunteers would translate the book to German, unofficially before the official German version came out. Of course, that is a copyright infringement but it was more of a fan project that didn’t try to compete with the professional translation. I’m pretty sure that everyone who participated still bought the original book when it came out. Eventually, this translation, of which I did a chapter, had to be removed from the internet because of a conflict with the publisher. It was still a great experience! Hence you see, JURI for me was really the only choice!”
“I think the first time I got in trouble with copyright was when I joined a translation project for the Harry Potter books to German.”
You joined the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) before moving on to the pirate party. Could you share the thought process that lead to and eventually triggered this important decision?
“To begin with, I always considered myself left of center in terms of political affiliation. Politics were always very important in my family, where everyone was somehow politically active. Hence, I joined the SPD very early and my experience was that the party put me on the pedestal as a young female member, i.e. to show in the media that they had young members. However, they did not like these young members to be actually participating in the policy thinking, which bothered me, of course. This was very different in the Pirate Party, where I got involved in drafting policy within a relatively short time. I left the SPD when there was the conflict over the German internet blocking law in 2009 (so-called ‘Zugangserschwerungsgesetz’), which was the tip of the scale for me.“
How did you gain credibility at such a young age? Was it the environment that enabled you to flourish?
“The environment was very different in the two parties. E.g., in the SPD, they had this 140-year celebration of the party founding and I was hence put on stage with Gerhard Schröder and Michail Gorbatschov. Yet, I was not participating in decision-making processes at all. The furthest I got was as to become a replacement delegate at the municipal level.”
“I was hence put on stage with Gerhard Schröder and Michail Gorbatschov. Yet, I was not participating in decision-making processes at all.”
Talking about the environment, how did you cope with the situation you faced when joining the European Parliament as a young female member in a relatively traditional surrounding? How did you gain credibility over time? You were voted as one of the most influential MEPs in Politico (Brussels-based newspaper) recently, which shows you are being perceived as influential today.
“First of all, I have experienced instances of sexism and ageism, although it works in combination a lot. Especially in the copyright reform, the most conservative position is usually held by elder men from French-speaking countries. There have been cases when in the middle of a committee meeting they attacked me verbally because of age or generally dismissed my opinion. Once, even Commissioner Oettinger lost his temper and attacked me in a plenary debate where I was not even present. I think in one case, somebody was even insinuating that I was corrupt or something like that. I had the impression that especially the older women in the EP don’t like this behavior at all, from whom I saw a lot of solidarity. They probably experienced the same thing themselves.”
“There have been cases when in the middle of a committee meeting they attacked me verbally because of age or generally dismissed my opinion.”
How did they show solidarity?
“Solidarity is not necessarily about party lines or completely agreeing on the substance of issues but simply that a certain way of attacking a political opponent is not acceptable. For example, there was one committee meeting where I was attacked by an older social democrat and the chair of the meeting was a woman of the EPP (center-right party in the EP) group who intervened and asked him to keep to a civilized conversation. In this regard, it is a problem that most committees are still predominantly chaired by men. It does make a difference to the atmosphere in the meetings when the chair is a woman.”
“Sometimes, older MEPs are scared of the message of younger people."
Looking back, now that you have been an MEP for some time, what were strategies that you developed over time to deal with ageism or sexism?
“I think one issue is that sometimes, older MEPs are scared of the message of younger people. Most MEPs communicate in a way that makes them look good and get re-elected. My communication is rather that of a campaigner than that of a public representative. I like to work with videos, photos etc., i.e. different means of communication. My strategy is trying to create a public outcry to encourage people to go to their representative and lobby them to change their position. This is a good strategy, I think because it is unfamiliar to many older members and even if they don’t respect me as a young woman, then they have to respect the public opinion at least. So sometimes I take that route instead of convincing them directly.
The other thing is staying on top of the topic. Everybody is expected to hold a strong opinion on almost every political topic as MEP. But in policies as detailed as the copyright reform, MEPs cannot form an opinion on every detail. Consequently, by knowing details I can be ahead of them and make particular points.”
What other social skills have you acquired as MEP?
“One thing that has considerably improved over time is public speaking. Today, when I have to give a speech with extensive slides of 30 to 45 minutes, I don’t really have to prepare it anymore. At some point you have developed a certain routine – I think I have given over 100 speeches since being elected. It is really a learning-by-doing process. By now, I get a lot of positive feedback about my speeches and the way I present topics in an easy and understandable manner and that is something I had to learn.”
“By knowing details I can be ahead of them and make particular points.”
Do you think about your appearance a lot?
“It is a bit of a mixture. I have definitely changed the way that I dress. That is, partially because it makes everyday interactions easier.
I noticed at the beginning of the mandate that if I don’t wear a suit, people think I am an intern and that can be a disadvantage depending on the surroundings. At the same time, I still want to be able to maintain a private life and look the way I look. So, I make certain compromises with the way I dress at work but at the same time, I like to keep my hair short, for instance. I would not change that even if it would be possibly beneficial for my job.”
“If I don’t wear a suit, people think I am an intern.”
You became an MEP right after finishing university. How did you deal with this natural ignorance and uncertainty with regards to the expectations and tasks you were to face? What are the most important skills one needs as MEP?
“I think I was well prepared with regard to the political sphere. I knew the topics well from my political activism and from my internship in the EP shortly before. What I did not know much about was management and leading other people.
I had never had any employees before. Suddenly I had this team of 6 people that worked for me directly. And as vice president of the group, I am part of the bureau that is in charge of another 80 employees. For that, I was not prepared. I tried to learn over time and I did some management training on how to be an employer. It is still a part of the job I do not necessarily enjoy but I think anyone that wants to be an MEP needs to be aware that the job is not just about knowing your topic and communicating to the outside world. You also have to be a manager of a team.”
“Suddenly I had this team of 6 people
that worked for me directly.”
Can you give an example of what you had to learn with regard to people management?
“I gave very little feedback when I started, both about when I was happy and when I was dissatisfied. This is very important: If someone is working for you, you must communicate expectations and say if something is going well or not and how it can be improved.”
What makes a good and successful MEP?
“As an MEP, you can really shape your own work. If you are proactive - e.g. by assuming the position of shadow rapporteur - you can have a lot of influence on the legislation that gets passed. There is a lot of legislation that is not even reported in the media and gets little attention. MEPs have to vote on sometimes 1000 individual votes in one plenary session. It is impossible for an MEP to know everything so you do rely a lot on the advice of shadow rapporteurs.
The other thing is that you have to communicate a lot. Journalists will not necessarily just come to you, particularly as European politics still gets less attention. So, you need to contact media and find respective journalists. You must package information differently according to countries and audiences.“
“It is impossible for an MEP to know everything so you do rely a lot on the advice of shadow rapporteurs.”
How easy is it for a young person to become an MEP?
“I was quite privileged: nobody pays you for going on an election campaign. Hence, people that are better off have better chances to be elected, because they can afford to take time off work to campaign. I think I worked part-time until 2 months before the elections. Then I did not work at all. People who don’t get financial support or had the time to save up money would have difficulties.
Also, having money is still necessary to make money. More established parties with many corporate sponsors have an easier time to get money from the state. This was always difficult for the comparatively young Pirate Party, mostly supported by young people without salary and with limited corporate sponsorship.”
“Money is still necessary to make money.”
What gives you perspective?
“My goal is to make technology work for the empowerment of people. I don’t think technological progress in itself is a good or bad thing but it is important that it is properly managed. Laws need to be designed in a way that they benefit everyone rather than just a few.
I try to not lose sight of the bigger picture. In the very long term, basically human development has been going into a positive direction; there are fewer diseases and poverty than 50 or 100 years ago, but especially right now, there are a lot of developments that I find worrying, think e.g. about the racist attitude towards refugees, and Brexit is a big shock, of course. I think if I ever get the feeling that the tiny piece of legislation I am working on is insignificant in the broader picture, I try to take a step back and think that also these problems can be overcome.”
“Everyone is a lot more useful to society when doing what he or she really wants.”
Do you have any advice?
“I think one advice to students graduating from high school is that one should not just study what is currently considered the “most appropriate” subject to study for the future. In the early days of the Pirate Party, there was this widespread bias among our members that you had to study STEM to be useful in politics. There was this, let’s call it ‘nerd pride attitude’ that one could not regulate the internet without being an IT expert. But I disagree: Everyone is by far better in the area that one is passionate about. If theatre studies make you get up every morning, then go for it! Everyone is a lot more useful to society when doing what he or she really wants.”
Many thanks for the interview, Julia Reda!
Julia Reda was elected into the European Parliament for the German Pirate Party, representing a young worldwide movement of people who believe in using technology for the empowerment of all. She is Vice-Chair of the Greens/EFA group and a co-founder of the Parliament’s Digital Agenda Intergroup. As rapporteur for the review of the 2001 copyright directive, she advocated for a European copyright that is adapted to the digital era, that is easy to understand and enables the free exchange of culture and knowledge across borders. Julia Reda is one of the youngest members of the current European Parliament. She holds an M.A. in Political and Communication Science from Johannes-Gutenberg-University Mainz, Germany.