April 26, 2018, 12 min read
Interview by Sarah Wagner
Meet “Europe's most wired politician” (The Wall Street Journal), the woman who drives important topics such as net neutrality and digital trade as EP Member for the ALDE party (liberal democrats): Marietje Schaake.
In the interview with Sarah, she shares how she dealt with her unsuspected election victory 8.5 years ago, how learning what you don't want is valuable and why she thinks women face a risk of talking in a circle of like-minded people.
Good morning Marietje. Great to have you here.
In a nutshell, how would you describe your responsibilities as a Member of the European Parliament?
“Proactive engagement with my constituents is a major responsibility. I reach out to people, ask for their input and try to be as transparent as possible about what I do. By showing what I am doing I seek to be accountable and build trust. In fact, building trust is one of the most important aspects, I think. In the Parliament, I am active in committees that focus on topics related to trade, international relations and human rights as well as technology; technology also in trade, foreign policy and cyber security.”
You have become a very known player on digital policy and international trade here in Brussels. Where is your vision and passion for international relations and trade on the one hand, and technology on the other hand, coming from?
“Values illustrate the anchor that determine how you set out the course that you want to go. My values are the aspiration that every human should have the freedom to lead his or her life the way he or she wants, without barriers from governments, economic constraints or the lack of opportunities such as education.”
Did you personally suffer from any of such constraints?
“No, not necessarily. I have always considered it a privilege, though, to have grown up in one of the freest, most open and progressive societies in the world, i.e. the Netherlands.”
“Values illustrate the anchor that determine how you set out the course that you want to go.”
How did you know, growing up in the Netherlands, that you were living in such a progressive society?
“Through my parents’ upbringing, I am aware of what luxury it is to live in a society where men did not have to fight in a war. My father was born in the second world war and my mother right after it. Hence, there is an appreciation for the darkest days guiding the dynamics in my family. I hope, with the generational change of the baby boomers, this appreciation will not be lost. I feel there is not such a great awareness among younger people that have not experienced these horrors.”
So, do you think the younger generations have changed in a negative way?
“No. A lot of good things have happened since, from the reconstruction years to the sexual revolution, the upset of the political dogmatic and traditional system, increased emancipation of women, globalisation, the technological revolution etc. However, we should not underestimate how fragile our open society, the open internet, open economies and open minds actually are. It is an extraordinary privilege to live in an EU where former enemies are now allies. It is a root, awareness and principle we should not forget about. We must learn from history and not repeat mistakes. ”
According to the CNN you are one of the “Dutch rising stars” and Politico, the Brussels-based newspaper, called you one of the most influential MEPs in the recent past. What makes an influential and successful MEP in your opinion and why do you think you are perceived as such?
“I think a successful MEP gets things done; sets out to do something and then achieves the result. Through a lot of hard work and cooperation with others, this has played out well for me in several instances. One of the things that has worked, in particular, in the past 8.5 years, is to identify topics when they are still a very small seed, where nobody sees their importance coming, such as net neutrality, digital trade or digital freedom in foreign policy. My takeaway is that it is always important to anticipate and identify where change is coming from, and what that means to lawmakers like us, i.e. whether regulation is necessary.”
“We must learn from history and not repeat mistakes.”
What are your strategies that make up your secret sauce?
“First of all, I do not feel special. I am just doing my job with a lot of dedication and with the great support of my team. That being said, next to hard work, collaboration with colleagues is crucial. We are in the political middle, so you have to build coalitions for every single decision that gets voted.”
Do you think you would have been elected without social media?
Tell us a bit more about your time as consultant and entrepreneur, your profession before becoming an MEP. What is one positive and one negative memory you hold?
“As a consultant, I focussed on civil rights, and particularly the civil rights movement in the US with the question of what relevant lessons it holds for us in Europe. I developed a number of public diplomacy programs and enjoyed the creativity of the job. As an entrepreneur, I always focused on change and impact, so that has not changed. There is not necessarily a negative memory, but I did notice a major difference between The Netherlands, where people often asked me how old I was, and the US where that was never a question or a barrier.”
Why would you exchange this entrepreneurial life to a bureaucratic life?
“Let us analyze what it means to be an entrepreneur. To me, it means that you look ahead and anticipate, take action and achieve a result, bring people together. This is the exact same thing in the Parliament. MEPs get a mandate from the people but how you work with it and what you make out of it depends on how entrepreneurial you are. You set out with an idea which you must then implement, with tons of hurdles and obstacles on the way to overcome. It takes perseverance and cooperation to achieve the aspired end result.”
“My takeaway is that it is always important to anticipate and identify where change is coming from.”
Why did you become an MEP in the first place?
“Why I ran is to take responsibility for our society and community. There are different ways to assume responsibility and do something for society and I chose this path. Some more personal reasons that lead me to the decision to run were various events happening in 2008 when I spent a lot of time in the US. There was this young senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, who – after what I perceived as dark Bush days – was rising with a new way of engaging people through technology. He made people feel that politics was about them and that each individual could make a difference. I found his way of engaging people exciting, so did many other people of my generation. Yet, nothing comparable to this energy was seen in Europe, where European elections were coming up and parties from the far right were gaining momentum. I was very concerned about these developments. I thought that the role of the Netherlands in the EU and the EU in the world was deeply important and I wanted to engage more young people and make them care about the European future rather than letting others decide for them.”
How did you implement your idea? How does the process work in practice?
“In the Netherlands, we have a list system. So basically, I put my name forward hoping to get a place on the list. Every party has 30 names on the list. Yet, the Netherlands in total only has 26 seats for all political parties. So, I was not expecting to get elected at all. I just thought that with my participation I could help facilitate a discussion about the European elections with people. Then, to my huge surprise and gratitude, I was recommended on the 3rd place and the members of my party supported me in that position on the list through the primaries. We then tripled our representation as D66, so from being a complete outsider, I became MEP.”
You were recommended. Why would someone do that for you?
“Well, this is not really how it works. I was the one who put my name forward in a big bucket. Then, we had something like a job interview with a committee that assesses your capabilities from various points of views. At the end of the day, the members vote and decide.”
Have you had mentors or sponsors that supported you along the way, and role models you looked up to?
“Yes, I have always sought advice and mentors but they are not famous, necessarily. I remember I considered becoming a journalist in university. By coincidence, I once met a journalist while seeking shelter from the rain outside a café. I just asked him whether he would have time to meet over a coffee to share his experience with me. While he did not become a mentor as such, I think I learned that asking for advice is good, and people are remarkably kind and willing to share their life lessons. So just ask for advice, e.g. your professors, or other people you meet in your professional and personal life, who have a bit more life experience. Neelie Kroes or Els Borst, both inspired me as a liberal woman breaking the glass ceiling. Mentors are helpful but at the end of the day, you make your own decisions. It comes down to your intuition and gut feeling. In the end, every decision also involves risk-taking, you never know whether the decision you take will play out right.”
“In the end, every decision also involves risk-taking, you never know whether the decision you take will play out right.”
You have been here in the EP for nearly 9 years. Is there anything you did not know when you started and learned in the past years?
“There is so much I have learned! I have come to appreciate the beauty of compromise, in particular. Intuitively, it is frustrating to give up any of your ideals, principles, and points. While frustrating and lengthy, negotiations also test you, encourage good preparation, innovative ways to find solutions, while requiring listening to colleagues to identify common ground. The idea of compromise should be appreciated more in today’s society, where everything is so black and white. It is an essential ingredient of democracy.”
“The idea of compromise should be appreciated more in today’s society, where everything is so black and white. It is an essential ingredient of democracy.”
With what mindset do you approach such negotiations?
“I am very determined, curious and open-minded because opportunities can be everywhere and it is about seeing them and then selecting the right ones. If you are very narrowly focused on today, you may not see the opportunity of tomorrow. So, it is constantly a combination between zooming in and out, seeing the bigger picture while focusing on the details.”
Do you have any rituals or routines in your professional or personal life that help you deal with these constant struggles?
“I start the day by walking to work and then reading the news. I think it is important to start the day by understanding what is going on in the world and I ask my team to do the same. So my team helps me to digest the large amount of information. Peace of mind is mostly on the inside. Through different experiences, I have learned to manage complex situations with relative calm. E.g. I was the chief observer of the EU election observation mission to the elections in Kenya last year, a very difficult and tense election. A lot of misleading information and security threats reached me and the team I was working with. I was happy to see that I was calm and managed to maintain a good overview in spite of the stressful situation. Hence, I think whenever one takes an important decision one should try to approach the situation with a calm mind.”
I see you regularly at women’s roundtables. Are you a fervent supporter of such events?
“In fact, I am not a big fan of these ‘all-women-events’. I do receive a lot of invitations to all-women panels. Usually, the panel consists exclusively of women and the audience is all women as well. Yet, during talks on foreign policy, e.g. in Davos or at the Munich Security Conference, only few women are present, and the topic of gender is not an issue. So, I wonder whether these all-female panels with all-female audiences are actually reaching those that can make a change, people in power positions today. I see the risk of talking in a circle of like-minded people. That being said, there is no doubt for me that all-women events are a start. I am very happy about the recent breaking of the taboo on sexual harassment, intimidation or worse, the #metoo debate, discussions about equal pay, the absurdity of discrimination in the work floor on any other grounds, such as skin color, age, diversity etc.”
“Work is not everything, it never is and should never be your whole identity as a person. Life is full of options and we live in a different time than our parents lived.”
What would be the right and most powerful way to achieve equality and full inclusion?
“One is the economic case, which is very strong. I think a lot of businesses actually care about those figures. I also hope that with very inspiring women we have in the EU such as Margrethe Vestager, who deals with very tough topics that impact a lot of companies around the world, role models can show what inclusion looks like. She imposes sanctions of billion euros. And she does this while being who she is, employing a lot of women in her team, by doing her job well. She shows that it is actually perfectly normal. It is important to display confidence, but you cannot order it from a menu. One has to build confidence through experience, facing difficulties and getting up again. Sometimes getting a bit older can also help. When I think back, ten years ago, I felt much more anxious about a lot of things than I do today. Role models, both men and women, can help to invite the society to think inclusively and not make this a women vs. men discussion.”
“It is important to display confidence, but you cannot order it from a menu. One has to build confidence through experience, facing difficulties and getting up again.”
What would be your personal advice to other women to be happy and successful at work?
“Follow your heart in terms of what you want to do rather than what others tell you to do, find mentors and use the time, especially when you are at university, to explore different things. Learning what you don’t want is often at least as valuable to land where you want to be. We all know that it can be extremely frustrating if things do not work out the way you want them to. I remember I always thought my dream job would be at the UN, I really thought this was the highest possible outcome. Then I did an internship, which was a wake-up call as it helped me look beyond this idealization of institutions and to see that it is also an organization with huge issues in terms of a bureaucratic and cross-cultural administration. It was really good for me to see that with my own eyes. So, explore things and balance them out in different parts of your life. If you have a phase at work that is difficult, then do more things that you like in your private life, e.g. by doing sports or music, going to museums and for walks or dancing with friends. Work is not everything, it never is and should never be your whole identity as a person. Life is full of options and we live in a different time than our parents lived. We don’t sign a contract for life and work. Don’t be discouraged and see everything as a step that is part of a life-long journey.”
Thanks so much, Marietje for this insightful interview!
Marietje Schaake has been serving as a Member of the European Parliament for the Dutch Democratic Party (D66) with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) political group since 2009. She serves on the International Trade Committee of the European Parliament, where she is the ALDE spokesperson on transatlantic trade and digital trade. Schaake also serves on the committee on Foreign Affairs and the subcommittee on Human Rights. Furthermore, Marietje Schaake is the Vice-President of the US Delegation and serves on the Iran Delegation and the Delegation for the Arab peninsula. In 2017 she was the Chief of the European Union Election Observation Mission in Kenya. Furthermore, she is the founder of the European Parliament Intergroup on the Digital Agenda for Europe. She is a Member of the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace and is a Young Global Leader and a Member of the Global Future Council on Future of Digital Economy and Society with the WEF. Before joining the European Parliament, she worked as independent consultant focussing on civil rights to different institutions.