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Council member Mart den Heijer in dialogue with #3 EP Candidate Teun Janssen.

The European Parliament elections are just around the corner! Only 4 weeks to go and then the time has come. On June 6 we will vote in the Netherlands. But what does “Brussels” actually have in store for our beautiful border region? With that question, I, Mart, went to Kanne (Belgium), where Teun Janssen is currently staying in his parental home. The pressing question “do they also eat "vlaai" here?” I don't even have to say that, because we have a tradition of vlaai (Limburg pies) on both sides of the border. Only the pies in Kanne are made in the caves! The rice pie from Bakkerij Smets is especially famous here.

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Mart Den Heijer

With this bright purple blog I hope to gain more insight into that large, mysterious European Union from my local point of view. Without a doubt, many Volt members have a better understanding of how the European Union functions than I do, such as our Maastricht party leader, who, in addition to his political role, is also a lecturer in European Union History at Maastricht University. Still, I'm stuck at the level of "okay, so what's the difference between the European Council and the Council of Europe anyway?" I don't expect miracles, but an in-depth conversation with Teun (who explained the EU as an expert at Clingendael for years) will hopefully help us further... This way we kill two birds with one stone: getting to know Teun better and gaining a deeper understanding of the European Union.

Teun, how nice that we are talking to each other again. Perhaps it would be nice for readers to hear how we got to know each other?

The first time I saw you was on the terrace of the Governor in Maastricht, and we immediately ended up in a deep conversation with each other for an hour. I think we clicked right away. We got to know each other better during the Volt Europa conference in Bucharest. I was still working for Clingendael at the time and you were already elected in the council in Maastricht.

I try to explain to our readers how the EU works. To many that seems like an impossible task, but you are very enthusiastic about it. It was even your job for a while, right? Tell me, where did you work and what did that have to do with the EU?

I rolled out of bed one day in Prague (I was working during Covid for an institute raising awareness about European totalitarian history) and saw a vacancy. It seemed like I could just get paid to get others excited about the European Union. So I could make it my profession, and also in a playful way; through simulations, role plays, group exercises. In my opinion, that is the best way to transfer knowledge to others. So when I got the chance to do that, at the Clingendael Academy, I didn't hesitate for a moment. Apparently the feeling was mutual. Since then, I have been giving training courses on the European Union.

Who did you mainly train?

I stood before groups of officials and diplomats from the Netherlands, but also from all over the world, like West Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. I always asked them the question: "who do you call if you want to speak to Europe?" It is striking that other countries see us much more as a power bloc than we do ourselves; because they experience the consequences of EU policy on a daily basis. Certainly not always positively... For the people from the Sahel that I met, the answer to the question above was always: "France, and we are completely done with that!" And the nice thing was, we didn't sit around poring through legislative books, in theory. That is of course boring and you don't actually learn anything from it. But by really diving into practice. Learning by doing, this is how we understand how the entire system works. For example, during a training in Ethiopia I set up a kind of EU-African Union summit simulation, including critical questions from journalists that they had to answer. It helps them think about alternative, positive visions of the future, and I have also learned a lot about their history, interests and needs.

For me, local politics is “small Europe" and Brussels is “big Europe”, what is the difference for you?

Good question! Well, for me, small Europe is actually the Europe that ensures, for example, that dialects can continue to exist in Europe. Think of Gaelic in Ireland or Breton in Brittany. But it also concerns the local regional dialects, such as Limburgish. For example, financial support from the EU is provided to preserve these dialects and languages. Also consider regional products, such as the pie from Limburg, which is now recognized as cultural heritage in Europe. Or infrastructure, fiber optic, nature parks. What Brussels does for us is so much closer than you think.

We are here between Maastricht and Kanne, in our border area. When you moved to Groningen around the age of 18, are there still the same challenges in the border region that you encountered at the time? Are certain matters now solved in a much more practical way, or did you perhaps not notice them at all in the past?

Yeah, I honestly don't think I really paid much attention to that before. For me it was actually very natural to think about the Netherlands, and much less about Belgium or Germany. That is also what I learned at school, with mainly Dutch friends. So actually I'm only now starting to discover how valuable that connection actually is, and what we miss by not being aware of it. During Covid I also lived in Kanne, and I sometimes accidentally walked across the border on a small hiking trail. When I wanted to return via a different road, there was suddenly a tree trunk on the road, a sign, or a police car. I shouldn't have brought my passport! That was such a bizarre situation: it was enforced very clumsily and pointlessly. Here you see those old border posts from the 19th century more as a decoration than as a barrier. I recently went for a walk to Liège, which of course takes a whole day. During that walk I suddenly came across old, rusty factory sites, with that characteristic old socialist architecture and train tracks. That was the moment I realized how big the difference really is. It felt like I was suddenly thrown back in time forty years.

As a councilor in Maastricht, I have already taken a number of concrete initiatives for the border region and I have had direct contact with our MEP or his team. At the moment we have only one seat in the European Parliament, occupied by Damian Boeselager. It would be fantastic if Volt got more seats in the EP. But from my position as a councilor, I wonder: what do I and the people who vote for us actually have to gain if you are elected?

As a Member of the European Parliament you cannot turn all the buttons. There are a few things you can influence. One of those things is the money, the subsidy flows. For example, you have projects such as Horizon Europe, which is about investments in innovation and research. You have cultural funds, support for universities and cohesion funds that are more about infrastructure and bridges.

Fine. But let's make that concrete for Maastricht. What would be the advantage for us as a party, compared to, for example, GroenLinks? I assume they have similar things in their election plan?

It's really about money and cooperation at different levels. For example, if you have a program for cross-border cooperation to revive old industrial regions, to jointly build the Einstein telescope, or to improve train connections between areas that can logically work together much better, such as between Liège and Maastricht. These are things where you can really make a difference. So if you have the same party on both sides of the border, you can have political impact with the same voice; between policy and implementation, European and local. You can see that things are already running much better with Volt in many border municipalities. Imagine if we were also in the EP! That is something that is truly unique to Volt. We must continue to emphasize that.

But do we have the same degree of "power"? After all, we haven't been elected in all places yet?

Well, as Volt we are a small movement and that has advantages. For example, we do not have to make heavy compromises with parties that we would actually rather not work with. And that will be extra easy because we have already come together across Europe, where we are now participating in the European parliamentary elections in about 15 countries, in advance and said: "This is our programme. This is what we want to achieve about the next five years." By the way, that was the product of a kind of citizen participation experiment over several months: the policy is really a reflection of the movement. So we don't have to compromise. Our progressive ambitions are really clear. Much stronger than GroenLinks. If you look at the GroenLinks party manifesto, you will of course find climate objectives, but the level of detail and the ambition to achieve these is much greater with us, because we have said from the start: "We have one European program, one European plan and we will achieve this together." The lack of this approach among other parties also became clear during the debate between the European party leaders in Maastricht.

Why were we not present as speakers at the Maastricht debate? Differences are always best expressed in a debate.

Yeah, that was pretty funny. In the beginning, three people were interviewed at the Vrijthof. Then they asked who they were going to vote for and why. One voted for GroenLinks, one for D66, and one for Volt. She said herself: ''I vote for Volt and nothing is going to change my opinion. But they are not on stage here.'' It is of course a bit of a procedural trick. We are not a so-called Europarty. We don't have enough parliamentarians, not from enough countries, to be there. But I think a lot of people, especially young people, really want to see Volt get bigger. And they don't see us on stage. I think we should gain more visibility, because we are small, but we are a real European party. The Limburger interviewed me afterwards about the debate and when we passed by in the video, the mayor and city council executive Frans Bastiaens looked back with a big smile. That fame is good for Maastricht. In 5 years we will also be there as Volt, I really believe that!

Something completely different. What will be your main focus if you are elected?

Three things that actually amount to the same thing for me, but which I feel are not yet fully alive in the Netherlands.   And I see that as my biggest challenge to really tackle. It's actually about Ukraine, defense and accession. Now you might be thinking: what is that about? However, for me it is one and the same. The security of you and me starts with defeating Russia in Ukraine, with a strong European defense and with achieving real peace. But what is real peace? This means that the countries that now border the EU can join the European Union. In this way we can once again achieve peace and quiet on our continent.

But what exactly do these reforms and accession entail?

You have to bring that discussion closer to the people. First of all, in a quiet way, because it will just take a very long time. So it's not like today you say, "Oh, we'll start negotiating today," and tomorrow Ukraine, or some other country like Moldova or Montenegro, will be an equal member. That just takes a lot of time, we have to be honest about that. It won't take two years, but it won't take fifteen years either. It will be somewhere in between. Every country that joins has an impact on the European Union, for example on the internal market. What is likely to happen? Imagine if Ukraine joins today. That is a country with a very competitive agricultural sector. On the one hand, this means that food prices will become very low, that is a fact. But Dutch farmers will probably have to compete much more with Ukrainian farmers, and that puts pressure on their revenue model. So you have to think about that carefully. And you have time for that, literally years. So you have to look at whether you can increase subsidies, also for Dutch farmers. Do you want to reform agricultural policy and make it greener? Do you want to ensure that Dutch farmers can invest and invest in Ukraine? These are the questions we face. There are many challenges, but also many solutions. And of course it is about many more things than agriculture. But at the end of that route lies an EU with a much larger internal market, strong defense, more green energy and raw materials for the green transition. Not easy; but in 1992 we also dared to go for that in Maastricht! To choose a safe continent.

And what makes you think you can formulate solutions for that?

I think I have a good feel for what is happening in those countries themselves, because through my former work I have also provided a lot of training to the negotiators of those countries, such as Moldova, Ukraine and the Western Balkans. I have met a lot of people and therefore know well what is going on in those countries themselves. And I notice that they have a lot of energy and are extremely motivated to reform. That gives hope. You can already see everything that's happening. At the same time, I have also delved deeply into the file of enlargement and I also see that in history. That was also the case here in Maastricht in 1992. Every time the European Union decides to enlarge, as it did in 1992, for ten to twelve years until we did so in 2004 with ten countries, it gives a huge impetus for the European Union to reform as well. Reform means not only technical matters, but also establishing European citizenship, establishing a common foreign policy, completing the internal market, allowing people to travel and study freely across borders. This offers a wonderful opportunity to make the Union much more practical for people and to function better.

Beautiful and clear ambitions. But how many seats are we going for in Europe?

I think realistically Volt Europe can get six to eight seats. And the great thing is: they come from different Member States! Hopefully three in the Netherlands, but I expect two more. Then two or three more from Germany, and then two more seats from other countries such as Spain, Portugal, Slovakia or Cyprus.

Which European Parliament group do you want us to join?

Well, to be honest, my personal preference is for the Greens. For various reasons they are very progressive, just like us. They also have a much nicer organizational culture, I hear that from people who have worked there. They are much more flexible and younger, which means less old politics, although it is still there, but much less than other groups such as the Socialists or the Liberals. And they really stand for democracy, without making shady deals with right-wing parties. That's one. But in the end, the members simply have to decide. They will do that too. So what will happen soon is that we will have a number of MEPs, hopefully 6 to 8. They will then come together in a team and that team will conduct negotiations with different groups, such as the Greens, the Liberals, and so on. Then we negotiate with them and reach deals. We then simply submit them to the members and then we can democratically decide which group is best for Volt Europa.

Teun. Thank you for the pleasant interview. Hopefully people got to know you a little better. Do you have another call?

Yes. Vote on June 6, Volt! And everyone eat a piece of Limburg pie from the caves of Kanne.

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