Interviewed by Lucy Lawson
This month, WIL had the pleasure of interviewing Pervenche Berès, former Member of the European Parliament (MEP). We discussed the greatest lessons she learnt from her 25 years in Brussels, how women can work together to advance in their careers, and what the future holds for the EU in the face of Brexit and increased Euroscepticism. Learn more about Pervenche in this interview.
In 2019 you left the European Parliament to pursue new pastures after 25 years as an MEP, including five years as Chair of the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs and five years as President of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs. What achievement from your time as an MEP are you most proud of and what was your most memorable experience?
It is difficult to choose just one achievement! If I had to choose, I would highlight the success we had in drafting the Charter of Fundamental Rights. During this time, there were only nine women present out of the 62 members involved in the Convention. There was a clear underrepresentation of women here, and I don’t believe that such a gender-imbalance would happen in today’s parliament.
Amongst the nine women present, we formed a network with the support of the European Women’s Lobby, which was very active outside of the convention. The Lobby helped us to mobilise this female network to guarantee that we had a significant say on the draft we were putting together. It was thanks to this mobilisation that we were able to work cross-party to achieve a very promising draft of Article 23 in the charter which reads: “Equality between woman and man must be ensured in all areas including employment, work, and pay”. This was quite an achievement. I am particularly proud of this article, not only because of its content, but because of the way in which it was brought about. For me, this was an experience which taught me a great deal about how much you can achieve when you find the best way of doing it.
The most memorable experience for me came when I was chairing the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, which was a professional landmark that I was eager to do and I feel came at the right point in my career. During my time as Chair, I said “no” to the Constitution for Europe as I thought that, particularly in relation to the Euro and on economic policy, it was not fit for purpose. Seeing the 2007 financial crisis which followed, which took us all by surprise, does make me think that I was right to say “no”, and many people agree with my perspective.
During my time as Chair there was a bench of dominating male senior members who were not at all happy with me being in such a position. These men would shout, trying to destabalise me and to make my task very difficult. Of course, I resisted them and tried to find my way to manage the Committee. I remained calm, and they got used to it.
When you are engaged in politics, it is best to be mindful of your gender - whether you are a man or a woman. I was not an active feminist, but I believed that you can never forget that you are a woman. It is your identity, and the way that people behave towards you make this evident. Your gender is a part of the game of politics, and you must make it work as an asset, intellectually or professionally I mean.
The issue of gender in politics is without a doubt an ongoing battle. The younger generation is lobbying for a strong gender-balanced approach, and I believe that when it comes to sharing power, having women in power will always bring added value.
Your gender is a part of
the game of politics,
and you must make it work
as an asset.
You are actively involved as an expert in several projects and organisations, including as a Board member of the WIL and a Board member of the Fondation Jean-Jaurès. Can you tell us more about the different projects and organisations in which you are currently involved, and how your experience in Brussels has helped you to bring added value to them?
After 25 years in Brussels, where you live very much like an expat and learn to think about things in terms of a negotiation, when you return home your perceptions and way thinking about things are very different. However, the advantage of coming home is that you feel much more comfortable; your surroundings are more reassured, and this allows you to share the tools you learnt as an expat in Brussels in your situations back home, even though home has changed a lot in between.
This transition of skills is something on which I am working right now. I am involved in several think tanks, including a think tank working on financial regulation. By returning home, I also have more time to dedicate to the WIL Network. Alongside these activities, I am also working with the French Market Authority in a committee dealing with climate and sustainable finance – a project following the work I did in the European Parliament for 15 years. I am supplementing my work on environmental affairs by leading an orchestra which is full of musicians who are also engaged citizens for the ecological transition. We combine our love for music and ecological matters by organising musical concerts involving sustainable symbols such as bicycles. Lastly, the most recent activity in which I have been engaged regards the question of how to register children in countries where they have no civil status. The problem is that when a child or an adult is not registered, they are not entitled to any rights – and without any rights.
As you can see, this represents quite a broad range of activities. But I believe that for all these activities – although they are quite different – the added value which I bring is largely tied to what I learnt in Brussels and Strasbourg. It is the life experience of being an MEP, which teaches you how to mould and present a project whilst negotiating the unique ways in which Europe functions. It is also largely affiliated with my ability to coordinate many different actors and viewpoints – a skill which I picked up by engaging at the human level as an MEP. I am very pleased to be engaged in all these activities, and to be able to bring my experiences to the table.
One of your recent contributions to the WIL network has been leading online Career and Development sessions with the participants of the 5th Edition of our Women Talent Pool Programme. What in your view are some of the key challenges for professional women looking to step up to more senior leadership positions, and how can programmes like the WTP can help?
You will have to ask the women with whom I have been conducting the sessions! We just had our final meeting, and I will cite the reflections which they shared in this session to show both the challenges that women face, and the solutions they can bring.
The first thing that all the women in this group viewed as important for professional development was confidence. All the women identified that there are obstacles to building this confidence, and that we must overcome these.
The second challenge which we discussed in depth was dealing with a remark or an attitude which is very much gender orientated. We spoke about how important it is to not ignore these. One of the things we agreed aids career advancement is staying true to your values and being able to say what needs to be said. If you wish to realise your values in your professional career, you must speak out against these kinds of remarks so that you remain able to address adverse situations across the spectrum of professional interactions. You must find your own way to navigate these conversations in a way with which you feel comfortable, but you must not ignore these remarks: if you do then you do not solve the problem and fail to remain true to your values.
The third key to career advancement we discuss was to build your own agenda. You cannot just be a great employee in relation to how you help others in your company, you must set your own individual goals and targets. It is completely possible for female professionals to do this – men have been doing it for years! It is now time for women to realise that, for their career advancement, they too must build an agenda in accordance with their professional goals.
The final solution we discussed was that ultimately, work is not everything you need to succeed – to advance, you must network.
Work is not everything you need to succeed –
to advance, you must network.
In 2019 Ursula von der Leyen became the first woman to chair the European Commission. Unfortunately, across the world women make up less than 23 percent of parliamentarians while in Europe the figure it at around 34 percent. What can be done to get more women like yourself into politics?
Firstly, I must say that the situation is much better than when I first started. In fact, I remember my first time on stage in congress; I started my speech by citing the famous proclamation that ‘Women hold up half of the sky’. I said, “I know that I belong to half of the sky, so I believe that I have a good reason to be here”. I thought I had to justify my reason for being a woman in European politics because I had been selected to become an MEP as a contribution to parity.
In the current climate, I believe that the question we are facing is: do we need to define the role and place of women by law, or should it be implemented by example? I am not a lawyer by trade, but I do maintain that if you want something to happen, you had better be backed by the law. I think that the obligation to have women represented should follow in this manner.
One of the regrets I do have about my time in Parliament is that the proposal stating that there should be an equal distribution of seats between men and women on boards has still not been passed. This is a clear mistake. Even though it has not been passed, the proposal demonstrates that thinking is shifting – however this is not enough and there is still a need for substantial progress.
To facilitate this progress, it is imperative that women in power help other women. Too often, there is a mindset amongst women that, because it is such an uphill climb for women to attain power in the first place, when there is another woman in the room she is seen as potential competition. I believe that this mindset needs to be eradicated. Female representation should be a momentum for change and collaboration, not competition. Furthermore, I maintain that women in power should use their privileged position to better the position of all women.
To facilitate progress,
it is imperative that women in power
help other women.
Female representation should be a momentum
for change and collaboration,
In the last interview we did with you in 2011, you commented on the significant increase of Eurosceptics across the content. Five years later, the UK has voted to leave the European Union. In these uncertain times, what does the future hold for the EU?
For me, I believe that the disease is the same no matter what level you look at. Be this analysing the issues that each EU Member state has individually, or regarding the problems we are facing on a broader EU-level. The problem is a very widespread increase in Euroscepticism, nationalism, and a lack of faith in the way democracy is delivered.
I think that this Commission has engaged itself in trying to change these ideas by becoming very dedicated to the Green Pact. This approach is very beneficial in that it aims to restore faith in the idea that you can advance a new way of life through commitment to the EU – and this is an idea about which I have been writing since 2007. The EU’s dedication to the Green Pact is not just about trying to reduce water usage, it is about mobilising member states to change their behaviour and practices in a collaborative manner.
However, I believe that this is not enough. COVID has brought to the surface many things we did not want to see: the disturbance we have made to our environment, and the mistake we made in ignoring the fundamental right of access to health and education, being just a few clear examples. The issue that this brings is it makes people reconsider their faith in democracy, and reversing this opinion is challenging.
To restore faith in the EU you must work on these two issues in parallel. On the one hand, you must draft an ambitious agenda, such as the Green Pact, which considers and responds to the worries that people have as long as it would adapt to what we learned from Covid-19. On the other hand, there is the question of the method – and this is linked to the confidence which people have in democracy. The way to restore people’s faith in politics is to deliver results, but you need a certain faith in the method of democracy to be able to deliver these results. Therefore, it is so essential for both these elements to work in tandem to restore faith in the EU.
This is the only way to solve the disease plaguing politics now, and it is not easy. We need to act sooner rather than later to eradicate the Euroscepticism which is leading people to believe that they have no means to improve their situation.
I have always been pro-EU and believe that democracy is the best way to overcome these challenges. But it is not enough to believe it - we must also deliver these promises to stimulate trust in the EU. We are in a position where we must defend our systems and beliefs, and we need to do so by adapting to the new technologies, situations and challenges which face us. We can never take a situation for granted.
We need to act sooner rather than later
to eradicate the Euroscepticism
which is leading people to believe
that they have no means to improve their situation.
We usually finish our interviews with a question from the Proust questionnaire. The one we have chosen for you is: Who are your heroes in real life?
My heroes are the artists. I don’t believe in God, so I believe that culture is the answer to mankind’s need of giving a sense to life – this is what artists allow us to do. We cannot live with just material food, we also need spiritual food, and this is what they give us – food for thought and emotion. Today they find themselves in an incredible situation. Governments are currently fighting to make sure that economic stability and activity can continue, but the artists are amongst the many victims of economic struggles. Of course, they are not the only ones suffering, but as a sector they have been treated as an exeption in a bad sense, and this must change.