An Interview With Former President Of The EU Parliament Nicole Fontaine: Brexit, The Trump Administration, And Advice For Women In The Workplace

A charming woman with a fiery spirit, Fontaine pulls no punches when speaking about the shortcomings of the European Union.

I was fortunate enough to sit down for an interview with former president of the European Parliament Nicole Fontaine. A former politician turned professor and author, Fontaine was visiting the world’s oldest business school, ESCP Europe, at its Madrid campus to discuss the unique perspective of her forthcoming book “Brexit: A Chance?

Analysts have compared the EU to a bicycle: it must keep moving forward in order to avoid falling over. While many fear Brexit to be the blow which topples it, Fontaine remains steadfastly optimistic that the exit can be the catalyst Europe needs to gain enough forward momentum to reassert itself as an effective, trustworthy, and unifying institution.

A charming woman with a fiery spirit, Fontaine pulls no punches when speaking about the shortcomings of the European Union, hubris of the UK, relationship between the Europe and the United States, and how women must never give up the fight in the battle for gender equality.

What first motivated you to write Brexit: A Chance?

“I am an engaged European who has suffered for several years to see that European Union is sick. I analyze several reasons for this in the book: an excess of technocracy—disconnected experts making decisions without the input of the people, the mishandling of the migratory and financial crisis, how Europe is losing its core values, and the feeling that there is no longer a strong vision or pilot to guide Europe. Now with Great Britain leaving, it’s necessary to rethink Europe. This is a chance for clarification. The British first entered the EU not truly wanting to be a part of it. The only thing they wanted was access to the single market, and every time the EU tried to make progress, the UK tried to put a stop to it.

Every time we pushed for a more unified Europe—more fiscal harmonization, social policy, and common defense strategy—the UK would block it. Now that they want to leave, there is an opportunity to put those elements back on the table and for the European Union to finally address the needs of its citizens.”

What are the steps the EU needs to take in order to regain the trust of the people? How do you rebuild the image of the European Union as an effective and trustworthy institution?

“By addressing how the trust vanished in the first place. Of course there is a need for less technocracy. But also Europe needs to begin to question itself in how it handled the various crises that happened, and also how there was a clear lack of transparency in the EU’s decision making system.

We need to increase transparency. Citizens must become much more involved and informed. Many directives are voted on in Brussels and the citizens are completely uninformed about them. There are some tangible solutions: we need to create a forum of critical thinking and become informed about the goals and processes of the EU. It’s even more important to get young people involved. I’ve been giving lectures where the auditoriums were full of over 800 young people. Thanks to Brexit, more young people are getting engaged in politics and that is essential to keep on building the EU. Take ESCP Europe for example, with 5 campuses throughout Europe, students are able to have a unique perspective. They can debate, discuss, and collaborate on the issues of Europe—this is a necessity. It’s as if universities like this are a microcosm of the EU itself.”

How do you see the relations between the EU and the US changing post-Brexit? Especially with a Trump administration that might be completely indifferent, or be party to, a collapse of the EU.

“It has never been peaceful between the EU and the USA. It’s always been about power. However we never forget what we owe to the USA from World War II.

No US President has truly wanted a strong EU. Charles DeGaulle once said that, when the UK was being accepted into the EU, that the UK would be the “Trojan Horse” for the United States within the EU.

We also have some conflict with the USA concerning the World Trade Organization because the the USA is more protectionist than the EU. The most important thing moving forward is that the two continue to share the same values. As long as those values hold, we can continue having a mutually beneficial relationship. However it can become dangerous when those values diverge. For example, the immigration ban in the US—we protested against that because it was against the common values of the EU.

Which brings me to Donald Trump. Europe should be worried by the fact that he wants to deregulate markets, whereas in Europe we are just starting to see the benefits of regulated markets after financial crisis of 2008.”

Theresa May just made a provocative statement after invoking Article 50 about future security cooperation between the UK and the EU being potentially weakened. Do you think the UK is trying to blackmail its way into a deal on its terms?

May was recently quoted as saying, Failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened.”

“I’m a little bit embarrassed to answer this question because I hate the fact that Theresa May is trying to blackmail the EU on security cooperation. We see the terrorist attack which just happened in London. These attacks can happen anywhere. I’m looking for a word [to describe what she said]—ridiculous. Her comments don’t even reach the level of the discussion we should be having.”

Will the EU try to punish the UK for leaving so as to send a strong message to other member states who contemplate their own exits of the EU?

“Punish? Nobody ever wanted to punish the UK. Nobody has ever obliged the UK to leave, it’s a referendum whose responsibility has been taken on by David Cameron. We cannot say that the European Union did not make the effort to stop them from leaving. That being said, it would be childish to try to punish them; nobody ever said that. We have to try to find a “friendly divorce.” But now it’s not the EU which is being intransigent, it’s Theresa May.

When Theresa May says she doesn’t want access to the single market because of the free circulation of people, and doesn’t like the European Court of Justice, it puts aside all possibilities of the EU to establish an agreement. What solution do we have left? May wants to negotiate sector by sector—mainly the ones which interest her—the financial sector for example.

Let’s see if May softens her position. But if she keeps on in this direction, the EU is going to say “no.” It’s not possible, we cannot accept this. This is where we are today, and we have a very small window because there are two steps which are absolutely necessary: first, negotiating the divorce of the UK and second, to discuss the new relationship. It has to be done before March 2019. Firstly, because the Treat of Lisbon says there are 2 years [to complete the exit process.] Secondly, because there are also the European elections in June 2019. I don’t want to keep this from you—this is going to be extremely difficult. But if [the negotiations are] a failure, we cannot say it was due to the intransigence of the EU.”

Being a former female politician, what is your message to empower women who want to get involved in politics, but might be timid because it’s such a male dominated arena?

“Well, we all know that gender equality is one of the founding principles of the EU. And we were strongly hoping that this principle could be translated into reality, but there is still so much to do.

I’m going to tell you a funny little story that happened:

I was invited to participate in a farewell ceremony at the UK embassy in France. There were maybe 100 charming ladies there and three of us were speakers: a sociologist, a writer, and myself. The presenter introduced us to the audience and he introduced me as a former president of the EU parliament—that part was easy enough. But then he also introduced me as a “Minister of Culture” and I answered “No, you mean as a “Minister of Industry.” The expression of disdain on his face read “A women as minister of industry!? You can’t be serious.” Then everybody in the audience laughed. It was so funny because the stereotype was so blatantly obvious. It struck the whole audience and basically everything that needed to be said was said right there.

Unfortunately today, we see a salary gap [between genders] that is about 15-17% in the EU. But women have the same training, education, responsibilities, and work as men. We observe that, in companies, managers are mostly men. But in France, we voted on a minimum quota of women on the board of directors; however the same directive is blocked from passing on the EU council.

And for the political life in France, we progressed when we required that political parties must be elected based on proportionality of gender—for the EU Parliament, French Senate, and for the municipal councillors. For the French Assembly however, some French political parties prefer to pay high fines rather than respecting the quota for hiring women.

Seeing all that, I would say to these young women: do not be discouraged—it’s a fight. We have to know that’s just how it is—it’s a fight. And it will always be a fight. Because we always ask women to be more competent than men. It’s not a joke. It’s not a provocation. [Women] cannot make mistakes. We are condemned to excellence. If we’re not excellent, we always say “It’s because she is a women that she’s not good. She doesn’t have the skill level.” And we won’t forgive a woman either. So we have to live with that.

But we must not be defeated—we have to be fighters.

Nicole Fontaine is currently an affiliate professor at ESCP Europe.