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EUROPEAN ELECTIONS

European elections: French lawyer fights Brexit at UK polls

Chatting with voters in a small town in northwest England ahead of this week's European elections, lawyer Sophie Larroque's French accent is hard to miss.

European elections: French lawyer fights Brexit at UK polls
Sophie Larroque (L), a French EU citizen living in the UK, is standing as a candidate for the UK Party in the European Parliament elections. Photo: AFP

 The MEP candidate is one of several European expatriates making the leap into politics in Britain, spurred on by their opposition to Brexit.

A few months ago, nobody expected Britain to take part in the European Parliament elections, as the country was supposed to have left the EU on March 29.

The British parliament cannot agree on the exit terms however, forcing the departure date to be put back to October 31 and opening the way for polls that are being seen as allowing voters to express their views on the whole Brexit process.

Larroque, 40, works as a legal adviser in London, a job made possible by the EU-enabled mutual recognition of university degrees.

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What you need to know about voting in the crucial European electionsPhoto: AFP

Determined to fight Brexit, she founded the UK EU Party with three British friends in April, despite having no political experience.

They raised the £15,000 needed to register candidates in three of the 11 British constituencies.

She has travelled almost daily from her home in London to northwest England, where she is hoping to be elected.

She has spent hours on trains, eating sandwiches and scrambling to learn more about the region, all paid for out of her own pocket.

“I'm juggling work, my clients, my cases — it takes a lot of organisation,” she said, on her way to Wilmslow — an elegant suburb of Manchester filled with mock Tudor houses with luxury cars parked outside.

'This is my home' 

Many Europeans hoping to become one of Britain's 73 MEPs are targeting their three million fellow expats.

“You don't have to be British to fight against Brexit, and you don't have to be British to love this country,” said Joan Pons Laplana, a Spanish nurse who has lived in Britain for 19 years.

The 44-year-old is a candidate in the East Midlands for Change UK, a pro-European party formed only this year by lawmakers who defected from the two main parties.

“This is my home, I have three British children and I do not need a British passport to defend Britain's place in the EU,” he said.

As well as standing as a candidate, Pons has been fighting to ensure that EU expatriates are registered to vote in Britain.

Europeans can vote either in their home country or where they live, but many choose to cast their ballots for candidates in their home countries.

“Many people fear that if they register to vote here, when Brexit happens they will lose the right to vote in their own countries,” he said.

Photo: AFP

Right to vote

Jan Rostowski is another candidate targeting the expatriate vote — although unlike many others, he has more than enough political experience.

He served as finance minister in Poland and briefly as deputy prime minister, and is standing for Change UK in London, where he was born and raised.

He has been out campaigning in Ealing in west London, home to a large Polish community, but has his sights set higher than these elections.

“One of the things we want to do is give to EU citizens the right to vote in British elections,” he said.

His notoriety, however, is a double-edged sword.

Rostowski's comments about gay rights in the past have drawn controversy, although he says his views have changed.

“I would vote for someone completely new, who I don't know anything about, but he's controversial,” said Piotr, a 40-year-old Polish engineer who stopped to talk with the candidate.

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EU ELECTIONS

Erna Solberg interview: ‘Benefits of Norway’s relationship with EU far outweigh downsides

In an interview with the organisation Faces of Democracy, Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg answers questions on the country's relationship with the EU, right-wing populist movements and Norway's future role in the world.

Erna Solberg interview: 'Benefits of Norway's relationship with EU far outweigh downsides
Erna Solberg with Faces of Democracy's Sven Lilienström. Photo: Rune Hammerstad

 

Q. Norway is not an EU member state. However, it is part of the European Economic Area – which has existed since 1994 – and is also a Schengen member state. How important to your country is a close partnership with the EU?

It's very important from an economic perspective. We conducted a major review of the EEA Agreement – our economic link – through a major commission that was, I believe, established ten years ago. The commission’s findings showed that the benefits are much greater than the problems. While there are downsides to the type of relationship we have with the EU, the benefits far outweigh them.

These benefits are primarily close cooperation for businesses and enhanced market opportunities. Norway, and in fact all of the Scandinavian countries, have accepted the most labour migrants from other European countries. But workers from the EU countries have contributed to the economic growth of our country. I think this is the reason why EU labourmigration hasn’t created the same kind of friction as in other countries.

There are challenges in the labour market; there are challenges with shady businesses that do not comply with our labour market rules and regulations and therefore compete unfairly’, we need to address the problem of social dumping, which is an area where we would like to see closer European cooperation to stop border-crossing crime.

Still, the overall picture is that the EEA agreement ensures opportunities for our businesses, it maintains welfare standards for our society and it boosts job creation. It also ensures a high degree of cooperation between the Norwegian non-governmental sector and the non-governmental sectors of other countries. This is especially true of the Central European countries. This is because our financial contribution through the EEA and Norway grants foster closer cooperation between organizations in the former Eastern European countries.

 

Right-wing populist movements are gaining ground in parts of Europe and are also present in Norway. Do you consider the populists to be more of a risk or rather a potentially corrective force for democracy in your country?-

I believe that you should always have respect for people’s votes and opinions. In my government, we have a faction that is to the right of the conservative party, or more liberalist-leaning. In my opinion however, this is not the sort of right-wing political faction that exists in other countries, although it has traditionally been stricter on migration than other parties in Norway. But, being a liberalist faction, it naturally tends towards lower taxation and the party is absolutely within the spectrum of European mainstream politics.

One disturbing thing is hate speech in social media. This is causing changes, not so much in politics, but by creating a toxic debate climate in Norwegian social media. This is challenging because we are seeing increased Islamophobia and increased scepticism towards migration, linked with anti-climate policies and EU scepticism. All of this sometimes gives rise to a very toxic debate in social media.

Yesterday we had a large civil rally aimed at stopping hate speech and to encourage more moderate discussions in social media. I’m not sure that it will help, but it does give stimulus to those who want a more respectful form of debate on Facebook and other social media sites.

According to the current “Global Gender Gap Report”, Norway ranks second in terms of the gender pay gap. What can other countries learn from Norway to help them close their gender pay gaps?

There are different reasons why we have a narrower gender pay gap. We have a system of laws and regulations and if you consider women and men in the same type of jobs, they are mostly equally paid. But we still have a difference between different sectors that require the same level of responsibilities and education or training; there is still a gap here. Still, the true gap facing us is between different sectors. 

But I do think that having unions that focus on equal pay is important. We have an ombudsman system and an anti-discrimination act that allows workers to complain to their ombudsman or anti-discrimination committee that they are not receiving equal pay.

Companies in Norway are also obliged to report on their anti-discrimination activities to ensure that equal rights are observed. All of this places the focus of business thinking on asking why their payrolls exhibit different pay for men and women. 

Ms. Prime Minister, your second term in office ends in 2021. Which issues are still on your political and personal agenda and what is your vision for Norway’s future role in the world?

That’s quite a question! In Norway we’ve been through a situation where we have experienced an economic downturn because of the drop in the oil price. Our economy showed that it had the strength and resilience to bounce back after an increased unemployment and we have now become more competitive in the oil and gas sector.

The great challenge facing Norway is that the oil and gas sector will contribute less to our growth because our oil and gas investments and production are currently peaking, so output will be reduced in the future. Oil and gas will, however, remain a major industry in Norway for a long time – but that's not where we are going to keep focusing.

So we will be facing the same issues as most other European countries. How can we create more jobs in a more competitive and globalized world? How can we make sure that we are creating new jobs if we will be losing a small number of jobs every year in the oil and gas sector? The solution is about education. It's about investment in research & development. It's about the framework for businesses and start-ups in our country.

The interview with the Norwegian Prime Minister was first published on the site Faces of Democracy. You can read the full version HERE.

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