In this interview series, we reach out to some of our liberal party leaders to hear their thoughts on liberalism, Europe and beyond. For this month’s interview, we spoke with Sofie Carsten Nielsen, leader of ALDE member party Radikale Venstre in Denmark to hear what she thinks on gender equality, Europe’s green future, and more.
Sofie Carsten Nielsen, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives in many ways. What impact has it had on you and your role as a party leader?
Immense impact! The pandemic is not politics, it is a virus and you can’t fight a virus with political tools. We can’t vote against the pandemic or debate whether we are pro or against. We are all against the pandemic, and thus politics have become de-politicised.
It is also a frustrating time when it comes to having space or time for other political issues. There are other problems we would like to solve – the climate, the economy, the schooling system – and the difficult thing is continuing to cultivate democracy and politics beyond COVID-19 related issues without creating divisions at a time when unity is so important to get through this pandemic. It is a dilemma between rallying around the flag and creating space for political disagreements.
And when it comes to your career, what has been the most humbling or inspiring thing that you have experienced in your career?
What makes me humble is meeting people who create: entrepreneurs, scientists, businesspeople, people in the public sector who save lives or come up with new ideas. I think it is so cool and fascinating, and also a big privilege as a politician, to look into these fields, listen to potential issues and hopefully also be able to contribute to creating better conditions.
One of the things that inspires me the most is meeting young women with different ethnic backgrounds, who are breaking through one glass ceiling after another. They meet challenges in their old culture and in their new culture and are faced with prejudice from both sides. What a potential and resource they are when they are allowed to work for and in our societies!
You have worked extensively on topics related to gender equality. What do you think are the biggest obstacles women and girls face in Europe, and how can we ensure these obstacles are overcome?
One of Denmark’s biggest obstacles to gender equality is that we think we have already achieved it. However, I think this is changing with more public attention drawn to the Me Too movement and violence against women. We are becoming aware of how embedded inequality is in the structures and in our culture. Power is indeterminable but still defined as something masculine. If we can’t make power something that doesn’t hold a gendered value, we will never achieve gender equality.
Me Too has also deeply touched our party – that is how I became the leader. It is a problem that concerns me a lot and a challenge for politicians globally, and especially in Europe and in liberal parties where we take gender equality, freedom and rights very seriously. We have these topics in our bones and I imagine other liberal leaders share this feeling.
Speaking of your party Radikale Venstre, you recently launched a Green Generation Council. What are the goals of this initiative, and how do you plan to implement it?
The purpose of the Green Generation Council is to bring people together across different backgrounds, ages and political stands. We share the common mission to reach the Danish goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 70% by 2030 but we have great disagreements on how to move forward.
The Council is a source of ideas for new political initiatives that enable us to meet our ambitious goal. It is also a forum to discuss how political initiatives can be implemented in the real world.
This process is also a model for the future, as we would like to develop politics into something more inclusive. Politics is not top-down but a deliberative process with synergies between the political sphere and everyone around it.
Radikale Venstre is also very focused on welfare and especially the challenges the welfare state is facing. What is the party’s response to counter these challenges and ensure that the Danish model of welfare stays viable?
To put it simply: by taking the state out of welfare state.
We are very concerned with the welfare society and less with the welfare state. We understand welfare as good life, happy citizens; as something that is created in connections between people, not between state and people. We are focused on relations that create welfare and are very committed to organising the relationship between state and civil society with the largest possible amount of freedom for the citizens. We can have a large public sector as long as it is free to implement contributions from private partners.
You have a lot of experience in EU politics. In your view, what is needed to de-attach the “Brussels Bubble” image that the EU and its institutions have and bring Europe closer to citizens?
This is the million-dollar question I have tried to answer for 12 years. In a way the EU has become extremely relevant and more visible with Brexit and the COVID-19 crisis.
But we still have major challenges. As long as the EU can’t show Europeans that they are able to solve for example the migration challenge in a collective way, divisions will emerge. I think that during the last 5-7 years, the European Commission has made policies that are close to real life, and I hope that the EU will continue on the path of concrete politics and specific solutions. That is where I see the EU making itself relevant to people, instead of talking so much about institutions and treaties.
I am confident that the EU could play a key role in solving the COVID-19 crisis and the situation with China and Russia. But I am concerned whether the EU has the strength to answer those aggressions – and if not the EU, then who?
And how does the European cooperation look like from the Danish perspective?
Better and better, and more and more necessary, I think. The EU is still used as a punching bag for all the things that we don’t like but there is greater support for it than there has been for a long time in Denmark. Danes do not love Europe, and they never will. I do, but that is a minority view.
But: they don’t need to love Europe, they need to know that Europe is their region. That is why we use the saying ‘We are Europe’. I think that the EU has shown it has the economical and green muscles that are needed to be a player in the global arena, and that is something that the Danes very much like.
What do you think, is it possible to re-establish the democratic conversation in Europe and beyond?
That is what we are trying to do with the Green Generation Council – we need to cultivate the deliberative democracy.
I am also more and more in love with the idea of giving young people the possibility to go on a European interrail – this will lead to more inter-European cultural exchange and education. We need to take care of the exchange system and protect the activities that we know work. We don’t need to invent the wheel and create large-scale communication programmes but what we need is more cultural exchange.
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