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Published on October 29th, 2014 | by Laura BAEYENS | Credit: Jean Lambert

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“New markets and new talents – these are the assets of diversity within Europe.” Interview with MEP Jean Lambert

Jean Lambert has been a Member of the European Parliament for 15 years, with a long-standing political background under the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance. She is the current Chair of the Delegation for relations with the countries of South Asia and a Member of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs. UNITEE interviewed her on her opinions about the integration of New Europeans and sustainable development among SMEs.

You have been an MEP and an English politician for a long time. What motivated you to go into politics, especially at the European level?

In terms of getting involved in politics, I have been involved in the Green Party movement very soon after it was founded in the UK. This was during the time when a lot of organisations’ campaigns coming up were very much about single issues and not actually about systems. So the logic of being in a political party that was looking at how to change systems and how to change the values the systems are based on, seemed a more logical place to be than simply working on single issues.

At the European level, we found a lot of things that we might want to change at the local level, but we could not do so because decisions were made elsewhere. So it seemed logical to me to have a go at the big decision-making which was part of that framework. I have to say that being involved at the European level is quite exciting because it is politics that demands that you look outwards. You have to look beyond borders and I think that is what I really appreciate.

UNITEE believes that immigration and a New European workforce can have a considerably positive effect on the performance of businesses. Many people seem unaware of this fact. Can you mention examples from your constituency that support this?

My constituency is the region of London. It is possibly the most diverse city in the European Union, if not one of the most diverse cities in the world. And you only have to look around you to see a huge variety of businesses coming from New Europeans, people with migrant backgrounds. This could be due to prejudices that they face in society where they might find it more difficult to access jobs in the formal labour market. So sometimes the business start-up or being self-employed is not necessarily what people would have chosen as a source of livelihood. I think we have to have that at the back of our minds. Nevertheless, it has also been the way into society for many, having to start their own business and being independent. It also brings new life into communities. You only have to take a look at a lot of the high streets in London to see that. If you took away those businesses of people with migrant backgrounds, you would have pretty empty, monotone high streets. This is not only in the retail sector, but also in a whole range of other sectors.

More and more companies are realising that if you have a diverse workforce, this gives you an advantage in the business world because you are able to reach out to new markets with people who might understand the way of doing business in different cultures, and what might be needed elsewhere in the world. For many EU countries, businesses also reflect the country or the region in which they are operating in. I think the Commission has been very active in trying to promote diversity within business. It is very clear that diversity is there for new thinking, new markets, and a way of embedding new talent.

You advocate for the integration of New Europeans and a more inclusive Europe. How do you think UNITEE’s members of New European entrepreneurs and business professionals can be more involved and active in the life of their country of residence? What tools and methods do you think are necessary to further the integration of New Europeans?

I think many New Europeans are already very involved in their country of residence. But if we look at it from the SMEs side, there are many questions that come to mind: what are the business networks in the country? Do you have a local chain of broad commerce set up? Are you active within this chain? Do members of the local chain welcome you? We need to tackle these because we find that in some countries, there is a real conservatism about who’s in and who’s out of this chain.

One of the areas we are increasingly interested in at the European Parliament is the links between business and training, not only because many EU countries have a large unemployment problem, especially among young people. And part of the difficulty in trying to combat this is finding formal and decent work placements where you are actually learning.

Many national governments are interested in how they can connect more with businesses so that training opportunities can be offered in a way that benefits not only the individual but also the business and the country’s economy. We need to look at these support mechanisms and business-training networks. Being within these networks is important even if businesses do not give a huge time commitment, just so they are visible. This may be putting a heavy load on people who are trying to keep their business running but when you hear a lot of the language about integration and the need for people to integrate, these networks can be very beneficial. I think that if you got people involved in business and in work who are actually part of these networks, this becomes a very important political signal: people are integrated, want to be a part of society in their own right, and want to contribute. For the health of society, this is quite important.

For Europe, competitiveness, and in this regard low energy prices are highly topical. Furthermore, with the increase of conflicts in our neighbourhood, energy dependency has also become an issue of concern. Can we achieve these things with sustainable green energy sources only? How can businesses, especially SMEs, secure competitiveness and at the same time reduce their emission?

I think it is possible. There are a number of recent studies that agree. But it is not just a question of substituting the energy we have now. Energy efficiency is also a major part of our energy future. And it has always seemed to me totally illogical that we take such pride in being able to waste energy. I suppose it is a sign of affluence if you could afford to waste. In terms of fuel pricing and householders, the Greens have always been very firm on the idea that we really need a comprehensive programme of energy efficiency for housing.

There are various ways of cutting fuel bills. One argument frequently touted is that you make fuel cheaper. Issues about scarcity and accessibility of resources is a very big issue at the moment about fuel security. When you look at how dependent the European Union as a whole is on imported energy, and look at countries like Greece in terms of their balance of payments and the percentage dedicated to fuel imports, it is enormous. If they had a decent solar energy programme, they could be cutting a lot on the balance of payments problems plus giving themselves greater energy security and stability.

Time is slipping away from us in terms of combating climate change but we could be investing more in it. We are hearing from this new Commission that they are looking at a major investment package. Well then, let us make part of it an investment in energy efficiency in renewables because this is also about local job creation. You cannot really outsource the retrofitting of your home to make it more energy efficient. We could be creating jobs for people and solving many of our energy problems at the same time.

Many businesses have already done quite a lot of work on reducing their emissions. This is also something we can learn across the European Union, the way in which businesses help each other by providing investments and back-up funding for new systems.

Another way SMEs can effectively secure competitiveness and reduce their emissions at the same time is by engaging the workforce in the whole green programme. If you look at one of the programmes that the Trades Union Confederation in the UK has been involved in, such as greener workplaces, the results have been amazing. Many staff and managers want to get involved. And if the workforce can use their own creativity, sets of priorities and training, this can have a major impact not only on the in-house staff, but also the whole production and the way in which the business operates.

Government support is another way. For many businesses, especially SMEs, it is going to be expensive to go green. But in some of the existing partnerships between governments and businesses at the moment, there has been a lot of discussion about what could be done, what are the limits, and how can we work across a whole specific sector so that it becomes a sectoral instead of an individual approach. This helps businesses feel confident that they are not potentially losing out in the short term for what they know is going to be a long term benefit.

European SMEs are the main promoters of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), although most of their efforts go unnoticed. How can CSR be more effectively promoted and how can even more SMEs be encouraged to engage in CSR?

This is where existing associations for SMEs come in because one of the most effective ways of promoting CSR is business to business communication. Politicians have a role and we have discussions about how far CSR should be legislated but I feel all businesses should be responsible on their own will. This peer to peer discussion of like-minded businesses always work better because businesses are able to realise that others have gone down the path of CSR and they have not gone out of business because of this. It may have cost them in the short term but then again there are long term benefits to it. For example, the way in which staff are trained with CSR through maximising Human Resources and talking with local training providers, or even the managers administering the training of the staff themselves, can result in better quality within the business. Working together becomes very useful.

But then again, what you hear from SMEs is that they do not necessarily have the internal resources to do much on the promotion of CSR. This is where trying to find ways to link together business and training can give added capacity to these SMEs. European funding is one of the last things you want to touch because dealing with it has been known to be particularly complicated: different accounting systems, different accounting years, etc. Nevertheless there is money within the European Union in terms of working with SMEs, especially in terms of research money available to them. It is now a matter of how to access these funds. We are looking at a time of major cutbacks in local government but I do think local authority investment and having a European officer in terms of helping SMEs access funds can be really useful.

Then there’s the promotion of awards for businesses active in CSR. It is always nice to be recognised for what you are doing.

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