Veteran Socialist lawmaker: “We always knew that the EU would come under attack from guys like Putin”

German MEP Udo Bullmann talks about the importance of human rights in EU's foreign policy, the EU as a player on the world stage and foreign interference in EU politics.
Udo Bullmann in 2018. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis /

Mr. Bullmann, you are the chair of the  Subcommittee on Human Rights in the European Parliament. What is more important to EU foreign policy: economic interests or human rights?

You can find the answer in our constitutional Treaties, in Article 21 for instance: Whatever else the European Union does in the world, it has to promote human rights. This is a general clause. We defend human rights and we would like to support the implementation of human rights to the benefit of everybody, all over the globe. There is no question of relevance for human rights. They are a horizontal obligation, not only a nice-to-have, against which we scrutinize economic policy, foreign policy, trade policy, etc.

The question is: Do we fulfil these promises, or do we fall short? Or worse, do we contradict our human rights dedications? Of course, the European Union has a self-interest, in trade or foreign policy. But these interests must always be defined in a way where they are serving our interests as human beings.

David McAllister, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, said that the EU shouldn’t just be a payer, it should also be a player on the world stage. Can the EU become a world player?

What the European institutions and the players have to learn is that the room for manoeuvre for our domestic achievements is more than ever dependent on our international position, on the state of global politics, on the quality of the multilateral system and on our success to preserve peace. Unfortunately, we are facing new situations of conflict and war, including in our neighbourhood. Only if we position the European Union as a global player are we able to guarantee a positive future for the next generations within the European Union. And by doing so, we also help to fulfil the promise of the United Nations 2030 Agenda, i.e. to create to the benefit of everybody a more sustainable, just and equal world.

You mention the conflicts and wars. There is Russia’s war against Ukraine, but many people also worry that the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo could escalate further. What is the overall goal of the EU in this?

Looking at all our different external policies, we have to take care that we produce positive spillovers, in our economic policies, in our foreign policies. What do I mean by that? Many conflicts are originally fights about resources. These are enhanced by environmental challenges. When you talk to the experts, you can see once you have an environmental crisis, very often a couple of years after that, you have a military conflict.

Unfortunately, this is the state we are in. Sustainable development strategies for ourselves and our neighbours are a must as is to fight inequalities. Only societies which are not poisoned by huge income differences between the very rich and the poorest are able to stabilize themselves, to be peaceful, and to modernize in a sustainable way. Fighting inequality is one of our most important goals.

What about longstanding conflicts? The EU has so far not been very effective in helping to resolve those.

If you take the conflict between Israel and Palestine, we have to say the international community has missed many opportunities in the past. We see tragedy on both sides. The criminal activities and cruel attacks of Hamas on innocent Israelis and on the other hand, meanwhile, the more than 25,000 victims, two-thirds of them women and children, in Gaza, and the mounting number of deaths in the West Bank, urgently require a break of the negative cycle. And as difficult as it is to restart negotiations for sustainable peace in this situation, in the Subcommittee of Human Rights we brought together, let me call them bridge builders, positive actors, from both sides. It was one of the most important meetings we’ve had, people who launch initiatives, who work for a positive relationship.

Can you give an example?

I will never forget a young Jewish schoolteacher who came from London. He had lost both of his parents in the Hamas attack. It was so sad to hear the story, but afterwards, he spoke up for peace, for rekindling the relationship between people of goodwill on both sides. This is one of our tasks: to bring these good ideas, to recreate a peaceful world, to overcome conflicts like this one that has caused too many deaths during the last decades. And to stop the violence in a way that the next generations on both sides can have a better destiny than the previous generations had.

Tune in to the audio version of this interview, which is part of our new “EU Matters” podcast, available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

Let’s go back to the Subcommittee on Human Rights. What does it do?

We do the usual parliamentary business. We undertake missions, we check what is going on on the ground. We were in Israel and Palestine and I hope we can go back there soon. We were in Ethiopia, we went to Ukraine. My first trip was to Vietnam, a country many of us think is a very friendly country and better than China. We agreed on the trade agreement some three years ago. It has played out very well for the benefit of both sides, the Vietnamese and the European economy. Vietnam has a society that does everything to fight poverty and gain wealth. On the other hand, we realized that over the past three years, the number of political prisoners also doubled in Vietnam, and it has become difficult to be a journalist in that country or an environmental activist. You can end up in prison very easily.

What did you do concretely?

The Vietnamese authorities didn’t want the Human Rights Committee to come and visit, but they were happy with the Foreign Affairs one and with the trade people. Yet we insisted on presenting them lists of political prisoners, and we told them: Guys, there is so much positive in our collaboration. If you don’t want to put all that at risk, accept the terms you promised in our agreement. So, this is a typical job we perform.

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Udo Bullmann in a meeting of the Subcommittee on Human Rights. Luis Millan, European Union 2024. Source: EP

How do you hold the Commission and the Council accountable? Do you have any real powers?

We look at what both of these institutions are doing. We were very critical of Ursula von der Leyen and her Commissioners regarding the Memorandum of Understanding with Tunisia, for instance. Yes, of course, we would like to have good relations with our neighbourhood. We would like to have agreements with the countries. But where were the human rights in this? For what would we invest money? To give an autocrat additional resources without getting him to promise that the lives of people in his country must be improved? You find Tunisian people in the boats crossing the Mediterranean, and we are supposed to pay for this kind of practice? No way! So, we challenged the Commission, we had critical debates with the European executive on a regular basis.

You said that your committee was not exactly welcome in Vietnam. Is that the same with other countries?

Well, the local human rights defenders are happy when we visit, and sometimes, there are younger parliamentarians who think differently than the old guard. But what matters is that you use your leverage, and there is leverage. You negotiate on a diplomatic basis. For instance, when you are in Ethiopia, a country that has a lot of internal conflicts both within the country and the wider region, they know that they need the support of the European Union to rebuild the country. They want to get further support for development endeavours. We tell them, okay, but we are looking at what you are doing and how you are using our EU contribution, for peace or to buy weapons… In our economic and financial assistance and in international trade we have leverage on human rights. We also try whenever we can to collaborate with Volker Türk, the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, to improve multilateral safeguards.

Does the EU have leverage over Iran? Your country, Germany, has had a steady economic relationship with the Islamic Republic, despite the fact that the regime holds a number of EU citizens, including German nationals. There is now even an EU diplomat held hostage in Iran. What does the European Parliament do about these cases?

We have had only recently a full meeting on the human rights global sanction regime where we discussed how effective our sanctions are. Iran is a prototype of testing our capacities to sanction the right people. We came together with Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian citizen who was held hostage by Iran for some six years. We listened to him and concluded that we must reform our human rights sanction regime.

We must make sure that sanctions are not so much a political or economic instrument, but that they are developed as an instrument of our human rights policy. We really must get to the main actors behind human rights violations. Iran is a test case for that, but not the only one. Russia is another one. We have also invited the Canadian government to testify because the Canadians are very much interested in this matter. We work together with like-minded states, with players who have similar ambitions.

For years, the EU has discussed whether or not to list Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation. Why has it not happened yet?

There is a clear message from the European Parliament on that. We have demanded precisely that, in various resolutions. There is a huge majority of the European Parliament behind this demand. It is now on the Member States to decide that listing on the European level. We are pushing for that.

Do you think it will happen?

That depends on the foreign ministers in the Council, but I personally am totally in favour. We see the role of the Revolutionary Guard. Many of them are the main suppressors of freedom-seeking people in Iran.

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Protests against Iran's execution, The Hague, Netherlands on 21 December 2022. Photo: Zivko Trikic/Shutterstock

Let’s turn to the issue of foreign interference in EU politics. Fifteen months ago, a scandal erupted in the European Parliament called Qatargate. What has the European Parliament learned from it and what is done to prevent another case?

One result of this affects me personally because I took over the chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights last year [from Belgian MEP Marie Arena]. We promised that this committee will always be absolutely transparent regarding with whom we meet, what we do and who gets access to our meetings. We want to see the human rights defenders and not those with the big coffers and with the big pockets. We don’t need lobbyists who try to influence our resolutions. And I’m more than happy to be able to say that that pledge was kept.

We are there for those who are wounded, who have no voice, and not for those who would like to buy politicians. We have zero tolerance for anything else, whether it comes from Qatar, Morocco, Mauritania or whoever. They must also know that there are negative repercussions if they try. One other remark: I think these attacks on the European Parliament indicate that our resolutions and our work are taken much more seriously than many have thought.

Of course this has been damaging to us as an institution, and corruption is never only about one side, it’s about both sides, those who try to corrupt politicians and those who accept bribes. If we conduct our meetings and our work in a proper way, malign people are less likely to try and corrupt us. This must be made clear by the European Parliament and also by the Commission and the Council because we are not the only institution that is under attack.

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74 year old Latvian MEP Tatjana Ždanoka is allegedly a Russian asset, according to a journalistic investigation by The Insider. Photo: Dominique Hommel, European Union 2019. Source : EP

There were media reports recently that a colleague of yours, a Latvian MEP, served as an agent of the Russian secret service. Is she the only one, or are there more spies among the MEPs?

Investigations are ongoing in this case. The competent authorities must investigate this. Having said that, we warned years ago already against foreign influence. We have had also a specific committee working against threats like that. We always knew that the European Union would come under attack from guys like Putin, from autocrats who do not like our institution playing a global role, with human rights as one of the key demands. They don’t like players like the EU. Nor do people like Steve Bannon, for a time Trump’s main advisor.

You have to be aware of all that. Only if you are clear about these kinds of threats you are able to take the right countermeasures to shield your deliberations from foreign influence. It is a matter of self-esteem for the European institutions to protect themselves.

How do you view the EU foreign policy, what should be its priority?

We are living unfortunately in a world of shrinking democratic spaces. It is becoming more and more complicated to live your life in self-determination, in the way you want to live it. It is dangerous to have a political opinion, a political stance, to act freely without fear of oppression. To prevent shrinking spaces, we must not limit ourselves to talking to governments. Instead, we must establish something like a multilayered diplomacy. We must speak to academics, to business people, to journalists, to all those who influence and live in the media world. And also to NGOs, i.e. those who defend people and help them to use democratic spaces.

That is why the European Union must never ever give in on our human rights demands. On the other hand, we need to have a productive relationship with these countries. We need to understand the countries, not just the big players, also countries that are in the BRICS block. This is a very diverse set of states, with very diverse ideologies and varying ideas of how to govern internally and how to behave internationally. Only if you talk to Brazil, to South Africa, to India will you understand these countries. You also understand the just demand of nations to be treated on equal footing and not in what they think is a postcolonial form of relationship.

We need a holistic foreign policy, one that spearheads human rights, strengthens multilateral relations and one that leads by example. We need to modernize our own societies, guarantee free speech, free journalism, and democratic rules in all EU member states. Only then can we hope that other others will join us in this endeavour.

The interview with the chairman of the Subcommittee on Human Rights and former chair of the S&D Group of the European Parliament was conducted by Nenad Jurdana.

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Udo Bullmann

Dr. Udo Bullmann (born 8 June 1956) has been a member of the European Parliament since 1999. From 2018 to 2019, he served as leader of the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) Group in the European Parliament. Currently, he chairs the Subcommittee on Human Rights. Prior to entering the EP, Bullmann was Jean Monnet Professor for European Studies at Justus Liebig University Gießen, Germany, a fellow of the German Research Foundation and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of Government at the University of Strathclyde/Glasgow.

Photo: European Union 2023 – Source : EP


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