As Vice-President of the European Parliament, Katarina Barley is particularly interested in preserving and upholding fundamental European values. In this interview, she tells us why protecting shared values is especially important right now, why the new German coalition government stands for progress – and why a modern Germany is only possible as part of a strong EU.

The new coalition government in Berlin has been formed with a coalition agreement entitled “Dare more progress” – a working basis that emanates confidence. You yourself were involved in the coalition negotiations. What leads you to believe that progress will be successfully established in Germany?

I am confident that progress will succeed because this is the unequivocal will of everyone involved in the government. We all agree that our country has some catching up to do in a number of areas, from climate protection and digital infrastructure through social improvement to addressing and combating crimes motivated by far-right politics. We all want Germany to advance. But we also need to remember that we are still in the middle of a global pandemic. Overcoming the pandemic remains our top priority. The coalition government has already made some important decisions when it comes to reforms. This begins with the allocation of responsibilities. Firstly, the creation of a new Ministry for Construction and Housing clearly demonstrates our commitment to combating the housing shortage at a federal level. In Nancy Faeser, we have a strong woman in charge of the Ministry of the Interior who is absolutely committed to the fight against right-wing extremism. All in all, the new cabinet is younger and more female. But its policy content has also changed. For example, the Federal Minister of Labour, Hubertus Heil, has begun the process of increasing the minimum wage to 12 euros. This extremely important measure will lead to a significant pay rise for millions of people and make their everyday lives easier. The annulment of paragraph 291a, the prohibition on advertising abortion services, has also been initiated – a move that is long overdue when it comes to strengthening women’s rights in Germany.

The coalition government has already made some good decisions when it comes to reforms.

How is the coalition government being perceived in Brussels? What should be its priorities in terms of foreign and European policy?

The new federal government’s commitment to a modern Germany goes hand in hand with a European identity and a commitment to multilateralism. The challenges of our time can no longer be overcome alone. We need our partners, especially those in the EU. The goal for the years ahead will be to make the EU more sovereign, more democratic and more capable of taking action. To achieve this, everyone needs to be aware of the responsibility that comes with EU membership. Although the EU also serves economic aims, it is primarily an alliance of nations that have undertaken to uphold shared values. If those values are not respected, the EU will be unable to move forward. That is why it is right and correct for upholding these values to be one of Germany’s European policy cornerstones. In foreign policy, too, protecting shared values and cooperating with partners who defend these values must enjoy top priority, not least with a view to ensuring peace and protecting human rights. The coalition government has committed itself to this goal and will use it to guide its entire foreign policy.

You have been campaigning for the EU to take a harder line with Europe’s autocrats since before you were elected Vice-President of the European Parliament. The Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg recently issued a clear ruling that EU funds can be withheld from member states that violate the EU’s basic principles. How do you see this verdict?

With its ruling, the Court of Justice confirmed what had long been evident: The EU has the right to protect its budget, and hence EU citizens’ money, from corruption and the abuse of power. As a result, the European Commission can no longer shirk its responsibility to apply the rule of law mechanism. It needs to get serious and withhold funding from countries that systematically undermine the rule of law in the EU. We have been waiting for this since the agreed conditionality regulation came into force early last year.

As Vice-President of the European Parliament, you are aware of the importance not only of the EU’s fundamental values, but also of the Parliament within the institutional structure of the EU – and you are campaigning for the Parliament to have a larger institutional remit. At the start of your first term in office, you called for the Parliament to have a true right of initiative. Does the European Parliament now occupy the position it should?

It is clear that it does not. The European Parliament does not have the legal or institutional status it deserves as the elected representation of Europe’s citizens. This is most clearly illustrated by the fact that it has no right of initiative: At present, the adoption of legislative proceedings in the EU depends entirely on the political will of the European Commission. It is highly unusual for a parliament to have no right of initiative. In the case of the European Parliament, this is explained by its historical background – it has worked continuously to win more rights, and this process is not over yet. However, it frequently comes up with far more progressive content than the European Commission. As things currently stand, we are only able to request that the Commission present a draft bill. Before she was elected, Ursula von der Leyen campaigned for our support by saying that she would respond to each of our proposals with a legislative act. That would at least have constituted a rough approximation of the right of initiative. However, the Commission swiftly distanced itself from this promise shortly after her election. As part of its current process of reform, the European Parliament will re-intensify its calls on the Commission to agree to such a right. After all, there can be no doubt that strengthening the European Parliament would also strengthen the legitimacy of the EU as a whole.

The European Parliament does not have the status it deserves.

Ms Barley, at the time of this interview (editor’s note: March 2022), the situation in Ukraine is extremely serious. Moscow is increasing the pressure on the European security architecture. You have recently travelled to Eastern Europe to get your own impression of the situation. In response to the Kremlin’s policy, the EU and its partners have imposed dramatic economic sanctions, and the EU is purchasing and supplying arms for the first time in its history. How do you assess the EU’s actions with regard to Putin?

The response to these horrific attacks has undoubtedly been different to what Putin expected. The same is true for the united front demonstrated by the EU. For once, we have been able to quickly agree on a common approach. As the member states have very different historical backgrounds, this is far from a given when it comes to foreign policy in particular. This joint approach is the right one. The EU is correct to respond to Putin’s aggression with hard-hitting sanctions and military aid. Ukraine needs our full support, not least in terms of humanitarian assistance. The EU is playing an important role in supplying aid and coordinating the arrival of refugees. To date, there is every indication that the member states are committed to joint action, and I hope this will remain the case.

To finish: If you could make one wish for Europe that would come true immediately, what would it be?

More than ever in light of the current circumstances, I would wish for everyone in Europe to be able to live freely, in peace, and without repression from outside or within.

The interview was conducted by Jerome Radtka and Cara Seeberg.

Katarina Barley (Social Democratic Party) has been Vice-President of the European Parliament since 2019. The German-British lawyer was previously a member of the German Parliament, during which time she served as Federal Minister of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs and, most recently, Federal Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection. In Brussels, she is a member of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs and the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament.