By Marie-Armelle Raverdeau
Klaus Linsenmeier is the head of the Brussels office of the Foundation Heinrich Böll Stiftung, a German political foundation affiliated with the European Union the Greens/ALE. He welcomed us into his office to discuss the role of political foundations in promoting democracy in Europe, his own career path, and what talents of young Europeans bring to the table.
STC: What are political foundations, and what are the specificities of the Heinrich Böll Foundation?
Klaus Linsenmeier: A political foundation is an association that is close to a political party. The reason why political foundations have been set up in Germany is to foster democracy through education, as it became very evident, after World War II, that the citizens needed it.
There are political foundations all over Europe. Here, in our premises, office of ENoP – the European Network of Political Foundations is also located, where about 50 organisations are based, each of them related to a party covering all the political spectrum, as long as it’s democratic. Promoting democracy is a common denominator for political foundations and each of them does it according to their core beliefs and ideologies. In the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the main values we are standing for are ecology, of course, but also democracy, human rights and gender equality.
STC: Who are the main partners for a political foundation?
KL: Political foundations are close to the political field but we can have a much broader perspective so we are reaching out to other parts of society, like the business sector or other NGOs for example.
If you look at a party or a parliament’s work, you see that they are very caught up either in campaigning or in day-to-day political work. We are much more flexible, and don’t have to follow the party agenda or the rigid system of the law-making process.
STC: What are the main actions undertaken by the Foundation at present?
KL: Our work includes commissioning studies, organising events, whether closed doors for consultations with other NGOs, the Commission or the Business sector for example, but also public events. For example, in two weeks, we’re presenting the European Energy Atlas 2018, an event that draws a broad picture of how Europeans can have an energy transition based on renewable sources. These are our principal activities. What we offer is a space for debate on the grievances of society and how we can approach that in the best way. We then invite people that we think can answer these questions, not necessarily from our own camp, but also from other areas of the society because only that way can we really come to interesting conclusions.
‘You are an excellently educated generation, and I always feel relieved when I see how many smart and bright people are on the way to do their best’
STC: How does the Foundation interact with the Green Party within the European Parliament?
KL: We are an independent association and as such are not allowed to support the party or its members within the Parliament but we have regular meetings with the parliamentary group. We exchange views with all parliamentarians every month.
STC: As the 2019 European elections approach, do you organise any actions to promote democratic citizenship and getting EU citizens more involved?
KL: Regarding the 2019 EU elections, we are not allowed to campaign but of course we aim at triggering discussions on the future of Europe and of the policy fields which are part of the day-to-day and long-term political negotiations and discussions in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe.
STC: What are the ways in which young people can get involved with the Foundation?
KL: We hold many events for young Europeans and the Foundation also has a scholarship programme, with about a thousand scholarships now for young academics to study or to write their PHD. I am personally involved in reading the applications for the scholars for PHDs on international subjects.
STC: Do you find it easy to get access to EU decision-makers? Do you get support for the issues you’re promoting?
KL: Frankly, I think Brussels is much more open than many other national capitals. For example, the Commission is not a government, so they don’t have a direct interaction with an electorate, which is a disadvantage, but they know that. So, they are very interested in joining our events to get an idea of what civil society is discussing in other parts of Europe. Our experience is very positive compared to the feelings in our membership countries, who sometimes think that this is an authoritarian centralised bubble, when it’s not.
STC: Regarding your personal perspective and career path, could you tell me how you started out professionally and how you ended up working for the Foundation?
KL: I started out in development and humanitarian work for eight or nine years for an NGO at international level. That’s when I noticed what a fascinating system political foundations are. When the Greens came up with the idea of setting up their own foundation, I thought “that’s it!”.
Since the Foundation is such a multi-faceted execution, I switched jobs within the foundation: I was head of the international division, responsible for economic and international affairs and I was director in the United States, and now here. There are a lot of things to do.
I’m from a different generation than you are, I’m a classically trained economist. Nowadays there are a lot of professional Europeans having studied and worked abroad. But for me, when I joined the Foundation, I found this environment very enriching and encouraging, and you always get the feeling that you learn something and you can never get bored.
STC: What are the actual responsibilities of your job?
KL: As an office director, I’m responsible for all the programmes that we are running here, which are mainly the European, environment, human rights, and democracy promotion programmes. On top of that, we are the ‘service station’ for the other offices. For example, if the office in Turkey wants to present their grievances about the situation in Turkey, we organise events here on the topic.
STC: What kind of professional profiles is the European office comprised of?
KL: We, in the Foundation, are on the brink of a generational change, as three of us are retiring soon, and younger colleagues will take over. The background is primarily political science, and social science. I’m personally an economist. Many of the younger colleagues have experience in European studies, which wasn’t the case when I first started as this is a fairly new discipline. I think it is a great advantage because what we learnt by debates and following politics, you learn from an academic perspective. Currently there are four programme directors, a person responsible for communications, and administrative staff to get everything in order, as well as three to four trainees per year.
STC: What do you think are the strengths of young people in the workplace?
KL: The most important thing is curiosity and being open for new challenges. What I noticed from the young trainees working is that they are keen to get involved and they get to really learn whatever a programme director has to do. We do our best to get them involved and they are always great, enthusiastic and skilled.
STC: Is there any advice you could share with us on how to succeed in the EU affairs environment?
KL: You are an excellently educated generation, and I always feel relieved when I see how many smart and bright people are on the way to do their best. You are the European elite, and you should be aware of that, and take up this as a responsibility and not a privilege.
The career subcommittee aims to conduct regular interviews with actors of the EU affairs world. Do you know of interesting professionals that you would like to see interviewed? Send an e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org