As the impasse over Brexit continues Fiona Finch caught up with new North West MEP Gina Dowding, who is also still a Lancashire county and Lancaster city councillor, to ask what it is like to be a new Brit in Brussels?
A very big question mark still hangs over the length of tenure for Britain’s current crop of MEPs.
But for one of the north west’s newest recruits to the European Parliament there is no time like the present.
Some 35 years after Gina Dowding first joined the Green Party she is flying the flag for Green policies in Brussels and Strasbourg and busy highlighting the needs of the north west after winning a seat in the May elections.
She is determined to continue to combine being an MEP with her other elected roles as a Lancashire County Councillor for Lancaster Central and as a Lancaster City Councillor until clarity prevails over just how long this year’s newly elected British intake will serve.
Of the ongoing domestic backdrop of major fallouts in both Labour and Conservative parties over Brexit policies, she said: “It’s almost like having to completely switch off from what’s going on on one level ... you can’t forget, you can never forget, we’re on a limited time.
“The only thing you know at the moment is we’re there until the end of October. I’m embracing it as though it’s going to be for a long time, but I’m full on doing as much as I can before the end of October.”
The demands of her new job see the 57 year old away from home Monday to Thursday, based in Brussels or Strasbourg.
True to her Green credentials she said: “I’m committed to travelling by train. I have to say thank goodness for the Eurostar. All in all it’s amazing you can get door to door within six hours from Lancaster to Brussels. Strasbourg takes longer because I have to change (trains) again in Paris. We only go to Strasbourg once a month. I work on the train. I use the wi-fi. I have my meals. I use that time.”
But she admits: “I’m missing doing a bit of local cycling. The European Parliament does have bicycles you can hire but I haven’t got myself organised to do that yet.”
She continued: “When I come back I do something in the region on Friday nearly every week.”
She lists recent meetings in or planned for Manchester, Liverpool, Keswick and Cockermouth as well as Lancaster.
A priority for Gina, who is an anti-fracking campaigner, has been to invite 18 young climate strikers from the northwest to Europe to meet the Green MEPs and Belgian climate strikers.
She was also keen to give young women the opportunity to learn more about politics: “I’ve organised a trip for young women community leaders to listen to our MEPs about how they progress in politics and represent their community.”
She has been instrumental in arranging an exchange project between students in Burnley and Gerona which will be investigating how arts and cultural activities can help rejuvenate a town when “it feels neglected and in need of regeneration.”
She said: “I’m doing as much as I can so whatever happens on October 31 we’ve a legacy in the north west.”
Another priority is to look at the planned Green New Deal and what a low carbon economy would mean for the region: ”We need to ensure (we’re) investing in new technology so people are reskilled and jobs are created where needed.”
Gina sits with the 75 strong Group of The Greens/European Free Alliance group, the fourth largest group in the Parliament.
She stresses MEPs are given specific tasks: “We’re all as MEPs nominated to be on different committees and given pieces of work with these committees,. You’re (also) concentrating on other issues that are coming up.”
Gina’s roles include seats on both the Industry, Research and Energy and the Transport and Tourism committees. She also sits on the Foreign Affairs committee, is planning to speak about Kashmir and has an ongoing concern about events in Palestine and Israel.
She recalled her first impressions of the European Parliament buildings. She had never visited them before and describes both as “amazing” with ”lots of light, air and space.” She compares them to Westminster’s interiors, adding:”We’ve got room for staff in a next door office ... it’s a measure of how much people value the role.”
The experience of being in the Parliament and the way it operates is a reminder ,said Gina, that the UK is the only EU member to elect MEPs by a first past the post system: “One of the things in the European Parliament is that there are not opposing benches.”
Instead it is a circular auditorium: “It’s not like people opposing each other - they are working side by side. I have to say and that’s what’s so amazing is MEPs from across Europe, (maybe not ones in the far right), really do want the UK to stay. They value the input and role of UK MEPs. They sympathise with the predicament we’re in as elected members.”
She continued: “People have a set of values about working together and collaboration - to be a member of that EU was ultimately about embedding peace so that we were intertwined. We were interdependent so we didn’t have wars again. There’s that value underpinning Europe."
Gina graduated with a first class degree in European Business Studies from Nottingham Trent University and speaks German and French but notes her linguistic skills are a little rusty and if the Brits are staying she will take advantage of the language classes provided to help MEPs.
She has learned to have her bag packed constantly ready for travel: “It requires getting into a habit. It’s not worth unpacking your case you just rejig it. There’s certainly not much home life at the moment. When I left home last Monday I said to my partner Dominic ‘Thank you for your hospitality’... it felt like I was a visitor!“