Sven Spengemann : « Often, the willingness of refugees to integrate is underestimated »


When he came to the College last November, the Finnish Finance Minister spoke about the “College of Love”, do you have the same memory of the College of Europe?

Absolutely. I think it was such a terrific experience with such diversity from all across Europe. When I went, we had students from the accession States, there were a couple of students from Japan, from the United States and Eastern Europe. We really bonded because it was such an intense experience of love and friendship that continues to this day. It’s a good way to describe it.


Spengemann (on the right) after his election as a Canadian MP in 2015
Spengemann (on the right) after his election as a Canadian MP in 2015

Why did you decide to come to Bruges?

First of all, my heritage is European but I was very interested in trade law. When I did my LL.B. in Toronto I focused on international law and increasingly in my final years I took a look at international trade, and understanding the European common market was definitely something that flowed from that experience. And the interest in European enlargement and in the market in the late 1990s was very strong, so I thought I would benefit a great deal from doing that in Europe. It’s a very unique program. At that point there were still scholarships given by the European Commission to three Canadians per year, so it was an extraordinary experience for a Canadian lawyer and law student to be able to experience that, it was quite exceptional.


There are no more Canadian students this year. Why do you think this is?

I am surprised to hear that, even disappointed perhaps. It could be a number of factors: other opportunities, financial reasons – I don’t know what the funding channels are for Canadian students to go to the College of Europe, maybe we should look at whether or not it’s a sufficient incentive or if we can do more to entice Canadian students to go. And maybe it’s also a factor of marketing the College of Europe a bit more proactively here in Canada. There would be a terrific interest by Canadian students, there should be a terrific continued interest in the European market and European trade and foreign policy positions, and increasingly an interest in the question of Islam and ISIS and the European response to that. We should encourage Canadians to continue to apply and if I can be of any assistance in helping to raise awareness of the College of Europe, don’t hesitate to let me know.


What is it like to be born in Germany and to become a Canadian MP?

It was an unbelievable journey. There were just so many twists and turns along the way but I think the transition to Canada – you know I came to Canada in my mid-teens – was a completely transformative and eye-opening experience to see North American culture and all of its differences. When we came over, the city we moved to, Mississauga, Ontario, had a population of just less than three hundred thousand people and since that time, it has tripled the population and is very quickly approaching the million. So to have watched Canada evolve, and particularly Toronto and Ontario evolve, was just tremendous. Looking back on my own heritage with that experience and coming back to the College of Europe to take a look at the evolution of my own country and the neighbouring countries, is an experience that was second to none. To be able to now serve the Canadian public and my constituency as an MP here again is something that is very unique and that I’m grateful for. I did a number of things in between: I worked in the private sector, in academia, in the Canadian government and the bureaucracy for a while, and I also served overseas with the United Nations in the Middle East, in Iraq, for almost seven years. So all of these things are experiences, perspectives and backgrounds that I draw on pretty much daily in my work here on Parliament Hill.


It would seem that you ultimately made the right choice because, in Germany, FDP has almost vanished from the political landscape and in Canada, the Liberals won the election.

Yes, we did very well with the new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It’s a vision of service, a vision of investment in our economy, and also bringing back Canada internationally to the role that we think the country should play and perhaps hasn’t played as effectively as it could in the last ten years. So there’s a lot of excitement, as you may have seen from the talks in Paris and the talks in Davos and here nationally especially. Canada is now back, Canada is back on the international scene and we’re here to be constructive and to be partners to our allies and to tackle some very challenging issues in terms of the global economy and security questions as well. These are not easy times but we are here to be engaged and involved. And I’m looking forward to playing a part in that.


What is the German Liberal Party (FDP) missing?

I think the German liberal party is in a very different historical position than we are as the Liberal Party here in Canada. The German liberals have always been a sort of junior coalition partner perhaps founded on similar principles in some respects but historically, they certainly occupy a different place in government. You have the big parties, the CDU, the CSU and the SPD, that are formed as the large partners, and the FDP has been an effective but junior coalition partner whereas, if you look at the Canadian liberal history, the Canadian Liberal Party really is the party that built the country, that put in place the machinery and put in place multiculturalism as a philosophy and bilingualism as well as the Charter of Human Rights; these are all liberal projects, so we really constructed the country in collaboration or perhaps in alternation to (with?) our conservative friends. But it’s been the majority party, or one of the majority parties, in Canada since its inception. So the two are just historically different. And whether the German Liberals can claim their place as a senior coalition partner in the future remains to be seen.


You served for seven years in the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq. How do you see the evolution there since you left in 2012?

It’s a very disillusioning picture and not one that is positive at all. I still have good contacts and good friends both in the United Nations and among those that are working in Bagdad and in the Iraqi government. These are not easy times for anybody working in the Middle East as everybody knows what with the onset of ISIS, the Arab Spring and then followed by the resurgence of ISIS. ISIS was around as a political entity when I was there but it was a relatively small entity and nobody could have foreseen at that point that this terrorist movement would take an entire region by storm and entrench itself in the way that it did. So there are significant military challenges as well as significant economic, cultural and security challenges. The primary problem for that region in the years to come is the need to define an alternative vision to ISIS for people to stand up and fight against this terror group, be it in Syria or in Iraq. They have to have something that they believe in, that serves as a positive alternative to ISIS, and the construction of that alternative is still something that is very much in flux and that isn’t apparent yet. Our Kurdish friends historically and militarily are quite unified and effective in countering ISIS, but other parts of Syria and Iraq are much less organized, less cohesive and for that reason, simply the belief in something that’s better than ISIS hasn’t been constructed yet and that needs to happen. So it’s not just a military engagement, it’s also economic, social and cultural. What is that region going to look like post-ISIS? Once we have that vision, people can latch onto it and start building a path to the future. The Syria talks that are now taking place are in fact being led by my former boss, Staffan de Mistura, who has got some real challenges on his hands to unify the various sections in Syria that are standing up against ISIS and the complexities relating to the Assad regime but also to the international community in its willingness to contribute to the struggle.


Are you optimistic about the outcome?

I think ultimately, the human spirit will always find a way forward and will create something better. There are going to be dark days in between, but there are signs that ISIS is not an entity that’s going to be around in the long-term. It is simply not something that can be sustained, endorsed or condoned. To come onto the scene with the methods that they have applied, which is basically just slaughtering civilian populations and any of their opponents and oppressing them – there are simply too many forces that are engaged against ISIS (for ISIS to be around in the long term), they just need to be organized enough to make sure that we can be effective in going up against them (ISIS), which also includes financial support. That’s part of the problem, it’s cutting off the financial support to the movement. So it’s a multi-faceted effort and it’s not just about the air campaign and bombing but it’s a humanitarian, political, social and economic issue.


Sven Spengemann with the new Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau
Sven Spengemann with the new Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau

Tell us about your campaign and your work with Justin Trudeau.

The campaign was a fantastic opportunity to reach out. It was the second longest political campaign in Canadian history. I started reaching out and started consolidating a platform for winning the nominations as early as 2012 when I came back from Bagdad, and then the campaign itself in 2015 was some seventy-eight days long which was extraordinary, and it really gave us an opportunity as the Liberal Party with Mr Trudeau at the helm to reach out to Canadians and to listen. What we heard basically confirmed two things: that Canadians first of all have a lot more common sense than the conservative government or the media gave them credit for and, second of all, that Canadians are very optimistic people. We don’t like to relish the politics of fear and division, we are positive, we like to be unified, engaged and constructive. And I think that was really the distinction to the conservative government previously in place. So it was really an absolute joy and privilege to work with Mr Trudeau and his entire team on this campaign, we had a lot of fun and knocked on thousands of doors and really listened to the population. It was a tiringly long but very enjoyable experience.


The world was amazed to see a Prime Minister in office welcoming and helping refugees who just arrived to Canada, while in the meantime, Europe is all about building walls and fearing foreigners. What do you think is lacking in Europe in order to achieve such a demonstration of generosity and how can Europe return to its original values of solidarity?

I wouldn’t be as pessimistic as to say that Europe in general is resisting. In some cases, countries are simply being overwhelmed by the numbers but there are always stories of optimism and hope and stories of reaching out and helping people in need; it has happened in the past and it is happening again. But we do have the largest influx of internally and externally displaced people since the Second World War so in some respects, the resistance is to the logistics of it and, when resettling refugees, it has to be done well. You create problems if you resettle refugees in ghettos or in quickly established mass camps because then refugees are only moving from one camp to another while the more important process is to integrate the refugees fully into society, perhaps even on a family-by-family basis, which is the best model. You can’t do it quickly enough in some cases, and that has created some frictions for Europe (point of reference: Europe/Germany). But when we look at refugees, at people like Albert Einstein, for instance, who was a refugee, there are tremendous levels of motivation and energy on the part of refugees to re-establish themselves where the most dire circumstances brought their families to a new place and they really want nothing more than a better life. Often, the willingness and the ability to integrate are underestimated, and refugees tend to become very quickly productive and integrated members of society given the right circumstances and the right platform. I am more concerned about the logistics than I am about there fundamentally being an anti-immigrant sentiment. I think it’s just as it is with the conflict in the Middle East: humanity always tends to ultimately gravitate towards the good, and even though there might be some difficult weeks or months in between, I think this will be seen as successful in the end. The tougher question is: are they going to be refugees in the sense of ultimately being able to return to their homeland? Given that the whole concept of a refugee is to give temporary shelter and safety and then, when things stabilize, people are allowed and often willing to go back, it is not at all clear at the moment whether these people going back to Syria is going to be something in the intermediate term that can be contemplated. We’re still not clear on how much longer this conflict will go on, and what kind of social infrastructure there will be for people to return to. So, again, some very pressing questions.


Solidarity and love are not only values we are lacking with regards to migrants but also with regards to ourselves: between Brexit and Grexit, national egotism seems to be the new legal basis. How do you see this very divided European Union compared to Canada?

It’s very important for us to understand the foundations of these divisions and to be able to accurately gage how deep they are. We’ve all witnessed to some extent here in North America through the media the speed and the extent to which Europe enlarged very quickly with some very different cultures and structurally differing economies coming together as one currency and political Union and the idea that there would be challenges along the way wasn’t one that was foreign to Canadians. Of course there’s disappointment when things get politicised and you do have these challenges relating to Greece and to other economies in Europe, but Europe is a system based on dialogue and on negotiation. Of course there’s politics, sometimes there’s rash power politics, but I think Canada, given its own diversity and particularly its own economic diversity right now and the challenges that we’re facing, very much understands some of the pressures that are taking place in Europe. There is a kinship there, we are historically and culturally in a different position than Europe is, but if you look at the Canadian economy, you’ll probably see five or six different sub-economies depending on whether it’s East Coast, West Coast, the Centre, the North or the Prairies, and you will also find challenges relating to concentrations of immigration, and challenges in terms of what the expectations are with respect to job creation and economic potential. So it’s not really foreign to us, and it’s not entirely by surprise to us that there are challenges, but we are optimistic in the sense that, like Canada, Europe is a political system that is based on dialogue, negotiation and ultimately reconciliation. So that may be overstating the optimism, but then again, there are answers to be found, and people are so engaged in these projects. Part of what makes the EU strong in my view is the extent of political engagement and awareness in its youth. The College of Europe, for instance, is merely one organisation that contributes to that. The youth is very much engaged, and I think that this is something that we can aspire to here in Canada.


You’re saying that the youth is engaged, but at the same time young people have lost more and more faith in Europe, and are increasingly voting for far right parties. How can we reverse this trend?

The far-right issue is indeed a concern that I’m very mindful of. The answer there has to in part be found constitutionally by actually banning certain parties outright and saying that this kind of dialogue and this kind of hate speech in particular are something that cannot be condoned. But outside of that threshold, I think it can only be done through dialogue, exchange and education. It has to be endogenous, it can’t be a top-down crackdown on the far-right because that will create the opposite effect. It has to come from the population internally. When you see the far-right movements growing in strength, number and political organisations, that is something that is of concern, and the answer there is education and focused engagement to make sure that those kinds of divisions disappear. There are always political distortions because you have got some groups that politically have more attention than they should have numerically because of the way they gain their voice and the way they polarise the issues. The politics of fear and division were something that the Liberal Party very firmly stood against in the last election, but we saw it becoming part of the mix in the debate that we had here on the Muslim community, and it was exploited politically by the conservative government. We answered their concern successfully here, and I think Canadians resoundingly rejected it, but the same has to take place in Europe and I understand how difficult it is because, numerically, with respect to refugee flows, you’re facing such a disproportionately greater pressure than we are. We’ve committed to 25000 refugees by the end of February and we believe we can take many more than that during the remainder of the year, but if you place that in the context of total migration and displacement, it’s nowhere near as large as what Germany, Italy, Sweden and others are facing with respect to folks simply showing up on their door. I’m worried about this, and I think there has to be focused systematic education by the moderate centrist and left-wing parties to make sure that this doesn’t gain in strength.


And do you think the answer also lies in more political courage?

Yes, absolutely. The voices are there, they just have to be aggregated and projected. People have to stand up and social media might be part of that. But it’s also about economics, and the tougher things are economically. We’ve had these tragedies in the 1930s across Europe and that may be a powerful lesson. The tougher it becomes economically, the more fertile it becomes for the creation of radicalism and far-right parties. So economic growth in a way is not just to increase prosperity for everybody but it’s also a vehicle for creating political stability so there’s almost a social responsibility to continue to grow the economy and to give people equitable opportunities. We have this big debate in North America about the 1% and the 99% and to some extent, that’s the case in Europe as well. Growing disparity between the super-rich and the rest of the world, as well as the number of families that now control the top 1% of the planet compared to the rest, whose wealth is just shrinking and shrinking, is a very real issue. Politics and economics are very tightly connected here in terms of the solutions that we need to find.


U.S. presidential primaries begin today, what do you expect from a future president of the United States?

I’m speaking here strictly personally, and not as a member of the Liberal Party or in my capacity as a Member of Parliament From a personal perspective, I would expect the leadership of the US President to go to the unification of the country; unification in terms of some of the pressing issues relating to immigration, race, culture, gun violence, economics as well as to America’s role of leadership in the world. The next president, given the fact that there are divisions that have now become very apparent maybe through this campaign more so than through others, would have to be a unifier, a person who can bring the country together and to forge a new direction. Or maybe not even a new direction, but to go back to the classic American leadership. And again, it’s a question of how well this president will do on the economy (the US economy is actually doing relatively well compared to ours at the moment). But unifying, not just with respect to economic aspirations but culturally, internally and also projecting leadership abroad, especially on questions like the Middle East.


The Harper administration was well known for having a weak environmental commitment, what is going to change concretely in this regard with the new majority?

We got started very quickly with COP21, and we’ve had resounding response internationally on our commitments. The way it’s going to work differently here in Canada is through something that extends through the environment to other policy questions as well, including health care, which is to have a strong working relationship with our provinces. Many of these competences are provincial in nature, so it will be federal leadership but with an on-going dialogue with our premiers, our territories and First Nations, Inuit and Métis populations as well, very importantly, especially on the environment. That dialogue has started, that message has been understood as it is to be much more than rhetoric: there is actual leadership now, and at the provincial level, this has been triggered by this new openness federally to engaging premiers. That simply wasn’t the case before.

So two things to sum it up: first of all, the acknowledgment that climate change is real. Prime Minister Trudeau was very emphatic and uses every opportunity that he has to say that we can no longer delink the economy from the environment. But to make that happen and to be environmentally sustainable and responsible, we have to work within our federal system, which means engaging our provincial partners. If we put the two together, we see the leadership that is going to project internationally as we saw in COP21 and Davos as well.


There is currently a controversy in Europe around the Investor-state dispute settlement system. Part of the civil society and MEPs are calling to renegotiate the EU-Canadian Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement on this issue as well as on IP rights (identical to the late ACTA). What do you think about this?

Trade is always going to be a political question. There are always going to be differences in terms of what we want to achieve in a trade negotiation; it’s partly a function of what our own national economic strategy should be. What Canada needs to do in my view is to find out what it is in the coming generation that we want to define as quintessentially Canadian in economic terms. So we are known for our resource-centric export economy and the hydro-carbon reserves that we have are significant. We need to remain mindful of that given that it is definitely a resource that has taken us to where we are. But looking into the future, the Canadian economy is going to need to diversify further, in my view. We’ve got questions around manufacturing, especially the automotive industry, which for us is still the second biggest export product, so we’re always going to pay attention to this. However, people are increasingly asking us about other sectors of manufacturing like high-tech, nanotech, also health sciences, aerospace; and others – so what every country should do and what we need to do as well is to find out what it is we want to negotiate (or ratify) and what it is we want to focus on. And in many respects, these are big-picture questions that exceed the political mandate of any one administration. In order to create a basis for foreign direct investment in the high-tech area, just to use one example, we have to answer strategic policy questions that are long-term, and then negotiate our trade deals on the basis of these strategic insights and interests. There are always short-term frictions with respect to trade. If you look at US-China trade or Canada-Europe trade, there have always been some obstacles and stakeholders who will very actively argue for what some perceive to be protectionist measures and for us, the automotive industry and the dairy industry, specifically in the context of the Trans-Pacific partnership negotiations, are important. But disagreements are always something that can be overcome, and trade disputes should be few and far between. There are dispute resolution mechanisms and, in my view, they work well, but that’s often a last resort. Any kind of misunderstanding or friction or political misalignment can be negotiated successfully. So what we need to do as a country is to have a vigorous and expert team of negotiators, and I think that’s already in place. We need to make that front and centre as we go through the TPP process and other trade agreements and just make sure that we stay successful. The same is true for the European side and in some respects, Europe will have the tougher internal conversations. We need to talk to our premiers and make sure we’re aligned as a nation, but to get the EU to speak with one voice on some of these issues is not always easy.


A final question, what advice can you give to College of Europe students?

Be personally and professionally engaged, and recognize that today’s problems – and by extension, their solution – will be highly interdisciplinary in nature. Both the complexity and speed of manifestation of problems have increased. Recognize that there still is a very tight connection between “the local” and “the international.” Understanding local politics will help you develop solutions that are realistic and relevant. Lastly, recognize that, because of the multipolarity of interests, political (including legislative/regulatory) solutions will require added tenacity on the part of those seeking to provide them. Focus on the issue(s) you are passionate about, recognizing that you cannot solve every problem, no matter how urgent it appears, but put your heart and soul into the issue you have identified as “yours.” And perhaps, like me, you’ll conclude that public service is the most rewarding calling of all.

Interview conducted by Nathan de ARRIBA-SELLIER & Emilie SCHOU

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