„Trading places“

PROFILE: Helmut Markov in: PARLIAMENTMAGAZINE, 18 June 2007

Helmuth Markov still vividly recalls the day, back in 1998, when a coach tour of the French countryside took him to Strasbourg. He was travelling with his wife and three sons when, by chance, he passed parliament’s then yet-to-be-opened building in the north east of the city. Though work was still to be completed, the gleaming, glass-fronted edifice had an immediate impact on the 55-year-old. “I decided there and then,” he recalls, “that this was the place where I wanted to be.”

The following year, Markov’s dream was realised when he was elected as an MEP. It may not be entirely surprising, therefore, that he rubbishes the campaign to axe Strasbourg as one of parliament’s official seats. “It is a pointless campaign,” he says. “It is written into the treaty and there is nothing that MEPs can do about it.

Markov was born in 1952 in the east German city of Leipzig. His late father was a professor of history at Leipzig University while his mother was a librarian. At the age of 24, he left to study electrical engineering in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, an experience he describes as particularly memorable. “It was an exciting time. The country was still part of the Soviet Union and it was good to sample a totally different culture.” After taking his doctorate in Kiev, he returned to Germany to work as an electrical engineer in a town near Berlin. He founded his own company which he ran until selling it two years ago.

The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 was the single event which awakened an interest in politics and Markov went on to spend nine years as a deputy in regional government in the state of Brandenburg. His trip to Strasbourg in the late 1990s planted the seeds of what was to become a new career on the European political stage. Although he was sixth, and last, on the party list, he was elected in the 1999 European elections and now represents the Confederal group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left.

He particularly enjoys his current job because it enables him to forge alliances with people from a range of political persuasion. “This parliament is totally different from national parliaments where, usually, there is a strict sense of discipline within political groups. In this place people like me have a lot more freedom to do and say as we wish. The European parliament also gives you the chance to find political solutions to issues with all manner of people. I think this is good for policy making,” he says.

Thus far, he considers his main achievements as an MEP to be the numerous parliamentary reports he has produced. These include reports on driving hours for professional drivers, digital tachographs, and the influence of globalisation on poor countries.

However, since his election earlier this year as chair of parliament’s international trade committee, his profile – and workload – has increased substantially. When it comes to trade deals, Markov much prefers multilateral, rather bilateral, agreements. “Free trade without some limitations or regulation is, in the main, not fair,” he says. “Economically powerful nations must be prepared to open their trade borders to poor developing countries.” While he respects Peter Mandelson’s determination to fulfil his mandate, Markov says the EU trade commissioner’s approach to the current trade negotiations are destined to end in failure. “Although we are different politically, I have a good working relationship with Mandelson. However, I just do not think the approach he has adopted in the current trade talks will get anywhere,” he says.

Away from work, Markov enjoys a range of activity sports, including judo (he is a black belt), parachuting and, despite numerous injuries over the years, downhill skiing. He is also a keen motorcyclist and takes part in parliament’s annual Brussels-Strasbourg bike ride. In his quieter moments, he also enjoys classical music. He says his “action man” interests are not shared by his sons, aged 21-25, both of whom are students in Germany.

Markov was re-elected in 2004 but says he is unlikely to stand again in the 2009 European elections because he thinks “ten years in the same job is quite enough”. He will probably return to his former engineering job but, before his mandate draws to a close, he still has a “wish list” of things he wants to do.

“I want to play my part in finalising the Doha trade talks, reducing poverty through fair trade and doing something for less developed countries,” he says. On his monthly trips to Strasbourg, Markov finds himself occasionally thinking back to that day when he first clapped eyes on the parliament building. When asked what crosses his mind, he pauses for a moment and says, “I have had a really interesting life as an MEP. I am a happy man.“