In the Spotlight: Catherine Stihler, MEP and new Rector

Max Graham
9 November 2014


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“In politics you need to have a diversity of people and a diversity of ages – it can’t just all be about, frankly, a certain group of men in their fifties, which it traditionally has been”


I met Catherine, very appropriately, in Rector’s Café to chat about her plans as Rector, her experience as an MEP and her international outlook.


T.I: First of all, congratulations on being elected as our new Rector! What were your initial thoughts when you found that you’d been nominated for your alma mater?

Well, Annie Newman sent me an email and one of my staff members in Brussels said, “I think you should look at this, Catherine.” It was actually one of the best emails I have ever received in my whole life. That was 4 or 5 weeks ago – little did I think I would be sitting here, elected unopposed. How 5 weeks can really change your life! It’s a huge honour and a huge privilege.

I’ve just been blown away by the enthusiasm, the energy and the organisational ability of the students here. It is just incredible and I think that’s something that St Andrews does to you, because you have to make your own entertainment. I am so enjoying the opportunity to do that this week, where I thought I would be campaigning – and I was so ready to campaign! We just could not believe that nobody else stood. I’m making the most of this week to meet as many people as I possibly can, so that we can talk about the Rector, talk about people’s expectations, and also a bit about what I would like to see happening as well.


T.I: What are your hopes and ambitions for the three years ahead? 

The first issue is accommodation – the fact that there’s not enough accommodation, so there’s a quantity issue. But also if you look at the rented sector there’s a quality issue too. I think that has to be a key priority because it also links to accessibility and we have to do more to make sure that we have the accommodation that we need.

 For years I’ve also wanted to give something back to the student community, to St Andrews, and I think being Rector gives me that platform. I also think there are many people who want to bring something back to St Andrews who maybe don’t have the money to do so but want to give their time, their effort, and their knowledge so I’d like to connect people and I’m already trying to do that. I want to bring some inspirational speakers and there’s so many people that I know who are hugely interested in doing something like that. There’s also the tradition element in St Andrews – I want to preserve the traditions that I certainly valued when I was a student and that give you that distinct St Andrews experience. 

Personally I have many, many fond memories of being here. I met my husband here and I got married in St Andrews. I actually got engaged here, on the stroke of midnight between the old millennium and the new millennium! I had just been elected as an MEP. It’s a very special place to me and I just want to give something back.


T.I: How do you think your education at St Andrews, particularly in International Relations, has affected your approach to working as an MEP and also to your political life generally?

I’m a committed internationalist and I studied International Relations here with Geography. I think IR was hugely important in determining what I wanted to do and I always knew that I wanted to do something international and something that involved giving back to people. Being involved in elected office here, being given that huge opportunity and privilege of being the President of the Students’ Association – of running an organisation when you’re 21 – was an amazing experience and I guess that gives you confidence for the future.

I was involved in Young Labour and I was on the Labour Party NEC (National Executive Committee) between 1995 and 1997 just before Labour came into government. That was a really interesting experience and time to be involved. All those experiences culminated in my election as an MEP when I was 25, so they really helped me. I had my education here – my MA and my MLitt, and they were deeply helpful. And now I’m working in what I believe to be the most successful peace process the world has ever known and it’s a huge, huge privilege to be able to work in an international environment, to work with people from over 28 different countries.


T.I: Here at The Interpreter we are very concerned with giving voice to minor languages and to encourage the acquisition of a second, third or fourth language amongst students. Having worked in the EU for 15 years, and with English as a global language – and the working language of the EU – how important do you think it is to learn another language now?

Internationalism is a hard thing. Here, we have a third of students from an international background and a strong languages department. But it’s at a time when languages are under huge pressure and I firmly believe that we need to do more to prepare people, particularly in Scotland, to have not just their mother tongue plus one but their mother tongue plus two if we want make the most of the advantages that come from being part of the European Union. 

Too often we miss out because we don’t speak other languages. For example, German is such an important language and it is still taught and valued here. I never studied German at university, but one year as a student I went to work as a waitress in Lindau and the next year I worked in a print factory in Langenau. Both of those experiences allowed me to have some German, which has proved to be very important in my job. I did French at school and picked it up again while working in Brussels. I also did a module in Spanish and forced my husband to do the same thing with the Open University! 

I feel very, very strongly that languages are not something that should be put aside, as they are extremely important in terms of communicating and understanding cultures and people.


TI: You were the youngest British MEP when you were elected in 1999, and the third youngest in the whole Parliament – what was that like?

Well, there was a German Green who was 21 and a Finnish Conservative who was 23 – three women as the youngest members, which I thought was really significant! The one thing about being young in politics is that you grow older fast. It’s quite fascinating and funny: when I was first elected people used to think I was my colleague’s assistant! I used to get stopped by security because they thought, “You’re not an MEP…” I have to say, that doesn’t happen as much today! You could get quite angry about being treated that way but you just have to laugh about it.

 In politics you need to have a diversity of people and a diversity of ages – it can’t just all be about, frankly, a certain group of men in their fifties, which it traditionally has been.


TI: You were the third female President of the Student Union, and you’re now the second female Rector. I also noted at the EU careers event that all three speakers were female. For you, what progress do you think it’s most important to make in Europe for women now? And what has changed since you entered Parliament in 1999?

 What is really interesting is the acceptance that you can have children and be elected. When I was first elected, you didn’t see many babies in the Parliament – it was very exceptional. Now it’s quite normal. I had to take my children to the Parliament when they were very little because no-one can replace you to sit in the European Parliament.

 I once found myself in a very curious position. We were there for the election of the new President of the Parliament in 2012 and I put Andrew, my youngest son, in his Baby Bjorn, and went into the Parliament – you can actually see a video of this, I think it’s on Youtube! – and everyone was so happy to see me. They elect tellers to count the ballots and in all my time there – 12 years then – I’d never been selected as a teller. It can last all day and my name was drawn from the hat. So I had to put my hand up and say, “Look, I cannot be a teller because I have an 11-week-old baby.” And the President of the Parliament looked up, and he said, “Ah! Congratulations!” and then everybody – at a really tense time in the Parliament, when you’re about to elect a new President – started clapping! 

For me, that shows a change in mindset, that actually, it’s ok to do this. And if you want younger women to have the balance of family life and work, there is an acceptance in the European Parliament, which frankly, I don’t think you would get at Holyrood or at Westminster. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but in the European Parliament, it is accepted. And that’s what I love about it.


TI: You describe yourself as an internationalist – and coming from St Andrews, it’s hard not to be. The EU elections in May this year were arguably defined by the rise of UKIP and a surge of euro-scepticism, not just in the UK but across Europe. What do you think are the solutions to this? How do we engage people more in the EU?

Well firstly, there’s been no correspondent for many Scottish newspapers covering anything that the EU does since the early 2000s. If we don’t communicate, then how do people know what you’re doing? I use social media a lot to try and communicate some of the stuff that I’m doing but it’s a huge challenge to get across what the Parliament does on a day-to-day basis.

 Then you’ve got the other problem that often nation-states “europeanise” failure and nationalise success. And when European legislation is decided upon, remember, no law is passed without government approval. I saw something recently, it was actually the Consumer Rights Directive, and it didn’t explain that we get many of these consumer rights from the EU. It was as though it was a Westminster-driven issue. We need to make sure that people know when decisions are made at a European level and why they’re made at a European level. 

It makes sense when you’ve got a single market of 500 million people that, instead of having 28 different sets of rules, you have one set of rules that applies across the board. It might take time to get that decision made across the 28 countries, with the Parliament being a critical partner in that, but once you’ve made the decision it makes life easier, both for the consumer and for the business involved. And to me, that is what the single market, the beauty of the single market across the European Union, is all about.

 We now have an MEP from UKIP in Scotland. I have had a very good relationship with my other colleagues and we work very well together but now we have somebody in the Parliament, representing Scotland, who fundamentally does not want the European Union to work and will do everything he can to destroy it. I, on the other hand, will do everything I can to make sure that people know the good things that we are doing at the European Parliament on their behalf, and why in the global world that we’re in, it is essential for our economy, for jobs, and for our future that we’re part of the European Union.


TI: In a similar vein, immigration is a hot topic at the moment, and recently Angela Merkel has said that there’ll be no compromise on the EU freedom of movement rules. St Andrews obviously prides itself on being an international university – how do you think the university could be affected by any possible changes?

The European Union is based on certain fundamentals: the freedom of people, goods, services, and capital and if you join the club, that’s what you sign up to. This pick-and-mix Europe will never work and David Cameron really needs to get real about the challenges ahead but also to talk about the benefits. The fact that you’ve got millions of British citizens enjoying the benefits of working and living in other European countries is beneficial both to them and to Britain. 

We face huge challenges ahead. Yes, reform of the EU is important, to streamline the way legislation is made and to have a better regulation agenda, absolutely. But a better regulation agenda is not about no regulation, nor is it about undermining the fundamental freedoms that we benefit from as citizens, being members of the EU. It would be a disaster, both for Scotland and for the rest of the United Kingdom, if we were not part of the EU. 

Sadly, the Scottish Nationalists play with the subject of Europe, and David Cameron is so weak that he’s putting his party politics before our national interest, which is about keeping the United Kingdom together and ensuring that we have a strong voice in the European Union.


TI: That’s it for the more serious questions, so let’s finish with some fun ones…

Which politician would you least like to be stuck in a lift with? 

Jean-Marie Le Pen.


TI: If you could choose anyone to have a drink with in one of St Andrews many pubs, who would it be?

Anyone? That’s a hard one… Hillary Clinton.


TI: Favourite European city?



TI: One place you’d really like to visit but haven’t?

Australia. Or maybe Hawaii! No, Australia.


TI: Brussels or Strasbourg?

There has to be a single seat for the European Parliament and that has to be in Brussels. And Strasbourg is a historical town which represents peace in so many ways. But I would have to say Brussels.


TI: Finally…do you have any cool campaign swag left over to give the Interpreter?

Yes, we have thousands of stickers we couldn’t use, so you’re welcome to them! I’d like to frame one – the campaign that never was!

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