Dear president, commissioner, colleagues…
That is the way my speeches usually start. They also usually only last 60 or 90 seconds, and aren’t followed by any response or open questions like here today.
Just this week, I gave 5 of these speeches or “interventions” in the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. It’s been a full week of negotiations, votes, debates, meetings and interviews. And I can honestly say speaking here today is one of the highlights of my week, and a true honour. So thank you for having me.
Becoming a politician wasn’t something that I planned – it was more of a bundle of coincidences and opportunities, where in many cases I was lucky to have taken the right decisions and follow my own path.
I was invited to share insights into my path into politics with you, so that’s what I’ll be doing today. Starting all the way at the beginning, in my childhood in Bielefeld, taking you along for the most important forks in my path and what I have learned along the way.
So let’s go all the way back…
I am the oldest daughter and growing up my parents ran a little restaurant, hotel, tennis court and bowling centre somewhere in the West of Germany in the eighties. They trusted my ability to make my own decisions and take care of myself at a very early age.
Taking myself to Kindergarten from the age of 4 on, meant passing a small footbridge on my little bike, which was controlled by the local Turkish male youths. I didn’t enjoy the moments when those guys watched me pass by, often making fun of me, but I always remembered not to let them know that I was uncomfortable.
Overcoming a fear of strangers (which is not really something you can learn) is something I had to cope with rather early. Even as a young girl I was expected to do grown-up jobs like taking phone calls for room reservations, tables or later the tennis courts. I was talking to different guests from all over the world after coming home from primary school, whenever my parents needed a break.
Later on, I had to work as a general part of the staff, without any training – just by watching and adopting. I’m pretty sure that was one of my starting points to managing unexpected situations.
To handle drunken old men in the night or to explain to complaining guests why prices had to be increased according to the normal inflation etc.
This taught me lessons for my lifetime very early. It taught me to formulate solid arguments, be persuasive, clarify boundaries, think fast and stand tall in front of people older than me. All things that help me even as a member of parliament today.
Following childhood, of course, comes high school, which can be torture, as kids are either under challenged, and therefore underperforming and bored. Or they suffered due to their parents’ permanent pressure and too high expectations.
During my time in school, I felt as relaxed as one can feel while going to a super conservative high school with Latin as a first language, where even the grades were given by their old Latin description (Sexta, Quinta, Quarta…).
Going to this school, my decision to learn languages was not a practical – utilitarian – reason, but just to learn as such. After Latin and English, I chose to learn Ancient Greek and later Russian, which was rather uncommon in the Western part of Germany.
So why did I chose it? Because it was challenging, interesting and political, different from what the majority of other kids had chosen. You’ll see that this was a common theme in my journey: picking things because others didn’t or didn’t expect me to. I wasn’t trying to rebel, but the path – less taken – has always intrigued me.
Later, the decision to learn Russian was always linked to the opportunity to live and work there, to dive into the country for some time. To better learn what the differences between the planned and the market economy are. Between Democracy and Socialism, between an empire and a country which was finally defeated and built from scratch – including its democratic institutions.
But I won’t get ahead of myself here…
Generally, my high school was extremely conservative. Kids of many well-known companies’ bosses went there, some of them had their own drivers. So, I was rather an exotic figure: much less well off, clearly less conservative and always looking for interesting opportunities.
One of those new opportunities showed up while I was hitchhiking home from school. My “lift” – a German couple – told me that they worked as agricultural experts in different countries in the Global South. During this coincidental conversation with such kind strangers, agriculture caught my attention and I took the next opportunity I could find to arrange an appointment at the local job agency and find out more information on agriculture as a potential subject for my studies.
Of course, when the male advisor heard that I wasn’t too capable in what we call STEM subjects today, he immediately recommended that I not continue to entertain agriculture as a subject.
This was perhaps one of the first but definitely not the last times I decided to pursue a path others might not have, because it was more difficult, had obstacles or just didn’t seem to make sense to someone else. I decided to stick to that path and am very glad that I followed my instincts. This advisor, who didn’t really advise me at all, taught me to seek advice but value my own opinion on future opportunities more. I didn’t choose it because I thought it would help me become something specific, but because I actually cared about the subject. It was a choice for me not for anyone else.
Of course the reason I wanted to stick with agriculture: because no one else from my school picked it and I liked the idea of trying new things and not taking the most obvious path.
So, after high school ended, I was excited to start my studies in Bonn, probably even more so // due to this non-recommendation and someone believing I couldn’t do something. While I don’t believe we have to prove ourselves or our worth to other people, proving people wrong can be a great motivator and quite fun – especially if that person is a man who is older than you and has underestimated you.
Taking a step back, I remember that at first I thought that an internship or a practical period before my time at university seemed better to prepare myself for a very hands-on study.
But ultimately I decided to take the study spot in Bonn and enroll immediately after high school. And looking back, this decision was the best for me.
As someone without any agricultural ties in my background, a programme with a weekly routine and schedule gave me a structure within which I would orient myself.
I did this very quickly, and joined the faculty council, getting involved into University politics because I always wanted to shape in my environment.
As probably for many of you, being a student also meant working alongside studying to pay bills and gain practical experience to further my career. Sometimes this was the interesting 12-hour shift on a farm, often this was the tiring 6-hour shift at the local beer garden. And this definitely was an internship on two different farms for 12 months – which in my case happened to be in Bavaria.
I remember this first internship quite well. As a protestant, female, non-conservative, Prussian student, my experience in southern Bavaria was extremely hard work and formative – but also priceless.
I was not only learning how to milk cows or harvest crops but almost had an intercultural experience in this town so conservative and so different from my own hometown and new home in Bonn.
Returning back to Bonn with new perspectives and an increased motivation to finish my studies, I finished all my courses, even those most difficult, on my first try – still proving that first advisor wrong.
Sticking to my theme of trying new things and using all opportunities that present itself, I was the first agricultural student from Bonn to complete an Erasmus semester in the south of England in 1992.
But aside from England, the Soviet Union caught my eye along the way and I was constantly looking for opportunities to visit and experience Russia. My first goal was understanding what agricultural operations and farms looked like in a planned economy, where private property does not exist – and what other differences I could find to our system at home.
This opportunity was another of the great coincidences of my life:
On a bus, returning from an excursion to the Netherlands, my professor for organic agriculture was listening to Brazilian beats when I approached him, asking for a possible contact that could assist my search for an opportunity in Russia.
His reaction: „Ms Gehring, you’re pretty and smart, what ever could you want in Russia?
He then offered me his headphones with the words: „This is music, this is a country. Go to Brazil.“
While he might seem like another man telling me what he thought might be better for me, in the end he was actually very helpful as he had recently been researching agriculture in the currently transforming Soviet Union and put me in touch with someone who could help me.
His acquaintances lead further and further and ultimately, I was part of a group of very enthusiastic students and practitioners from different spheres, including lawyers, gardeners, biologists, and scientists from different faculties, which founded the APOLLO foundation in 1991.
The APOLLO abbreviation really translates to the Working Group for Projects in Ecology, Agriculture and Rural Development in Eastern Europe, which still exists today.
This project eventually lead to the next chapter, which was perhaps risky, a bit unexpected and probably questionable to others, but the perfect challenge for me. In the spring of 1993, I packed two suitcases, my 3-month-visa and got on trains for a trip of 36-hours.
Everything from the travel to the missing hot water during the trip demanded a lot of me. The biggest demand: I would need to step away from my comfort zone and always need to be ready for quick adaptions.
This is true for almost everything in the next weeks and months to come in Russia. Daily life in Moscow and other regions was so much more exhausting. Saying non-Russian speakers were unwelcome is putting it very mildly in my experience.
The friendly strangers helping me find my way on the first day were nowhere to be found after that. I was constantly discriminated against because I didn’t speak the language.
My internship in Russia was mainly characterized by three things:
1. No privileges for foreigners as it happened for most other international students, since I was working as a milker for the local Russian wage
2. No pre-planned programme and help from any international institution – I wanted to organise everything by myself,
And 3. No fear to try things, which are rather unconventional. Being forced to take care of so much on my own did not allow for fear but rather forced me to grow with the challenges that awaited me.
After my first 6 months-stay in Russia, I returned on several different missions until, after my university exams in 1996, I finally decided to take a job in Kyiv.
Kyiv introduced me to a totally different side of a former Soviet country: instead of agriculture, the focus of my new job for the German government was consulting the Ukrainian government.
My job was to coordinate the different activities with the local staff and to prepare the so-called high level visits of the heads of 2 research institutions every 6 weeks. Here, papers were presented and strategies with the Ukrainian government were discussed.
And in those meetings was where I fell in love with Ukraine.
But not only with Ukraine – I met also my husband there.
At the end of this period in Ukraine, I moved to Kiel where my husband was working on his postdoctoral studies and applying for faculty chair positions in Germany.
My next big life changes followed quickly: my first child was born in August 1997, we moved to Göttingen and my second child was born in January 1999.
With two very small children – or with “2 under 2” as you might say today – I became a mother, but at no point was I just a mother.
I was always still Viola, traveling, meeting new people and learning about my surroundings. I stayed true to myself and my instincts and while I compromised schedules and some dates, I didn’t compromise who I was.
I never stopped working, but I noticed that the environment 25 years ago (outside of the bigger cities) wasn’t really family friendly – or better mother-friendly.
Even though I was thoroughly engaged in most of the institutions I was member of or those my kids visited, there was still a lot of infrastructure missing.
There were no opening hours of the kindergarten before 8 am and after 12 pm. No child care in primary school after 12 pm and many other things.
These observations and inconveniences for me, and some other mothers, and the fact the Renate Künast had just been appointed as Minister for Agriculture at the beginning of 2001 were what finally brought me to politics.
I saw a problem, challenges others and I were facing and I wanted to do something about it.
I remember, I applied for the membership of the Green Party on a paper postcard at the end of March in 2001, but got no reply from the local greens until Mid May.
When, out of the blue someone called me and asked: “Do you want run as our candidate in the local council? If you don’t do it, no one else will.”
This first experience, I realized, was very much how party politics on a local or municipal level is: dependent on spontaneous decisions.
I won’t pretend I knew anything about what a mandate in the local council really meant, but I took the risk. What was the worst that could happen? I met new people? I did a bad job? I had a hard start and had to learn new things? People would underestimate me?
None of these things seemed like a good enough reason not to try, none were things I hadn’t already encountered once or twice.
My next step: talking to people who had the position before. Gathering intel, building a network. And attending the greens’ meetings in Göttingen. I still wasn’t 100 percent prepared for the job, but it became clearer and clearer: we all put on our pants one leg at a time.
Politicians, whether on a local level or even in the European Parliament are not any more special than I was as a mother of two in a small town at age 31.
Because of this realisation, I put my name on the list for the district council, and moved up to replace a colleague, who left in 2002.
It was in this first phase of my active politics, where I realised how much I enjoy healthy debates on all things I care about: primary schools, greening of cemeteries, local environmental issues, farming and hunting and many more topics. And I realised how important it is to apply or aim for positions you might not be 100% ready for because we all grow in new roles.
During this time, I also kept up my work on projects in Eastern European Projects and had two more children. So, the problem with the lack of child-care was still a problem for me.
This meant I would often take the younger kids or the baby with me to plenary sessions, group and party meetings. Back then, there was no social media to share pictures of me breast-feeding the little ones in the Göttinger Kreistag but I promise they exist. And already in 2003 and later in 2005 it was normal for me to bring the kids along and feed them if necessary.
I never saw my children as an obstacle, just something else my husband and I had to take into account when planning. And yes, we did plan their schedule together, which included him taking the kids on trips and to conferences abroad whenever it was possible.
In the more difficult times of scheduling, we always found people in our inner or extended circle to lend a hand or an extra set of eyes for an afternoon. “It takes a village” is a saying that still rings true today. Even when we have to remind ourselves to ask our network for support sometimes. In the worst cases we didn’t have help, in the best scenarios we had friends of friends help us out and – sometimes in compromises, I would take one of the four kids to Munich for a meeting while my husband had the other three.
Determining priorities, communicating our needs and finding compromises were most often the key.
The same was true for the next chapter that followed: my husband was taking a sabbatical for two university terms – in the USA – and we were going with him.
So now it’s June 2006, my husband just received his okay to go to Cornell for a year and I had 6 weeks to organize a move across continents for our family of six – to a country I had never been before.
Just like with my children, I decided this opportunity for him would not be an obstacle for me. While he had the restrictions of a clearly defined project, I had the freedom to find new experiences and discover what Ithaca in upstate New York had to offer.
Finding courses at the university that spoke to me, I took the chance to go back to university and became a guest student. Of course, I neither wanted a degree, nor could I afford the tuition, so I approached each individual professor and none of them had any objections to me listening in on the lectures.
Thus, following my partner to a country where I couldn’t work and others may have expected for me to put my career on hold for a year was another great opportunity for me. I was able to experience not only how fantastic and diverse the life of one of the typical US college towns is, but also the amazing level of teaching at one of the top universities in the US.
While I was able to continue my political activities online easy enough, one of the things I remember not so fondly from that time was the price for full-time childcare. Which was much higher than it was here at the time.
The monthly rate for a childcare was simply not affordable, so for us it was a day-to-day thing with no reservations beforehand. For me that meant that regardless of sun or rain or snow, I would get up and get in line at the childcare centre before 6 am to drop off my youngest for the morning or the whole day. Not another great coincidence or opportunity but absolutely worth it for me, as this allowed me more freedom on some days to connect with many of the much younger college students. I was debating international affairs with Texans and learning about China from experts, and sharing my insights on Russia in return.
That year in New York meant a lot to me and I think it is another great example of how we don’t necessarily have to pick between having a family or a career. Speaking to young women, I have heard reservations about having both, combining both and allowing for compromise. Sure, I could have only been at home in a foreign country and not connected with my surroundings while “following a man” across the world.
But, in the end this year let me learn so much more, perhaps even more than my husband. I embraced the chances offered to me and used it to grow further. I took the risks, asked strangers for favours and stepped out of my comfort zone, looking for new ways to challenge myself.
After Ithaca, we returned to Göttingen, my husband here to the university and I to my various functions in the greens. Being back in town and having stayed active, I took the next big opportunity and became a candidate for the Niedersachsen state parliament in 2008. A position I wanted but did not get.
Now I could stand here and tell you about how this was hard on me, or how ultimately it was probably for the best because one year later I did get elected into the German Bundestag.
I could continue in detail about how after one term in the Bundestag, I ran again without success, and after that lost a mayoral election to a man with 60 vs my 40% of the votes, but then tell you about how those loses are why I am now 4 years into being a Member of the European Parliament. We all know that when something doesn’t work out, something else ultimately does and less than ideal outcomes usually aren’t the end of the world, so I won’t stand here and go on about all that.
I hope my path was at least somewhat interesting to all of you, or even just to one of you. And I am excited to answer any questions you throw at me in a minute, but before I do, I’d like to leave you with the same advice I gave my daughter last week:
If you do one thing wholeheartedly, let it be trusting yourself.
Trust yourself to take risks, trust yourself to listen to your instincts, trust yourself to fail and try again; to compromise your schedule but not your values. Trust yourself to succeed even if opportunities are disguised as challenges; to pick up the phone; to ask strangers for favours and friends for help.
Trust your abilities to grow into new positions and apply even if you think you don’t match all the criteria right now. Trust yourself to know which path is right for you, even if it’s not what others expect or what seems the easiest. Trust your path.
Because who knows, maybe that path will also lead you from Göttingen to Brussels and back again.