Sophie in 't Veld is not afraid to speak her mind, especially on protecting privacy and other human rights. The 47-year-old Dutch MEP, from the left-leaning liberal D66 party, has had a swift rise within the European Parliament in the past four years, becoming one of its best-known rights advocates – largely by holding member states, the European Commission and others in check over rights issues.
Dubbed by one commentator a “pit-bull for privacy”, the curly-haired liberal is only mildly apologetic over her workaholic ways and her often passionate and tenacious approach to defending basic liberties. She says that these are essential to safeguarding EU and European democracy. She works long hours, not just on privacy issues, but also promoting euthanasia, gay rights and abortion, and speaking out against the anti-Islamic Freedom Party of Geert Wilders in her native Netherlands.
“It's about making your own choices. A lot of freedom means a lot to me,” in 't Veld says, in one of those rare moments that she is not in meetings, drafting reports or tweeting with supporters and opponents. “Those themes run through all my political activities.” Of her private life, by contrast, in 't Veld is very guarded, offering little information about her parents or husband. She admits only to making time for sports – to de-stress at the gym, jogging or playing volleyball – and to listening to the music of Eric Clapton.
She made her name in the Parliament's civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee, of which she is now a vice-chair, by arguing that EU data-protection rules were being violated by the transfer to US authorities of passenger name records (PNR) – the data on meal preferences, home addresses and how tickets were paid for.
This became her signature issue when she first took up her seat in 2004 as a relative unknown. It now looks set to be a crucial element in the policy changes that in 't Veld and the Parliament are demanding to ensure European citizens' rights are better protected when Europeans' PNR are passed on to foreign nations. She was the leader in the historic refusal last May by MEPs to endorse PNR accords that the EU had negotiated with the United States and with Australia. The Commission is now to seek authorisation for the negotiation of new airline data transfer deals with foreign nations, with more data protection guarantees for Europeans.
In 't Veld admits that she is sometimes heavy-handed and that her intensely pro-European approach – her official website describes her as a “Euro-lunatic” – is not always welcomed. “That is possible, I am fierce, yes, but that's my style,” she says. “If you look at what has happened in Dutch politics or elsewhere, if you don't speak out you give the arena to all sorts of extremists, racists, populists and nationalists,” she insists. “Sometimes you have to seek compromise and harmony, but sometimes you must not be afraid to put the record straight.”
Such frank talk wins approval from many of her MEP colleagues, in her own Alliance of Liberal and Democrats (ALDE) group and also across political lines. “She is very natural and honest,” says Johanna Boogerd-Quaak, a former D66 MEP who hired in 't Veld as an assistant in 1994. “Her passions to create a better world are very powerful. As far as I can see nearly all her time goes to politics.”
But her outspoken style has not always won her friends or allies. She ran into trouble with Irish members of the ALDE group last year when she and UK colleague Sarah Ludford publicly supported an online petition calling for abortion to be made legal across all EU member states, including Ireland. The timing angered Irish MEPs from Fianna Fáil, who not only disagreed with her position, but also feared the campaign would scuttle their efforts to get the Lisbon treaty approved in a referendum that October. ALDE officials felt obliged to reassure Irish members that the group would “fully respect” their stance on abortion.
In 't Veld has also made few friends with US authorities. The lawsuit she filed against the US Department of Homeland Security in 2008, demanding to see what information it had collected on her from her PNR data, led to her being blacklisted. Her passionate defence of euthanasia and abortion rights has also made enemies of the Vatican and the Italian government.
She came to politics by accident, she says, after failing to land a job in the private sector. After completing a master's degree in medieval studies at Leiden University, she worked as a freelance translator in French, English and Italian (in addition to her native Dutch, she also speaks German and Greek), then as a trainee in the economic affairs department in the Dutch city of Gouda. In 't Veld became active in politics, as a D66 member and as a researcher for a member of the Dutch parliament in The Hague. From there it was, she said, quite natural for a lover of European history and culture to come to Brussels as an MEP's assistant. After working for Boogerd-Quaak in 1994-96, she became secretary-general of the Liberal group in the Committee of the Regions, until she decided to stand for a European Parliament seat. In 't Veld's election in 2004 made her the sole D66 MEP until 2009, after which Dutch voters returned her plus two others to Brussels.
She is still a political lightweight in the Netherlands, thanks partly to growing EU-scepticism in the Dutch media. But she says she has no ambitions of standing for national office like so many of her Dutch counterparts have done. “There is so much growth potential in my European Parliament work that I don't have any ideas of moving on,” she says. “The more I do this work, the more I realise how fragile freedom is...and you are really aware what freedom is worth.”