Simone Veil was key to the EU’s success
2017-07-18 14:50:13 -
By Michael McGowan

Simone Veil – French lawyer, Holocaust survivor and the first president of a directly elected European Parliament – has died at the age of 89. The influence and inspiration of her life is the most powerful case for co-operation between the countries and a cause to celebrate the achievements of the European Union.

Throughout her political life, Veil was a determined proponent of European reconciliation. And the occasion of her election as president of the European Parliament in 1979 was one of the most symbolic moments of the European project.

She was without doubt a political giant in France and across Europe, so it was only fitting that the new French president Emmanuel Macron announced she will be laid to rest at the Paris Pantheon alongside the likes of Victor Hugo, Marie Curie, Emile Zola and Rousseau.

Born on the eve of Bastille Day 1927 in the city of Nice, Simone Jacob was just 16 years old in 1944 when her family was arrested by the French Gestapo. She was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau with her sister Madeleine and mother Yvonne; her father Andre and brother Jean were deported to Lithuania and never returned. That same year, her elder sister Denise, a member of the French Resistance, was arrested near Lyon and survived deportation to Ravensbruck.

Though she lost her parents and a brother in the camps, her mother dying of typhus in March 1945, Simone Jacob survived Auschwitz. She studied law in Paris, graduating at 19 and going on to marry Antoine Veil, a business executive with whom she had three children (he died in 2013). But she never forgot her past.

I joined Veil in a human rights delegation to Auschwitz on 16 May 1994, in the lead up to the fiftieth anniversary of the camp’s liberation.
It was a cold, damp and dismal day, and I recall standing next to Veil as she pointed out the exact location where she had slept when she was a teenager.

Veil’s experience in Auschwitz was the background of her commitment to the European project and its creation, with reconciliation between France and Germany always at its heart.

She was perhaps best known, however, as a pioneering social reformer in post-war France for her battle to legalise abortion. As health minister under president Valery Giscard d’Estaing, she suffered a wave of sexist attacks and insults as she sought to convince the 490 MPs, among them only nine women.

The law to legalise abortion was passed in 1975 after fierce opposition in parliament and vicious conservative and Catholic lobbying, which placed her at the forefront of French feminism and tuned her into a popular icon of post-war France.

Veil was a colleague when we served together as MEPs on the executive of the Joint EU-ACP Parliamentary Assembly, which links the counties of Europe with those of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, She held the brief on human rights and always spoke softly but forcefully.

The life and experience of Simone Veil demonstrates how horrors can emanate from extreme nationalism, but also what is possible when people are determined to replace conflict with co-operation.

We owe a great deal to this inspirational holocaust survivor who became the first president of the elected European Parliament, and was key to the success of the greatest peace initiative in the history of Europe.

Michael McGowan is a former MEP and president of the Development Committee of the European Parliament.

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