Women's History Month: the former diplomat on a life-long climate mission

Marie-Ann Coninsx

Last year, alumna and former EU Ambassador at Large for the Arctic, Marie-Anne Coninsx was elected as the College’s most recent Honorary Fellow.

Marie-Ann Coninsx

Here, to mark Women’s History Month, Marie-Ann outlines the issues that – forty-five years after leaving Wolfson – still motivate her, and spotlights the women who her inspired her journey.

After her postgraduate Law studies at Wolfson in 1978, Marie-Anne embarked on a distinguished career as an EU official and diplomat, which culminated in serving as the first EU Ambassador at Large for the Arctic. There, she championed the importance of igniting climate action through principles of international cooperation and inclusiveness. 

Marie-Anne credits her time at Wolfson as an important step in her career as an EU official, which began in the European Commission at the Legal Service in 1984. After 12 years working on the staff of EU Commissioners, Marie-Anne developed her EU Diplomatic career, as Minister Counsellor at the EU Delegation to the UN in NY and Geneva. This provided her with extensive multilateral experience, and she subsequently served as EU Ambassador to Mexico (2009-2013), to Canada (2013-2017), and finally to the Arctic (2017-2019).

She is currently Senior Associate Fellow of the Egmont Institute, Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels, where she is involved in the development of a Belgian Arctic Strategy, mandated by the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She also is Member of the Board of the International Polar Foundation in Belgium. 

What are the big questions that still drive you?

There are several questions that still enormously motivate me, just to mention a few of them: 

First, peace cannot be taken for granted. 

I recently read All quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, who had been a German veteran during WWI. It is really unbelievable that such major catastrophe, such brutal war, is happening again more than 100 years later in our European neighbourhood.

Looking backwards, it is still incredible that WWI took place, well explained in Christopher Clark’s book The Sleepwalkers, and even more insane that shortly afterwards, another war, WWII started. This part of European history teaches us that peace cannot be taken for granted, and this is a challenge for each generation, today and in the future. 

Second, women are still not equal, and even worse, some are facing increased inhuman discrimination and exclusion. 

Despite major efforts, progressive legislation and rights-declarations since the UN Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, women still do not have equal rights nor equal treatment. Unexplainable that such still happens in so-called “modern societies” today. But also totally unacceptable are developments in countries such as Afghanistan and Iran, where women’s rights - including the basic right of education - are denied and violated. There can be no equal society without equal rights and equal opportunities for all, men and women. 

Finally, climate change is a threat to the Arctic and beyond. 

There is no justification needed to explain how important it is for everyone on our globe to fight climate change. As a former EU Arctic Ambassador, it still motivates me: it is still my personal ambition to contribute to combating climate change, in particular the consequences of the warming of the Arctic, with its major local and global impact. 

Who are the women who inspired you along your journey? 

At the start of my career as European Union (EU) Official and later EU Diplomat, I have been most inspired by Simone Veil, a French politician who has been President of the European Parliament (EP) from 1979 to 1982, the first woman to hold this position.

I was at the time Parliamentary Assistant of a Belgian Member of the European Parliament (MEP). Simone Veil had survived the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Despite such horrible tragedy, she played a key role in the French-German reconciliation and contributed to the European contraction and integration.

When I was an EU diplomat at the EU Delegation to the UN in New York, she participated - upon my invitation - at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration, known as celebration of Europe Day (1997), together with then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. 

Today, there are many extremely inspiring women, such as current President of the European Commission, Mrs Ursula von der Leyen - especially her role in handling the Covid crisis and the war in Ukraine; and also the current Prime Ministers of Finland - Mrs Sanna Marin, and of Estonia Mrs Kallas, all absolutely role models! 

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