Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 40-59)

Commissioner Wallström

2 JULY 2008

  Q40  Lord Wright of Richmond: Commissioner, you gave us a very helpful written answer to our question three about the Annual Policy Strategy and the implications of the Irish referendum result. I would like to ask two supplementary questions to that. In your introduction today you told us that you hoped that this would spark a dialogue and you have talked about launching a dialogue in a written reply. Where has the dialogue got to? Are we still at the beginning, or have you, other than this witness session, started a practical dialogue?

  Commissioner Wallström: I think we are at the start of this dialogue. We are receiving from different national parliaments, for example, their comments, and their positions on this, so we are engaged in a constant dialogue also with the national parliaments. So far, we have had four replies from national parliaments. That is the latest figure. Of course, with the European Parliament we have wanted to make this a process which is political; more than entering into details where the different committees will ask, "Why don't you have this proposal on insurance companies" or whatever, but rather, "Are these the right priorities?" and "Do we see that we can change this whole European project further?" This is still something we are struggling with, to make it a more political process also in the European Parliament. But with national parliaments it has started.

  Q41  Lord Wright of Richmond: One of our questions was: "Will the contents of the Annual Policy Strategy have to be reconsidered in the light of the Irish referendum result?" to which you said, "The Treaty of Lisbon would not in itself have affected the timing ..." Can you add anything to our question about contents?

  Commissioner Wallström: It would have been on the implementation. We were preparing for, though not anticipating, implementation measures. I can give you one example. We had already planned in the autumn to discuss with the Parliament and to call for a stakeholder conference on the citizens' initiative. To have the citizens' initiatives implemented we would have needed to prepare a proper proposal from our side, including all the rules for how to control the number of signatures and what would be the role of the institutions, the Commission, and the Member States, et cetera. That would have had to be prepared in the autumn to be presented early next year. This, of course, we cannot do as the situation is now. So there could be separate implementation measures, in particular, that would have to be taken up.

  Q42  Lord Wright of Richmond: Thank you very much.

  Commissioner Wallström: Of course it will affect a whole debate about appointments, the new posts and all of these things, so there are also some rather dramatic effects. That is an overall concern for the whole of the European Union and not so much on the very practical proposals, I could say, but it affects the whole political debate and atmosphere.

  Lord Wright of Richmond: Thank you.

  Q43  Lord Powell of Bayswater: I have one supplementary question on that point, Commissioner. Suppose, for a moment, the Commission and the European Union's efforts to reach a solution which allows Ireland to ratify the Treaty do not succeed, is the Commission doing some contingency planning as to how certain portions of the Treaty could be brought into effect without needing to have a treaty which is ratified?

  Commissioner Wallström: There is no alternative plan worked out. I think everybody has been so engaged now in trying, first, to negotiate this new treaty and then to have it ratified and, also, to start to look, in case of ratification from all Member States, at what we have to do in terms of implementation. That is where we have focused our attention and our efforts. If this fades, then we have to rethink the whole situation of course. But there are a few things. If it is not entering into force next year, there is, for example, one provision in the current treaties which talks about the number of Commissioners, for example, and this is something that will have to be solved. There are a number of questions that have to be discussed, but I think everybody prefers not to engage in some kind of alternative plan but focus on ratification and solving the problems that we see right now.

  Q44  Chairman: Could I come back one of the two priorities which you listed in the APS, Putting the Citizen First. I have been looking at the report which Alain Lamassoure has presented—which of course is made to the French Government but does have some major implications for Europe as a whole. It identifies a certain number of problems experienced by Europeans in understanding the European Union and I wonder whether you are taking this on board and whether you are reacting to it, albeit that it is a report to the French Government from a French Member of the European Parliament.

  Commissioner Wallström: Of course I have met with him: he came to see me. Indeed, the things that he will bring up are very interesting and accurate as well. I think we use every opportunity to be inspired or to learn the lessons from those who work on issues like this. I hope that we can make full use of the work that he has been doing for the French Presidency and we are in touch with him, without being able to say something very, very concrete. Of course the Better Regulation Agenda is already one of the points that we are working on. We have already integrated better regulation into our daily work in the DGs as part of our political priorities, so that is definitely one thing.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

  Q45  Lord Tomlinson: Commissioner, I would like to follow up on this idea of Putting the Citizen First, linking it to the discussion we were having in relation to the outcome of the Irish referendum. In the analysis that the Commission are making and linking those two ideas together, what is the general attitude of the Commission? Is it that Ireland have not understood you? Or is it that you have not understood Ireland?

  Commissioner Wallström: Some people put it even more bluntly. They say, "Why don't you take no for an answer? What is it in "no" that you don't understand?" Then we say, "Well, no is an answer, but it is not a solution." We did immediately one of these sort of flash Euro-barometer polls, an opinion poll that could make us understand why did people vote yes and why did they vote no in Ireland, to better understand the different reasons and the motivations. We found a whole range of reasons why they said no. It was also an important element that this was in no way a no to the European co-operation or the EU membership in Ireland, because even the "No" side argued, "The EU has been good for Ireland; let's keep it that way." It was clear that this is not a general EU-sceptic mood in Ireland but, rather, I would say, many different motivations. It was clear, also, that the political context had been maybe more important than the text as such. As always, when you asked, a rather higher proportion of the "No" voters would say, "We feel that we don't know enough, that we can never get enough information." It is a complex legal text and, whatever you do, of course not everybody will have read it, so you will always ask for more information. But then came a number of reasons: everything from the risk of losing Irish identity, to the trade issue or agriculture, or a number of different reasons why they voted no. They all agreed that the "No" campaign had better arguments and a better campaign than the "Yes" side, and, of course, also that they were not pleased with the national politicians and it was a kind of protest vote against the politicians. We have to understand why they said no. Is this something we can help, because it affects the rest of Europe. It will affect those 19 Member States that have ratified, and the ones that have not yet ratified will also want to have their say. This is exactly what is going on right now. The Irish themselves have to make the analysis and come back and tell us what they think is the way forward. Was this an end of it? Or is there a way to solve some of the problems being raised and some of the reasons behind the "No" votes? I think this is a natural way of handling a situation like this: better understand the reasons and see if there is a way to remedy or to overcome the problems.

  Q46  Chairman: Thank you very much, Commissioner. I am not sure whether I agree with the statement that the "No" vote had the better argument, but that is what you said. I would say that they had the louder arguments, but based on some rather strange theories.

  Commissioner Wallström: But, you know, it is always more effective of course to mobilise fear for change. I think this is a natural streak in all of us, that we fear change. If this has been good for Ireland, then the argument "Let's keep it that way" was an effective one. Also, on the fear for changes that the new Treaty would bring, it was more emotional than the "Yes" side and the arguments that the "Yes" side used, so I think it hit home in a more effective way. What was very worrying was of course that the young people were very negative and also women. Those were among those who did not vote. This is something we recognized from both France and the Netherlands, that women and young people feel apparently detached from very much of the political process or the European project. This is something that we have to take seriously. What are we doing wrong?

  Q47  Lord Roper: Commissioner, in your second answer you discussed the question of immigration. The French Presidency has suggested that an immigration pact is one of the things which they intend to put forward. Has the Commission had an opportunity to discuss with the Presidency the interaction between your proposals and the ideas which the Presidency has in this matter?

  Commissioner Wallström: I am convinced that, yesterday, in the bilateral meetings or cluster discussions that the Commissioners had with their counterparts in the French Government, this was raised. I was not in that particular cluster, but this of course will be part of the agenda where we now have to co-ordinate with the French Presidency. This is important, also, from a timing point of view: when can certain proposals be presented, how will they work on it, and what can we anticipate? This particular issue of the pact will also be discussed at the informal Council in Cannes—which is next week—so already next week the pact idea will be discussed at an informal Council.

  Q48  Baroness Cohen of Pimlico: We asked about the stronger presence of the Commission at international financial institutions. It seemed to me that your written answer really says that the answer to the question is that the Commission should have an observer's place on the Financial Stability Forum. Is it now agreed by the other members of the forum that the Commission should have an observer's place or is it merely a hope on the part of the Commission? It seems like a very good idea.

  Commissioner Wallström: This is how we see it. That is the Commission's position but, also, we are looking for support from the Member States for that. Not yet, but this is what we have put on the agenda. This is our starting point. We have discussed and presented these issues, I think at two occasions recently, and this is part of the package that we have prepared, that Almunia, McCreevy and others have discussed and prepared. Not yet, but this is what we are looking for Member State support for.

  Q49  Baroness Cohen of Pimlico: I see that ECOFIN suggested that the Commission should participate in the Financial Stability Forum as soon as possible. Are observers allowed to participate? Does that work? Or does the Commission really want a place in the forum? May an observer speak in this forum or must it merely sit and observe?

  Commissioner Wallström: They can speak.

  Q50  Baroness Cohen of Pimlico: Thank you. But the Commission does not yet have clearance for this and requires support.

  Commissioner Wallström: Exactly.

  Q51  Lord Freeman: Commissioner, good afternoon. Thank you for a very helpful answer to point nine on energy. Clearly 2009 is going to be a year of concern, not only to European citizens, about energy security and about climate change, but also to the French Presidency in the six months prior to 2009. How important, in terms of policy initiatives, will be a follow-up to what we assume will be agreement at the December Council on energy efficiency targets, energy renewable targets, and, indeed, other related issues all to do with fuel prices?

  Commissioner Wallström: I think we cannot overestimate the value of this discussion and the decisions that we are taking. I can only follow the media in the different Member States. These are the headlines. These matters are at the top of the political agenda in all the Member States right now. It feeds into and leads to debates on oil prices, on food security. All of these issues are interlinked and this is why it is extremely important. We of course hope that we will have a successful result from the December meeting. We would also underline implementation, because we want all Member States not only to decide and establish great objectives and goals but also to start implementation as soon as possible. That is what I can say. I really see that it leads into all these other debates as well and maybe allows us to have a more holistic political debate on these issues.

  Q52  Chairman: On the question of enlargement, you made it perfectly clear in the Annual Policy Strategy that you wanted to implement the renewed consensus on enlargement and that accession negotiations with Croatia and Turkey would continue. President Sarkozy and, it appears, also, Chancellor Merkel have said that there can be no further enlargement without the necessary reforms being put into place. I know that President Barroso and your colleague Olli Rehn and some governments like our own Government here are on the record as saying, "Sorry, Sarkozy and Merkel, but they are going to go ahead." I just want your view on this. Is it the Commission's view that there should be no interruption in the accession negotiations, and that if, for example, Croatia were to complete the negotiations in 2009, while the institutional reforms may not yet have been put in place and if the Lisbon Treaty has not been implemented, nonetheless, this would not be a block on them coming in, in 2010?

  Commissioner Wallström: As all of you are very aware, this is a decision that has to be taken unanimously by Member States to change anything or to decide on enlargement. We have made very clear and strong commitments towards Croatia and Turkey. That is why we have started these negotiations and membership negotiations, and they follow very clear criteria and clear rules. We have no intention of changing that commitment, but to engage the way we have started. If Member States want to change that, it takes a unanimous decision by the Council. But, of course, the current treaty provides the legal framework and this also has to be obeyed and followed. This is where the rules are set on how to continue. My impression is that we continue, and we follow the commitments we have made and we follow the structure of these negotiations that have been started.

  Q53  Lord Wright of Richmond: Commissioner, I would like to follow up the question from Lady Cohen about financial institutions. You have explained very clearly in your reply your role with the Financial Stability Forum, with the Basle Committee on Banking Supervision, and so on. Does this in fact reveal a desire to become more closely involved with the main institutions, with the IBRD, with the IMF? Do you have it in mind, possibly, even to have representatives attending their meetings?

  Commissioner Wallström: I am glad that you think that I have the capacity to answer all of these very detailed and good questions on any subject—which of course I do not have the competence of doing. What restricts us as the Commission is, of course, where the European Commission has competence; otherwise, it has to be left to the Member States. I think the general discussion has been very much about some of the guiding principles of more haute finesse and better control, and, also, to make sure we play our role properly—like being an observer and so on. But we cannot expand on our competence without having changed things in the treaty or the legal framework. That is how the debate has been going.

  Q54  Lord Powell of Bayswater: Commissioner, I would like to go back for one moment to your written answer to question eight, where you said that the Commission systematically examines contributions from the Member States on the Strategy and takes them into consideration when drawing up the Legislative and Work Programme. Would you or your colleagues be able to point me to one or two examples where the Commission has significantly changed the proposals and policies set out in the APS in response to Member States' suggestions?

  Commissioner Wallström: I guess that what we discussed and debated and decided today in the Commission is one example; that is the social issues and the social package. That was introduced last year and, also, in part of some of the seminars that we had in the Commission as well. This was not initially in our proposal, but clearly became one of the demands from Member States to achieve a better balance. It is not only on the internal market and the growth in jobs, but it is also about social protection. This reflects, also, a changed political agenda, if you like, in political discussion and atmosphere. In the light of globalisation, this became much more pressing, to make sure that we clarified the laws and rules on antidiscrimination, for example, or the protection of workers. Maybe that is the clearest example.

  Q55  Lord Powell of Bayswater: Could I go back to one of your other earlier answers, when we were dealing with Ireland and you said the Commission was very sensibly examining the many reasons why the Irish voted, by a majority, "no". Presumably it must worry you, as Commissioners, that on the occasions when people are consulted in referenda they generally do say no, whether it is the French or the Dutch or others. Do you think, from your examination, that the reasons are mostly about the general direction in which the European Union is moving or do you think it is more down to an inadequacy of communication to people of the reasons for the Community's policies? Or do you think that most of the reasons are nothing much to do with Europe but just with people taking revenge on their governments or other sorts of extraneous reasons? Where do you think the balance lies?

  Commissioner Wallström: That is a €1 million question, almost, today. It is a very relevant question. I counted, and it turns out that Member States have arranged 15 referenda on treaties: 10 have given a yes, and in five cases there has been a no; so it is not entirely true to say that every time you arrange a referendum people voted no. This is not exactly correct.

  Q56  Lord Powell of Bayswater: I think I said recent referenda.

  Commissioner Wallström: Yes. Of course this is exactly the kind of analysis we are doing right now. I think it also has to do with the nature of putting a question like an international treaty of several hundreds of pages, to a referendum. In many Member States they would choose something a bit more manageable or a question that can be more easily interpreted to a referendum, where you can provide the information. The upside of a referendum is that you are obliged to inform citizens, to provide them with proper debate and all the information they need, but on an issue like this it will always pose an enormous challenge to make sure that people have read the text. You always risk having it sort of contaminated by all other things. We know fairly well through opinion polls what were the reasons behind the noes. There were different reasons, for example, in the Netherlands and in France and in Ireland. In France, you could see that there were very specific reasons, like the social issues, behind the noes, and in Holland there were other more specific issues. In Ireland, right now, it is much more diverse. It goes in all directions, right now, and it has also been affected by the general political climate and atmosphere in Ireland. I think it is a mix of the things you have mentioned yourself, and the inherent problems with such a complex issue to interpret the results is. I think it is a mix of all these things.

  Q57  Lord Powell of Bayswater: It is of course difficult to get even ministers to read the Treaty let alone the general public.

  Commissioner Wallström: This is one of the arguments used.

  Chairman: That is why we did an impact analysis of the Treaty here in the House of Lords, in our Committee. The hope was that this would be useful to the House of Lords when they debated the ratification of the Treaty, in having what we would like to think was a very, very, objective explanation of what the Treaty was all about. But that came to nearly 300 hundred pages, a simple explanation of what it was without any value judgements. There is a problem there about what you present to the public.

  Q58  Lord Tomlinson: Perhaps I might add, My Lord Chairman, that it produced some very good voting results in the House of Lords. We might consider selling the package to the Commission, so that they can use it to help them through their dilemmas in the countries that might have to rethink their views!

  Commissioner Wallström: It would be highly appreciated! Thank you!

  Q59  Lord Tomlinson: I am going to turn back to written question seven. Your written answer to question seven was about consistency between priorities in the Annual Policy Strategy and the resources outlined in the Preliminary Draft Budget, and you give us three examples of it. But perhaps I could preface my remarks by making a criticism about the whole Annual Policy Strategy process. I appreciate what is intended, but there seems to be almost an inevitable consequence that we get something at such a level of generality that it is very, very difficult to identify a policy strategy. We can identify a subject word, but very rarely a policy strategy to go with that subject word. I will give you one example and ask you to comment on it. If we are really going to do those two things, have a Common Immigration Policy and Putting the Citizen First, I suggest that possibly public opinion in the United Kingdom would express its concern about the pattern of immigration into the United Kingdom following enlargement. The pattern of migration has changed radically. That would have consequences, if we followed it to its logical conclusion of putting the citizen first, of maybe questioning a policy that I do not want to question, which is the enlargement of the European Union in the Balkans. Because there is no doubt that if we canvassed public opinion in the United Kingdom, mass migration from the Balkans would be seen as a major immigration policy. We have all these words dotted about, but we do not have them as coherent policies that we are advocating. I want to know how we can get an Annual Policy Strategy that does not put in a little mention for every Commissioner's area of interest but really does focus on two or three priorities and takes the title beyond a title into an explicit view of what it is that you want to do?

  Commissioner Wallström: I think the easiest thing for me is to agree very much with you.

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