Ján Figel – the ‘citizens’ commissioner’?

Ján Figel, the EU’s education commissioner as well as the
commissioner responsible for multilingualism (the first ever) and
sport, tells EURACTIV how he intends to build a more
‘citizen-friendly’ Europe.

Ján Figel is the commissioner responsible for education,
training, culture and multilingualism. However there are three
unnamed areas that he also deals with – sport, youth and civil
society. All are closely linked to citizens. 

“The connecting line is a ‘citizen-friendly Europe’ where you
can use your language, your citizenship for something extra where
your education is not just within national boundaries. Culture is
an important part of European culture because without Slovak
culture this is not a complete family. So this is a very human
portfolio and we need to make it human,” says Commissioner

Your predecessor, Commissioner Reding said the budget for
culture and education should be tripled. If you agree with her, how
can you get the member states to agree to this? With the ambitious
proposals in the new education programme, how can you achieve them
with an EU budget that may end up being limited to 1% of GNI rather
than your preference of 1.24% of GNI?

I think it’s important that we don’t just talk about financial
and mathematical limits but about real priorities or important
parts of policies for people, member states, communities. Otherwise
we will get into a vicious circle asking for more with less
resources, with less real support. Money is not the most important
thing, human potential is. 

The important thing is the ability to build up a better
organised, more creative, more free world in Europe and around
Europe. I think that since the previous five-year period of the
Commission, we can say that the awareness of the need for
knowledge, training, innovation and research is much higher. But of
course we still need to transform it into real steps. 

Rules [are needed] which allow more mobility, more compatibility
for students, workers, researchers to use this individual European
common potential. I was in Prodi’s Commission and I agree that
areas like education and research deserve more attention because
they should be at the core of responses for the need to have more
and better jobs, to have more competitiveness and higher economic
growth. Social cohesion and environmental responsibility – I think
this is part of it and the best investment. I have kids and I
believe that their education, their training (formation) is the
best investment for them. I wish the same for the generation of
people whom we influence through our policies.

The financial perspective will probably be the most sensitive
political agenda item this year – besides the ratification process
which is going on in different countries. I think that the enlarged
Union is now in a time of consolidation. We need to consolidate
primary law (Constitutional Treaty). We need to answer questions on
the Stability and Growth Pact. The eurozone will grow in coming
years with other countries joining. We need to clarify the fiscal
and financial future within the Community. I think that the
mid-term review  of the Lisbon Strategy which is on the table
is about the economic consolidation of the EU. 

All these issues are interconnected – in terms of political
impact and time they are now on the table. And we can find
prospects for the future from proper answers to these questions.
And for all these and other relevant areas of international
relations, education cannot be underestimated. Whether it’ll be the
proposal as adopted by the previous Commission – it’s too early to

Is there in the Commission’s  proposal that must go
through or anything that can be dropped?

I cannot imagine reducing mobility programmes with the enlarged
family. It would be even more discouraging and we face a lot of
questions or phenomena which some call euroscepticism and
euro-apathy. Personal experience, engagement, European dimension in
education/training, youth policy and cultural dialogue, cultural
exchanges – they promote European identity/values, togetherness.
They are hard to measure but very important and are part of our
daily lives in the European Union.

Is it possible for the Commission to prioritise the new
member states and mobility between the EU-10 and the EU-15 in terms
of budget allocation?

The lifelong learning proposal is a clear call for a substantial
rise in mobility. It combines education as the dissemination of
knowledge and the move towards a genuine European labour market.
Part of our future in this area is connected with gradual steps
towards more mutual recognition of qualifications. Mobility just
for mobility is not enough but mobility which is part of
qualifications and qualifications recognised on the basis of
transparent and valid rules means that we will have more dynamism
[…] which is good for people, youth and future generations.

Up until now we have so many barriers, including transitional
arrangements. We don’t divide member states artificially into old
and new but some transitional features/arrangements/differences are
visible. Take mobility – for every one student going from West to
East, four comes from East to West. The latest figures that I got
this week show 680 Erasmus students coming from Slovakia and 170
going to Slovakia. 

We would like to balance this more – of course this is a
voluntary programme. Universities have to be known, credible,
attractive. And it’s also for individuals to decide to go. Also
this process takes some time. For some countries it’s a new
opportunity and we need to use this time reasonably. But I think
part of the answer to this question is simpler procedures and an
increase in the [EU] contribution per person (student, professor)
because it’s very low at the moment. The average for Erasmus is 150
euros per month per person – which is not too much.

Are the procedures more complex in Central and Eastern

No. I mean that the whole regime should be simplified with more
money and greater movement of young people and multipliers of
knowledge such as teachers, trainers, professors from East to

Do you envisage any mechanisms to put more pressure on laggard
member states that are making slow progress in terms of
transparency of qualifications?

Our contribution is to create good, reasonable proposals,
monitor the implementation of agreed steps. It means providing a
mirror for the EU-25 where they can see themselves in reality.
These comparisons are really interesting, inspiring and motivating.
Things are changing. For example, in recent years the UK is no
longer the most attractive destination for Erasmus students – it is
now Spain and France. We tend to criticise the state of play in the
European Union in these fields but when we look more closely we see
that Finland is the world’s best reference for achievements over 15
years. Many Scandinavian countries have very good results in
education, innovation, research, productivity growth but not at the
cost of social cohesion or the environment. 

So this is a very valuable mirror which is a regular picture
now. We have agreed on important benchmarks in education – member
states can speed up or choose other ways to achieve them – it’s up
to them. We have good results in some countries and not so good in
many others. We are not going to ‘blame and shame’ – this is not
the Commission’s role.

Why not? It is done in other areas – even explicitly by
commissioners in the previous Commission.  With the
Internal Market legislation, ‘blame and shame’ was the official

That is not my way of doing things. But I must tell you this –
when meeting education ministers in Maastricht, we agreed on the
mandate to prepare this Spring the basic concept for a European
qualifications framework. This is crucially important for real
progress in the area of mutual recognition. And we hope to discuss
it in May in Bergen – during the Bologna Process conference. In
Bergen, which is not an EU city because Norway is not an EU member
state, there will be 40 countries meeting to work on the process
leading towards not just more compatibility but also higher quality
and higher attractiveness of European higher education.  So we
are influencing not just the 25 member states but also many states
outside the EU.

So the process is going ahead and is very fruitful for
individuals but also systems, which are reforming, adapting,
speeding up. We were together in France recently. In connection
with the 3-cycle (Bachelor, Masters, PhD) degree system and
compatibility between universities, François Fillon said that 90%
of French universities will have this system in place at the end of
this year – two years ahead of the agreed timeframe.

It’s going ahead in real terms – not just during our
communications in Brussels meetings – and will bring a lot of new
momentum in research, innovation and public/private partnerships
because it means more quality, more space for use of knowledge, of
individual and social investment in these areas.

Turning to non-conventional ways of achieving educational
objectives, can you comment on the prospects for blended learning
[e-learning plus physical learning], the role of the  private
sector in education? Can some kind of crediting system for
volunteer work and other non-classroom type activities be
integrated  into the Europass? Where can you really make a
difference in the Commission despite the limitations in the treaty
in terms of competences?

I’m glad you mentioned the limitations because the Commission
doesn’t harmonise, can’t impose solutions from above in this area.
We have to persuade and co-ordinate co-operation between member
states as they are the ones in charge of their national

But the processes that have been started show that there is a
growing interest and momentum in these areas for reforms, for being
European, compatible, recognized, attractive etc. So there are
collateral effects in this process. And I think this will bear

Europass is a step towards greater transparency. The next step
is to use this transparency in Europe towards more acceptance and
formal recognition of qualifications, including informal and
non-formal education. One way of promoting it is via the European
Volunteer Service – there are different types of skills gained from
non-formal training.

This is not obligatory but a credible system of co-operation
provides new knowledge, new skills which is important in some

Do you not think that the value of this Europass will be
weakened if it brings  together all sorts of
activities (such as associative initiatives) which
are difficult to measure?

The core documents for the Europass are the CV and the language
portfolio. Additional documents must be given by the authorised
institutions – either mobility pass or Diploma supplement. It’s up
to us to be aware that the authority confirming the activities is
recognised, credible, accepted in Europe. So the framework is now
agreed – and must continue to be done so with social and economic
partners – but it is open for the future. We don’t want matters
agreed on just by politicians.

How will you authorise these organisations who will give
credit for voluntary work?

Let’s turn to this issue again in Spring this year because we
need to create a system which enshrines national entities
responsible for the quality of education, training and independent
quality assurance. They have to provide basic assurance of quality
– that something recognised and written also means content. And
this must be an independent quality assurance authority or
institution. If this institution says that training in company A or
B is credible, then this is authorisation at a national level but
with European compatibility.

This is the first time that a commissioner has
multilingualism in his/her title. What will you change in this

For the first time multilingualism is a political topic and part
of the Commission’s agenda where before it was an administrative
part of the whole system. I think this is timely because of the
importance of European cultures, identity, languages,
communication, understanding, cohesion. Everything now is much more
connected with the future of the EU, with the relations of citizens
towards the EU, the gap between citizens and institutions. In many
of these areas languages play a key role.

So where will you make a difference?

First of all we need to have an EU of 20 official languages
running smoothly and with full responsibility for legal clarity and
legally binding texts. 

Will you open a debate about simplifying some language
requirements for the ‘régime linguistique’?

We have already started a transitional period for translations –
this shows a lot of ideas for the future. It shows it’s possible to
communicate more concisely. 

Was that not started under the previous team?

Yes, in May last year. It shows that it’s important to increase
the quality of communication – not only form but also content. I
recently wrote a letter together with the Luxembourg minister of
education to prepare the next Council meeting and we hope to have a
similar impact on other Councils. One aspect is to prepare better
communication so that it is more clearly understandable. Because
sometimes, lots of ministers, many languages, lots on agenda can
lead to misunderstandings due to speedy, unclear, long

Legal documents apart, what changes do you envisage in the
number of languages that documents need to be translated into? Is
it really necessary to produce in Danish and Finnish all the
documents relating to olive oil policy?

If legally binding, yes. 

And if not – what of all these websites and mass
communication information brochures ?

This is for different parts of the overall institution to decide
how efficient we are in communicating. But we cannot just give up
multilingualism. It is part of the institutional culture. It’ll
take some time to adapt to the new situation – eleven to 20
languages is an unprecedented change.

Some people say it’s excessive even – what do you say to

We still need people from new member states. There are
transitional arrangements planned for, I think, seven years.

Turning to the number of translators required and where they
work – there were attempts in the past to have translation agencies
and outside work? Does it really make sense from an economic
viewpoint to recruit people in central Europe (on relatively low
income) and to bring them here and transform them into very 
expensive civil servants in Brussels where they might even lose
touch with their own language? Why not push some of the language
interfaces at national level?

We combine both – in-house and field operations – to save costs
and to produce the work on time. The results are there to see. The
inherited gap [translation backlog] is decreasing.

So you are integrating more translation instead of
outsourcing and making it cheaper?

We are developing both lines – internal and external. With
internal people we achieve really high quality. The quality is the
most important thing because if you have wrong texts which could
become legally binding then this is a really disastrous problem. So
quality shouldn’t be questioned. Internal services are of higher
quality. External need to be checked which means extra costs. And
these are significant costs because it means doing twice what we
otherwise do once internally. These people should not lose contact
with their countries or language roots.

With its ‘three working language’ (English, French, German)
model could the Commission be a working model for the

The most important thing is to fulfil the treaties, to be ready
to communicate with citizens in their languages, to have all
legislation clear. It cannot be published with a missing language
version. This is a unique system in the world which makes Europe a
very special, attractive space. 

Sport will be appearing in the Constitution for the first
time. If and when we have this, what will be the main purpose of
it? Is there one main recommendation in one of the four Commission
studies on education and sport that were published

For the future of member states, for Europe, international
relations, for individuals, sport 
can be a real plus but, as any human activity, it can be devalued
by over-commercialisation or doping (which is a kind of cancer). My
first hearing in Parliament as a commissioner was about doping in
sport – it’s a huge topic in Greece – with the Olympics and
Paralympics. We have to be aware of the value which sport
represents and promote its impact in many areas and important
features such as fairness, tolerance, physical and moral integrity
and the impact on public health, education.

Is there something to be done in terms of women’s
participation in sport, disability and sport – are these problems
that need to be addressed in this context?

I’ll mention one for example. Doping – many people ask the
Commission to do something. We don’t have the power, we don’t have
the legal base. With the ratification of the Constitution we will
have a legal base. Now, in March, we will be evaluating the first
results of the  European Year of Education through Sport.
Because we can do something in education. The UN began its year of
education and physical training 2005.
In May we want to organise a larger consultation forum to evaluate
what was done, what it means and to prepare the future EU sports

Do you have any hypotheses about what might come out of this

I think it will go in many directions – something in the area of
education which is probably the most developed in recent years.
Then there is the area of public health, justice and freedom where
we can do a lot in terms of anti-doping policy. People ask if we
can do more in this area – we have WADA (the World Anti-Doping
Agency) which represents many countries.  So we don’t need to
create new structures but we need to be more united and
action-oriented in sport. 

Of course there are many other issues connected to sport which
are sensitive – free movement of people – amateurs and
professionals. Sport has this special dimension – it can’t be
treated as usual other economic activities. But we have to define
these differences. It has a huge value because so many people are
attracted by sport than many other activities and it conveys a lot
of positive messages for our everyday co-existence, the fight
against hooliganism.

Read the shorter version of this interview

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