Interview with European Commission Secretary-General Catherine Day


Catherine Day outlines her assessment of the relevant achievements of the present Commission, the challenge of connecting with the public and her opinions on the executive’s evolving role.

As secretary-general, you are in charge of the overall coherence of the Commission’s work, and therefore you are quite well placed to evaluate, I think, nearly two years of the Barroso Commission. So, what would you say are the achievements up to now, and what are the areas for improvement?

First of all, I think that the Commission has established itself once more with the member states as a ‘player’. I think we went through a quite difficult time, when we seemed only to be arguing with the member states, when at least some of them really questioned the Commission’s value. I think we have come through that period. I think that all of the various political crises surrounding the ‘No’ votes and the rest of it, and the stalemate for a while on a number of important dossiers, have made the member states realise that the Commission has a value added, because we always scan across the member states, and because we are the only organisation that is paid to think European, and we are able to come up with solutions that helped the member states to achieve their own objectives. So I feel after a very difficult first year, in which we had the ‘No’ votes, we had the failure in June last year to agree on the financial perspectives and we had major rows over things like the Services Directive or REACH, all of that is gradually being put in place. I think the Commission has played an important role in finding the solutions on all of those. The member states had to find the political will to do it, but I think the Commission was very instrumental in helping to design the parameters of the compromises. And so I think two years in, this Commission again has the respect of the member states for the role it can play…

Why did it lose this respect in the first place?

I think we got to the stage where the member states only saw the things the Commission was doing that irritated them. And they did not see the value of things that we were doing. And I think that now we have managed to restore the balance a little bit. Maybe also after enlargement they realised yet again that there needs to be some neutral player, which is not advancing any particular national agenda but which is advancing the overall agenda. So I think perhaps also we have managed to convey a bit more focus, to highlight the priority areas and to put the attention on them. And I think it is also to do with, in particular coming from the president, this emphasis on wanting a partnership with the member states. So we are in this together, you know, the problems are enormous, the issues we are trying to work on, we can tackle them better if we have good co-operation than if we’re fighting with each other.

But some critics might say that you have become more reactive than leading, therefore of course they would respect you more now because you are listening to them more. So, are you missing leadership?

I don’t think that’s true. If you look at, for example, the Commission’s Communication of 10 May where we set out an approach not to solving the problems of the Constitution but a way of moving forward and creating conditions whereby you could envisage in the future coming up with solutions that people would find acceptable. I think that’s an important contribution, and I think that in lots of other areas, the Commission is being quite skilful in using its expertise and capturing the political will, like on energy for example. That’s something we’ve worked on for years, but I think now a combination of internal and external factors have brought us politically to the point to seeing that we want to have a common approach. And the Commission’s technical expertise as well as its policies now come into play in the way that member states say, “yes, that’s the way we want to go forward”. 

You say it is the Commission which came up with the idea of a common energy policy. It was the British Presidency that actually first brought up the whole discussion, mainly because there was a big rise in energy and oil prices. If you look at  the first Lisbon agenda proposal in 2000, and even a few years after that, energy was hardly mentioned. 

It depends on how you look at it, and I think it does not matter who had the idea first. Any member state that says energy is an important issue is not able to turn it into a Community policy, only the Commission is able to do that. And I think that’s where we are showing that we have value added. 

So for me, sometimes it can be the Commission that will be the first with the answer, but that is not what this is all about, and I don’t think that’s where the Commission should be judged! I think it is rather whether the Commission has the capacity to get it right in terms of political shape and structure, and then the substantive capacity to develop a real policy that over time can deliver something more than what the member states can achieve individually.

Can we apply that to the Lisbon agenda? The Commission’s idea was to give more ownership to the member states and of course, now we have National Lisbon Action Plans (NAPs). But weren’t they just a mandatory bureaucratic exercise for the member states? Do you feel that there really is ownership in the sense that something really has changed? Can you give a concrete example of one country where something has changed because of this ownership idea?

First of all, I think this is a long-term process. This will not be a revolution from one day to the next. I think it is already an achievement that all 25 member states have national-reform programmes – they did not have them before. They are of different quality – I think we have recognised that. But these are a basis, a starting point, and we want not only member states to have them – and to work on developing them – but we also want member states to understand their interdependence, ie that it matters a lot if they are all domestically implementing what they agree at Community level, or even if just some of them are.

We all know how important it is when the German economy is doing well, the locomotive effect it has on the rest of the European economy, and when it is not doing well, what the downside is. So, we need all of the different economies to be moving in the direction that they have agreed together that they need to go in. And when some of them are lagging behind or having difficulties, then they need to understand that this has a drag effect on the whole Union. And I don’t think that dimension is well enough developed yet, but this is something that we can work on. But the basis has to be that each member state has clearly identified the reforms it needs to make. And then we see in the Community context what we can do by way of added planning to help them enhance the positive side of those reforms.

But do you think they are willing to learn from each others’ practices or are they actually just led by the political situations, which they are also working out themselves?

Of course, national politicians and national policymakers are going to fundamentally see their national situations. But I do think that they are now beginning to see the value of sharing best practice. Take the whole area of “flexicurity,” they are all confronted with reforming the financial underpinning of the social and healthcare protection systems. Now, there is no one European model, there are several European models. But they have shown a great interest in looking at each other’s systems, not necessarily to copy them directly, but to look for inspiration, to learn from other people’s experiences about what techniques could be adapted to their own national situations. And we are now launching a long series of workshops in different member states to look at different aspects of Lisbon-type policies. 

To go back to the environment examples, the way the Water Directive was worked together by constantly working on how the policy should evolve, and by sharing experience, has helped even those who thought they would be top of the class – they have learned from those that they would have considered well behind them. So I think it’s a creative and positive process. But again, you have to create a climate of confidence where people feel able to talk about what has not worked as well as what has worked. It is not about a beauty contest in showing how wonderful your system is, it’s more about saying: “Look, we are wrestling with this difficult problem. How have you others tackled this issue? What ideas do you have?”

Let’s go to the next chapter which is on Lisbon and then your second big strategy, which is the Sustainable Development Strategy (SDS). First question there: why is there a need for two different strategies?

You can see them as two different strategies, or you can see Lisbon inside the SDS, which is how we see it. You cannot do everything at once, and it takes much longer to do the long-term things. You can really work in a short- to medium-term perspective but you have to know where you want to go longterm. So, I don’t think it is a contradiction to have two; you have to see how they fit together. We have had to work through, ourselves, an understanding of how they fit together. I think we have now a better way of explaining that and articulating it than we had a couple of years back. 

But do you have the governance structures in place to make them work together? The Spring Summit was the one dealing with the Lisbon agenda and the June Summit is going to deal with the SDS. Why can’t you bring those together? It seems to me that the short term and the long term are in a way feeding into each other…

They are and they should be. It’s already good that they are both up at the level of heads of state and government, because what you are talking about in both cases is coordination, political prioritisation and trade-offs. So it is already good that both of them are wrapped up at the level of European Council because in the end it is only prime ministers who can make this arbitrage between the relative weights of different policies. 

And we do have the challenge of bringing different things together. I mean, for example, one challenge that we are trying to deal with at the moment very actively, is to bring together the Lisbon process and the programming of the next generation of structural fund policies. At least, we are now concentrating on trying to do that. In all the Lisbon missions to the member states we put this question on the agenda; we want to have the structural fund co-ordinator and the Lisbon programme coordinator present at the meetings, and we want member states to tell us how they are going to use the way that they are programming the Structural Funds to promote the Lisbon objectives. 

It is an interesting example in the EU, because indeed you have sort of “lisbonised,” if I may say so, the Structural Funds in the long term, but this does not “sustainabilise” them. 

Again, you have to take a reasonable time perspective, and I think we are getting better over time, but it takes time. I think that if you look at parts of the agenda, I think it’s coming into better relief. If you look at the whole world environment/sustainable development nexus, I think that is coming more together. I think we have more work to do. But on the energy side, I think you can see that the climate dimension is very, very clearly now mainstreamed into energy policy – we are looking actually to move away from our carbon dependence. So I think it is unrealistic to expect the system to deliver everything at the same time! But what I do see is that the process is gradually getting better, mixing different parts of the agenda together, and as long as we have the coherent overall framework, it will come together, but it will take time.

Isn’t sustainable development also developing a new way of thinking about economics, jobs and growth? Or if you look, for example, at one of the big problems, the ageing society, you can go for traditional ways of dealing with that (eg people have to work longer) but you can also be longer-term thinking and put it into the context of sustainability. So you might have to come up with completely different solutions. Is that new paradigm of thinking economics already in the Commission’s DNA, I would say, just as competitiveness is?

Well…Again, for me we are talking about a time line. And for me, one of the strengths of the Commission has been, and will be in the future, our ability to think about 15-20 years’ framework – which most member states have great difficulty with. They have a much shorter political attention span. We are trying to deal with the long-term issues, so we are now doing a lot of work on demography – precisely trying to project the EU forward for the next 15-20 years, and then come back to the present and see what in our current policies has to change because we are taking this long-term view. 

Sustainability is about inter-generational justice, inter-generational issues. And I see us developing all that side of things more, but every time we look at these issues we realise we don’t have the data, we don’t have the tools, we don’t have the capacity, it is more complicated than we first thought…But we are knuckling down to dealing with it. And demography is a good example of that; part of the answer will be in technology, part of the answer will be in people working longer (but not necessarily because they have to for financial reasons but also because they want to), because if you’re going to live to 80 or 85, what are you going to do? You can’t be permanently on holiday or at least most people don’t find that very satisfying. And also migration, managed migration. What kind of set of issues does that throw up about social inclusion, infrastructure, catering for first-generation immigrants who don’t speak the language, who don’t know the customs’.  So it’s a huge agenda, but we are trying to tackle that. 

Does that mean that the Commission is developing more its role as a sort of long-term think-tank – instead of having the right of initiative in common with all kinds of legislation?

I don’t like the term “think-tank” because it does not cater to the fact that we actually follow through and deliver. “Long-term:” yes, but long-term capacity to deliver, shape and frame policies. And I think we will always be a Community of law because the bargain between member states has to be enforceable – a gentlemen’s agreement is not enough, and we see that all the time. But I do see us having reached a level of maturity in quite a number of policy areas that will not require the same amount of new legislation in the future. There are exceptions like the JLS area where we are in full development of the legal framework, but that will also reach maturity. 

So I do see a shift in the future to a bigger focus on implementation – and quality of implementation of what we have already decided. If you look at the internal market review that we have announced in the 10 May paper, it’s a good example of after 10-15 years of implementing a policy you take a step back and say: “OK what did we think it was going to deliver? Has it delivered that, and if not, why not? And having delivered, whatever has it delivered? Are there gaps? Could we have done this differently, more simply? What do we learn for the next phases?” And I see us doing more of that in the future. I see us continuing to develop policies, but maybe not always with new legislation, but new initiatives, yes, and sometimes new legislation.

That is one of the points that I would like to come to also: the policy consistency. If you look as an outsider to EU policies in the Past ten years, one of the big objectives has been streamlining or policy integration. You know very well the Cardiff process, to streamline environment into other policy areas; now there is also ‘integrating competitiveness,’ integrating energy issues. Can you give any concrete examples of how a secretary general is trying to remedy what seems to be one of the big problems of the Commission, which is policy coherence and having different DGs responsible for different policies…What are you doing to remedy this?

That is one of the biggest challenges that I have, and one of the things I am most committed to try and do something about, because I think that can be the Commission’s strength in the future, and if we don’t do it then we will be seriously undermined in terms of the quality of contributions that we can make to the EU agenda. So what we are trying to do for example, through the further development of the impact assessment system, is to make sure that we have a minimum quality of assessment across the house. For me it is quite important that we continue to work in a fairly decentralised way, and that will be the DGs that are responsible for a policy to themselves take the lead, but not that they then work on their own and that they decide what’s the right quality! So, you will have seen the changes in the organigramme of the SecGen that we put much more emphasis on policy coordination cycle from looking back to have we succeeded with policies that already exist to looking forward to how we design new policies and new legislation[25mn]. An important part of that is going to be: can we get different parts of the Commission to really co-operate on impact assessment? Which means a qualitatively different product from what we have done in the past. 

Again, it is going to take the a certain time to deliver, but I really hope that, if we look back in three years’ time, we will see a qualitative difference. And we are now – not on every issue but on the important ones – really trying to work in a cross-sectoral way. So you can look at energy, the work that is being done on the energy strategic review that will come at the end of the year is a genuinely cross-DG piece of work. The concept paper that recently went to the European Council on “Europe in the World” is also an attempt to make concrete what we always talk about, which is that the line between internal and external policies is now blurred, and everything has its internal and its external dimension. Those are a number of examples where I think we are slowly getting better at more integrated policymaking. But it takes time. 

Certainly a big challenge. One of the examples that you could use as sort of a remedy for that is the high-level groups, now you can have a high-level group on competitiveness, environment and energy. On the other hand, it is quite controversial, because some politicians and also the Parliament have criticised them and they don’t even want to send a representative. Did you see these high-level groups essentially as a sort of exercise in co-ordinating policies and integrating policies? How do you evaluate them after the current 21 experience in the high-level group on competitiveness?

I think they have shown that they are a very useful way of getting an external view on what we are doing. And I think they help us to see, in terms of impact, how different policies come together. We inevitably tend to think in a segregated way about energy policy, competition policy, environment policy, but if you are a company, or a sector, or an interest group, you see all of this coming together in a way that has an impact on your interests. And so I think it has been very useful if you like to hold up the mirror and to see ourselves as others see us, not as we see ourselves. 

It is also a very important source of practical and direct information about how things really have an impact in the “real world” of business, social partners, etc. But I think it is also important for us to be clear that this is only one input. So we need to be very sure that we have a range of inputs that is representative, and a high-level group by definition, has to be selective in a way. So it has to be broad enough to be representative but it does not represent the whole chain of opinions. Also they have to come up with a sort of agreed view on things which does not tend to be exactly the view of any individual in the group. So I think it is an important contribution, but it is also important to us to preserve the right, which we do, to consult others, to take other views into account – and in the end, to make up our own minds…

Take for example the high-level group on competitiveness, environment and energy. What will be the main result? Are they to produce a report that then goes into new policy? Or you could also see it as this high-level group preparing something like a special week on these three issues – like we had “Green Week”. “Green Week” is an interesting experiment, but it was pretty much the ‘usual suspects’ nvolved – green NGOs, etc.- while you can see very well that industry was not so evident. So why not sort of a ‘Sustainability and Growth’ special week that will discuss the outcome of the high-level group?

Why not? I don’t see any problem in that. But the idea behind the high-level groups is to give us some more focused view on how different policies come together and have an impact on different sectors, different regions, depending on the composition of the high- level group. So, I think it is to give us more direct feedback. You can do that in many different ways – you could do it through a group, through a week – one does not exclude the other. 

Let’s come back to the idea of Commission leadership and sustainable development. It looks like the national governments have overtaken the Commission as “champion” of sustainable development. The Austrian Presidency strengthened the Commission’s statutory proposal on SDS, and the Finnish Presidency is preparing to take on a new generation of environmental policy which looks more at the global dimension of environment, and not just at the internal market issues of environment. Didn’t the Commission lose leadership on environmental and sustainable development issues – actually referring to what you did before as Environment secretary-general? Or is this a good development?

In a way, I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable or unhappy if that was the case, because the important thing is that the agenda gets done. And anyway, I am sorry to say it is not the case. I still think on these issues the common ground where the member states can eventually come together and agree is most often defined by the Commission. So what you can have is individual member states, including when they have the Presidency, pushing ahead. But where is the follow-through and who measures it? And where is the real delivery on rather high standing declarations? It normally comes through the classic way of the Commission tabling something, member states and the Parliament negotiating it and coming to an agreement to have something which is then enforced or monitored by the Commission. So I think we are still in the end a sensible element that actually sets the agenda. We can have our level of ambition raised by certain member states but we have to bring all the member states along in the end. I think it’s still the Commission that sets the agenda more than anything else.

So the Commission still leads the environmental and sustainable development agenda, then?

In terms of delivery, yes. Maybe not in terms of rhetoric, but in terms of delivery.

Let’s come to delivery. One of the first priorities when the Commission started was to reconnect with the citizens. You have even a vice-president for this reconnecting and to work out a new communication strategy. That became even more urgent after the ‘NO’ votes. What I hear from internal sources at the Commission is that Vice-President Wallström’s Action Plan and the White Paper [on Communication in the EU] are not very popular in a lot of the DGs and with a lot of the Commissioners. So, the question is, does the Commission still stand behind her ideas on the White Paper and on Communication.  In your May Communication, apparently the Commission has changed from ‘It’s a communication problem’ to “It’s a delivery problem.” So, communication seems to be no longer as important.

No, I don’t think that’s true. I think if you look for positive sides of the ‘NO’ votes, one is clearly the Commission taking on board the need to make more relevant to the citizens what we do, because we tend to deal too much in abstract concepts. And what comes through loud and clear from the 10 May paper is the need to explain, in so far as it is humanly possible, to the end consumer, to the citizen, why we do all this, and why they benefit. So if you look at something like the idea of the entitlement card, it is precisely to communicate down to the level of Mr Dupont what’s in it for them.‘What did the EU ever do for me?” The answer is a very long list of things, but they don’t know that! And so it’s us realising that we are not communicating, we are not selling – in terms of what the citizens can identify with – all the good things we believe we are doing. And secondly, it is about us trying, as we develop new policy initiatives, not just to speak to the usual circles, but to be able to speak to “anybody-knows-mother,” to use the famous phrase of the last Commission.

So I see it as being both about communication AND about delivery; thinking much more: “Are we helping the consumer in this or not, and if not, why not” and also being able to explain it to the consumer even if it is something very complicated. It is easy with something like these roaming charges, for example, but it may be harder…

I was just about to mention that. But doesn’t that lead to a system which is harder? In the meantime, there have been big differences of opinions even among Commissioners about this, but you could have people saying these “populists” are playing to the citizens rather than reconnecting with them…

I think it is important that we not be populists. But I think it is equally important that we make this after-effort – to think in advance and to be able to explain everyday we adopt a Communication, a new policy or whatever: why we are doing it. Why? Who is going to benefit from this, and why are we going to turn the system upside down or make radical changes in something, or spend ten years working towards these objectives…If we are not able to explain where is the benefit for our fellow Europeans then I think we are failing! 

But let me challenge you here. More than one year ago, I heard the idea that with every legislative proposal, there should be a sort of an “idiots’ guide”…

It is called a layman’s summary…

I have not seen one up to now! And if you look at the way the press briefings are going, I do not see any difference now than what it was two or three years ago. It is still the same way of communicating! 

You can judge, so I would not dare say: “No, no, it’s not like that.” But what I think has changed is that we do much more questions and answers now, which is an attempt to explain in simpler terms what we are doing. Look at the wine reform. I think it is a good example of an initiative where we had a communication pack ready, we sent high-level officials to all of the main wine-producing member states, who could speak in their language, explain it on the day or the day following the Commission’s Communication. It takes time to turn the tanker around, for us to learn how to do this and to change our priorities so that senior people think it is more important to go to Madrid or Bordeaux to explain the policies rather than to sit in their office and do it and negotiate it through acknowledgement committees! That does not happen overnight, but we are trying and, yes, you can criticise for where we are not succeeding, but I think you could at least give us some credit for trying! 

And you did not address the question that I asked in the beginning: are there Commissioners that are actually opposing Wallström’s White Paper?

No, I don’t think so. It is at such a level of generality that everybody can agree with it. The question is how they are following through, and how are they following through in their daily work. So I’m trying to give you some practical examples of how at least some of them are following through in their daily work, and I think maybe we’re implementing some of those ideas in different ways, take the proposal to send our proposals directly to national parliaments. That is going to change the debate and the landscape over time. Not every national parliament is going to rush to send us comments on everything we do. But some are equipped and organised, and will take this opportunity. And for us what we want is for them to have the debate at proposal stage, rather than to feel frustrated by only looking at a proposal when they are asked to implement it and transpose it into national law, and they cannot change anything. So this should lead, over time, to much more debate nationally, and you find national editors taking an interest. 

That’s our way of responding. But again, you have to set it up, governments are not all happy about it, we have to discuss it and explain it to them, we have to agree with the national parliaments how we will send things to them, how they will send us back comments. For many of them that’s a challenge – they are not at all equipped to deal with this, but over time, they will be! 

Thank you very much, Catherine Day. 


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