This article is part of our special report Data protection.
Recent data protection breaches involving Apple and Sony show that "the protection of personal data doesn't work properly," says the EU commissioner in charge of justice and fundamental rights Viviane Reding. In a wide-ranging interview with EURACTIV, she also discusses other issues such as EU communications, media funding, Roma discrimination and gender quotas.
Viviane Reding is one of the vice-presidents of the European Commission. She is currently serving her third mandate at the EU executive. The Luxembourg commissioner is now in charge of a broad portfolio including justice, fundamental rights, citizenship and communication.
She was speaking to Francesco Guarascio.
Commissioner Reding, the European Commission is a collegial body but often its members and its departments seem to act and communicate as if they were autonomous. As commissioner in charge of communication, how would you tackle this apparent contradiction?
The policy is the same for all commissioners and civil servants. But you cannot bring out only a single message, because you have to bring your message to the grassroots, adapting it according to the audience, the member states, the culture [and] the language.
Sometimes messages can be contradictory. What do you think about a presidential model for the Commission, in which communication would be more centred around the figure of the president, like in other bodies around the world?
The Commission is a college. The president plays an important role but I believe that the best ambassadors are the national commissioners, who can speak the national language and can address the national audience.
It's not a presidential system. It's a political system where all political figures – and all commissioners are politicians – have great political importance and communicate beyond their portfolio.
The media plays an important role in connecting politicians and citizens. Media companies are currently facing up to hard times in all member states as budgets shrink budgets. Are you in favour of public support for the media?
This is a discussion we do have regularly in member states. Public broadcasters are currently financed with public money, which normally should not be allowed by the European rules. But there is an exception to the rules which allows financing public broadcasters for their mission of public service. But I could not imagine from the European point of view that we would start to give subsidies to the local media.
Local media no, but you do already fund cross-border media, like Euronews.
That is the only cross-border television which reports European news rather than national news only, and does so in six different languages. We also have Euranet – a network of 15 international, national and regional broadcasters and 15 campus radio [stations] addressing university students and giving European news which students cannot find on other radio [stations]. It works in 12 EU languages.
Will funding for these services increase in the future?
I don't think it will increase. National press and public broadcasters are under the responsibility of national governments. What I see is that these are cutting investment. With budgetary problems I have the impression that investment in media from the public sector is not growing.
Also from the Commission?
Our budgets – European and national – are not growing.
The Commission is often portrayed in national media as a rule-setter that imposes limits rather than an organisation that protects rights. How would you respond to this criticism?
When I read the the results of Eurobarometers, I see that people trust the European Union more than national governments to protect their rights. That's why it is so important that we have the codification of those rights in the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and this now needs to be applied.
Governments were not used to the fact that the European Commission was intervening on rights issues – be it procedural rights or data protection. Since 2010 we have been intervening and doing so rather strongly.
Like in the Roma case, which set you against France…
France has understood it. But not only France. It was a question of discrimination of an 'ethnic group', which is absolutely against our European values. It was a case of non-implementation of the European directive on free movement. The aspects of this directive concerning the procedural rights of individuals were not integrated into French law.
That's why the Commission threatened to bring France before court. All the other member states have understood it and they now know that the Commission will not let non-respect of the rights of the individual go without intervention. The moment when France pledged to change its legislation – and it's doing so at this moment – several other member states came swiftly to say they were changing their legislation too.
So raising your voice helps.
Of course, because before nobody was really thinking that we would intervene on this. Now they know.
You are also raising your voice to promote gender quotas in top positions. This is one of your new strong points. You have already proposed imposing quotas on the boards of large companies' boards and you have suggested appointing women to top EU positions. Do you have any new proposals?
Everybody is discussing top posts in the banking sector but there are only male candidates. Consider also female candidates who could do the job very well. The same goes for the European Parliament, the Commission and national governments.
In the private sector only 10% of posts on the boards are occupied by women. This is not good for economic development. We are running out of trained people. At the same time, 60% of university graduates are females. It's an untapped potential that we have to use if we want to further develop our economy. That's why I say 'more women on boards'.
I'm glad to see that there are more and more member states that are legislating in this direction.
You mention the European Parliament. Would a woman be appropriate to replace its current president, Jerzy Buzek, at the end of his half-a-term mandate?
It would be very nice to have a woman again [Frenchwoman Simone Veil chaired the EU assembly between 1979 and 1982]. Anyhow, the European Parliament is already a good example with 35% female members. It's doing much better than national parliaments.
Changing the subject, since the beginning of your new mandate, the Commission has changed the usage of Eurobarometer polls. How important are polls in the Commission's decision-making process?
Now our polls are very much policy-driven. But our policy is not driven by polls. The use of Eurobarometers is much more strategic as we are concentrating them on important topics. We don't need to conduct a Eurobarometer poll on the health of dogs.
We take the pulse of the citizens on certain topics, but our proposals are not governed by polls. It is the other way round: we have a policy aim and then we see what people think about that. Polls help us to make better decisions. It's a thermometer to measure the way we are going.
But surely polls can influence your decision-making process?
No. We have our decision-making process. Polls help us to make our decisions better. We didn't decide to make the European semester after a poll. But we want to know how it is perceived by the citizens: will they think it is good or bad to have more economic coordination?
…and if they think it is bad, you will change?
No, in that case we need to inform better. The Eurobarometer is only one tool among others to find out about citizens' concerns and the European Commission's proposals will certainly not be driven by a poll only. In some cases politicians develop a policy because of a poll. But this is not what we are doing.
So far, the Commission has focused on the use of quantitative polls. Do you see an increase in the use of qualitative polls?
When we are working on the polls, we work with specialists. I'm not a specialist on polls. I'm a specialist on politics.
Moving to data protection, recent serious data protection breaches involving Apple and Sony risk undermining public confidence in the information society. Will you do something about this in your review of the Data Protection Directive?
What has happened in the last few weeks just shows that things are not going in the right direction. The protection of personal data doesn't work properly.
Companies do not take the protection of personal data seriously enough. They often do things that people are not even aware of: a GPS-producer sells information on to a third party, or millions of Apple products save local data from radio networks without asking users for permission.
It is no surprise that consumers' trust in our information society has been eroded in the face of recent events. To restore this trust, I'm currently working on the reform of our EU data protection rules.
In which way?
There will be stricter rules regarding data breaches: people will have to be informed if their data has been unlawfully accessed. In addition, wherever you are positioned as a company and wherever you store information, even if it's in the cloud, if it concerns the data of citizens living in the EU, it is European law that applies.