The European External Action Service (EEAS) plans to achieve an inter-institutional balance by filling member states' quotas by 2013, Maroš Šef?ovi?, European Commission vice-president responsible for inter-institutional relations and administration, told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.
Maroš Šef?ovi? is a graduate of the Bratislava University of economics and of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations.
A career diplomat in his native Slovakia, for four months he served as a commissioner in the Barroso I team, responsible for education.
He is currently responsible for inter-institutional relations and administration in the Barroso II Commission.
He was speaking to EURACTIV's Christophe Leclercq, Georgi Gotev and Andrew Williams.
Let's begin with transparency. Transparency NGO ALTER-EU said recently that President Barroso wanted to drop transparency from the Commission's agenda completely and that it was only reinstated as part of your brief later on at the insistence of MEPs. How would you respond to this claim?
No, I really think that transparency was and is very high on the agenda of the Commission. I'm responsible for that brief, and it was in the brief from the first moment we started to discuss my portfolio with President Barroso.
But I have to say that there are a lot of things going on at the same time, and we of course had a slight delay with the coming into office of the Commission because of the late ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and because of the hearing procedure, and now of course we are working very hard on restarting our work, so we have the Commission's work programme.
I'm very much focused on putting into operation and implementing the Lisbon Treaty, so we have a lot of things going on, like the framework agreement, like reform of what was once comitology, and all these things at the same time, but concerning transparency – to come back to your question – I have a meeting with Mrs. Wallis [UK Liberal Democrat MEP Diana Wallis], who is the head of the European Parliament's team, on the register of interest groups on Wednesday, and we will have a full meeting of the whole team on Thursday, and I hope that we will restart our work very quickly, because they have a new composition, I'm the new member of the Commission responsible for this, so I believe we'll be working very intensively on creating a joint register by next year at the latest.
The European Parliament's position is well-known and hasn't changed for a long time now. They want a joint, mandatory register between the Commission and the Parliament. What's the Commission's position on this? Has it changed under your brief since the position under previous Commissioner Siim Kallas? How will you react to the Parliament's demands?
We have had extensive debates on this with the former parliamentary team, and our position has not changed, because for us it is very difficult to proceed with a mandatory system because we don't have a legal basis for that. It's not in the treaty. We don't have a legal basis for it.
We have to be in contact with all stakeholders, but we are going to increase the motivation for all companies involved in this lobbying business, making it very clear that this is a matter for the good reputation of companies.
So far I think it is working pretty well. We have more than 2,700 organisations already registered. As far as I can see from the list, the major stakeholders are in, and we will of course be increasing the motivation for other companies to join.
I see a big opportunity to make it even more important for companies to be registered once we start this joint operation with the Parliament, because it would increase the stakes, it would increase transparency and visibility of which companies are in and which are not. I hope that we will achieve very good results.
If we were to wait until we have created a legal basis for a mandatory system, we would simply lose a lot of time, so for the Commission, with its aim to improve transparency as much as possible, it's better to proceed swiftly and work with what we have. I think that so far the results are quite promising.
Regarding the relationship between transparency and other policies, there are efforts to communicate more effectively in many different ways. This was attempted by the previous Commission, to boost coherence between communication and transparency policies. What about cooperation that you could have with your colleague Viviane Reding, who is in charge of communication policy, so that transparency is seen as part of communication?
I think the cooperation with Viviane Reding is excellent, and she has brought new energy and vigour into communication policy. I honestly believe that the Commission is one of the most transparent public administrations in the world.
You can hardly find other administrations with regular briefings at noon every day without specific, prepared questions, and where we really need to be on our toes all the time to answer all of your questions, which are legitimate. We're just trying to do it in a way that is fully informed.
We have a very transparent system of accessing documents, where we have more than 5,000 requests per year. Some of the files have several thousand pages, which is an enormous amount of work, and we are granting more than 85% of requests. The positive response rate is very, very high.
I really think we are doing a very good job. I don't want to say that it cannot be improved: we're working on it. I agree with you that we probably have to find ways, together with my colleague Viviane Reding, to be more outward-looking or more informative about these issues from the start.
Let me take as an example Europe 2020, which is not really a topic for the national level at the moment. The big missing link is the involvement of national stakeholders, just like it was with the Lisbon Agenda, and with the transparency initiative you've put some of these players on the defensive. You need their help for a real debate on Europe 2020. Is there not a way of finding a win-win approach to lobbyists?
On EU 2020, I don't agree that it's not a topic in the capitals. We've just started bilateral meetings with national governments on the headline targets. This is going on. We'd like to motivate the member states – if it comes to concrete targets – to be more ambitious than they were before, so we would see a collective effort to arrive in the end at the headline targets set for the whole European Union.
So discussion is going on…
…between the EU and governments.
So the stakeholders don't really feel involved?
I am hopeful that a new direction could be the national parliaments, now that all our legislative proposals are being sent to national parliaments: they will have the right to screen them to see if they are in accordance with the subsidiarity rule. This will be another mechanism that will increase the debate on European topics in the national capitals and national parliaments.
I'm also trying to raise awareness in national parliaments that this mechanism is here and that they should use it. For the Commission, it would be an excellent sign if it was not only European affairs committees dealing with issues like EU 2020, but if they were also distributed to other specialised committees in the parliaments.
What about the private sector? With the introduction of the internal market and the euro, stakeholders had a huge role to play in explaining things to citizens. It seems that the process right now is more on inter-institutional relations.
In my concrete case, I've had meetings in my country with employers' associations. I've had a meeting with the chamber of commerce, and I've had a meeting with economic-oriented journalists.
This is also the role of each commissioner, because it's quite clear and it's also the position of the college that each commissioner should be an ambassador for these processes is their member state, and of course having debates with professional associations in the member states is very important.
I was at a job fair in my country where we were discussing exactly how the EU 2020 can help to boost employment. These things are going on, and I know that my fellow commissioners are doing the same and educating people about the steps that the Commission is undertaking in their own countries.
Of course, in this area you can never be satisfied, because more and more information is needed and we should be even more active in spreading concrete facts about what we are doing here in Brussels.
What future do you see for the European Citizens' Initiative? What kind of initiative do you see it being used for?
That is of course very difficult to predict, because you have more or less two possible major developments. The first is that it will be widely used – and there will of course also be attempts to abuse the initiative – and then there is the other camp: the people who think that citizens will be discouraged because it's too complicated and so it will never be used.
I have to say that I'm in the first camp, because I think that we've tried to organise the European Citizens' Initiative in the most user-friendly manner, and the possibility to collect signatures online will really make the [one million signatures] figure – which seems very big – quite easily achievable.
We also took great care in designing how we would calculate the number of signatories necessary for getting a country into the 'club' of one third of [EU member states], when we adopted the principle of digressive proportionality, so it would be more interesting for the organisers to involve bigger countries too and not just small member states, which would have been a worry had we used the 0.2 percentage point limit.
I think we did our utmost to make the initiative user-friendly, and therefore I think it will be quite widely used. We will need to see how much it will influence the overall governance framework in Brussels, because if you look at what is going on now that the Lisbon Treaty is in, we have a very strong Parliament and a very strong European Council, which has officially become an EU institution with a permanent president, its own budget and a sense of urgency after the crisis that the Council must coordinate better and together, especially in the economic field.
You have the Commission, and you have new involvement of national parliaments. You have the citizens, who are really getting a very important tool for agenda-setting in the future, and of course we will now see how this new governance structure will evolve.
Because it's so difficult to predict, we included in the ECI a review clause that we will use in five years to see how this instrument has been used, if it is user-friendly and whether or not it is working fine.
If necessary we can adjust it, because we are doing something completely new and of course we will have to see how it pans out and how it will be used.
You said yourself that you expect it to be used for Eurosceptic means. How would the Commission react to extreme proposals that might come out of it, like for example abolishing the European Union? If there were a million signatures collected for that, would the Commission be obliged to act here?
When I discuss this with stakeholders and the European Parliament, usually people there are looking at it from the positive side, and how the citizens will use it in a positive manner. But of course we also have to look at this other possibility, and take great care that this ECI instrument is not abused.
So what we did was introduce several safeguards into the ECI. The first one concerns registration. We want to know some basic facts. Who are the organisers? What is the purpose of the initiative? How are the organisers getting funding? What is their goal?
It is quite clear that if it comes to silly initiatives, there will just be an administrative procedure and the initiative will not be registered, so that would mean that it won't be official.
Regarding values, you can have contradictory views. You can very easily have contradictions between freedom of expression and freedom of religion, and in such cases it would be a decision by the college [of commissioners], because it would be a political decision whether we consider that such ECIs are legitimate or not.
Of course, these decisions will be challengeable in the European Court of Justice.
Then you have the third safeguard, which is the admissibility check that we decided to introduce after 300,000 signatures have been collected. Why? Because we want to see that the organisers have genuine backing for their initiative, that it is not just a proposal that is good for the self-promotion of the organisers or some kind of political agenda to force the Commission to react.
In this sort of case, if the Commission were to react negatively, it would go through the court appeal procedure, which would keep the individual concerned constantly in the newspapers without any real backing for the initiative.
So we want to see that people are backing these initiatives, and if there are 300,000 signatures collected from three member states, the Commission is obliged to issue its evaluation of whether the initiative is admissible or not.
We have installed in the ECI a very solid safeguard mechanism which I hope will prevent possible abuse of the system.
Everyone is talking about the burqa. Countries like Belgium are taking national steps to ban the burqa. Some people, like European Parliament Vice-President Silvana Koch-Mehrin, are already advocating banning the burqa throughout the EU. If there were a citizens' initiative in that direction, would it be admissible? What would the procedure?
In this case of course, I cannot give you an answer, because it is exactly one of these issues where you have two freedoms in possible conflict.
It is very difficult for me to answer such a hypothetical question, because you would need to see the exact phrasing of the question, and then it would be a decision for the whole college.
Is there not a risk that most of these initiatives will come from NGOs and civil society groups pushing their own specific agendas? With the requirement for a million signatures across nine countries, it's going to be difficult to mobilise that many signatures across that many countries at grassroots level. Don't you see it being harnessed by pan-European NGOs on specific issues that fit their agenda instead?
Of course I agree with you that this would require a solid degree of organisation, but I also think that the Commission with its different programmes for the promotion of civil society would like to see that this is not just something for NGOs.
We would very much like to see this instrument aimed at citizens, to be used by grassroots citizens' organisations for the mobilisation of citizens around concrete purposes. We would like to demonstrate very clearly that citizens have a tool to influence the work of the Commission, that citizens have an instrument to set the agenda of the European Union.
Therefore I hope that thanks to online communication and social-networking sites, mobilisation will be much easier than it was before. Today, collecting that many signatures through an online system will not be as problematic as before, when you had to collect them on the street.
I really believe that through these new means of communication, it will be much easier for grassroots organisations to get the necessary support.
As vice-president responsible for administration, you share with others a lot of responsibility for setting up the European External Action Service (EEAS), probably the most important part of which is recruitment. Some fear that certain member states will be underrepresented in the EEAS, because too many civil servants are already joining from the Commission and from the Council. Can you give us some figures? How many people from the existing EU institutions are joining the EEAS, and what is left for member states?
This is a rather complex question. We had a rather extensive debate on this issue at the last General Affairs Council, and on the issue that is my particular responsibility, the changes to the Staff Regulation, because we need to change the Staff Regulation so that we can have the External Action Service.
I was in a process of negotiation with the Council, and at the same time with the staff unions. Hopefully I will conclude conciliation with the staff unions this week. Then the Commission will officially adopt a proposal for changing the Staff Regulation, and then it goes to co-decision, to the Parliament and the Council.
I'm particularly responsible for this part of the creation of the External Action Service. Regarding personnel policy, this is and will be the duty of Cathy Ashton, because she is the appointing authority. All the procedures will be organised by her.
But I can tell you that it was of course one of the issues which was very much discussed at the last General Affairs Council, and Cathy assured foreign ministers that she has no problem preparing a clear layout for how she wants to achieve that by 2013 there are at least one third of EEAS officials coming from the member states. She is ready to do it in writing, so there will be reassurance that this proportion will be respected. I think we will see the blueprint of this proposal from her very soon.
Regarding concrete figures, you know that all of RELEX is going to the EEAS. A part of DG Development is going there as well. I think they have to finalise their figures this week.
Then of course we will have people coming from the General Secretariat [of the Council]. If I remember the number correctly, we are speaking at this initial stage of transfer from the General Secretariat and from the Commission of about 1,100 people. These people are of course AD status and they will be officials in the External Action Service.
Regarding the delegations, a large proportion – and in many cases the majority of the staff of the delegations – will still be Commission staff, because these people are local agents who are responsible for technical assistance programmes and for the execution of development aid programmes, things like that.
Plus the Commission of course will retain its exclusive competences in areas like trade, enlargement and many others that have an external relations dimension. This means that these people in the delegations will also be responsible for pursuing the Commission's goals in these exclusive areas of the Commission's competence, so it will be a joint operation at the delegations.
Therefore there was some discussion over what the procedure for nominating the heads of the delegations should be. We found a compromise in the end.
I think it was accepted then by the Council that it's quite clear that the Commission must also have a say in who's going to be the head of the delegations abroad.
So these are the figures: then there are of course the future ambitions of the External Action Service. It of course very much depends on the Council and the member states how big we want the service to be and how ambitious it will be, whether we can still manage with the resources that we have or whether we have to look at how we can improve the situation.
I think this will be the thinking for the second stage, because now we have to focus on getting agreement between the Council, the Commission and the Parliament on decisions on the Staff Regulation and the budget.
We need to start up the structure and the process first, and then adjust it in a gradual way during this first phase, which should last until 2013.
The three main political groups in Parliament are united in saying that the proposal put forward by Ashton does not go far enough. They consider that it should be reviewed. Among other things you are responsible for inter-institutional relations. How will you help solve this problem and are you already involved in such mediation?
My major preoccupation right now is the negotiations on the framework agreement. There we decided that in the framework agreement we would focus on the issues where the Commission can deliver and where we can take up our commitments.
This means that issues related to the External Action Service are out, because it's quite clear that many of these issues will have to be decided by Cathy Ashton. Probably in the future it will be necessary to have some kind of formal understanding between the Parliament and the External Action Service on how things will work, and how cooperation will be translated into concrete action.
How I can help is of course in facilitating contact to keep the talks going on. But most of the discussion with the European Parliament will be done by Cathy Ashton, because it's her project.
She got support for her decision from the Council and she got the support of the Commission, so we really think that what is on the table after the small changes that have been made by the General Affairs Council is a very solid blueprint.
Of course, now we have to take into account the major preoccupations of the Parliament regarding staff regulations, budget and accountability to the European Parliament.
I think that these obligations for the new External Action Service can only be undertaken by Cathy Ashton, who will be leading it.
One issue that I'm sure you're responsible for is recruitment. I think there are hundreds if not thousands of people interested in the capitals. National diplomats will have the chance to work with the External Action Service. The head of RELEX, Mr. Vale de Almeida, said there would be no catapulting – 'pas de parachutage' – therefore some kind of screening of these candidates will be required. They cannot just be sent by capitals. Will they have to pass some kind of examination? Do you have more details to share at this stage?
I don't have more details on this yet, because this will have to be decided by Cathy Ashton, but regarding recruitment, I'm sure that the best practices that we have in the Commission, and what we do for all EU institutions, will also be applied to the External Action Service, where we really need to screen the qualities of the people and check whether they are up to the job.
Cathy is repeating everywhere that she wants to have the best and the brightest in the External Action Service, so of course they're going to have to pass the recruitment procedure.
Moreover, what will also be important for the External Action Service is the agreement of member states to second officials if they are selected. It will be a joint exercise. The foreign ministries will screen their people, and if they are good quality they can be seconded to the External Action Service: plus they will have to go through the whole recruitment procedure.
I presume it will be very similar to the recruitment procedures that we have for officials and managers in the Commission. But of course the details will have to be laid down by Cathy because she is the appointing authority.
Will the seconded national officials be part of the quota?
People who come from the member states will be part of the quota, because they will be working as temporary agents for the External Action Service, which means that they will have equal standing and positions as the officials there from the Commission or from the General Secretariat. There will have the same positions as the former core employees of the European institutions.
But there will have to be an agreement from the member states and they will have to be ready to release them and second them to work for the External Action Service. So there's also a link to the member states.
They should be posted to the External Action Service for a period of four years, which can be renewed afterwards. But each time member states will be requested to re-confirm that they agree to have these people working for the External Action Service for another period.
Normally such seconded officials cannot hold management positions. They cannot be heads of unit, for example. Is there not a risk that for countries who are below their quotas, a lot of fairly junior positions will be offered to them to help them fill their quota, meaning that these countries won't feel represented in the management of the External Action Service?
I think Cathy is very much aware of this issue. It's quite clear that what we need the national diplomats for is to bring in their expertise, especially on the CFSP [Common Foreign and Security Policy], because so far the CFSP positions – especially in third countries – have been represented by the [six-month rotating EU] presidency or the embassies of the presidency.
I'm talking about the specialities and expertise of the member states – this is exactly what we need in the External Action Service. We need to combine the expertise of the Commission on different kinds of programmes that are operated in third countries with the expertise of national diplomats on issues like the CFSP.
We need to boost the political units and political departments in the delegations. I think the same will apply to the creation of the External Action Service headquarters here in Brussels.
I think Cathy is looking for people who would bring experience and expertise from member states, especially for the very important domains in which the EEAS will be very active.
You said that by 2013 one third of the civil servants in the EEAS will be from the member states. Do you think that by 2013 countries will also have reached their national quotas? Some MEPs say Eastern European countries are poorly represented. They put the figures at 26% for Poland and 16% for Bulgaria. It's very low for your country, Slovakia. What is the target? By 2013?
There was a big debate before on quotas, and that approach was rejected. This means that what we need to do – and I'm sure that Cathy will be very careful about this – is look for as wide a geographical balance as possible.
We're looking for a merit-based approach too, and we're also looking for gender balance to be reflected in the future External Action Service.
Cathy is very much aware that the presence of experts from the new member states in the RELEX-oriented departments of the European institutions has been rather low.
Regarding the External Action Service, I don't think it can afford the luxury of not using the expertise and language abilities of the new member states, especially in such an important area of the future activity of the European Union – especially aimed at the eastern part of neighbourhood policy, or the Balkans, where the new member states have been very active and where they have solid expertise.
I think that it will be done by Cathy in her role as the appointing authority, and she will take all these very important indicators into account when she's looking at the personnel decisions to be made.
In interview panels, the member states will also be represented, so it will be very transparent. Some panels have already been established, as far as I can see, but not all of them, as people like the heads of delegations, for example, will be decided in the coming months.
Member states will be present, so I think it will be very clear that the procedure is very transparent and that all these issues are being taken into account.
Basically you're saying 'yes, there will be a geographical balance' and 'no, there'll be no national balance'. Do I understand you correctly?
I'm not sure if there's a contradiction in that. We do not have national quotas.
So if there are a lot of Poles, it doesn't matter if there are only a few Romanians?
No, no, no, I don't think so. It's very clear that the landscape of the European Union must be reflected in the External Action Service. Of course it would not be good if there were a lot of Poles and not enough Bulgarians.
We have to look at getting very fair and solid representation of all member states in the External Action Service, because it's not only important from the point of view of how the service is composed – it's very important (and I think that all of us are fully aware of this) – we really want to see the European External Action Service established as a European service.
This means that the national diplomacies must have a strong feeling of cooperation, coordination and synergy creation in the External Action Service.
We need the capitals to have a very solid feeling of fair treatment regarding the composition of the External Action Service, because what we'd like to see in the future is that the European delegations are on the best possible terms with the embassies of the member states.
We want to do things together and speak with one voice, with a strong synergy and a good working relationship going on. For that, you need to have the feeling in national foreign ministries that the process is transparent and fair, and that member states are fairly represented.
I know that Cathy is absolutely aware of this and she will do her utmost to achieve it.
A political question now: How is this Commission different from the previous one? You worked in the last Commission for a few months, so you're in a good position to say. In the beginning, the three major political groups in the European Parliament said they would work closely with their commissioners. Do you sense a more political European Commission this time? Do you participate in party meetings with high representatives of the Socialist group?
I think that the first difference is that we are embarking on something new. As I said, we are putting together a new architecture: a new Parliament, a new European Council, the involvement of national parliaments, and a new agenda-setting tool for citizens.
It will take some time, with the new architecture that we are putting in place, for the new political map of Brussels to be charted out. Of course, our goal is for the Commission to remain the engine and initiator, to remain the institution that is taking European ideas forward.
For that, I think it's quite clear that the Commission needs to be more political. You saw that the hearings were very tough and very political. There are also changes planned for how we interact on programming with the European Parliament in future. We would like to introduce more direct interaction between the commissioners and the [Parliament] committees, to have more of a political debate.
I also think the political factions are much more active than before, for example in my case, there are quite regular breakfast meetings before major Councils, or regular dinners at which there are exchanges of views on the major initiatives that are under discussion.
This interaction is going on.
That may well help interaction with the Commission and the Parliament, but it may also lead to more disagreements within the Commission.
So far I haven't really detected this. It's quite clear that what we need is more exchange of information, because sometimes of course you have political views in the European Parliament, but you can also bring along the view of how the Commission sees it.
Do you see yourself more as representing the Commission in a party-political context rather than being the ambassador of your party in the Commission?
Of course, I feel myself to be a commissioner: that's very clear. But I think that we also have to be quite conscious that we are living in a political environment, and the goal is for the Commission to take the best possible decisions that are as widely supported as possible.
This is our goal, and this is how we have to communicate with our partners in the Parliament and my partners in the Commission.
You are of Social Democratic affiliation. Does that help you to work better with the trade unions here in Brussels, for example?
As you can imagine, that is a very challenging task. My goal is to secure the best possible working conditions for Commission staff. I'm in quite extensive contact with the staff unions. We're now discussing changes to the Staff Regulation. I've just come from a meeting with them.
I'm also trying to explain to the staff unions that I understand that they are trying to do their job as well as possible and to protect the interests of Commission employees, but at the same time we also have to be very much conscious of the fact that Europe went through a very severe crisis last year.
This is reflected everywhere in Europe, and it must also be reflected here in Brussels, so we have very intense dialogue on these issues and so far, I think we have managed to hold discussions in a very partner-like manner, and I hope it will continue like this in the future.