Wallis MEP: EU budget ‘must respect difficult times’

Diana Wallis interview Drupal.jpg

Europe must respect "difficult times" by adopting a budget that reflects austerity measures being introduced by national governments, European Parliament Vice-President Diana Wallis told EURACTIV Slovakia in a wide-ranging interview. 

UK Liberal Democrat MEP Diana Wallis is a vice-president of the European Parliament and represents the EU assembly in inter-institutional talks on setting up a 'transparency register' common to the Parliament, the Council and the European Commission.

She was speaking to EURACTIV Slovakia.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

You are dealing with the dossier of the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) alongside Slovak Commissioner Maroš Šef?ovi?. How is cooperation between the two of you going? What is the communication like?

I've found him great fun to work with. He is a new member of the Commission but he has taken up his post and I would say he's doing very well.

In fact I am working on several issues with him. The ECI is one: another is the agreement between our institutions on lobbying, and also the Framework Agreement [on relations between the Commission and the Parliament].

He is doing a good job and with his leadership in the Commission, we stand a very good chance of getting the ECI up and available for our citizens to use sooner rather than later.

I understand you are a firm believer in direct democracy. Do you think there is genuine public demand in Europe for direct democracy given low turnout in European elections and other signs that are not very encouraging regarding the public's willingness to take part in political discussions?

If you ask me 'Are people on the street asking for direct democracy?', then no, they are not. What we are trying to do in the ECI is that if there are particular issues that you feel passionately about, maybe people in other European countries also feel passionately about them – often it is on environmental issues – then by getting together you can actually move the agenda and move the politicians more quickly.

It puts the power directly into the hands of citizens. Yes, there is a frustration now, so let's give people the chance to exercise power in a direct way and to do something themselves, rather than always asking them to vote for me or for my colleagues and then do things for them.

So if people are frustrated and fed up with politics the way it is, then let's try another way let's have the possibility of direct democracy, which is a step towards participative democracy at least.  

What is your personal experience of lobbyists? Do lobbyists try to influence regulation of lobbying too?

Actually, the lobbyists are quite good in a way. Most lobbyists would say to you in Brussels – the good ones – that they would like us to have a proper mandatory, obligatory register, where all lobbyists were forced to register. And that is the Parliament's aspiration as well, because then they would all be on the same level playing field.

We have the voluntary register which the Commission set up some years ago, and I think it is a good start and the Commission shares that view as well. But we would like to see something rather more extensive and ultimately mandatory. By the work that we are doing together, by joining together the Parliament and the Commission: because to get into the Parliament you need an access badge [so] it would become almost mandatory anyway.

The point of this is not about us, it is about making sure that everybody outside of the Brussels bubble can see who is talking to us, who is influencing policy, and by being able to see that simply on the European Parliament or Commission website: to feel that this process is open [and] that it is transparent.

How would you define a good lobbyist?

We had a dinner in the week with lobbyists from UK, from the British Chamber of Commerce, and I think the clear message that came through from parliamentarians is what we really like if a lobbyist brings to us, somebody – the man in the street, the farmer, the local businessman, who is a real life example of the problem that they are trying to illustrate to us or with which we are trying to deal in the legislation.

What we do not really like is a sort of boiled down, Europeanised version of what the problem is. I want a real person that I can relate to and who I can deal with from my constituency. 

What is the state of play of the Framework Agreement? It only governs relations between the European Commission and the European Parliament. Why not the Council?

It is possible for the two institutions to have the agreement. Clearly we have had one before with the Commission on the things on which we work together, so it is nothing new. It rules on how we will implement the new provisions of the Lisbon Treaty.

We had very good discussions with the Commission on that and I think we have got a very good result for the Parliament. I appreciate there is a little nervousness among some of the member states and in the Council about this, but I think the Lisbon Treaty will take a while to settle down.

The Finnish parliament is having a little problem with it, isn't it?

We will have to work much more closely with national parliaments. I think that the Finnish parliament is actually very much advanced in the way they operate on European policy and discuss European policy, so they are bound to be at the forefront of the discussion.

We must do much more as the European Parliament to involve national parliaments in our meetings, possibly more meetings by videoconferences, MEPs to dialogue much more at the national level with their national parliamentarians.

There needs to be much closer cooperation in the future and that will actually be good for the discussion in the domestic media and in the domestic context about Europe.

Do you have any idea what the first ECI will be?

It is very hard to say, because it will all depend on timing. We know that some people have already somehow prematurely jumped the gun and started initiatives. We have to really wait for the legislation.

My suspicion is it will be something in the environmental field; that is where the large NGOs are that will probably be able to use the process first before anybody else.

What I am really waiting to see is the first real citizens' initiative, not one that comes from the NGO community.

But don't you think the ECI will be much more likely to be used by large NGOs, which have the logistics and know-how from the petitions campaigns, than the ordinary citizens?

That is what we have been trying to avoid with the implementing rules. Ultimately we want to see the ECI used by ordinary people. That is the aspiration.

Should the political parties be allowed to use this tool?

My view is this: let it be as open and permissive as possible. They can use it. But I would ask a question – if political parties and members of parliament feel that they have to use a citizens' initiative, then why? They have enough possibilities of their own. They should leave this to the citizens.

There was a debate on the EU budget in the European Parliament. In your statement you said the EU budget should be cut too, like national budgets. Around the same time the Commission broke a taboo by mentioning the possibility of increasing the EU's 'own resources'. What do you think about that?

In our country […] we had a huge announcement on the same day as the European Parliament looked at the European budget. In my own country we were putting forward very big cuts, which we have to do to get us out of the financial position that we are in. Many countries across the EU are doing that. At the same time we are facing an EU budget that represents a rise of six percent.

It is very, very difficult. Of course I respect the outcome of the vote in the European Parliament which adopted the increase, but I think it's rather sad. I think Europe also has to respect the difficult times that we are in. Maybe you can argue that the EU budget will be used very tactically and in a focused way to help countries during the crisis. I hope that proves to be the case.

Are you open to the idea of increasing the EU's own resources via some kind of European tax?

Some people think that now is the time to have the discussion. I am happy to do it on the basis that if it makes Europe's budget more transparent, in the sense that people in the street can understand more easily what amount of their money is going towards Europe, because I think that actually most citizens would be pleasantly surprised that Europe costs a lot less to run than they think.

If it is a move towards more transparency, then I think that can actually be positive. But I think we have to have the discussion in that context.

The EU no doubt benefits from the single market, but there are still obstacles that are preventing it from working more effectively. You are a lawyer. What are the main tasks facing the EU in the field of harmonising EU law?

What concerns me as we move forward now after the Treaty of Lisbon is that there should be a move to make Europe much more responsive to the needs of individual citizens in their daily lives, and especially when they decide for one reason or another to exercise their right to free movement: in other words to go to study, work or retire, or even on holiday, in another member state of the Union.

Because basically we have made the offer to people that this is what they can do and in doing so they should not come across difficulties: it should be like living, working and shopping at home.

But we know that the reality is still very far removed from that. So what we really want to do is try to focus on the citizens and their lives and how we can make them easier: even, for instance, say you go to another member state as a woman, you meet a nice young man and you decide to get married.

If people from two member states try to get married at the moment often there is a lot of bureaucracy: they have to get a birth certificate or a so-called civil status certificate, and it can become really complicated, and we want to make sure that things like that are no longer complicated.

This idea that we have of being a citizen of the Union and being able to move freely should become an absolute reality.

What about the economy?

The internal market is meant to be without barriers. It is still not the case in terms of consumer law that it is easy for citizens to enforce their rights cross-border, and particularly businesses and very much small businesses tell us that it is too difficult.

They are still frightened and feel they need advice on the 27 different legal systems before they can sell in another member state and given that small business really should be the lifeblood and generators of income in times of financial crises, we have really got to do more to make sure they feel at ease and particularly take up all the possibilities of the Internet.

That is why one of the things and issues I am working on is a possibility of an optional instrument, an optional possibility of a European contract law, where both parties of an agreement agree they can use this, and it is the same in every member state.

It does not supplant national law, it does not mean it is removed – if you want to use national law you can – but as an alternative there would be a European option. Some people describe it in this way – if you buy things on the Internet, maybe there will be a blue button with the European flag and if you want to go for the European contract law option, you push the blue button.

What would you say to those who insist that the whole European integration project should focus on its basic reason for being, the single market, and at the same time claim that harmonisation of EU law is a negative thing?

This is about Europe's internal market and making it function better, and also doing it this way it is about giving an option where it does not intrude into national law at all. For me, it is the best of both worlds and it answers the Eurosceptics.

I have a lot of Eurosceptics in my country and I have no problem with putting this forward as a sensible middle option. I think it fits the political context that we find ourselves in. People are nervous about the idea of the big brother in Brussels – I do not think there is a big brother in Brussels – but if people are worried, let's sometimes give them a choice, which is a very liberal thing to do, and if they decide not to choose it and therefore it does not work then OK, we've got it wrong, but let's at least try it on that basis rather than perhaps heavy-handed harmonisation, which might cause upset.

From a legal point of view, how would you assess the fact that the Commission has suspended infringement proceedings on France's Roma repatriations after the announcement by Paris of how it is planning to align its laws with EU legislation on free movement? On the ethical aspect of the problem and on targeting Roma specifically, the Commission remained silent.

Most people in the Parliament, myself included, were pleased to see [Justice] Commissioner [Viviane] Reding take the Commission's role seriously and that it is important, because often there has been the feeling that big countries were treated differently to small countries and the Commission wasn't prepared to take this on.

As far as further in-depth analysis is concerned, I am sure that my colleagues in the civil liberties committee will be following up on the latest situation. 

You are co-author of a book called 'The Forgotten Enlargement', about Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. What is forgotten about them? Iceland apart, those countries are not really interested in joining the EU.

The book was written some time ago. Even the second edition was written at the time of the 2004 enlargement. All these countries have quite special relationships with the EU. Of course, Iceland now is a formal applicant country and it will be interesting to see what happens with the European Economic Area if Iceland does finally decide to join.

Because it will be very hard for the European Economic Area to continue to function with just Norway and Lichtenstein, and then the Swiss have developed this very complicated method of bilateral agreements, and this also is something that is very exhausting on both sides.

Both of the relationships will doubtless develop but if there is an Icelandic accession in 2012 it may throw up in the air the question the future of the European Economic Area. 

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