Wallström: Legal basis necessary to communicate

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After trying for five years to find the right approach to communicating Europe, European Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström has come to the conclusion that the only way forward is to give the new commissioner control of citizenship legislation and the accompanying programmes and budget, she told EURACTIV in an interview.

Margot Wallström is vice-president of the European Commission, responsible for institutional relations and communication strategy. 

She was speaking to Daniela Vincenti Mitchener and Christophe Leclercq. 

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

During your European Parliament hearing in 2004, you said your vision was to create a European Union of true participatory democracy? Did you succeed or fail?

We have taken important steps towards it. I think this idea of testing and trying out some methods which we can use was also behind the whole ‘Plan D‘, to give citizens more of a voice, and active participation. We can say that we have tried everything, from citizens’ consultation to deliberative polling, to engage with citizens.

What we have done to reinforce consultation with citizens is indeed important. I see that the representation offices [in the member states] play a very important role, because it is up to them to actively seek the views on proposals and invite citizens to proactively participate.

I think I knew from the very beginning that a mandate was not enough to change something which is in the very walls of an institution and in the culture, but we have moved in the right direction and have definitely taken some important steps.

When you became the first commissioner for communication, your top priority was to create a culture of cooperation among the EU institutions. Yet it seems that a lot of time has been lost. First, you tried to find a legal basis in the Treaty. Then you spent a great deal of time trying to find an inter-institutional agreement. Next, a communication on ‘Communicating Europe in Partnership’ came out in 2007, and finally last year came the political agreement…

But it is not time lost. It was preparing the ground. We tried all the different avenues, and people cannot say that we have not tried everything available to us.

I think you should always aim for the ideal situation, which in this case was to anchor it to the text of the new treaty. But we came in too late to be able to achieve that. I even tried to have a protocol, but member states are fiercely against taking this too far.

Unfortunately, I must admit that there are representatives of member states and political leaders who are just too happy to keep it as it is: reserved for a rather small political elite.

They don’t think the European institutions should to do any communication, and just recently we’ve heard examples of that as well, with leaders who think that the Commission should shut up.

One should not underestimate this weakness: it is a constant struggle to get acceptance of communication as an inter-institutional obligation.

I am not at all apologetic for trying different routes. At least now, for the first time, we have all signed an agreement on communication priorities: a very important step if we want to end the so-called ‘blame game’. This is a rather boring document that does not make headlines, but it marks the introduction of a very important principle.

Now with the new treaty we could argue that it could be turned into an inter-institutional agreement, because with Article 252 there is acceptance of this, although there is the same problem that there is not an explicit text in the treaty giving us this obligation.

So in the next five years, do you think what you have started could bring more and better communication?

Yes. I think that with the new article in the Lisbon Treaty it will be more difficult to argue that we cannot sign inter-institutional agreements. It says explicitly that we should cooperate and use inter-institutional agreements.

Of course, the row on what is in the treaties that gives us the right to do communication will continue. So far that right has been implicit, and we have seen it as a prerogative of the institutions to communicate.

But it is just so old-fashioned to write something about ‘communication as a tool for democracy’ in the new treaty. It is a flaw, but we came in too late to change it.

Of course it is always easy with hindsight, but from the outside it looks like four years were spent launching a lot of interesting projects and trying to work towards an inter-institutional agreement, but cooperation has been modest, let’s face it. Take the recent elections as an example. It maybe better than before, but it is certainly not where it should be, so would you recommend…

I would object to this description. We have also implemented an action plan reforming completely the way the Commission works on communication: changing the tools that we use for communication, and introducing new methods, changing the organisation in the DGs. So, I don’t think that has derailed our efforts to reform.

It has been about reforming the way we look at communication, modernising the tools we use, and decentralising. And I can say that we have been very successful on that.

One should understand that some member states and some government leaders don’t think it is good to communicate or that communication is good for democracy. It is not a given thing. They think it is better to keep citizens in the dark and the EU should not make an effort. They believe they are the only ones who have the right to engage with citizens, so that is why the EU should keep out. It has been a constant fight for the right for us to communicate directly with citizens.

There has been progress, but it seems that trust between the different actors has not grown as much as it could. Isn’t it that a lot of political energy has gone into legal and political battles, as opposed to actually doing things?

No. I haven’t heard anyone saying that. I think that we have really changed the way we work together. Look at this election campaign. The Commission has never before participated in an election campaign, and we were a full player in this one.

Where we used the tools we designed, this is where we increased voter turnout. That is a good positive lesson; in eleven member states, the voter turnout increased.

So you attribute the increases to the new methods you used in those countries?

Where we consistently and proactively understood the communication challenge and did something about it, this is where we managed to increase the voter turnout. For example, in Estonia they used e-voting, and in Sweden, my home country, they used buses to enable citizens to use their voting rights in a rather extraordinary way.

But in the end the main responsibility rests on political parties and the way they present their programmes.

We have a number of examples of where we work with the Parliament. Today there are ‘European Houses’, which are ‘public spaces’, and we have eleven of these ‘open houses’ and ‘European public spaces’ and that is a complete change of approach.

Your second objective was to increase ownership of the European project, namely through national parliaments. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso’s initiative to send all proposals to national parliaments prepared the ground for the new treaty, which gives national assemblies a bigger role. Still, we have seen with the turnout that not much ownership is taking place in national parliaments.

During these five years, we have changed everything. I had a ten-point programme to start out with, including directly sending our documents to the national parliaments, and this builds a very different understanding of the Commission in the parliaments.

But, it needs to trickle down to the political parties and change the democratic culture in every member state, and I think that that needs some more time.

Those who have had most time to work on opinions are the Senates, in countries which have two chamber systems. It has been a huge success: we have never before had so many commissioners visiting member states’ parliaments, and we engage in debates, so I think you just have to see that this is how it will be taken on.

How long will it take to genuinely adopt a common narrative?

We started from nothing. At the beginning, it was like shouting in the desert. We had to take on very traditional reform work and that is what I have had to explain. It’s not about being a spokesperson, or Mrs. Spin, or whatever I was called to begin with.

It was about reforming the way we approached these issues, and it takes time. You will not see the effects perhaps for several more years. But we started to change the political culture, in which we have been a scapegoat, to one where we will be a partner.

To say we will work together to define communication priorities is a huge step forward, but you won’t see the effects immediately. It’s just very comfortable for everybody to have the old roles, to have somebody to blame – the people in Brussels – but more difficult to agree on the communication priorities for this year.

I am also impatient, so it’s very frustrating at times, but realistically it will take some more time.

The Commission’s official communication always portrays positive aspects and avoids mentioning disagreements. Isn’t that spin? Some call it propaganda.

One has to be careful to not misuse the word ‘propaganda’, because it lessens its importance when it can be a very serious word.

We cannot be spreading propaganda and at the same time be accused of being so boring that no one wants to read what we write.

The EU produces legislative texts. I think you are right, we could mention the debate or whether something is controversial more often, but very often this is legislation, it is boring.

But look what is happening on health legislation in the US. That’s not boring. Legislation is fuelling a great debate across the nation. Why can’t we do the same in Europe?

I hope we’ll never end up questioning our health system. But it is for political parties to do that.

When the Commission communicates it is often about presenting proposals. That is what we do.

We are more emotional and controversial when we engage in communicating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. You remember the debacle we had in Poland when they shouted at us ‘you have chosen the wrong music and wrong pictures’? We actually changed it in the end, because we saw that they had a point, but it was more emotional of course.

We provide facts and often we offer factual rebuttals, rather than getting involved in the debate from a very emotional viewpoint.

But if the Commission were to propose ambitious legislation without seeking a priori consensus, wouldn’t that spark a genuine debate on priorities?

Yes, I see your point. Sometimes, in general texts, we could more often include that a subject is controversial in member states. I also think that far too often there is nobody there to advocate what the EU is putting on the table.

If we take a specific example, the Lisbon Agenda for growth and jobs: this was supposed to be the flagship programme with different policy initiatives. There has been demand for even more economic initiatives and regulation since the beginning of this crisis. It has been a time when a lot of voices have spoken in favour of more Commission initiatives. Yet they have not come, and there has not been a real debate…

This is what the Parliament has asked for in connection with choosing the next president of the Commission. He [Barroso] has been asked to come up with political guidelines, because it was not foreseen in the treaties that he should present a programme, and anyway he will have to anchor it with the new Commission as well. To concentrate on the substance is always the best way forward now.

I keep saying that you win democratic legitimacy by doing the right things, but also by doing them right. Citizens will only trust the Commission if they see it as able to tackle the real problems that people have.

I think it is also for the political groups in the Parliament to say, ‘This is our programme. This is what we want the president to say, and otherwise we will continue to put pressure on him or her’. I have wanted to see a few more names mentioned as well.

The Lisbon agenda has been overtaken by economic events nobody could have anticipated. Climate change too has risen as a political priority in a way nobody expected, so I think the real-life agenda overtook much of what at the beginning was the focus of the Commission. I think the college learnt that you must have a balanced agenda.

Sustainable development remains at the core of this Commission, and I would say for as long as we can see into the future, it will remain the biggest challenge and the biggest possibility. There is a fantastic possibility to show what can be the European way and that can be a showcase to the rest of the world that it’s possible to achieve sustainable development.

To redress the situation after the two referenda on the Constitutional Treaty, you launched ‘Plan D’ and implemented several ad-hoc pan-European consultations or deliberations. Yet it seems that leaders have not really taken stock of what citizens wanted…

This is a very important criticism. The very basic question for the Commission is what we do with what we hear. If we listen better and we hear better, then exactly how do we integrate it?

I think we are not ready to say we know how to do this, because we were trying out methods, but I would say that the citizens’ consultations were a fantastic experience. Deliberative polling was too expensive, too heavy, and will not work in context, but that was the idea: to see if it was something that we could integrate into our way of working. We can exclude it though. It won’t be used on a regular basis. But citizens’ consultations, yes.

Are citizens’ consultations a panacea?

It has its shortcomings as well and we will take those criticisms and try and improve the system, but it was a great success to do these consultations in all member states and see how delighted people were with it, to be asked for their views for once.

Ordinary citizens from all walks of life, brought together to also give their views, and we found a way to send to them to the Commission and Council.

Nobody can promise that everything said will be adopted by political leaders, but their voices will be heard and opinions taken into account. I have repeatedly made sure that the Parliament and the college know this.

Of course, if citizens say that healthcare systems need to be harmonised, and there is no legal base for it, we can’t promise to do that. Some of the ideas were not very realistic and won’t be achieved soon, and others are a matter of understanding.

Do you think that this kind of consultation will become regular in the next Commission?

This is the recommendation that we will give. In the representations, we also learned lessons. They have been part of the debate at national level.

We found new methods of communicating, though it doesn’t create news, but it leads to changing the working culture on communication in the Commission. I hope that these things will be carried over and it will be a regular thing.

I think it is important that we have citizens’ summits at the same time or before leaders’ summits, like they have in the United Nations. Why can’t the EU have the same thing? That would get interest from the media in what citizens are commenting on the particular proposal or treaty being discussed. That will make them a bit more aware.

Indeed. You are advocating turning the commissioner for communication into a citizens’ commissioner. What’s behind this idea?

Well, with the new treaty you already have examples of citizens’ programmes under DG Education and Culture. There is legislation which covers voting rights, citizens and the justice and home affairs department, so I think one could easily move a number of these elements into a portfolio for a citizens’ commissioner, with the task with continuing what we have started on communication.

I think it is important to have a legal portfolio, to have the budget and legislative instruments.

Especially, with the new treaty, it will not be easy to follow up on the citizens’ initiative – a fantastic opportunity with a number of details that need to be worked out.

Forget communication and target civic dialogue: is that what you are aiming for?

You are stronger if you also have legislative files. It’s a natural connection. This is what I have found. The task of communication, with the new provisions in the Lisbon Treaty, comes together very nicely with a citizens’ portfolio.

That role brings together some elements that today are placed in strange places. That would give the next commissioner the platform and the possibilities to engage with civil society, underpinned by particular legislative files.

It will also provide both money and powers to expand and develop the role on communication.

One of your ideas was ‘going local’. That implied putting Commission resources in the member states. But there are still no ‘sectoral attachés’ posted.

We did post them in 10 countries.

Ten is not very many.

It has been an important experience to show that it can work well. Representations have seen it as a reinforcement. Having somebody from DG Environment, or somebody from DG Agriculture, was quite successful.

As you know this will always be a hot issue, because no individual DG will want to hand over resources. They will want to preserve what they have in terms of resources and staff.

We also make sure that we will have more resources for DGs. We have given prominence to what each and every member state does. The way they have these days engaged with the local and the regional media, the kind of events they created, the public space, I’m talking about the open houses we have today. They are enormously important. Communication cannot only done from here and we want to continue this trend.

If you want to prevent DGs from reacting negatively, it should be seen as their resources in your representations, not your resources.

Exactly, that’s what has been done now. They have seen that there is an added value of lending out a person from a DG. They see now that we are a resource that they can turn to. It will be up to the new Commission to look at the added sum of our resources.

So inter-DG coordination on communication has been a success?

Yes. Today, they turn to us and ask for help to develop their communication plans. Today we are a partner that they can trust to help them communicate and use us much more. Not all of them, because some trust their own resources, but we have changed our own reputation.

What will it take to bring this kind of model to an inter-institutional level?

One has to be realistic. The Parliament makes its own choices. We do not always agree with their priorities, but they do their thing and they have a rather impressive budget as well.

They may not want to share a budget with us, but if we can agree, as we have in the last couple of years, on a few common communication priorities, at least we can contribute and complement each other and hopefully stay on a message we have in common and identify an agenda. That is a huge step forward, but I don’t think what you are hinting at will happen in my lifetime.

What would be your single most important recommendation to the next commissioner in charge of communication, apart from what we have discussed?

I hope that the person coming in will continue with the same mottos, because they varied, but I hope they also get a good position in the Commission. You have to win the trust of the college and colleagues. It’s very important that you are trusted and they listen to you. Luckily, with experience I think I have a good position.

When you don’t have a position or legislation and are in the newsroom, then you will be invisible and people will question whether you have been doing anything, because what a communication commissioner does is not news. The commissioner doesn’t necessarily have to be a spokesperson, but if they have a portfolio and a mix of things which bring them naturally to both the Commission table and the newsroom, it gives them different platforms.

For me it has been extremes. First environment, where everything was legislation every week, a given legal base, a budget and an excellent DG where they deliver. Then came communication: something that is non-measurable, which has little resources.

I did what I could in bringing proposals to the table, but I had no natural base for communicating. That is the downside of the horizontal nature of the task. You have to be realistic and combine it with legislation, in order to have a natural platform. A citizens’ commissioner would be a great way to continue working on communication and add the new elements that come from the new treaty plus the other portfolios.

If you could start the whole thing again, what would you not do?

I think we spent too long on all kinds of detours, like going into discussions on the European identity.

Maybe it was necessary. It was somewhat therapeutic to start there as we had no base to start from. But it took too much time. We should have gone straight for what could be reformed.

I am not much for regretting things though. We had to find the right way and create our mandate, and you don’t want things to take up a lot of time, but I guess maybe that it is inevitable. 

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