Saturday

17th Apr 2021

Wallstrom: EU needs a commissioner for citizens

  • Under her watch, the EU has experienced three referendums rejecting attempts at further integration (Photo: EUobserver)

In 2004 the European Union got its first ever communications commissioner. Despite its vague title, the new job created high expectations in Brussels.

Margot Wallstrom, a down-to-earth Swede with an engaging manner, was expected to cure all ills at once - including making the EU more democratic, more transparent and bringing it closer to citizens.

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It was, and remains, a formidable task and one that is at times boring, frustrating and thankless. Given the nature of the job it is also difficult to measure success.

Under her watch, the EU has experienced three referendums rejecting attempts at further integration, surveys continue to show that citizens remain confused by the nature of the Union while the June European elections produced the lowest turnout ever. In addition, the job is hampered by continual debate about where the line is between information and propaganda, a row that flared up once again over the summer.

In Brussels itself, Mrs Wallstrom has had virtually no profile with the commission president having become the predominant face of the institution. The exceptions have been for the occasional snigger about the effectiveness of her Plan D for democracy, which consists of debating the EU with citizens, a spate of coverage some months back for slightly risque EU spots on YouTube or the odd controversial comment she makes on her blog.

Now packing to return to Sweden after ten years in the EU capital, Mrs Wallstrom told EUobserver about the difficulty of the job particularly after coming from the high-profile and Brussels-busy job as EU environment commissioner.

"As environment commissioner, every week I had two or three files on the commission agenda. I had a given constituency. To come and do communication meant I had absolutely nothing. I did not have a legal base ... I did not have a machinery that was up and running. I did not have the full commitment from everybody else."

Damned if you do, damned if you don't

There was also the problem of the fact that designating a commissioner for transparency and democracy does not mean that it then automatically transpires. This was particularly so of transparency where she says there is a still a north-south divide on the necessity of being open about documents and how decisions are taken, with Nordic countries traditionally more open.

"It has not been easy to move positions on openness and transparency" she says noting that it is "not evident" that the EU should go beyond the current basic rules.

In her opinion member states have taken a step back on the issue while the European Parliament "who used to be our best allies" on transparency are displaying "hypocrisy" by "shouting very loudly at the commission" while "not reveal(ing) all their expenses."

She also has to contend with charges of spreading propaganda about the EU. A recent report by a Swedish thinktank accused the EU of spending well above its allocated communication budget on promoting the Union and of "extending the limits of what we normally regard as communication."

"You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't", says the commissioner by way of reply. "At the same time they would like me to deliver everything and at the same time as soon as I do, some will shout propaganda."

In addition to these fights, the commissioner says she does not have enough money to make all the necessary moves to let people know what the EU is doing. She has 200 million euro a year at her disposal - but says that after rent for commission delegations plus wages, it boils down to 100 million euro a year or 20c per EU citizen.

No more communications commissioners

Her advice for the next commission president, set to be appointed later this autumn, would be to scrap a purely communications portfolio and create a citizens commissioner.

"This would be a natural portfolio" says the commissioner saying it could include student exchange programmes currently overseen by the education commissioner. The person would have to have legislative powers, too, says the commissioner who speaks of the "curse" of not having such powers.

"It's very good if you can also have some legislative files in your portfolio" otherwise you dependent on "everyone else doing the right things."

The commissioner reckons a citizens commissioner will have their work cut out for them with the new direct democracy provisions in the Lisbon Treaty, currently awaiting full ratification in four member states.

The Lisbon Treaty contains an article allowing for citizens initiatives under which 1 million signatures must be gathered for the commission to take the issue into consideration.

"This issue will be used immediately by citizens," predicts Mrs Wallstrom. "I think it is excellent and the better if it causes some problems for the commissioner from the point of view that this puts us in contact with some or the atmosphere or the questions that are being debated."

The commission is already preparing for the article by examining how to make sure signatures are real and from how many member states the 1 million citizens have to come as well as what to do if citizens ask for action from the commission in an area where it does not have any powers.

No regrets

After five years in the job, much of which was spent out in the field listening to what people have to say although there remains no concrete mechanism for channelling these comments and doing something with them, Mrs Wallstrom says she has no regrets.

"I am proud of having done the sometime boring and sometimes frustrating work of reforming the way the commission works on (communication)," chalking up improved internet communication, easier-to-read citizens summaries of proposed legislation and getting a deal between the EU institutions on communication priorities as little-noticed but important steps on the way to making the EU more open to its 500 million citizens.

"We lose sight of the things [that] we have changed very quickly," she says, referring to the fact that changes she has made have been slow to come about but are then quickly taken for granted.

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