ONE YEAR ON: TAKING STOCK
The Barroso II Commission has been in office for about one year now, and the time is right to assess what we have achieved and what remains to be done.
As Vice-President responsible for inter-institutional relations and administration, it has been a busy year indeed. But thanks to the hard work and dedication of my services, I have achieved some important breakthroughs that will change the way Europe works and transform the EU’s institutional landscape for years to come.
One of my major responsibilities has been making sure that the new institutional arrangements resulting from the Lisbon Treaty bed in smoothly. Whenever there is a new treaty, there is inevitably a period of uncertainty while all players feel their way into the new set-up. But little more than a year into the life of the Lisbon Treaty, things are now working impressively smoothly.
For example under the new treaty, the European Parliament is now an equal partner with the Council of Ministers as EU legislator. Clearly the way we worked together had to change to reflect this new reality. So I negotiated a new Framework Agreement between the Commission and Parliament, which recently entered into force. This agreement adapts the relationship between the two institutions to the new Treaty, and will serve as the basis for our cooperation in the future.
As the treaty grants significant rights to national parliaments in the European decision-making process, I have undertaken a tour of national capitals to urge all of them to make full use of their new powers. This includes the so-called ‘subsidiarity check’, which allows national parliaments to object to draft laws if they consider that the Commission has overstepped its competencies. It’s a way of ensuring that Europe sticks to doing what Europe does best, and nothing more. Ultimately, this can lead to the draft laws being revised or even withdrawn. But I intend to make sure it never comes to that - which is why I am developing a close dialogue with national parliaments, and listening carefully to their concerns long before any subsidiarity check becomes necessary. I personally sign all Commission replies to their written opinions, which numbered more than 380 in 2010 alone.
Another important element of democratic scrutiny ushered in by the Treaty is the participation of citizens in EU policy-making. I am particularly proud of the rapid progress we have made with our proposals to make the European Citizens’ Initiative a reality. The ECI will introduce a whole new form of participatory democracy to the EU. It is a concrete example of bringing Europe closer to its citizens. Introduced in the Lisbon Treaty, the ECI will allow at least one million citizens from at least one quarter of EU Member States to invite the European Commission to bring forward legislative proposals in areas where the Commission has the mandate. The Council and the European Parliament signed the legislation in February; shortly afterwards the ECI will enter into force in all 27 Member States. Allowing time for Member States to set up the necessary checks and infrastructure, this means we will start looking at initiatives put forward by citizens themselves in around one year.
I have also helped overhaul the ‘comitology’ system, as it is known in the Brussels jargon. This system governs the way EU Member States and the Commission take decisions on everyday rules and regulations – more than 3,000 per year. One of my objectives with this reform was to increase the transparency and effectiveness of the system, notably by increasing democratic scrutiny by the European Parliament. I also helped simplify and streamline the system.
I represent the Commission on the General Affairs Council, and am pleased to see it play a very important policy coordination role, for example in preparing European Council meetings - the regular gathering of EU leaders.
Lisbon also brought us the European External Action Service. I have been intimately involved in the negotiations on setting up the EEAS, and this is now in full flight with Baroness Ashton as High Representative for all Member States in the field of external relations. We made rapid progress with the Council and the Parliament on adjusting the EU civil service's staff regulations to the new realities of the EEAS, including difficult talks with staff representatives who were understandably eager to preserve career expectations for staff. We had to ensure that the staff of the EEAS are chosen in an efficient, transparent and fair way, and at the same time, with a good balance between officials from the Commission, Council and national diplomatic services. Regarding the cost, I insisted from the very beginning that we reach an agreement on the Commission providing as much administrative support to the new service as possible - like training or IT, for example. By doing this, we managed to avoid duplication of structures and waste.
Running the Commission’s administration is never easy. Success often means that things have gone smoothly, meaning you won’t hear anything about them: no operational problems, no criticism, no strikes. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t been busy in this area over the last year or so.
We have created a number of new Commission departments to bring our system into line with the portfolios of the members of the Barroso II Commission. We have appointed three new women Directors-General – further improving gender balance at the highest levels of our administration. We have had a reshuffle of senior staff, and we have advertised numerous senior management jobs specifically for those new Member States which were still under-represented at the highest levels. I was pleased to announce at the beginning of February that we exceeded our targets for recruiting staff from the 10 Member States who joined the EU in 2004. Officials and temporary agents from those countries now number more than 4,000. Two-thirds were women, so this has also had a positive effect on gender balance in the Commission. At least one national from each of the ten are either a Director-General or a Deputy Director-General. Finally, we can say that the Commission has become a truly European institution, reflecting the whole diversity of the Union.
Building on this success, the Commission adopted an Equal Opportunities Strategy for its staff in December 2010. The strategy aims at attracting, developing and maintaining a balanced workforce, while promoting a more flexible working environment. This should have a real impact on efficiency and organisational performance.
We also managed to implement an adjustment of salaries and pensions for EU civil servants and pensioners in 2010 (a loss of purchasing power for staff of -2%), and an increase of the pension contribution EU civil servants have to pay. In addition, we implemented a judgement of the European Court of Justice on the very difficult salary adjustment in 2009.
On the Member State level, I am spearheading more intensified involvement of national parliaments in the European debate through COSAC, a gathering of representatives from national parliamentary committees for European affairs. Regarding the candidate country of Croatia, I have been instrumental in its signing of a Memorandum Of Understanding with the EU to join the ISA Programme, which uses interoperability solutions to make it easier for national administrations to work with each other.
I have also overseen the introduction of a state-of-the-art selection procedure for new officials by the European Personnel Selection Office. This will make it much easier for us to recruit people with the required skills. Our first competition under the new system attracted more than 51,000 applicants.
On the administrative side of my portfolio, I am in charge of relations with the host countries of the institution, namely Belgium and Luxembourg where most of the Commission services are located. This requires regular contacts with the Belgian and Luxembourgish authorities concerning buildings, mobility, security and European schools. To encourage better communication between the different levels of Belgian government and all the EU institutions located in Brussels, I proposed to hold meetings of the EU/Belgium Task Force, set-up by my predecessor, at the political level. The first political-level meeting of the task force took place at the beginning of this year, and was a great success.
Transparency is an increasingly important feature of an open and modern administration, and I am also responsible for the Commission's Transparency Initiative. We now have 3,623 organisations registered on our Register of Interest Representatives and this number is continuing to increase. A major breakthrough was the successful conclusion of negotiations with the European Parliament on the introduction of a joint Transparency Register. I am pleased that my proposal to give it a simple name and to extend its scope to all groups and bodies which are trying to influence the decision-making process (independently of their nature) was accepted by all. I am confident that the agreement will soon receive formal backing from the Council as well, meaning the register will be up and running before the summer. We also made efforts to bring on board groups which have been reluctant to register – such as law firms, church organisations and think tanks.
We are also working on revamping the rules on access to documents, and discussions on this with the other institutions are ongoing. In addition, we launched work for easier on-line access to all the information on transparency issues - which is often available, but hard to find.
On the internal front here in the Commission, I worked closely with the President on updating the Code of Conduct for Commissioners. I am pleased to say that the ethics framework we have proposed is more far-reaching, in terms of protection of the institutions and transparency, than that in almost any other government or official body.
So it has been a busy first year in the Barroso II Commission. But there is plenty more to do. There are many areas where I plan to make a difference in the coming year, and I’m looking forward to the challenge!