The Commissioner's Week
Androulla Vassiliou describes a typical week in her agenda
Monday 7 May
Start of a very busy week. I am feeling back on good form after my bout of illness in April [pneumonia]. Two-hour meeting this morning with my cabinet and senior staff from ‘DG EAC’ [Directorate-General for Education & Culture, EC equivalent to a Government Ministry] to prepare for the EYCS [Education, Youth, Culture, and Sport] Ministerial Council on Thursday and Friday. It's going to be the 3164th! Every debate and speech requires assiduous preparation – and the stakes are high.
In the afternoon, I hold one of my regular meetings with Marco Benedetti, the head of our interpretation service, better known in-house by its French acronym, SCIC [Service Commun Interprétation-Conferences]. We have 23 official languages in the European Union. The work of EU interpreters is crucial, and especially so at meetings of the Council, European Parliament and Committee of the Regions, because it enables everyone to express themselves clearly in their own language. This helps us to be transparent and democratic. The same applies to our translation service. It is vital that citizens can see and read what is being done in their name, in the language they know best. We translate all major documents including Regulations, Directives and correspondence from the public. The cost of interpretation and translation in all the EU institutions is less than 1% of the EU budget or just over €2 per citizen – equivalent to the cost of a cup of tea or coffee in a restaurant.
Afterwards, I meet various members of my cabinet to discuss future business and catch up on my never-ending mountain of paper work before leaving for home.
Tuesday 8 May
2001st meeting of the College of Commissioners. We have quite a lengthy discussion on the Commission’s statement for Schuman Day (tomorrow is the anniversary of the historic declaration by French statesman Robert Schuman setting out his vision for European integration). The main focus of our statement is the need for more growth-enhancing policies. I intervene to emphasise that we cannot achieve long-term growth without investing in education and skills. The College also discusses the weekend’s elections. France has voted to replace Nicholas Sarkozy with Francois Hollande, the country’s first Socialist President for 17 years. In Greece, the two major parties Pasok [socialist] and New Democracy [conservative] have performed badly. Citizens blame them for the terms of the bail-out. I am deeply concerned that the far-Right Golden Dawn has entered parliament for the first time.
We also have a brief discussion on our stance regarding the Euro 2012 championships in Poland and Ukraine. The College agrees that neither I, in my capacity as Commissioner responsible for sport, nor any other Commissioner, will attend matches in Ukraine, in protest at the treatment of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and the ongoing political situation. Human dignity is a fundamental right and making a stand on this goes beyond any particular portfolio.
We adopt communications on the modernisation of State aid control, on the Eastern Partnership and on a new European Neighbourhood Policy as ‘A points’ [A points are issues adopted without discussion because agreement has already been reached by the Commissioners at cabinet level]. From College I go straight to the press briefing room to present the latest statistics from our Erasmus academic exchange programme. The room is packed with journalists, representing media from all over the world. (Only the White House has a bigger ‘press corps’).
Europe loves Erasmus – and the figures back that up. The number of students benefitting from the scheme has increased by 8.5% and we are on target to reach 3 million Erasmus students by the end of 2013. The opportunity to spend part of your studies abroad (you can also get a grant to take up a job placement through Erasmus) is an enriching experience. It is also a great way of developing skills valued by employers such as languages, adaptability and self-confidence. I wish it had existed when I was a student!
After the press conference I rush to the airport to fly to Copenhagen to take part in a Danish Presidency conference to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Erasmus. The main event of the evening is an awards dinner at the University of Copenhagen, hosted by the rector, Ralf Hemmingsen. Morten Østergaard, the Danish Minister for Minister for Research, Innovation and Higher Education, gives a fine speech, praising the achievements of Erasmus. ‘Still young, yet so much accomplished,’ he says, comparing the programme's success with the similarly youthful achievements of Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein and Paul McCartney.
We're treated to some excellent acapella singing by a group of young people, which gets everyone nicely in the mood for the final speech of the evening – mine.
Wednesday 9 May
Up early for the second day of the Erasmus conference, moderated by Morten Løkkegaard, Vice-Chair of the European Parliament's Education and Culture Committee. He is a natural moderator – not surprising since he is a former journalist. The main address is given by Her Royal Highness Princess Marie of Denmark, wife of Prince Joachim. As a former international student herself (she studied in France, Switzerland and the US), she is very well placed to convey the many advantages that Erasmus offers and speaks very well. The main theme of my speech is ‘how learning mobility can help fight the crisis’. We also listen to a very interesting address and Q&A with Hans De Wit, Professor of internationalization of higher education at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam School of Economics and Management.
Afterwards, I join Minister Østergaard for a well-attended press conference. The questions are mostly focused on our new ‘Erasmus for All’ programme for education, training and youth, as well as the loan guarantee facility that we hope to introduce for masters’ students. Our plan is to allocate around €100 million euros a year for the new scheme. By sharing the risk of possible defaults with lenders, the scheme will generate loans of up €12,000 for a one-year masters and €18 000 for a two-year programme. 330,000 students could benefit in 2014-2020.
There is just time after for a couple of quick one-to-one interviews with journalists from the Greek newspaper ‘Ta Nea’ and Euronews (you can see it here) before I have to leave for my hotel and then back to the airport for Brussels. Packing and unpacking becomes second nature in this job!
Thursday 10 May
Another early start - and the beginning of a marathon Council session, which lasts for two days, covering four different Council formations. Today it is the turn of the Ministers of Culture and Sport to meet, tomorrow it will be their Education and Youth counterparts. I attend all four formations! Before the first Council, I hold a prep meeting with Danish Culture Uffe Elbæk and our respective teams. Elbæk chairs both meetings today.
The Culture Council approves the official designation of Donostia-San Sebastián (Spain) and Wroclaw (Poland) as the 2016 European Capitals of Culture. The European Capitals are another great EU success story. I’m sure both cities will get a lot out of holding the title – not only by attracting more visitors and in improving their infrastructure, but also in in organising a wonderful cultural programme for their citizens and creating a long-term social and cultural legacy.
The discussions with Ministers on our new ‘Creative Europe’ programme, which will bring together our current Culture and MEDIA cinema programme under one ‘umbrella’, go well. Some Ministers have concerns about the new loan guarantee facility that we have proposed for cultural and creative SMEs. Some are worried that we want to replace grants. But that is not the case at all. Our proposal responds to a clear need, expressed by SMEs, who find it difficult to obtain credit and the facility will enable them to access up to €1 billion in bank loans. Some Member States are also worried that our grants will mostly go to big operators. Not true: today, no less than 55% of EU funding under the Culture Programme goes to SMEs with fewer than 11 employees. This will continue under the new programme.
After a brief press conference with Minister Elbæk, we hold a working lunch and ‘structured dialogue’ with representatives of the sports movement and Ministers from the ‘extended Troika’ – that is the Ministers of the countries holding the previous, present and upcoming Presidencies of the EU [Poland, Denmark, Cyprus and Ireland]. The focus of the dialogue is the fight against doping in recreational sport. This is a crucial issue - both for amateurs and professionals - because bad habits start in amateur sport and fitness. We continue to debate this topic during the Council with the Ministers of the 27 Member States and future member Croatia.
In the evening I attend a dinner organised by Christine Antorini, the Danish Minister for Children and Education, with the ‘social partners’ (representatives of employers and trade unions) to discuss ‘Erasmus for All’ and to prepare for the next day’s Council. I head back to my flat at 10.30pm and switch on the news to see if there have been any positive developments in Greece. The answer is no. I go to sleep feeling disappointed.
Friday, 11 May
Today it is the turn of the Education and Youth Ministers to meet. We hold an in-depth discussion on ‘Erasmus for All’. The Commission has proposed a significant increase in funding for the programme, which will encompass all of our mobility schemes, uniting Erasmus, Leonardo (vocational training), Comenius (school exchanges), Grundtvig (adult learners), Youth in Action (training and volunteering), as well as our international exchange programmes such as Erasmus Mundus and Tempus. Our aim is that, between 2014 and 2020, up to 5 million people, almost twice as many as now, will get grants to study, train or volunteer abroad. This is about equipping young people in particular (as well as adult learners) with the skills they need to succeed in the modern world. We want to send a message to them: ‘Europe is taking care of you – and Europe is for you’.
The Council set a new 82% benchmark for the employability of graduates, by which we mean qualifications covering higher second education or above. We need to focus on achieving better qualifications and skills, especially in times of high youth unemployment but also for the long-term because our studies show that the number of jobs requiring high-level qualifications will continue to increase. I am pleased that the Ministers for Education sent a clear signal on this issue because our young people need a future – they are our future.
I take part in a short press conference with Minister Antorini in the Council press room (most of the media are still across the road at the Commission midday press briefing). A journalist asks me if the Commission is ready to extend its so-called ‘moratorium’ regarding Austria’s quotas for medical students. Such quotas are against EU free movement rules and normally, as the ‘guardian of the Treaties’, the EC would be required to launch steps known as infringement proceedings to make Austria comply with the rules. But Austria faces a very particular situation (influx of German students) and I tell the journalist that I am in favour of giving Austria more time to deal with this issue and to collect data demonstrating the extent to which an end to the quota would adversely affect their public health system. The Austrians have not yet formally requested a prolongation of the moratorium, though we are told they will do so after the summer. The final decision will taken by the College. We will see what happens later this year.
It is then time for another working lunch - with representatives of the European youth movement and Ministers from the extended Troika. We discuss the results of our structured dialogue with youth (a regular system of contacts set up in 2009) and its future.
In the afternoon, at the Youth Council, the Ministers debated the youth aspects of ‘Erasmus for All’and reported on how the crisis has affected youth unemployment in their countries.
Unemployment is such a huge problem, wasting human talent and undermining growth. We have to do all we can to reduce it.
The Ministers also detail the ways they are trying to improve youth development, active citizenship and to promote young people’s potential.
I am pleased that Cyprus has decided to make social inclusion of young people one of the priorities of its EU Presidency in the second half of this year.
Saturday, 12 May
At last, a chance to catch up. Tidying my flat is the main point of the agenda today! After the various Council meetings, press conferences, working dinners and lunches, and my visit to Copenhagen, it is the first chance I have had to sort things out at home. There is little time to relax though. In the afternoon, I need to read my briefing papers for next week which will also be hectic, with College and missions to Stockholm and Cannes planned. I am disappointed not to have made it to the annual open days’ event at the EU institutions – but you cannot do everything!
Sunday, 13 May
Today I concentrate on my briefing for my mission to Stockholm. I will visit two innovation ‘hubs’ which are part of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT). The EIT brings together some of Europe’s best universities, research centres and businesses to create the entrepreneurs of tomorrow and to boost innovation process. I am looking forward to meeting Annie Lööf, the Swedish Minister for Enterprise, and Sten Nordin, the city’s Mayor, to find out more about how Stockholm supports innovation. During my two-day visit I will also meet the Ministers for Culture and Sport and Education and Research to discuss the latest state of play in our negotiations on ‘Erasmus for All’ and ‘Creative Europe’. I was hoping to also read my briefing for my visit to the Cannes International Film Festival later in the week. That will probably have to wait for the journey home. Right now, I have another flight to catch.