Laying solid foundations
I can barely believe that a year has passed; so many things have happened. To start with, my team and I had to build a new portfolio from the ground up. The Democracy and Demography file had not existed at the EU level before. Therefore, our first task has been to lay solid foundations so that our future work can yield the concrete results that citizens need. We began by consulting and connecting widely with experts, stakeholders, NGOs and, most of all, citizens. As a former Mayor, I understand the importance of connecting with people at grassroots level to get the job done. My work is about strengthening democracy and the democratic institutions that underpin it. My work on demography is, in essence, based on caring about people’s lives. It includes looking at demographic trends so we can better inform and fine-tune our policy-making – delivering what is needed most, right where it is needed the most. Democracy and demography feed each other and are complementary. I focus on the whole life cycle: from the rights of children to those of the elderly. Our work on demography shows that our Union is ageing. Everyone is impacted directly by the prospect of living a longer life, no matter what age you are. Ageing brings both challenges and opportunities, so it is important that we maintain a balance for everyone in our policy-making. If I had to define this first year in one word, I think I would choose: listening. I have spent a lot of time listening to citizens, to stakeholders, to experts, to elected representatives at all levels. And it has been time very well spent.
Connect my work
My work is all about connection and year one started by connecting with my new team in the Commission. A team of women and men from various cultures, languages and backgrounds supports me. Connecting with each other is important because we are spending long working hours together. Teleworking is not always ideal for the kind of cross-fertilisation of ideas that we need, but I believe that we have a strong team ethos that has helped us to overcome this challenge. Our determination to get the job done keeps us pulling together as a team, because it is together that we drive forward this new portfolio of Democracy and Demography for everyone in the European Union. For today, for tomorrow, for the future.
Missions and connection
I had made firm plans to visit every EU Member State in the first 6 months of my mandate. Before COVID19 stopped us all travelling, I was well on my way to achieving this target and had visited 11 Member States. From the Baltic States to Spain, from Czechia to Ireland. I did not only visit capital cities. I went to rural areas, to villages, towns and regions. I visited the town of Kerkrade in the Dutch Province of Limburg, where we discussed the challenge of demographic change and intergenerational solidarity. I visited the ‘Super Circular Estate’, which is an ultra-innovative, social housing renovation project made of 100% recycled material. This is a great example of enhanced social cohesion. I will never forget the people of the Spanish village of Villahoz, who opened their church for me and took me into the heart of their community. Villahoz has seen a steep decline in its population and was losing its young people but has now become a Start-Up Village. Thanks to strengthened digital connectivity and the creation of innovative ecosystems, Villahoz can look happily to the future. COVID19 stopped me travelling but it has not stopped me connecting: I have also made 3 virtual missions to Austria, Germany and Sweden.
Citizens Dialogues and connection
Citizen dialogues are events that I personally look forward to a great deal. Perhaps this comes from my many years in public office, at local, national and European level. A particularly memorable one was held on Europe’s far west coast, in University College Galway. It was attended by people of all ages, backgrounds and interests with lots to say. I am a former MEP and so I was delighted to join MEP Maria Walsh in Galway. She inspired all of us that evening when she said the European Union is a framework on which to hang your dreams. One of the major themes in the Wordcloud was “Mayo for Sam” (the Sam Maguire Cup is a hotly contested trophy in the annual national Gaelic football competition) Peace, Erasmus and democracy also featured heavily. These dialogues show that people care about what the EU offers them.
We are building on our engagement with citizens and on 22 January, early in our mandate, the Commission adopted the Communication on Shaping the Conference on the Future of Europe. I am hopeful that we are close to launching this unique exercise in deliberative democracy. Why are we doing it? At the basis of it, we must face the fact that our society has changed. Our work on demographic change shows this, on many levels: local, regional, national and European. Politics has changed and is no longer business as usual. We cannot solve new issues with outdated ways of looking at the world. The Conference on the Future of Europe is a sign of new thinking at the EU level. I am very enthusiastic about this opportunity to empower citizens and actively engage with them on policy-making. Citizens’ trust should never be taken for granted and this is a very visible and concrete way to build confidence and to engage. The Conference will allow citizens see the impact they can have on EU policy-making.
On Demography, I am working on the complete lifecycle from children’s rights to the full impact of Europe’s steadily ageing population.
The basis of this work is the Report on the Impact of Demographic Change that was adopted on 17 June. The Report presents the main drivers of demographic change and the impact that they are having across Europe. It is a point of departure that will help us to identify actions, mindful of lessons learned from COVID-19, to support people, regions and communities. It is a solid, evidence-based foundation for our work.
While our key initiatives in support of children and children’s rights will come to fruition in early spring 2021, we have been busy engaging with a broad range of stakeholders and child rights organisations inside and outside the EU. For the first time ever, we held consultations with children and their input was inspiring. We got feedback from over 10,000 children! We are determined to include children in our policy-making. Indeed we have started the process of mainstreaming children’s rights across all the political priorities of the EU. And we will give them a prominent place in the Conference on the future of Europe: not only to talk among themselves, but to convey their concerns and ideas to the broader audience.
In the preparatory work for our Green Paper on Ageing, we see ageing as an issue that concerns all generations and that presents both challenges and opportunities. The Green Paper will launch a debate that will look at people, at economic and social policies as well as the broader environment in which we live together. We will focus on intergenerational solidarity and loneliness, because even if loneliness did not start with the pandemic, it has become a more prominent issue for people of all ages. Additionally, we will discuss how the prospect of a longer life-span has an impact on people of all ages, not just the elderly.
I cannot talk about 2020 without mentioning the pandemic. I hope you are all staying healthy and managing to support each other through these challenging times. The prospect of a socially distant Christmas and end of year holiday period is hopefully a one-off event that we will manage safely, together! Having already held many dialogues with citizens, I am convinced that issues regarding healthcare and the EU’s response to the public health crisis will feature more prominently during the Conference on the Future of Europe. President von der Leyen in her recent State of the Union address underlined this as a noble and urgent task for the Conference. The most vulnerable, particularly the elderly and children have been affected by COVID19. If we learn one lesson from the COVID19 pandemic, let it be the importance of solidarity. European solidarity has been the driving force for Europe’s recovery. The European Commission has mobilised all means at its disposal to help Member States to coordinate their response. Solidarity is also required between different generations, as encouraged in the Commission’s proposal for a major recovery plan, “Repair and Prepare for the Next Generation.” We will only get through this difficult experience if we work together.
Putting our work on the map
Year One has put Democracy and Demography firmly on the map. So let’s look to 2021. Watch this space for key initiatives on children and children’s rights, our Green Paper on Ageing and our Long Term Vision for Rural Areas. Stay connected with us, in particular via the Conference on the Future of Europe. I pledge to continue listening and working to put your ideas into effect. Year Two is on its way!
List of missions – in person and virtual
- Czech Republic
- Ex-EU 3rd country - Ethiopia
- Virtual Mission AUSTRIA
- Virtual missions in Germany
- Virtual mission to Sweden