If we don't care enough to use our democracy, if we all stay in our bubble, this is the greatest threat against the EU. We need to exercise our right to vote in the European Parliament elections…To stay alive, our democracy needs our participation.
On Thursday 14 June, Commissioner Margrethe Vestager held a Citizens' Dialogue at the political festival, Folkemødet, that takes place every year on the Danish island of Bornholm. The dialogue was moderated by a Danish comedian, Michael Schøt, and focused on a wide range of issues, including Brexit, migration, and the main challenges facing the EU. The event took place in the tent the Representation had hired for all its events (24 in total) at this year's Folkemøde.
The Citizens' Dialogue was kicked off by a short stand-up performance by the Danish comedian Michael Schøt. He addressed the Danes' complicated relationship with the EU, defined by, on the one hand, relatively high overall support for European cooperation, and, on the other hand, very strong resistance to integration on specific issues covered by the Danish opt-outs.
In his role as moderator, Michael Schøt started by asking Commissioner Vestager about the challenges currently facing the EU. The Commissioner explained that the debate should not be about the EU as such – the EU is just an abbreviation. We have to look at how we deal with the challenges we face through the European part of our democracy.
The discussion then turned to the Commission's proposal to ear-mark two months of parental leave for fathers – Commissioner Vestager made clear that for her, this is not a small thing. We should remember that we have equal pay for women and men thanks to EU legislation. The proposal about parental leave addresses big problems – the right of women to enter the labour market and the right of men to be full fathers. And in addition, gender equality is a core value for the European Union.
The moderator asked Commissioner Vestager whether she is concerned that the combination of ongoing Brexit negotiations and anti-establishment movements in Europe could encourage other countries to leave the EU. To this, the Commissioner explained that while there is no sign that others will want to leave the EU, there is, however, disagreement about the way that the EU should evolve. She emphasised that there is no shame in disagreement. When we disagree, that is when something starts to happen. We have a democratic process to deal exactly with disagreement.
The Commissioner went on to highlight the importance of our participation in the European democracy: "If we don't care enough to use our democracy, if we all stay in our bubble, this is the greatest threat against the EU. We need to exercise our right to vote in the EP elections... To stay alive, our democracy needs our participation."
To a question from the audience regarding the Commission's role in teaching young Europeans about citizenship and democracy, Commissioner Vestager responded that while this is not an EU competence, the Commission is increasing its support to young people by increasing the budget for Erasmus exchanges and giving out Interrail passes. To see the way other people live and to understand how they think has a stronger impact than being told how to see the world.
Another member of the audience asked which competences the EU has when it comes to abortion legislation in Member States. Also here, the Commissioner explained that his is not an EU competency. "When we created the EU, we made a lot of compromises. We decided that abortion was not an EU issue, but that equal opportunities on the labour market is. I can live with this compromise. What is fantastic about the European democracy is that it does not come from theory and textbooks; it comes from a vibrant and very lively democratic process."
Lastly, the Commissioner was asked to comment on the question of migration. Commissioner Vestager emphasised, that the deals with Turkey and Libya have reduced the flow of refugees. Nevertheless, there is no simple solution and there are many ethical considerations. What we cannot do is to shut ourselves in. The Commission sees development efforts in our neighbourhood as just as urgent as saving people from drowning, even though the development efforts will take 5, 10 or even 15 years to give benefits. The good things that the EU is doing in this area get under-reported as good news are not news.
The Commission has for example introduced cash cards, so that the refugee population becomes a part of the local economy. Together with its Member States, the EU is the world's biggest donor of development aid. The EU is not perfect, but that is no reason not to do what we can.
The event in Bornholm was part of a series of Citizens' Dialogues that involve the whole European Commission and take place in all EU Member States.