Mairead McGuinness and Josef Moser: EU Policy-Making Needs More Proximity and Transparency

Austrian Parliament, 20 November 2018
COSAC Plenary Seeks Means to Counter Growing EU Scepticism and Regain Trust

Vienna (PK) – The European elections scheduled for May 2019 are casting a long shadow. Today's COSAC meeting was about bringing EU policy closer to the citizens and making it more transparent, not least in order to achieve the highest possible turnout in the upcoming European elections. Following statements by Austrian Minister of Justice Josef Moser and Vice-President of the European Parliament Mairead McGuinness, a debate was held on how to bridge the gap between EU bodies and its citizens.

Josef Moser: A functioning EU can only be achieved together

In his introductory statement, Austrian Minister of Justice Josef Moser stressed the mutual trust on which a citizen-oriented, transparent European Union has been built. It is a prerequisite for the common values laid out in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, as well as the basis for an EU of freedom, security and the rule of law. Unfortunately, mutual trust within the EU has suffered in recent years, for example due to non-compliance with the Dublin regulations in 2015, violations of the principles of the rule of law by individual Member States or over-regulation in the EU. This in turn has undermined understanding among citizens. A change of course is therefore needed to restore confidence in Europe, Mr. Moser said. This can be achieved by focusing on the issue of security against the backdrop of the Austrian EU Presidency motto of “A Europe that Protects”. Securing prosperity and strengthening competitiveness through digitalisation, as well as ensuring stability in the neighbourhood, in particular in the Western Balkans, are also aspects that need to be communicated clearly and comprehensibly to the citizens, he stressed.

Mr. Moser said that the justice sector in particular shows how important a functioning Europe is, because cooperation with the other Member States is the only way to meet expectations. More than 30 dossiers are being addressed during the Austrian Council Presidency, a core issue being the fight against terrorism and organised crime. This shows particularly clearly how important cooperation between Member States and law enforcement authorities is, as terror does not stop at national borders. The Directive on Combating Money Laundering by Criminal Law is also an important step towards ensuring that criminals will no longer be able to take advantage of differences among the Member States in the future. There can be no loopholes in law enforcement, which is why the project “ECRIS-TCN”, an instrument for identifying stateless criminals and criminals from third countries, is a priority as well, Mr. Moser explained. In the area of “e-evidence”, maximum efforts are being deployed in order to be able to obtain cross-border electronic evidence. Mr. Moser asked the parliamentarians present for their support so that the European Commission can take action more quickly in this area.

Minimum standards for the rule of law

The Austrian Minister of Justice also identified a need for action on ensuring legal certainty. The aim is to put the focus on constitutional standards in order to strengthen trust among the Member States. “What is the responsibility of the justice sector? We must ensure that the European instruments of mutual recognition can be fully effective, which will require uniform minimum standards for the rule of law and human rights,” said Mr. Moser. Only then can framework decisions be implemented, he explained by way of example. Recently, court rulings have criticised detention conditions in Romania, Greece, Hungary and Bulgaria, for instance, because they do not comply with the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Guaranteeing constitutional standards throughout Europe is necessary for the prosecution of criminals to again function smoothly throughout Europe. Both the European Commission and the Member States themselves must find solutions quickly, said Mr. Moser, noting, with regard to the focus on the Western Balkans, that all of the countries in the region are undertaking intensive efforts to enact justice reforms. He stressed that this is an indication that the Western Balkans are moving in the right direction in their endeavours to integrate more closely into the EU and increase citizens' confidence.

“Only by working together can we create trust, increase proximity to EU citizens and ensure a comprehensible, functioning European Union,” Mr. Moser said on the subject of subsidiarity. Taking action at EU level should not be an end in itself, but should only be done when the EU can more effectively achieve objectives than the Member States themselves. Consequently, Mr. Moser expressed his support for the strategy of European Commission President Juncker, which lays out a plan for less, albeit more efficient action in future.

Mairead McGuinness: Trust in the EU be reinforced

Vice-President of the European Parliament Mairead McGuinness underlined the importance of mutual trust between the EU and its citizens. General confidence in policy-making is at stake and the current perception of the political profession is problematic. The solution lies in transparency, said Ms. McGuinness. The EU is a pioneer in ensuring access to information; however, transparency is also a key issue for national parliaments and must also be promoted at national level. National governments should provide more information, and citizens should demand accountability in return.

Ms. McGuinness stressed that transparency is not the answer to every question, highlighting the importance of the subsidiarity principle. As an example, she cited an EU regulation concerning uniform standards for medical devices. Since the issue of quality of life affects everyone in the Member States equally, the EU had to play a larger role in that case. Ms. McGuinness cited the reform of agricultural policy as another example of subsidiarity. The Member States now have more control over the implementation of agricultural policy. However, as some farmers do not want this responsibility at all, it is important to consider whether the European Commission should take on a control function here as well, she said.

Ms. McGuinness pointed out that there are different levels of decision-making in different policy areas, as evidenced by electoral behaviour. In national elections voter turnout is higher than in European elections. At first glance, people see long-term EU goals as less immediate. It takes time to understand that these long-term goals, such as water or air quality, are essential. If these issues were left up to individual countries, there would be no benchmarks. As a result, it is necessary to discuss where subsidiarity is appropriate and where it is not. “To do this, we MEPs must take ourselves to task and deal with issues at the beginning of the political cycle and not allow legislative proposals to languish,” Ms. McGuinness urged. In this context, she cited COSAC as an important platform for exchanging views on EU jurisprudence among members of various national parliaments.

European elections: Learning the lessons of Brexit

Ms. McGuinness, an MEP from Ireland, expressed her regrets at Brexit, while pointing to the positive aspects of the referendum’s outcome. Citizens are increasingly discussing EU issues and now know what the Customs Union, the Single Market and freedom of movement mean. It is important to keep in mind what the founders of the EU wanted - a European Union in which different cultures with different opinions can work together. Brexit has helped citizens understand what would happen if the EU were dissolved. “Nothing lasts forever if we don't work together,” Ms. McGuinness said in light of the upcoming European elections in May 2019. We need to take the opportunity to talk about the EU and encourage people to vote. Even if not everyone wants to strengthen the EU, there is agreement that the European Union brings added value, and citizens also want to understand the complexity of politics. When it comes to questions about the rule of law or the climate, citizens expect answers that perhaps cannot be provided at national level, she stressed.

In the European Parliament sometimes right-wing and left-wing camps vote together, because larger issues are at stake. As many politicians are elected directly, they should also be brave enough to accept their responsibilities, Ms. McGuinness said. She called on the parliamentarians to urge their voters to go to the polls and make European elections as important as national elections. Reaching out to young people in particular is important; they especially should be encouraged to understand the complexity of the world and the European Union at a time of limitless access to information. “We need to strengthen not only the EU institutions themselves, but also citizens’ commitment to these institutions,” she said. She explained her approach to the EU by way of a comparison: If your car breaks down, for example, you trust the mechanic to ensure that the engine is fixed properly. The EU should work similarly. We must be able to trust “that the EU will not interfere in our lives, but rather work for us,” said Ms. McGuinness.

Othmar Karas: “We must be ambassadors for the EU!”

The subsequent discussion was dominated by the issues of transparency, proximity to citizens, the EU as a “scapegoat” and how the EU can be made more tangible again for citizens against the backdrop of the upcoming European elections in May of next year. Austrian MEP Othmar Karas issued an urgent call to the participants: “More people will be eligible to vote in the European elections than live in the United States. The election not only determines the composition of the European Parliament, but it also determines the composition of the European Commission and ultimately who will be its president. All of us in this room must be ambassadors for the EU.” Mr. Karas stressed that there are solid arguments in favour of the European Union, such as that over 90 percent of the EU budget goes directly to municipalities.

On the issue of EU subsidiarity, Mr. Karas stressed that “no other organisation embodies subsidiarity more than the EU”. Everything that is decided at EU level must be supported in some way at national level, be it by the Council or by implementing legislation. A participant from Germany stressed that subsidiarity enables diversity in the EU, and that heightened transparency forms the basis for citizens to feel that the EU is close to them.

Providing evidence of EU benefits is necessary

However, not all parliamentarians agreed. A member of parliament from Estonia called for much less to be done at EU level. The EU was “far too distant from its citizens”. This opinion was shared by many of the conference participants, who pointed out that this problem could only be solved by conveying EU actions in a more tangible manner. People must be better informed about how decisions at EU level affect their daily lives, for example, urged another parliamentarian from Estonia. A participant from Cyprus spoke of the need to “take this approach to reviving confidence in the EU”. A French parliamentarian recommended that citizens be “provided with evidence of the utility of EU decisions”. Activities should be “made more visible,” said a Romanian participant. A Maltese parliamentarian agreed that “facts” were needed to gain citizens’ trust.

The call for the EU to be closer to its citizens was reflected in almost all of the interventions. A parliamentarian from Serbia spoke of “inclusion as a fundamental value”. This can only be achieved through more citizen participation. It is important to involve citizens in decisions from the very beginning. This was emphasised not only by a British participant, but also by Austrian Justice Minister Josef Moser in his closing statement, in which he responded to previous interventions.

It was stated that EU citizens nevertheless often seem to lack the feeling that they are being heard. A member of parliament from Estonia reported that according to a recently published survey, approval of the EU stands at 74 per cent in his country. However, 76 per cent of respondents claim that they do not feel they are heard when it came to European issues. A parliamentarian from Malta said a great deal has changed for the better in the 14 years of his country's EU membership; the mood is good, but the citizens still want to be better informed. An Italian parliamentarian reported that the mood in his country is anti-EU, while the national government, on the other hand, is very popular. This is largely due to a lack of transparency in EU matters, he stated. The Netherlands once again underlined its transparency initiative, which it has introduced together with Denmark. They received support from Ireland and Hungary. A German parliamentarian stressed that the lack of transparency creates a “breeding ground for populism”.

Transparency as a precondition for trust

Some interventions drew parallels between confidence in the EU and confidence in politics in general, with transparency being an indispensable prerequisite for people’s trust. A Hungarian member of parliament said that in his country the migration crisis had “shaken” people’s confidence in the EU. This trust can only be regained if the advantages of the EU were made more tangible in everyday life and if people were given the feeling that they were “part of a larger whole”.

Simple solutions are seductive

Other conference participants stressed that transparency alone was not enough to win support for the EU. Some lamented low voter turnout, especially when it comes to European elections. A number of parliamentarians saw EU sceptics, nationalists and populists as the root causes for this phenomenon. “They offer simple solutions and these are seductive,” warned a Slovenian participant. The EU is often blamed for everything that doesn’t work, while national governments take the credit for what does work. “Too often many point the finger at Brussels when something is amiss,” explained a member of parliament from Germany. This scapegoat policy and the failure to involve national parliaments in EU decisions are mistakes that lead to dramatic consequences such as EU disenchantment and nationalist tendencies. A French member of parliament agreed, stressing that only one third of the national parliaments availed themselves of their right to issue a “reasoned opinion” on EU legislation within the framework of the subsidiarity test. (End COSAC)

PLEASE NOTE: Photos of this event can be found at the website of the Austrian Parliament at www.parlament.gv.at/SERV/FOTO/ARCHIV.

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