Good morning, and welcome to our liveblog of today’s “Citizens’ Dialogue” in Trieste, Italy, with European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding.
This dialogue is one of series the Commission is holding in cities in every EU country, giving ordinary people an opportunity to speak directly to EU politicians about their rights, the kind of Europe they want to live in, and expectations for the European Union.
They follow a call by European Commission President Barroso for an EU-wide debate on proposals to deepen Economic and Monetary Union, and to create a legitimate political union.
“There must be a broad debate all over Europe. A debate of truly European dimension,” he said. “We cannot continue trying to solve European problems just with national solutions. This debate has to take place in our societies and among our citizens”.
The debates are part of the 2013 European Year of Citizens: an entire year dedicated to your rights as a European citizen.
That’s all folks! Stay tuned to Debating Europe, as we will be looking at some of the issues raised today in greater detail later in the week.
The audience is again being asked to vote on the first question: Do you feel your voice is heard in the EU?
Aaand… The answer is almost exactly the same as last time. 56% say “No”, they do not feel their voice is heard.
Reding responds that these Citizens’ Dialogues are just a start, and she feels that a direct election campaign for the EU Commission President would really help to provoke a European debate that would involve all citizens. In order to do this, she believes the EU treaty will need to be changed, and she hopes the audience will remember today’s debate and will vote “Yes” in any referendum on a new treaty.
A young man stands up to ask a question: Should the question of the status of Trieste be taken to the UN Security Council?
Minister Milanesi responds:
We can discuss these issues, we can interpret the rules, [but] this Union needs to unite people. We shouldn’t be taking further opportunities to divide or sub-divide ourselves.
Another question for the audience: Do you want a directly-elected President of the European Commission?
72% say “Yes”
17% say “No”
11% say “Don’t know”
A young man in the audience stands up to ask a question: “What can be done to raise the visibility of the European Union to ensure that information reaches the passive citizens, which of course is most citizens?”
It is the one million euro question. Well, we are trying… But still, it is not enough, as you perfectly understand. We do not have a real European media. All our media are local or, at best, national. And the information that people get about Europe, they mostly get them from their ministers, because those are the trusted faces. When Enzo [Italy's Minister of European Affairs] comes back from a ministerial meeting in Brussels, he goes and says what has happened.
She says too many ministers come home from Brussels and tell their national audiences: “I won! You would think they were coming back from a boxing match! If you win, it means the others lose… But, actually, we reach a compromise and everyone wins.”
Minister Milanesi adds his own perspective, as one of the ministers who come back from Brussels:
If you come home with good news, it’s ‘we’ did it. Anything that is unfortunate or unwelcome, is blamed on Europe.
The audience is now asked to vote on another question: Would you like to see closer union within the EU?
A massive 83% said “Yes”
Only 12% said “No”
The minister is asked if the EU should be taught in schools. He responds:
Great question. My answer is ‘Yes’… I think it’s a real shame that in our schools people don’t study some of these courses that we should be studying. The sorts of civic education that we learned in schools are no longer taught.
But this is another potentially controversial question as school curricula are currently set at the national level.
Enzo Moavero Milanesi, Italian Minister for European Affairs, is now speaking about the EU budget. He says:
The US government has a budget of 24.7% of GDP. Here [in Europe], we’re talking about 1% of GDP… [Earlier this year] there was a big debate about reducing the EU budget. The countries who wanted to reduce the EU budget were principally net contributors, apart from two: Luxembourg and Italy. So, representatives of both those countries are here today, of course… The Italian government feels [the EU budget] needs to be more ambitious.
Reding is asked why so little money was allocated to education in the EU budget. She responds:
Because the budget is so small. Because the budget is only 1% of Europe’s GDP. It’s absolutely ridiculous. If we want the EU to become what is must become – a real political union, a real federal union – then we need also a budget that goes with it. That is very evident.
The audience is being asked to vote again: Do feel stronger because of your European citizenship when it comes to confronting global challenges?
And an overwhelming (71%) vote in favour of “Yes”
Reding says she believes this is the correct answer:
Italy is a big country. But in a global fight with China, you are very small… But when [Europe] is together, we are the biggest and richest economy in the world. And there we have a say.
Reding is asked a question by a pediatrician in the audience who would like to see a total ban on GMO products in the European Union. This is a controversial question, and is not technically something in Viviane Reding’s portfolio, but she addresses it in from a European perspective:
We do have European rules that only GMOs that get an authorisation can be planted… But we have always the same problem: half of the European governments are in favour and half are against. And who is in between these two chairs? The Commission! Because the people are shouting at us, even though it is the governments that cannot make a decision. The European Parliament would like to have a more stringent rule on GMOs; maybe GMOs are a problem or not, but this should be decided by the Parliament.
She adds that a European decision should be taken on this, because GMO seeds spread across borders and it does not help for one country to ban GMOs whilst its neighbours allow them.
Reding is speaking about the importance of independent institutions, and strengthening democracy in the EU:
Every government needs a strong parliament to control what it does. And that is why I have always been pleading to become a real parliamentary democracy in Europe, to reinforce the powers of the European Parliament.
Reding is asked a question about investment in education, and in reply she borrows from the speech-book of the UK’s Tony Blair:
If I had no money at all, I would invest in education, education, education.
Minister Milanesi is giving a sly wink over Viviane Reding’s future political intentions (Reding is rumoured to be a potential candidate for the next President of the European Commission):
Viviane Reding has significant experience… and we need women in the corridors of power at the top level of power in our institutions.
Reding is talking about the economic crisis, and specifically the European banking crisis. She says that the measures put in place by the European Union after the crisis will prevent a repeat of what happened:
We have learned from what happened, and we have put in place a system… in order not to happen again what we have been through in the last years.
A question now from a man from Slovenia who complains he is blacklisted from government employment in Slovenia because he has never been a Communist. He asks Viviane Reding what the European Commission can do about this.
Reding says that it is still rather recent since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and countries need time. She adds that she has heard similar complaints in other countries, including Croatia, but that this problem can be overcome:
By having a fair justice system, an independent one where judges judge the law and not acquaintances or networks. And this is the basis [but] sometimes it needs a generation.
Reding responds now, saying that the “solidarity model” which she believes is at the core of the European Union is currently under threat due to the economic crisis:
In some of our richer countries, people are grumbling: Why do we need to pay for those others? And people are starting to put into question the free movement of persons, which is the [greatest] value which we have in the European Union… Well, that would be the end of what we Europeans have been working for, have been striving for, have been dreaming of… We will not let the solidarity model fall into shambles, and we will not allow the free movement of persons to be blocked. Never, ever. This is not negotiable.
Another question for the audience to vote on: Do you think Europe means solidarity between member-states?
A clear majority (62%) answer “Yes”.
The moderator asks Minister Milanesi why he thinks so many people voted “No”. Milanesi responds that he hopes the numbers have changed at the end of the meeting, but he adds:
This attitude is rather symptomatic of a kind of disappointment now that we have the economic crisis, and the EU was born as an economic union and people had hoped it would be able to confront the economic problems more quickly. So, we have to confront that disappointment.
With the introductory trailer finished, it’s time for the questions to begin. The moderator starts by asking the audience to vote on if they think their voice is being heard within the European Union.
27% say “Yes”
57% say “No”
Enzo Moavero Milanesi, the Italian Minister for European Affairs, is now introducing the Citizens’ Dialogue. He talks about the history of Europe and Trieste, saying that almost 100 years’ ago was the start of the First World War. He describes 1914 as the start of a European “Civil War” that didn’t end in 1918 or even 1945, but: “Probably only when the armies started shooting each other not very far from here in the Former Yugoslavia”.
Aaaand we’re off! Commissioner Reding begins very bravely by saying a few words in the local language, before apologising because here Italian isn’t perfect.
“Yes, it isn’t perfect… But it is very clear!” says the moderator, very graciously.