Good afternoon, and welcome to our liveblog of today’s “Citizens’ Dialogue” in Stockholm, Sweden, with Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission and EU Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship.
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.
And that’s all, folks! But stay tuned to Debating Europe, because we’ll be following up on many of the issues raised today in greater detail over the coming days.
Another question for the audience: “Should the President of the European Commission be elected?”
Yes - 53%
No – 47%
Reding says this is, in fact, an unusual response because most of the people asked during these Citizens’ Dialogues have typically had a large majority supporting direct election of the Commission President.
A man in the audience is asking a somewhat wonkish question about the “gold plating” of legislation. Should the EU set a minimum level of protection in environmental and social areas, so some member states can go further if they want? Or should the “floor” also be a “ceiling”, so that the single market is not disrupted?
Reding responds that this is a problem she has been wrestling with recently:
I have gone over-and-above the rights in 9/10ths of member states with the recent consumer protection rules… with the result that everybody now has Swedish rights on consumer protection… But, in general, what is the principle? It is that we set minimum rights, and individual member states can then go further than that if they choose. Now, these minimum rights can be very high, but no member state has the right to go under those rights.
Olle Ludvigsson MEP is now responding to a question about the UK’s relationship with the EU. He says he would not be surprised if the famous British euroscepticism began to cool when an exit suddenly became a real possibility:
I wonder if we’re not perhaps going to see a reverse tendency. [Britain] has its automobile industry, for example, and they would be greatly affected by being outside the EU.
A member of the audience stands up to ask: “When will it be possible for the EU to deal with issues such as violence, rape, and safe abortions?”
Birgitta Ohlsson says that the matter of abortion is not an EU competence, and that (as someone who supports free and legal abortion) she is not convinced that it ever should be. She says:
There is a need to draw the line. What should the EU do and what should it stay away from? Social issues are very important, but maybe we would prefer to have them decided at a local level by national parliaments.
Reding says she agrees:
We have to draw the line: who is responsible for what? … That is why we need very clear rules, and you are right when you say there should be a political union, so we can draw those lines.
The audience in Stockholm is now being asked: “Do you want a closer political union?”
Yes – 69%
No – 31%
An angry member of the audience is now berating Reding for speaking “qualified nonsense”. He says that “young people are not prepared to live as economic refugees… I think it’s very nice to have the opportunity to go to another country, but it would also be very nice if there was employment in my country, and I could travel only for the love of travel.”
The moderator asks him to come to the point and ask a question. In response, the man in the audience says:
Despite the promises that these politicians wanted to listen to us, we have had very lengthy answers from the stage, and there’s not always a lot of substance to them… I’m just trying to even out the score.
But he concedes, and comes to the point:
Either the citizens or the speculators pay for losses in the banking system. So, why doesn’t the EU implement a Glass-Steagall act and seperate speculative banking from normal banking?
Reding responds simply that the Commission has already put this proposal on the table, and it was now up to the member states to answer.
Birgitta Ohlsson, Swedish Minister for EU-Affairs, then offers her response:
Well, this is not black-or-white, so you can’t just choose between two models. We have a banking union, and we’re looking at these proposals, but if a country or an individual don’t look after their money, then you need rules. So, there is a tightening of rules in the EU, and I think that’s what we should be focusing on.
A question from Twitter arguing that the EU seems to be combating the crisis by discarding trade union rights.
Olle Ludvigsson, an MEP with the Swedish Social Democratic Party’s (as well as a trade union leader himself), responds that he strongly agrees:
If you have free movement, you need to have rights for trade unions as well. And, if you look at a lot of the judgements that are coming out, you can see that trade union rights are not being fully respected… In a lot of cases, workers are living in the same conditions as slaves, almost, and the trade unions should be able to defend their members… So, the regulation should be tightened in this area and the trade unions should have more scope to change the situation.
Reding says that one of her jobs is to ensure legal certainty for citizens, so that they know that wherever they go in Europe their rights will be the same.
She gives the example of restraining orders against those that abuse their partners. Reding says that she has fought to have these protection orders recognised in every EU member state, so that the victims can travel without fearing they will no longer be protected.
The debate is now focusing on the question of the rights of European citizens. Reding says the EU is sometimes a victim of its own success here, as many people don’t realise that the rights they enjoy on a day-to-day basis have their origins in EU legislation:
It is the success story of Europe that many of these rights have become normal, and nobody knows anymore that they were European rights in the beginning.
A critical comment from a man in the audience, who asks simply: “The EU seems to talk a lot but you don’t do much. You have thousands of administrators, how much do they all cost?”
Reding responds that the EU’s administrative staff have a budget that is smaller than the city of Stockholm’s, yet they have to deal with issues that affect more than 500 million people. She also argues that the EU does, in fact, do an awful lot:
Did you know that 80% of Swedish laws are not Swedish laws? They are European laws that have been translated into Swedish legislation.
Commissioner Reding is asked about gender equality in the EU. Reding has championed a proposal to implement gender quotas in company boardrooms in Europe. She says:
60% of university graduates are women, and then we lose them. The European average of women on the boards of big companies is only 16%. And it has grown quite well since I put my fist on the table and said there would be legislation… Why start at the top? Because you need role-models. It is very important that women can see other women who have done it, then they can get the courage to do it themselves… So I think you need to shake the coconut tree.
Reding is asked a question about the safety of bank accounts. She responds that she understands the uncertainty, because there was “one night of stupidity” during the banking crisis in Cyprus earlier this year, when there was talk of a deposit tax being levied that would also affect savers with less than 100’000 euros.
Commissioner Reding says this was a “very strange” decision, and was thankfully corrected swiftly, and that “people must have trust in their banks.”
A young man in the audience (wearing a rather natty bow tie) is now asking a question: “What’s the solution to the problem of youth unemployment in Europe?”
Reding responds that, perversely, there are millions of unoccupied jobs in some sectors and countries of Europe that employers are struggling to fill, whilst other parts of Europe have sky-high unemployment.
Reding says people often don’t travel to other countries because they risk losing their unemployment benefits, so she wants to see unemployed people able to “export” their unemployment benefits and take them with them to place like Germany, which have higher levels of employment.
The moderator makes a tough point, though: “But we want to stay home!”
A stunningly optimistic audience in Stockholm, today. They’ve just been asked: “Do you think Europe will come out of the crisis stronger?” – and they responded as follows:
Yes – 73%
No – No%
Olle Ludvigsson MEP is asked if this result is representative of the whole of Europe. His response is nothing if not diplomatic: “Well… it varies. [Enthusiasm] does become somewhat ‘toned down’ during a crisis.”
The audience is asked to vote: “Do you feel your voice is heard in the EU?”
Yes – 39%
No – 61%
Reding says this result is exactly the European average (and you can see our recent post on this issue elsewhere on the site).
Birgitta Ohlsson, Swedish Minister for EU-Affairs, has just finished speaking. She said the situation today has many parallels with the situation in the 1930s during the Great Depression:
Well, we’ve had the most difficult financial crisis since the 1930s, to start with… And we also have many elected racist parties across Europe. I was in Greece last week, where I met 1500 people who were about to be sent back, you know the ones who come across the Mediterranean in those frightening boats? And I also met representatives of the Roma people, who are living in great misery on the outskirts of Rome.
The speakers today will be Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission; Olle Ludvigsson, Member of the European Parliament and Birgitta Ohlsson, Swedish Minister for EU-Affairs.
Reding is giving her introduction now, arguing that these Citizens’ Dialogues are “changing the way that politics is done”:
One cannot say that if politicians make a speech and people go to vote, that’s democracy. [We need] a more direct democracy, a more direct exchange… [And] these Citizens’ Dialogues are changing the way politics is done, because citizens go to their national politicians and say ‘Hey, we would like to have a dialogue with you, too!’
And, we’re off! Today, Stockholm will be hosting the 33rd town hall meeting between citizens and the European Commission as part of the ongoing “Debate on the Future of Europe”.