Good afternoon, and welcome to our liveblog of today’s “Citizens’ Dialogue” in London, UK, with Viviane Reding, European Commission Vice-President.
This dialogue is one of a 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”.
17:09 - Monday 10 February
That’s all, folks! But stay tuned because later in the week we’ll be looking in more detail at some of the issues and topics raised today.
17:05 - Monday 10 February
Reding responds to that question on Amazon and tax:
Taxation is in the hands of the Member States… If you see that your neighbour, or a company, is not giving their fair share, then you become upset, and justifiably so. And I believe that we should find ways to close these shocking holes, where very big companies end up paying taxes nowhere. They do this legally, by the way. So let’s make this illegal. I am not a believer in high taxes, but I am a believer in low taxes that EVERYBODY pays.
17:04 - Monday 10 February
Reding is asked a question about promoting young women in the high-tech centre. Reding (who has previously proposed gender quotas in board rooms across the EU) says that she heard somebody say that when they look at the government, they see a line of grey suits (that “someone” was Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition). But she goes on to say that whenever she looks at ANY Member State government, she sees a “line of grey suits”.
Reding argues “[Women] should have a greater say in political decision making. We find ourselves next to nowhere when it comes to economic decision making.”
16:57 - Monday 10 February
Big applause for a question from the audience asking whether the EU or British government are planning to do anything about the “nnegligible sums of tax that Amazon pay.”
This will be an interesting question for Viviane Reding, as Amazon is accused of using Luxembourg (her home country) as a way to avoid UK tax.
16:47 - Monday 10 February
A couple of euro-critical questions coming from the audience now. One man at the back argues that British politicians are too afraid to speak up about EU matters, adding that “There are a lot of MPs who have views they are not willing to express.”
I’m sure David Cameron wishes some of his MPs would express their views rather less.
Also, a man very politely but very forcefully argues that immigration from the EU has been disastrous for the British economy.
David Lidington responds:
I think that there’s no doubt there is very widespread public concern about immigration in this country. Now, that is not solely a consequence of migration from other countries in the EU. If you look at the figures, roughly 50% are coming from countries outside the EU… but there’s no doubt that people have seen a significant population growth in the last few years – 2.2 million is one estimate I’ve seen. That has put pressure on things like housing supply. It is part, not the only reason, for the arguments about housing and planning in South-East England. It’s put pressure in certain places, not everywhere, on schools – with schools having to cope with significantly more people whose home language is not English.
[However], it is a fact that the majority of people coming from elsewhere in the EU are people working, paying taxes and contributing. One of the problems we as a government are faced with – when we talk to our hotel industry, horticultural industry, there are saying we have to have these people. That is why the present government have given such priority to reform of welfare so people do not have an easy choice of going onto welfare, even if it’s not the first choice of work they would have, and why we’ve put a focus on education reform…
16:34 - Monday 10 February
David Lidington responds:
Ultimately, it’s up for citizens to decide what sources of information they want to access. They can choose to take a paper that takes a very hostile attitude to the EU, or they can read George’s paper [the Financial Times] that has a much more sympathetic attitude towards the EU…
He also argues that there is a long-term problem with European Parliament elections:
You have elections that, let’s be frank, tend to turn on how hard people want to kick their national government. So, it’s 28 national elections… It’s one reason why I don’t believe the answer to the democratic deficit in Europe is to give more powers to Europe.
16:29 - Monday 10 February
An audience member (also very pro-EU) stands up to point out that most people in the UK (“unlike this audience”) don’t care much about the EU.
Reding agrees, and responds:
The British have a great tradition of debate, but I really wonder why you don’t exercise this tradition of debate on European affairs. You are on the verge of taking very important decisions. About what? Do the people being asked to vote know what they are being asked to vote about?
16:22 - Monday 10 February
The Chair of the Young European Movement is now standing up and complaining that the links don’t work on the European Commission’s website.
16:19 - Monday 10 February
Defying expectations, this is looking like an audience that is much more hostile to David Lidington than it is to Viviane Reding.
Attempting to get a “broad range” of questions, the moderator returns to an earlier audience member who had asked the event’s only “eurosceptic” question today.
16:12 - Monday 10 February
Reding is asked a sensitive question on human rights in the EU:
This continent is built not only on the market. It is built on values. It is built on democracy. And one of these values is the independence of the courts. It is freedom of the press…
Now, I always thought, wrongly so, that these values were firmly anchored in our democracies. And we have seen several times that this is not the case. Remember Hungary, where the independence of judges was eliminated. Remember Romania, where the constitutional court was eliminated…
But, that was management by panic. And that is the reason why, also after a long discussion with the European Parliament, we will ask for the power [...] to intervene when something is going wrong and not only when something has gone wrong. Now, in the European treaties, the only way to intervene in such a case is to remove the voting rights of the Member State – that is to put a Member State out of the EU. I consider that the atomic bomb, and I think there should be measures before the atomic bomb.
David Lidington responds:
I can understand the argument that Viviane is putting forwards. [That] there is no option other than the nuclear option. But I do worry about the EU possibly trespassing onto new territory when there are specialist human rights organisations like the Venice Commission that are already doing an effective job, and how you draw the line between what might be an outrageous attempt to subvert the rule of law on the one hand, and on the other the right that any democracy has to arrange its constitutional arrangement after a free and fair election…
16:01 - Monday 10 February
A rather technical question on voting rights for David Lidington, which he seems to handle well.
What is striking, though, is that most of the questions today have been very positive towards the EU. As one of the earlier questioners put it: “I’m glad you’ve reserved so many seats for the eurosceptics, it’s a shame they didn’t show up.”
15:54 - Monday 10 February
David Lidington shows he means business by leaving his chair and walking around the stage with Reding. Will George Parker, the moderator, also be pursuaded to stand up and join them?
15:49 - Monday 10 February
The first hostile question from the audience now, with a man standing up and asking Commissioner Reding what she is doing to cut regulation for SMEs because, as the questioner says: “All I see is a constant stream of new directives, new burdens and new costs.”
We have eliminated 5600 European laws. Between 2007 and 2012, the weight of European regulations has gone down by 26%. So, that is what we have done… Many of the rules are harmonisation rules that actually eliminate red tape… For example, I have put on the table lately new rules on data protection. Because now we have 28 conflicting laws, and if you are an SME of Great Britain and you want to utilise the internal market, you have to abide by 28 different laws and I think we should do away with that. One continent, one rule, one regulator. This is a saving for SMEs of 2.8 billion euros.
She adds that the biggest generator of red tape is actually the Member State governments. Not sure how successful “One continent, one rule, one regulator” would be as a campaign slogan, though.
15:39 - Monday 10 February
A lengthy question from the audience asking about Britain euroscepticism and the UK government’s attempt to renegotiate powers back from Brussels.
David Lidington is asked, in this context, if he sees the value of European citizenship. He responds:
I don’t believe there is a European demos at the moment. Certainly, there are certain rights and benefits that accrue to people across all 28 Member States, and I went to [Ukraine] and I saw the EU flags there, and I noticed the contrast with London. And I’ve also been struck, going around the Balkans, that the EU represents a magnet and a beacon precisely because of its values, which have provided us with a way of institutionalising rule of law and human rights.
However, he adds that:
“What I would ask though, in return, is that everyone in the EU recognises the need for diversity, the need for national difference; that some countries want to move towards closer political integration and some don’t… I think the reality is that the EU flag is not seen in this country as a great badge [and] I do think flag-flying should be a matter of personal choice and preference derived from a genuine sense of pride… I don’t think if you try to impose it from London or Brussels it will work.”
15:27 - Monday 10 February
Interesting first question from the audience, asking if the EU is going to move away from “growth at all costs” and towards different ways of measuring progress.
Reding sidesteps the question and argues that if you want to solve a crisis you “cannot intellectually think about new models, you just have to do it.”
Instead, Reding says that the economist Nouriel Roubini predicted two years ago at Davos that Greece would leave the EU and the euro was finished. This year, she says, Roubini hasn’t repeated his prediction because she thinks he was embarrassed to be wrong.
Summing thing up, she adds that only after the crisis is solved can we start thinking about a “happy continent where happiness is measured.”
15:20 - Monday 10 February
The audience is asked to vote on the question: “Do you feel your voice is heard?”
Disagree – 44%
Agree – 34%
Don’t know – 22%
That’s a big result for “Don’t know”!
15:18 - Monday 10 February
David Lidington, the British Europe Minister, is setting out the ways in which his government would like to reform the EU. He says he would like to see more free trade deals and a “cutting of the cost and complexity of regulation” – but also he wants to see a more democratic EU with a stronger voice given to Member States and national governments.
15:11 - Monday 10 February
George Parker is setting high expectations today! He says the EU debate is perhaps nowhere as “ferocious” as it is in the UK, and that he hopes for a robust event, but asks: “Let’s try and keep it a polite debate”.
15:09 - Monday 10 February
Aaaaand we’re off! The moderator (George Parker, Political Editor of the Financial Times) is introducing the event, explaining that the EU stands at “something of a political crossroads” with the European elections coming up.
15:04 - Monday 10 February
Looks like they audience is starting to fill the room and they’re getting ready to start today’s Citizens’ Dialogue in London with Viviane Reding. Given the long-standing friction between the EU and the UK, it has the potential to be a tough audience for Reding today.