Interview with the European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship



Kourosh Ziabari – Tehran Times: According to the European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Viviane Reding, all the democratic states need free press and media and it’s a necessity for all the member states of the European Union to improve their press freedom record.

“I believe that Europeans enjoy one of the freest and most diverse media environments in the world. But this does not mean we can be complacent. That is why in the past two years the Commission has stood up for freedom of the press and certain media practices in various countries such as Azerbaijan, Hungary, Bulgaria and the United Kingdom. A Europe without the freedom of press is inconceivable,” said Viviane Reding in an exclusive interview with Tehran Times.

Elsewhere in her remarks, Vivian Reding talked about the future of the four remaining countries of the European Union that have not joined the Schengen area yet, saying that two of them, namely Bulgaria and Romania have the sufficient criteria for joining the Schengen treaty which gives their citizens the right to unrestrictedly travel across the European continent without visas. “As for the Schengen area, the decision to lift internal border controls rests with the Member States. The Commission considers that both Bulgaria and Romania fulfil the necessary criteria to lift the controls and join Schengen fully,” she said.

Viviane Reding is the Vice-president of the European Commission. She is a Luxembourgian politician and has worked several years as a prominent journalist. From 1986 to 1998, she was the President of the Luxembourg Union of Journalists. She has a Ph.D. in human sciences from the University of Paris. She has served several years as the member of Luxembourg Parliament, holding such positions as the member of the Office of the Chamber of Deputies and a member of the North Atlantic Assembly. In June 2013 and during a citizens’ dialogue session in the city of Esch-sur-Alzette, she referred to Edward Snowden’s revelations on the U.S. mass surveillance operations on the European citizens, saying that “partners do not spy on each other.”

Yesterday, you read the first part of Tehran Times’ exclusive interview with Ms. Reding. What follows is the text of the second and final part of the interview in which we have discussed such issues as press freedom in the EU, data protection and the concept of the rule of law in the European continent.

Q: While you were serving under President Barroso as the EU Telecoms and Media Commissioner, you made remarkable suggestions which received a popular feedback across the integrated Europe. One of them was the plan to reduce the roaming charges of mobile phone throughout the EU countries. The other one was the launching of a new “.eu” TLD for the EU-based companies and other website owners. How much effective have these programs been in consolidating the interaction and communication between the European citizens and bringing them closer together?

A: In a borderless Europe, roaming charges punish the Europeans who cross a border. In 2007 I took decisive action to stop such highway robbery and brought roaming charges down significantly. Building on these concrete achievements, the Commission is now pushing the envelope further with the new Telecoms package. At the moment you pay 45 Euro cents per MB of Data when roaming within the EU, but under the new proposal, you will pay only 20 Euro cents from 1 July 2014. Building upon what I have already achieved in this field over the years, this is a good example of how Europe can make a real and lasting difference to your daily life.

Since I launched the .eu domain in 2006 it has been an ongoing success, around 3 million websites are now based under this domain name. By branding their work or service as European, users of the .eu domain play an important role in reminding people around the world that the EU is politically and economically united, and that internet is a place that allows for the European communities to be built.

Q: You’ve been a journalist for a long time and also the media commissioner of the European Union. What efforts have the EU institutions, including the EU Commission, taken to ensure the preservation of the rights of the media activists, journalists, authors and other people who produce contents for the press in Europe? What’s your assessment of the state of press freedom in Europe?

A: Being a former journalist myself, I worked in the press for twenty years and I was also the President of the Journalists’ Union in my country. I have fought and always will fight for the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and freedom of the media.

The Commission has only very limited legal powers in this field, but we are fully committed to a vigorous democratic debate both online and offline, which is also why we founded a Centre for Media Pluralism and Freedom at the European University Institute in Florence.

Overall, I believe that Europeans enjoy one of the freest and most diverse media environments in the world. But this does not mean we can be complacent. That is why in the past two years the Commission has stood up for freedom of the press and certain media practices in various countries such as Azerbaijan, Hungary, Bulgaria and the United Kingdom. A Europe without the freedom of press is inconceivable. Democracies cannot function without the freedom of the press.

Q: One of the most important challenges the Europeans face today is data protection. You’ve estimated that the EU citizens’ data will value at around €1 trillion a year in 2020, and it’s quite essential that serious measures be adopted to ensure the protection of the citizens and enterprises’ online information. Data protection needs a political consensus among the leaders of the member states and also technical frameworks for the implementation of the plans. Has the Commission succeeded in meeting these demands?

A: Data is today’s currency, fuelling the digital economy. Like any currency it needs trust to be stable. Citizens’ will only continue to give out their personal data if they trust it is not being misused. That’s why the data protection reform – the new law we put on the table in January 2012 – is a win-win deal for citizens and companies.

First, we are making things easier for companies doing business in our single market. We are cutting red tape, doing away with unnecessary notification requirements and giving them one set of rules and one interlocutor, instead of 28. The benefits are estimated at €2.3 billion per year.

Second, we want to put citizens in control of their data. We are bolstering tried and tested principles like the right to be forgotten, and introducing new principles like the right to data portability and the right to be informed of personal data breaches. They will help close the growing rift between citizens and the companies with which they share their data.

The proposals are now in the hands of the European Parliament and the EU member states, who are the EU’s co-legislators. The European Parliament recently gave its strong backing to the Commission’s proposals, while EU leaders agreed at their summit in October to adopt the reform in a timely way. Now it is time national ministers followed through.

Q: As it’s evident in your statements and lectures, you, as an EU high commissioner, attach great importance to the concept of the rule of law. Some instances of the “rule of law” crisis happened throughout Europe in the past years, including the Roma crisis in France (2010), the Hungarian crisis (2011) and the Romanian rule of law crisis (2012). All of these crises undermined the EU’s efforts to present itself as a constellation that is predicated on a communal respect for the rule of law. How is it possible to preclude such incidents in the future? How is it possible to make sure that the rule of law is enshrined by the Member States?

A: The European Union is built on the rule of law, where all Member States need to be concerned if there are any deficiencies in the independence, efficiency or quality of the justice system in another Member State. In parallel to the economic and financial crisis, the European Union has also been confronted on several occasions with a true “rule of law” crisis.

In all the cases you mentioned, the Commission intervened after reflection and sometimes intense internal discussions, partly with strong words, sometimes with letters, and sometimes with Treaty infringement proceedings. We have always acted on the basis of the competences given to us by the Treaties and secondary EU legislation adopted under the Treaties, be they the EU’s free movement directive in the case of France, our antidiscrimination legislation in the case of Hungary or the specific powers under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism in the case of Romania.

Experience has shown that in these instances, the Commission can act as an independent and objective referee. But our powers are not always sufficient. We still face the ‘Copenhagen dilemma’ – the rule of law is an entry condition for the EU which every country who joins has to show it upholds. But once they join the club, then it is a case of having nothing in the middle ground between the severe step of applying ‘Article 7’ (a procedure to suspend a country’s voting rights, and thus ‘say’ in the European Union) on the one hand, and soft diplomatic power on the other. That is why European Commission President José Manuel Barroso announced that in future our Union might need a new ‘rule of law’ mechanism for Europe.

I believe this can be done in two stages: first making use of the potential offered by the existing EU Treaties. Here, we could take a similar approach for Article 7 procedures as in Commission infringement proceedings, by giving “formal notice” to a Member State where we have reason to believe that a systemic rule of law crisis is on the way to developing.

In a second stage we could establish a new mechanism with an amendment of the EU Treaties. There are then several options for such a mechanism: more pragmatic ones, as well as more ambitious ones, such as lowering the very high thresholds for triggering at least the first stage of the Article 7 procedure; extending the powers of the Fundamental Rights Agency, or abolishing Article 51 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, so as to make all fundamental rights directly applicable in the Member States.

Any new tool to safeguard the rule of law will have to rely on the right information. That is why we are already developing what we call a ‘Justice Scoreboard’ which allows us to systematically look at the efficiency, quality and independence of the justice systems in all 28 EU-Member States. And we are already using this expertise in our annual ‘European Semester’ exercise, where we give tailored recommendations to each European country about what needs to be worked on.

Few pay attention to the rule of law in normal times, when all functions well. But the crisis events we have witnessed during the past years have underlined just how important the rule of law is, for our citizens, and for our economies. After all, trusting that the rule of law is fully upheld directly translates into the confidence to invest in the economy. The proper functioning of national court systems, the independence of national courts, their efficiency and quality, is essential for the proper functioning of the whole European Union.

Q: What are your future plans for improving the state of citizenship rights in the European Union? Is it possible that the four remaining EU member states that are not currently in the Schengen area, namely Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Romania, join it and enjoy equal rights with the other citizens in the continent? What about the Commission’s other plans and programs for boosting the political, cultural and social status of the citizens in the region?

A: EU citizenship is the crown jewel of European integration. We place EU citizens centre stage and will always uphold their rights, whichever country they come from.

That is why, since taking up office as the first ever Justice Commissioner, I have been working to reinforce and bolster citizens’ rights by means of law. For instance, we have established common minimum standards for fair trial rights in criminal proceedings and for victims’ rights, as I mentioned earlier.

Of course, our work is not complete. People still face obstacles exercising their rights in everyday life. People tell us that they still run into problems when working or studying, living, traveling or shopping in the EU, or when they want to use their vote to take part in the EU’s decision-making process. And we are listening. Just a few months ago, I presented a new list of 12 measures to improve EU citizens’ rights and to make their daily lives easier – all the issues that we are addressing are problems citizens have shared with us during dialogues or when writing to us. Europe is there for and because of its citizens; today, tomorrow and on every other day and year.

As for the Schengen area, the decision to lift internal border controls rests with the Member States. The Commission considers that both Bulgaria and Romania fulfil the necessary criteria to lift the controls and join Schengen fully. The other Member States said last year during the June Council, yes, Bulgaria and Romania fulfil the criteria. All that is needed now is a political decision and one that will be taken by all the Member States in the Council on the basis of unanimity.

This interview was originally published by Tehran Times daily.