Interview with the Vice-president of the European Commission Viviane Reding


Strasbourg : Plenary session European Parliement

Kourosh Ziabari – Tehran Times: The vice-president of the European Commission and European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship says that despite the efforts made by different legislative and executive bodies in the European Union to fight xenophobia and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities, there are still instances of such discriminatory behaviors in the continent.

“The European Commission has been active, for decades, in putting in place anti-discrimination laws and helping Member States who are the ones responsible for fighting discrimination on the ground… Sadly, despite this legislation, there still are instances of discrimination and xenophobia in Europe. Sometimes it is even perpetrated by politicians. But whilst such rhetoric may win votes today, the price would be paid by generations of European citizens tomorrow,” said Vivane Reding in an exclusive interview with Tehran Times.

Viviane Reding is a prominent Luxembourg politician affiliated with the European People’s Party. Before starting her career in the Barroso II Commission in 2009, she worked as a journalist with the prominent “Luexmburger Wort” newspaper. She was previously a European Commissioner for Information Society and Media from November 2004 to Feburary 2010. Moreover, from September 1999 to November 2004, she served as the European Commissioner for Education and Culture under President Romano Prodi.

Ms. Reding has received several prominent awards from universities across the world, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow and one from the University of Turin. As the EU commissioner for justice, she put forward a series of groundbreaking proposals in the field of civil, commercial and criminal justice and has received widespread attention of the U.S. and European media during her tenure. In 2012, the U.S.-based magazine Foreign Policy listed Viviane Reding in its list of top 100 global thinkers.

Tehran Times conducted an in-depth, extensive interview with vice-president Viviane Reding about the current state of citizenship and legal rights in the European Union, xenophobia and religious discrimination against the minorities in the European countries and the recent intelligence revelations of Edward Snowden and their impact on the EU-U.S. relations. What follows is the first part of the interview.

Q: The Commission’s recent report on gender equality in leadership positions which details the percentage of men and women on the boards of the largest publicly listed companies in the EU member states shows that the majority of the EU countries are moving toward creating more leadership opportunities for the women. What’s your assessment of this growing trend? Does the commission have certain plans and programs to boost the social and political presence of the women and contribute to the ratification of domestic laws increasing the share of women amongst the board chairs and CEOs of large companies?

A: If there is a trend, then it is a very slow one. For decades the increase in the number of women on company boards has been moving at a snail’s pace. Today Europe’s boardrooms remain dominated by men, despite a lot of progress for women in so many other fields of life, including the workplace.

Nevertheless, the latest figures show an increase in the number of women on boards across the EU to 16.6%, up from 13.7% in January 2012. This is still very far from representing a gender balance, but nevertheless represents a 2.2 percentage point increase as compared to October 2011 – the highest year on year change yet recorded. Companies are finally starting to understand that if they want to remain competitive in an ageing society they cannot afford to ignore female talent: 60% of university graduates are women.

This follows the European Commission’s proposal, adopted in November 2012, to introduce a 40% objective for women on boards. The motors of change are still the countries which have recently introduced quota legislation, like Belgium, France and Italy. But the boost in the figures is a reflection of the impact of high-level EU discussions about the need for EU legislation regulating the number of women on boards.

Last month, Europe’s first chamber, the European Parliament, voted with an overwhelming majority to back the European Commission’s proposed law. This says loud and clear that “Europe needs strong rules to tackle the gender imbalance in company boardrooms”. But for the proposal to become law, it still needs to be adopted by the Council, Europe’s second chamber.

Our draft law is a fair deal for women and for business. It is based on qualifications and merit and thus strikes the right balance. This isn’t tokenism: No woman will get a job just because she is a woman. But no woman will be denied a job simply because she is a woman.

National ministers in the EU need to match the Parliament’s ambition in the Council. Europe needs the quota to make sure we use the skills and talent of women.

Q: What’s your position on the growth of different kinds of racial discrimination and xenophobia in the EU member states? There are reports that religious minorities like the Muslims are subject to some sorts of discrimination and disenfranchisement in Europe. How much importance does the EU Commission attach to the religious and racial minorities and the protection of their rights?

A: In Europe, we stand for freedom. We stand for an open Continent where citizens can move, work and study wherever they like. The citizens of the 28 EU Member States should feel at home no matter where they are. The biggest achievement of the European Union is uniting a continent of 507 million citizens in peace.

This achievement was recognised by the highest honour of the Nobel Peace Prize. Just think for a second about this remarkable achievement: a European continent where you can drive from Tallinn to Brussels without having to stop at a single border to show a passport. That is possible because of our common European policies, laws and instruments.

Europe is like a family and we are stronger by being together. The biggest tragedy would be to forget this very simple truth.

The European Commission has been active, for decades, in putting in place anti-discrimination laws and helping Member States who are the ones responsible for fighting discrimination on the ground. EU legislation exists to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion in the workplace and on the grounds of race or ethnic origin in most areas of life, including access to goods and services, education and healthcare.

Sadly, despite this legislation, there still are instances of discrimination and xenophobia in Europe. Sometimes it is even perpetrated by politicians. But whilst such rhetoric may win votes today, the price would be paid by generations of European citizens tomorrow. This is why I expect national politicians to be firm and resist populism. Intolerance has no place on our Continent.

Q: Your direct engagement with the European citizens through the debate sessions in different countries is an inventive and constructive endeavour which helps the citizens get familiar with the rights they are endowed with by virtue of their citizenship in an EU member state. What is your main objective in holding such sessions? What questions do the citizens mostly ask you? Are they usually aware of their basic rights and responsibilities?

A: Our citizens are “acting European” and utilizing their rights on a daily basis. Europeans are benefiting from increased protection on cross-border purchases, guaranteed treatment in other EU Member States through the European Health Card and cheaper roaming charges all thanks to European legislation. But people are not always aware of these rights. Citizens might know that they are allowed to move, reside and study in any EU Member State. But often they do not know that they have the right to translation and an interpreter if they are ever stopped by the police abroad, for example. Or that they have the right to a two year guarantee on any product they purchase in the EU, online or on the high street.

The work of all politicians – national and European – is to explain these rights further and explain why Europe is good for citizens and businesses. Every year, the Commission receives over 1 million enquiries from citizens, and it regularly carries out public consultations and polls. The result: although two thirds of EU citizens feel European, only one in three citizens (36%) say they are well informed about their EU rights. Together with my fellow Commissioners, Members of the European Parliament and national ministers, I have been participating in Citizens’ Dialogues across the European Union. These public debates are an opportunity for citizens to share their ideas and wishes about Europe’s future and what we European politicians can do better. I want to hear what people think about Europe, what they expect from the EU and where they would like to see it progress to in the next 10, 20 or 50 years.

The lessons I have learned so far were that in general and across the EU, people want to see more Europe. They want to have their problems fixed by Europe – even though sometimes problems relate to purely national issues where the European Commission cannot intervene.

I find people’s enthusiasm for more Europe very encouraging, and I hope that this enthusiasm will manifest itself in a high turnout in the European elections in May 2014. Because next year, a new European Parliament will be elected and a new Commission will be chosen. And the result of these elections will determine the course our Union will take in the coming years. Citizens need to know that this time they have a real choice on their hands – a choice about what kind of Europe they want.

For me it is essential that the European people have a big say in the debate, in the lead up to the elections, this is why we have made 2013 the European Year of Citizens, and that is why we are holding these dialogues. We have to build our European house together with our citizens, not build it and only then ask them if they want to live in it.

Q: What’s your viewpoint, and the EU’s position, on the recent spying and intelligence standoff between the United States and some of its European partners? Why do you think the United States government had made such a decision to overhear the phone conversations of the politicians and citizens in a number of European countries like Germany and Spain, while as you noted in your speech to the Yale University, the friends don’t spy on each other in a furtive manner?

A: The recent scandals have been a wake-up call. They have sparked a wide debate about civil liberties in general and in particular about data protection. I welcome this wake-up call because it has been nearly two years that we have been working on a data protection reform in Europe.

The protection of personal data is very important for Europeans and it is a fundamental right, enshrined in our Charter of Fundamental Rights. The reason for this is rooted in our historical experience with dictatorships from the right and from the left. They have led to a common understanding in Europe that data protection is an integral part of human dignity and personal freedom. Control of every movement, every word or every e-mail written for private purposes is not compatible with Europe’s fundamental values or our common understanding of a free society.

We already have strong rules in place to protect this right. And two years ago we put a new draft law on the table to make them even stronger, adapt them to the internet age and make clear that European data protection rules apply to any company operating on our Continent. Again, the European Parliament has pulled through and given its strong backing, and it’s now up to national ministers to do the same.

In the meantime, I think it is important we start working to restore trust across the Atlantic. In my view, this can best be achieved by working hand in hand towards strong data protection standards on both sides of the Atlantic. And for this there are two things that need to be done. First, the U.S. needs to be more ambitious in the negotiations with the Commission for a data protection agreement in the law enforcement sector.

This is what we have been negotiating for two years now. There have been more than 16 negotiating rounds. But the two fundamental issues have not yet been resolved: On the one hand, a meaningful agreement has to ensure the full equal treatment of EU and U.S. citizens. On the other hand, it has to give European citizens concrete and enforceable rights like judicial redress possibilities. Every American in the European Union already enjoys this right. But Europeans in America do not. We need to conclude these negotiations soon, to give citizens confidence – confidence that their rights are protected. This will contribute to restoring trust.

Second, once a single and coherent set of data protection rules is in place in Europe, we will expect the same from our American partners. This is a precondition for a stable basis for personal data flows between the EU and the U.S. Data flows between the EU and the U.S. must rely on a solid legal foundation on both sides of the Atlantic. The EU data protection reform will be the foundation on the European side of a solid data bridge that will link the United States and Europe. We expect the US to quickly set its side of the bridge.

Q: What proposals have you put forward to improve the rights of the European citizens in the criminal and legal proceedings? Have these proposals contributed to the growth and strengthening of the citizens’ rights in practice? Do the member states cooperate with you in implementing these proposals? Is there any scale to assess the extent to which the member states embrace the plans, and specify those states which make greater efforts to secure the legal and criminal rights of their citizens, whether the accused or the victims?

A: When I became the EU’s first Justice Commissioner in 2010, I promised to re-orient our policies in the field of justice. Before 2010, Lady Justice was holding two swords and no scales. Since then the Commission has taken action to bring a new balance into justice policies by strengthening the rights and freedoms of our citizens. And we are delivering: we are putting in place a series of procedural rights which will apply to all citizens, throughout the European Union.

We already have three laws in the Statue Book which are landmarks in protecting the right to a fair trial and defence. We now have rules which guarantee that anyone suspected of a crime, anywhere in the EU, will have the right to information, the right to translation and interpretation and the right to access a lawyer. Member States have understood the importance of these laws – the first law was adopted in a record time of just nine months!

We have also worked hard to guarantee common basic rights for victims of crime, wherever they are in the EU. The EU’s law on minimum standards for victims – agreed in 2012 – ensures that, in all 28 EU countries victims are treated with respect and receive support; they receive information on their rights and their case in a way they understand; they can participate in proceedings if they want and are helped to attend the trial; vulnerable victims are identified – such as children, victims of rape, or those with disabilities; victims are protected while police investigate the crime and during court proceedings. The victims’ law was adopted just over a year after we proposed it. Whatever scale you measure it by, I think this shows clearly that our elected representatives in the Parliament and national governments have clocked on to just how important these bridges between Europe’s national justice systems are.

Our work is not yet done, which is why just last week I introduced another package of measures, on the presumption of innocence, vulnerable victims and access to legal aid. These proposals create concrete rights citizens’ can rely on. They bring the principle of the right to a fair trial to life, everywhere in the European Union. This is necessary in order to create a real single area of justice where there are no differences in protection when citizens work, travel or live outside their home countries. Justice should know no borders in the European Union.

This interview was originally published on Tehran Times daily.