Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship
Making citizens' rights a tangible reality
Annual General Meeting of the Europe Direct Network – "Citizens' Rights"
Antwerp, 25 October 2010
Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure to be here today in Antwerp, under the auspices of the Belgian Presidency and on this European Civil Justice Day.
This annual gathering of the Europe Direct Network is a key date on the European citizenship calendar. And I am even more delighted to be speaking to you as the theme of this year's meeting is "Citizens' Rights", a subject I'm sure you all know is very close to my heart!
People matter in the life of the European Union. No political project can advance while leaving the people behind. Our Union can only exist and prosper if citizens adhere to it and support it.
At the start of the European project back in the 50s, people emerging from some of the darkest times in European history united around the prospect of lasting peace and prosperity. This was the cement that gave the European Community its legitimacy and support.
As the European Union develops further, we must aim to perpetuate this level of support among the new generations. This is a challenge. The 20th century is, after all, something they read about in their history books! They will need their own reasons for supporting the European project.
The European project has people, European women, men and children firmly at its centre. It has become about the political commitment to make their daily lives better and easier. About giving people safer food products; about having common standards for medicines; about promoting the rights and safety of air passengers and protecting the rights of consumers; about making sure our bathing waters and beaches are clean; about passport-free travel for millions of Europeans… And yes, about cheaper mobile phone calls and SMS! And, I could go on!
Most recently, the Lisbon Treaty has marked a real watershed: it underscores vital role of citizens in advancing the European project. It gives them new opportunities to speak to the European institutions. And it challenges the EU institutions to create a real Citizens' Europe.
The Lisbon Treaty gives legally binding force the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights!
It also puts citizens right at the heart of EU policy making by increasing the powers of the European Parliament.
The Treaty of Lisbon is a treaty for citizens: Article 11 provides a formal legal basis for their right to participate in the democratic life of the Union. The European Citizens' initiative.
And equally significant, Article 14 of the Treaty of the European Union refers to Members of the European Parliament for the first time as "representatives of European citizens".
In his Political Guidelines of September 2009, President Barroso himself outlined his vision of "a Europe that puts people at the heart of the policy agenda." He called for efforts to give concrete effect to citizens' rights and to revitalise the link between citizens and the EU.
By creating a "justice, fundamental rights and citizenship portfolio" in the Commission, President Barroso has entrusted me to make EU proposals meaningful to citizens. I am determined in making citizens' rights a tangible reality and to remove the existing obstacles preventing citizens to enjoy their rights.
We have started to put the Lisbon Treaty into concrete action.
I have already started to develop a whole range of initiatives to improve the life of people across Europe. One such proposal I have already put forward will help establish clearer divorce rules across the Union for couples of mixed nationality or couples not living in their own country. Many more proposals are under preparation, in the areas of civil, criminal and consumer law. They will form a mosaic of policy initiatives which will directly benefit citizens.
There are however still many, too many obstacles preventing citizens from exercising their rights.
According to the latest figures in 2009 about 12 million European citizens live in a different Member State to their Member State of origin. Many more millions have cross-border experiences, when studying or working, travelling on business or pleasure, getting married or divorced, buying or inheriting property, voting or shopping on-line.
Now 12 million may seem an impressive figure. But not impressive when you consider that there are 500 million citizens in our European Union? It is striking to learn from a recent Eurobarometer survey on labour mobility undertaken by DG EMPL that language barriers, family considerations, administrative hassles and the lack of information about opportunities are enough to put as many as half of Europeans off moving to another country!
To give you another example: half of EU households have an internet connection. But only a tiny 12% of web users feel secure in making cross-border transactions on the internet. And more than 1 in 3 consumers are concerned about buying from another EU country as they are unsure about their rights as consumers.
In 2007, an estimated 9 million EU citizens were engaged in cross-border procedures related to civil justice alone. However, another Eurobarometer survey shows that more than half of Europeans still believe access to civil justice in other Member States is difficult.
We need to overcome these obstacles as a matter of priority. This Wednesday I will present the first comprehensive report on EU citizenship.
The Citizenship Report will take a fresh approach to cross-border problems and address them from the citizens' perspective: it will look at the difficulties people face in everyday life, whether as private individuals, as consumers, as students and professionals, or as political actors. And it will outline the concrete actions envisaged by the Commission to remove these obstacles.
At the same time the Commission will also adopt the Single Market Act 2010, an action programme for boosting growth and job creation as well as tackling the remaining obstacles for business and citizens as economic actors. These two reports will be in a sense two sides of the same coin: addressing the problems faced by citizens as economic actors on the one hand, and private individuals on the other.
The Citizenship Report draws its inspiration from Alain Lamassoure's 2008 report - "The Citizen and the application of Community Law". This report brings into sharp focus the barriers Europeans still face in exercising their rights across national borders. We need a new approach to overcome these obstacles. First and foremost, we must overcome a major barrier of our own, the sectoral thinking that prevents us having the necessary integrated approach to solving problems.
We will get rid of the bureaucratic partitioning and make real progress in the interests of real people.
Other persistent obstacles which will be addressed by the Citizenship Report are:
the right to free movement and residence. While 1 in 5 Europeans envisages working abroad in the future, costly administrative procedures and delays still prevail in recognising rights of entry and residence.;
recognition of qualifications is another area where progress is needed: only 70% of recognition requests succeed quickly; and automatic recognition of qualifications currently applies to just 7 out of more than 800 professions! This hampers labour mobility which has a positive impact on economic growth.
portability of social security, recognition of diplomas and inheritance tax are further examples showing clearly that to make progress for citizens we need to overcome the fragmentation in EU policy-making.
The EU Citizenship Report will be the start of a broader process to place people's concerns on the political agenda it will make citizens' rights from being an abstract concept to a tangible reality.
So what we are doing to make a citizens' Europe a tangible reality? And what is the role the Europe Direct Network plays in bringing this to fruition?
Ladies and gentlemen,
A 2010 Eurobarometer survey showed that only 42% of Europeans know their rights, although on a positive note 72% would like to know more.
There are countless information and problem-solving networks at EU level. . A recent survey revealed that citizens moving across borders are frustrated by having to use multiple sources to find all the information they need. When asked for views, citizens say they favour a “one-stop-shop”: Europe must literally be at their fingertips, or a phone call away.
Just as we need to eliminate fragmentation in EU policy-making, so too should we must eliminate red tape on communication. We will remedy this through a streamlined and more coherent system: a one-stop-shop bringing together the virtual 'Your Europe' portal, the centralised Europe Direct contact centre with its toll-free number, plus the 500 Europe Direct Information Centres.
You, my friends, together with the Commission Representations, are the frontline. You are the public face, the eyes, ears and mouth of our policies and of the rights of citizens on the ground. I very much look forward to witnessing the results of your new mandate in proactively reaching out to people from all walks of life in our Member States. And I count on the Reps to make sure that the different networks work closely together to give citizens a seamless service.
There is no doubt about it: the Europe Direct Network has a crucial role to play in providing a direct link to people in their own country, speaking to them in a way that is both relevant and understandable to them.
You are the key partners in decentralising communication. You are close to people and know what issues they are concerned about and what kind of information will interest them. You can explain in simple language through familiar channels how EU policies affect their daily lives in their local communities. You can ensure they are more aware of their rights and how to enjoy them.
I want to congratulate you on your work date and thank you for your continued efforts in stimulating a European debate at local level. The figures for 2009 are staggering: a million personal contacts! Some 400 000 emails received and nearly a quarter of a million phone calls answered! This is real proximity communication!
I am pleased also that your efforts to increase EU visibility in the media have been successful. Team Europe members wrote over 600 articles, spoke over 400 times on radio and over 150 TV appearances. You have been busy… I like that!
I am impressed by the initiatives such as the one in the Veliko Tarnovo Information Centre in Bulgaria where you have set up a club for local and regional journalists to bring our messages to people living in the remote parts Bulgaria with your 'Europe on Wheels' initiative.
Another original project that grabbed my attention was the online game 'A Day without Europe' in which Spanish, German and Italian Information Centres took part. This is a very creative idea to look at what our lives would be like without the European Union.
This annual meeting gives you an opportunity to exchange ideas with your fellow members and to develop new communication initiatives. I invite you to take advantage of the training sessions, the new intranet and the range of information products, such as the thematic factsheets on fundamental rights, consumer protection, gender equality and free movement, to name just a few.
A Citizens' Europe – a Europe for and by the people – can only be built successfully if we ensure that people can exercise their rights, in full knowledge of what those rights are and how they benefit them.
Your role, as representatives of the Europe Direct Network cannot be underestimated in this task.
I count on you!