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Vice-President of the European Commission, EU Justice Commissioner
Mapping the road towards a true European Area of Justice
Assises de la Justice/Brussels
22 November 2013
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me start by thanking you. Your ideas and your enthusiasm have turned this conference into a lively, thought-provoking discussion. Of course we have not found answers to all the challenges ahead of us, and of course we sometimes disagreed.
But what is important is that we are having debates like these ones. Debates that are open and transparent. That is how it should be in a democracy. For me it is clear that this European Area of Justice we are in the process of creating needs to be grounded in trust – mutual trust between those making and applying the law, and trust in the system by those who use it: citizens and businesses.
The future of justice should not only be determined by national and European officials behind closed doors. I can tell you about my experience from the past four years: again and again, some national Justice Ministers have shouted at me: "Why on earth is the European Commission making this proposal?" And whenever I told them "It is foreseen in the Stockholm Programme", they either looked at me in disbelief or honestly said: "Look, I never read this programme."
This is not a good way to make policies: first our Heads of State and Government agree on a solemn programme with 170 actions, and then their own ministers criticise the Commission for implementing it. Do you really think David Cameron knows what the British government agreed to in the Stockholm Programme when he criticises bureaucrats in Brussels for implementing it?
Ladies and gentlemen, this method of making politics by national officials hiding in the Council building and then accusing the Commission of too much legislation must be brought to an end. Let us transparently agree, in public, what needs to be done to strengthen justice, one of the building blocks of the EU's integration process. Let us avoid 5-year-programmes made up of the pet projects of national justice officials.
What we do in the coming years in this policy area and how we do it needs to be discussed in the open, in a healthy debate involving people, institutions and groups that can be held accountable.
And our debate here is of course just one step on the way, if an important one. I have been listening to you – and I will continue to listen. You are more than welcome to submit your contributions to the European Commission until the end of the year if you have not done so already. Taking your views into account, the Commission will publish a Communication presenting an overview of the discussion on future EU justice policy to the European Parliament and the Council. This can then frame the political debate with the next European Parliament and the next Commission.
1/ Looking forward: A European area of Justice at the service of both citizens and growth
Of course, I also have some ideas for the future of justice policy in our Union. And I would like to take this opportunity to share them with you.
Firstly, by 2020, we should be able to see the fruits of our focus on Justice for Citizens and Justice for Growth, two strands of policy that have been at the centre of my time as Justice Commissioner. And secondly, by 2020, we should see more clearly that our national legal systems have found and developed effective and innovative ways of working together. National justice systems and practitioners that are united in a structure which allows them to continue their traditions, but that has enabled a true European Area of Justice to come into being.
Let me start with Justice for Citizens. More and more, Europeans are taking advantage of the benefits the Single Market offers them and the rights conferred on them by the Treaty. They cross borders to live, work, raise a family. In other cases, they cross borders in a virtual sense, when they buy goods on the internet, for instance.
This works well a lot of the time. But not always. Citizens still experience difficulties when they try to enjoy the same rights they have at home in another Member State. Whether it is about getting redress or defending themselves in a court case, citizens can run into frustrating hurdles that can, in the worst case, deprive them of their rights and deny them justice.
We need to overcome this. Citizens need to feel safe and at ease wherever they are in the EU. In 2020, it should no longer matter where a citizen tries to enjoy his or her rights. They should be able to rely on justice being done in every case, everywhere. Whether it is about resolving family or contractual disputes, the service of documents or procedural rights, location should not be an issue.
In particular, they should know that the authorities and courts in all Member States fully respect and act on the legal decisions, acts and judgments of all other Member States. It should not make a difference, for example, whether a German judge in Bavaria receives a judgment for enforcement issued in Hamburg or in Sofia. A bailiff in Warsaw should give the same respect to a payment order issued in Madrid as they would give to one from Krakow. In 2020, justice should know no borders in the European Union.
Of course, this should also be valid for businesses. The term Justice for Growth may have become mainstream – and that is already a success in itself, though we still need to do more to make managers and entrepreneurs aware of the fact that justice policy is among those things that affect their bottom line.
For sustained growth we need investment. But no money will flow unless investors and business are absolutely sure that justice systems are capable of delivering swift, effective, reliable and trustworthy justice. Companies need to be confident they will be able to enforce contracts and handle litigation throughout the Union, without encountering the inexplicable diversity in standards – for example, in the time taken to get a court judgment – that we find today. By 2020, businesses should operate in the knowledge that there is an effective EU rescue and recovery policy in place for handling insolvencies which gives them a second chance.
2/ A European area of Justice built on mutual trust
In short, in 2020, I see both citizens and businesses being able and happy to take full advantage of all that is offered by the European Union, including our Single Market. But how do we get there? Here I come back to what I talked about yesterday. How can we make progress in giving our citizens and businesses the same confidence to venture across judicial borders as they would staying at home?
One solution would certainly be to resort to a harmonisation of national rules. I think in some cases, this could be justifiable, where the mutual recognition approach to judicial cooperation proves unable to tackle the barriers between legal systems on its own.
But I believe it is also possible to find new ways ahead, which preserve these national systems, and which therefore respect the rich diversity of our existing legal systems and traditions – as signalled in Article 67 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. In order to the meet the expectations of citizens and businesses, we will have to be innovative.
A few examples are already pointing in the direction we need to go. First, look at our proposal for a Common European Sales Law. This is a new approach to completing the Single Market by proposing an optional set of EU-wide rules specifically for cross-border contracts. This will not replace current national contract law, but co-exist with it, as a second regime of contract law identical in every Member State, available for contractors when they find it useful, and providing full protection to consumers. A good wine takes a while to mature – and the same applies to a new contract law regime. But we should not wait too long to help our businesses to export more easily in the Single Market.
Second, for another forward-looking instrument, take the European Small Claims Procedure. This week I have come out with a proposal to further boost the effectiveness of this procedure. This is a real European procedure for cross-border cases that is – like the Common European Sales Law - designed to help consumers and businesses navigate the Single Market – a complement to national procedural law, not a replacement of it.
But the benefits of innovative thinking should not be confined to the Single Market. They can also be used in other areas, such as to protect the EU budget against fraud: by establishing a European Public Prosecutor with a decentralised structure. Here the innovative thinking has been spelt out in the Treaty itself. Delegated European Prosecutors will carry out the investigations and prosecutions in Member States, using national staff and applying national law. Their actions will be coordinated by the central European Public Prosecutor to ensure a uniform approach throughout the Union.
So what would I like to see by 2020?
I envisage an EU system of justice built on bringing together national justice systems in innovative and pragmatic ways to make sure citizens and businesses get real justice.
I see a future Justice Commissioner – an EU Minister for Justice – taking the helm at central level, giving EU justice policy a face and, of course, held accountable to the European Parliament. A Justice Minister to build bridges and mutual trust between Europe's diverse national legal orders in the interests of Europe's citizens and businesses.
This would help us to address the external dimension of the European area of justice. Externally, we are still working very much in pre-Lisbon mode, and I think this is not always leading to efficient results.
I have just come back from a Justice and Home affairs Ministerial with our US counterparts. It was a constructive meeting, but during the meeting, I saw how my US colleague, Attorney-General Eric Holder, sometimes looked a bit puzzled at the Europeans. Not so much at Commissioner Cecilia Malmström and me, he has known us well since 2010.
But there were, once again, many other people around the table. Two Ministers from the current Lithuanian presidency, for example. And also the future Greek presidency. I like my Lithuanian and Greek colleagues a lot. But we should not forget that US Attorney General Holder has seen eight different presidencies at the table since 2010.
And I can understand that he looked a bit irritated when, on the important matter of data protection, the Lithuanian presidency told the meeting that the data protection directive in the law enforcement field will not happen in early 2014, while the incoming Greek presidency made clear five minutes later that it will happen, thereby agreeing with the Commission.
It does not matter who is right or wrong on this. What matters is that with such appearances, the EU risks losing all global influence on these matters. It is for a good reason that trade matters are negotiated by Karel de Gucht, who then reports back to Parliament and Council committees here in Brussels. Because we need, after internal coordination, one voice to represent Europe at global level. I would hope that we achieve this also in the external relations of justice policies once the transitional phase of the Lisbon Treaty will have come to an end next year.
I am sure we will have many more fruitful debates on all these questions. I am looking forward to them.