Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 1140 - 1156)

WEDNESDAY 7 JUNE 2000

MS ANNE HOUTMAN

  1140. What do you think about that?

  A. My feeling is that certainly we need better coherence among different Councils with co-operation among different Council formations. Obviously the multiplication of Councils dealing with similar issues like micro-economic issues, like industry and internal markets, is not a very efficient way but the fact is in Member States you have different ministers dealing with these issues and the problem is merely a practical problem. I would not call it a Competition Council, I might call it a Micro-Economic Council or Enterprise Council. Maybe a Competitivity Council, I do not know.

Chairman

  1141. We corrected ourselves earlier in the morning and forgot it.

  A. It is curious because competition is only one aspect of that. Helsinki called for an reorganisation and nothing happened but nothing happened because I think the structure in Member States is such that you would have to invite three ministers to that Micro-Economic Council, or whatever you call it. I am not sure that it would work very well. In an ideal world, yes. In an ideal world I think it is a good idea if there are no obstacles. I certainly think that it would gain efficiency to have that broader micro-economic vision of problems.

  1142. I know there is a problem with Member States and the way that they are structured in many respects and the Council represents that and this is the chicken and the egg, but we have to make a start somewhere. If they could effect reforms could there not consequently then be changes in the states themselves?

  A. There could be. The Commission has no power to say—

  1143. Subsidiarity.

  A. We can say that it would work more efficiently but I cannot see what the Commission can do to this except maybe saying "good idea".

  1144. The Commission can seek to reform itself, as you are in the process of doing at the moment. If we are being frank this morning, there are a lot of newspaper reports of one sort or another around and magazines commenting on what is happening in Brussels at the moment, that the drive is perhaps not as strong as some people believe it should be. Is that fair or unfair and, if there is a problem, what can be done to move things forward?

  A. It is a very important question. My very strong feeling is that this Commission is the best Commission we have had in 20 years. It is a Commission that works fantastically together. I have never seen Commissioners taking the initiative on working groups meeting together. Mr Prodi is a very collegial person, certainly the most collegial President I have ever seen.

  1145. Why is that not being conveyed out to the wider world?

  A. I do not think Mr Prodi is a person who thinks enough about communication. He is not someone who likes to put himself at the forefront. I can tell you a little anecdote. When we had the e-Europe initiative, we said "this is your initiative, you are leading this. It is your initiative, you go to the press conference and present it". We had the same thing with the Lisbon Paper, the Lisbon Paper was the President's paper. We said "you go to the press conference", and his first reaction was "yes, but I will take Mr Liikanen and Mrs Diamantopoulou because they worked very hard on this with me and it is a joint project". Then we said we need a slogan, we need something for the press.

  1146. Sound bites.

  A. Yes, sound bites. Something that is probably very anglo-saxon.

Lord Paul

  1147. Don't.

  A. It helps in communication. I fully recognise it would help in communication but Mr Prodi is not a slogan man, he is a man of ideas. He is like a very big boat, in the good direction and he goes ahead, he moves. He is doing a fantastic job. He is not interested in making publicity for what he does. He believes that if you do the right work -I think he is wrong on this and he recognises that now—if you do the good work people will end up recognising it. Maybe we need advice on communication. He has strong leadership in a very interesting way. When you see the Commission meeting, he has a very strong leadership. He has very strong ideas. He likes very open debates but he has got his own ideas. He is very influential but he does not like to put himself in the forefront. I suppose it is a question of temperament.

Viscount Brookeborough

  1148. Can I ask you a very simple question. Looking at reforms and the future of the IGC and what the reforms will mean for the future, which camp do you belong to? Do you belong to the camp that believes that the Commission cannot operate with more than 20 Commissioners in the future if there are more countries than 20, or do you believe that the number could increase and still be workable with the leadership that you have just talked about?

  A. I believe that if the Commission is to work well, whether it is with 20 or with 35, it will need some leaders on big portfolios and some others, more like the secretaries of state with respect to a ministerial system.

  1149. But you think it is possible, that it could work?

  A. I think it is possible with a certain form of organisation. My preference is for a smaller Commission but I understand that this poses the problem of credibility when we take decisions that concern certain Member States and the Member State is not present in the Commission. I recognise that it does pose problems.

Chairman

  1150. Do you think you will have a strike?

  A. In the Commission?

  1151. Yes, the people lower down. Stories have been around that if you try to put some of the reform proposals into place this may happen.

  A. I do not think so. I think the problem is more this problem of motivation. All of this press campaign is having a very negative effect inside the Commission and that is something I am very worried about. This is why I am trying to have as much as possible people coming to see Mr Prodi from services. I know all Commissions have had difficult times in the press. I have been checking with our press service and they have come up with press reports from other Commissions and it shows that in a way it is not worse than for other Commissions but it feels bad because it follows the fall of the previous Commission. I think the effect is worse than it has been in the past because there is also a feeling that the Commission is being questioned more than before.

  1152. The power is drifting possibly towards the Council.

  A. I am not sure. My feeling is that if you weaken the Commission you necessarily also weaken the Council and the Parliament, you weaken the whole triangle. That is what I think Member States have not integrated yet, they do not understand that by weakening the Commission they are weakening the whole institutiona l system and in the long run that is not in their best interests. The interests of the Member States are to have all three institutions working well. It is not a question of just the Commission. I think the danger of the drift now is toward inter-governmental game. It is something next to the institutions. It is not a question of the Commission with respect to the Council, the Council now is out for lots of things and that is wrong too.

Lord Paul

  1153. It is very pleasant to hear that. We think in Britain that after the great money and effort spent on the Dome the press is trying to destroy that. We also hope that the press does not end up destroying the Commission. It is nice to hear some comments like that and we wish you all the best.

  A. There are some pre-judgments in relation to the press and some mis-information which is very unfair. I say "you can see that your article is factually wrong" and they say "yes, we know, but the truth is not a story" and that is a very dangerous game for democracy.

Chairman

  1154. You have been very open with us this morning. I should say this is a formal session of taking evidence from you. We will send you a draft of what you have said and if you are unhappy—

  A. If I have said horrible things I will cross them out.

  Chairman: If you are unhappy about some of your statements being in the public domain you have the right to take them out.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

  1155. They will go into the published report.

  A. You should not publish a report saying I would like to scrap DG Enterprise.

Chairman

  1156. We will come back to you on this. We would not want to embarrass you or lead you to a position where you would not be so open as you have been. I agree entirely with what you have said about funding networks for research rather than individual projects, but my question comes back very quickly to what you said earlier about changing the culture. A lot of our witnesses have told us that e-commerce is going to change so many things, government and industry, and part of that will be changes not just in structure but changes in culture. I wonder whether there is an initiative to do something about this within the EU or are you just a lone voice in what you said earlier?

  A. No. As I said, e-commerce is an excellent example of an issue which has led to very positive development in the Commission. Spontaneously there is a group of Commissioners who have decided to meet regularly on this issue to co-ordinate because they have realised in their portfolios they have various aspects, like consumer protection, regulatory framework, legal issues, etc., and I am talking about Diamantopoulou, Byrne, Bolkestein, Liikanen, etc. They have decided to meet together and to support that group we have created a group of Cabinet Services and Secretariat, so it is a very good example of good co-ordination. We have now made a list that we can put on the web of all the initiatives that exist on e-commerce in the Commission, and which DG is in charge. We cannot put e-commerce in one unit, that is impossible. Necessarily there are different aspects and there is a logic in the way it is divided. I think there is a very good logic but what is needed is everyone should know what everyone else is doing and take account of it and keep talking to each other and have meetings where they can see what the overarching objective is. It is a good example of a field where the development of technology has helped in the Commission to create that co-ordination. On that issue I am very positive, that is one that really works well.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed, you have been very generous with your time.





 
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