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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Commissioners should come from among the MEPs

by  Dan Alexe

“If they came from the ranks of the MEPs, Commissioners would know that they had been elected. They wouldn’t be accused anymore of being mere bureaucrats.” (Danuta Hubner)

Danuta Hubner, Polish MEP, is a former Commissioner for regional policy and development in the first Barroso Commission. New Europe asked her whether, during her mandate, she would have foreseen such a decline in cohesion and solidarity between the various regions of the EU, and more precisely between the north and the south of the continent, as we witness today.

Danuta Hubner: First of all, in those years, between 2004-5-6, I would have never guessed that there would be a crisis. A lot of unthinkable things happened since then. The crisis has affected the member states in an unequal way. Some countries have been more affected than others. Convergence has been reduced. The convergence machinery, the intra-EU trade and investment, has also started to slow down. The destructuring of convergence had already started long before the crisis hit us. But, without doubt, the crisis deepened it.

New Europe: But what happened with solidarity? You come from Poland. You know the deep meaning of “Solidarity”. Why did we end up talking only about money and the markets? Was the present neoliberal drive already present during the first Barroso term? In the last years we only heard about banks and markets. Where are the people in this equation?

Danuta Hubner: It depends with whom you are talking. I took part in many debates across the EU, and I must say that there is a lot of talk about solidarity, and even concrete acts of solidarity. Let’s take Greece. Were it not for European solidarity, or for the common currency, we wouldn’t have been able to help Greece the way we did. Or we couldn’t avoid negative consequences, a spill-over from Greece into the other countries. The challenge for solidarity is that you need financial support for it to function. It’s not only about saying “We are with you, guys”, but also about being able to say “Here is how we can help.” Let’s not forget that those who are helped by others also have to deliver.

New Europe: If you need money in order to show solidarity, then why does popular wisdom say that solidarity is stronger among the poor?

Danuta Hubner: Europe is not only a symbol, but also a network of solidarity. Of course, it was easier in the beginning, for the six founding members, because they had the same level of development, but then, with every enlargement, we had poorer countries joining the EU. The 10 that joined in 2004 were really poor. Then, after Romania and Bulgaria joined, the difference between the richest and poorest regions of Europe became something like 12 to 1. The differences are enormous, but we still have to function in the same internal market, and the philosophy is that we all have the right to the same benefits, regardless of whether we live in the poorest, or in the richest region. That’s why we have a regional policy after all, the sector I have been in charge of. We generously support the poorest regions to catch up.

New Europe: In order for democracy to function, the leading elites have to be credible. Your own example shows that. In 2009, when you decided to run in the European elections in Poland, you quit your job as a Commissioner. Now we see seven Commissioners (six, plus one remaining on the job) taking a leave of absence in order to run in the EU elections.

Danuta Hubner: I see what you are driving at. It is a legal issue, I agree. The Commission acts in line with the existing rules, so if we want to change, we have to have a discussion.

That can only be done after the elections. You cannot blame anybody now for acting in the frame of what the rules allow. Let me take the opportunity to say that we all would like to see Commissioners coming from among the elected.

New Europe: You mean from among the MEPs?

Danuta Hubner: Yes, from among the MEPs. Commissioners will then know that they had been elected. They wouldn’t be accused anymore of being mere bureaucrats.

That would be a plus in credibility. I know that now there is a commissioner who will run and, although he did not ask for a leave of absence, has also announced that he would not take his seat in the Parliament, were he to pass the threshold in the elections.

We know this tradition of popular leaders sitting on a list and then stepping down and letting someone else take their place, which is not really honest. It’s like cheating on the voters. As an ordinary citizen of the EU, I don’t like these tricks.

New Europe: Let’s talk about Ukraine. As a Polish politician you have a more authoritative opinion than many Western politicians. Do you see any solution in the near future?

Danuta Hubner: I cant see a quick solution, and I can’t see Russia leaving Crimea anytime soon. We should give the Ukrainian business community more access to the EU markets. We also have to wait until the Ukrainian elections and untul a new government is in place, in order to sign the Association agreement with them.

New Europe: To end on a diplomatic note: everybody has seen the tape in which the Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, mediating in Kiev between Yanukovych and those who were then the leaders of the opposition leaving the meeting room by telling them: “You sign or you die.” The brutality of the formula shocked more than one. Is this the Polish way to handle diplomacy?

Danuta Hubner: It was very unconventional even for us. He was criticised by some, praised by others. I think he wanted to express the importance of that crucial moment... and he really thought that hundreds of people would be killed on the Maidan. For him it was a metaphor, a very strong one. He wasn’t being cynical, it was something coming from his heart.