EP Hearing – Androulla Vassiliou
Commisioner-Designate for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth
14 January 2010
On 14 January 2010 Cypriot Androulla Vassiliou – the Commissioner-Designate for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth – was heard by the members of the Education and Culture Committee and by some members of the Employment and Social Affairs Committee of the European Parliament.
All hearings for Commissioner-Designates have the same format: a 10 minute introduction by the Commissioner-Designate followed by an almost three-hour long question and answers’ session with the MEPs. The format of the questions and answers’ session is as follows: each question asked by an MEP cannot exceed 1 min, to which the answer given by the Commissioner-Designate cannot be longer than 2 minutes. The follow-up question by the MEP cannot exceed 1 min with the final answer by the Commissioner-Designate lasting maximum 1 minute. In case the question or answer is longer than allowed, the Chair stops the speaker.
The hearings are based on written responses to a general questionnaire submitted to each Commissioner-Designate. Read the replies of Androulla Vassiliou to this questionnaire.
The hearing of Androulla Vassiliou took place in a rather empty room – the MEPs were going in and out and many seats in the rows were left empty.
During the Q&A session, Vassiliou’s responses tended to be limited to what falls completely within the field of her competence. She therefore focused the responses around the following dossiers: the education and youth programmes (Youth on the Move and Marie Curie in particular), digitalisation and heritage. However, the Culture Programme, which is within her portfolio, was not covered.
Importantly, she did not refer even once to the European Agenda for Culture neither in her speech nor in the Q&A session, although she did refer to it in her written response to the MEPs.
Introduction speech by the Commissioner-Designate
Androulla Vassiliou welcomed the new portfolio she was assigned – Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth – as a portfolio that directly addresses the needs of European citizens and for which she will be able to build on her previous experience as the Health Commissioner.
To start with, Androulla Vassiliou mentioned as a first priority for her future mandate education and training in order to enhance European citizens’ skills and qualifications. This in the perspective to help Europeans meet the needs of the current economy in the crisis context and to prepare them for the future challenges of the job market. A leeway for the implementation of those education policy objectives are, in her view, mobility championed through existing programmes as well as the synergies between education, research and business.
Androulla Vassiliou also highlighted the role of creativity in relation to the future EU 2020 strategy and Barroso’s political guidelines. She reminded the MEPs about the forthcoming Green Paper on creative industries (to be published in June 2010) and called for the responsibility of the Member States to also support a creative environment at national level.
As for the digital agenda, Vassiliou intends to co-operate closely with Neelie Kroes – the Commissioner-Designate on this topic – to find an adequate balance between copyright protection and access to culture for all.
Another area of Vassiliou’s responsibility is heritage. In this context she will seek to further implement the European Heritage Label in order to enshrine European common values and to build European citizenship. Otherwise she rarely referred to heritage in the questions and answers’ session.
Vassiliou welcomed the fact that media has been re-integrated in her portfolio; as media, according to her, is a privileged vector to express culture and cultural diversity. Her agenda in this area will focus on the digitalisation of the cinemas and its impact on films’ distribution.
At the end of her speech she mentioned the importance of the UNESCO convention as a tool to enable mainstreaming of cultural priorities in other policy areas.
Questions and answers’ session
Asked by Finnish liberal MEP Takkula about the issue of European cooperation in the field of education, the Commissioner-Designate highlighted the importance of increasing standards via the Open Method of Coordination and particularly benchmarking to achieve excellence.
Chairwoman of the Education and Culture Committee, German conservative Pack asked about the lifelong learning programme and the possible ways for the inclusion of teachers’ mobility into it. Ms Vassiliou’s affirmative response felt short of concrete steps, recalling however that the mobility of teachers is crucial for education.
British Social Democrat, Honeyball, inquired about Vassilliou’s opinion on the social dimension of the future EU 2020 strategy. Vassilliou supported once again education for all – enhancing skills and knowledge as a way to better equip citizens for employment.
Danish Liberal Lokkegaard pointed out that today even graduates remain unemployed and inquired about Vassiliou’s solutions to this problem. She answered by highlighting the importance of partnerships between business and universities, recalling the knowledge triangle (education, research, innovation).
French Green Benarab-Attou posed a question on ensuring access to basic skills and demanded an increase in the budget of the programmes on education. Vassiliou did not make any promises, replying that the financial increase is a budgetary question on which she has no influence, but promised to advocate for it. She recalled that new benchmarking for literacy should also come out this year.
French Green MEP Vergiat questioned the Commissioner-Designate on concrete measures to improve access to education and culture. In response, Vassilliou mentioned Europeana – the online digital library – and called for cooperation with the Member States to elaborate similar solutions at national level.
Danish Conservative MEP Messerschmidt criticised the EC money spent in the last years on building European citizenship, giving examples of projects that for him failed in such an enterprise. ‘How would you assure that the tax payers money is not wasted?’, ‘would you consider past actions as a waste?’ and ‘how will you build European identity?’ – were the questions that followed this critique. Vassilliou diplomatically evaded a direct response regarding money-waste by giving her promise to ensure that future funds will be used in a fruitful manner i.e. supporting projects close to citizens. This rather limited reply regarding EU identity building was underpinned by the examples of the European Heritage Label and the European Capitals of Culture.
Debates on multilingualism concentrated around minority languages’ rights, sparked by a recent Slovakian language law, which has a negative spill-over effect on the Hungarian minority. Vassiliou reminded MEPs the fact that minority rights are protected by the overarching Human Rights framework to which the Member States should abide, but also that the EC has no direct competence on the topic. She however said that the EC will introduce a new benchmarking system on multilingualism in 2012.
French conservative MEP Sanchez-Schimmt asked about the implementation of the UNESCO convention. Vassiliou advocated for its ratification by all States (EU and non-EU). She also referred to the cultural co-operation protocol in the EU trade agreements, a direct consequence of the ratification of this convention by the EU, and claimed that multiculturalism and protection of cultural diversity should constitute the precondition for any co-operation agreement between the EU and third countries.
A precise question coming from German Socialist Fleckenstein, based on the EUNIC example, asked her opinion on using culture as part of EU foreign policy. In her answer, she did not refer to the third objective of the European Agenda for Culture, which states that the promotion of culture should be a vital element in the EU international relations. Instead she mentioned once again the importance of the UNESCO convention.
Many MEPs inquired about sport priorities, as the Lisbon Treaty gives a new competence to the EU in this area. Vassiliou said she will privilege the role of sports in social terms – addressing violence and racism in the sport area and the use of sport in connection to other policy areas such as health.
At the end of the hearing, questions were raised about media, digitalisation and audiovisual policies. What role for public media in the EU? What about public broadcasting? Vassiliou replied that media should be supported, in particular to protect against the widespread influence of American culture and to diminish the concentration of media ownership.
Towards the end of the Q&A session, Vassiliou clearly felt comfortable and did indeed score better. Most worrying for Culture Action Europe was the lack of direct reference to a forward looking vision for arts and culture in the EU in general, and to the European Agenda for Culture in particular.
The final vote and confirmation by the EP on the new Commission will take place at the beginning of February 2010.