The Czech Vera Jourova appeared on the 1st of October in front of the European Parliament in order to answer the oral questions of the members of Internal Market and Consumer Protection; Legal Affairs; Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs and Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committees. During her initial speech Mrs. Jourova declared which were her priorities and commitments if she will be the next Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality. She declared that she will work in order to build a fairer single market which is possible only through a functioning justice system. This “is a prerequisite for economic growth and a business friendly environment” and will stimulate cross-border trade.
Mrs. Jourova declared that she will work in order to assure that people have more choice, more rights and more protection whether they take important decisions, such as where to live and what to become in life, or smaller decisions, such as purchasing online or offline. She also committed herself to work towards a more effective protection of vulnerable groups, such as Roma, children and women.
The first Committee to ask questions was JURI and the main issues were linked to Company Law, the role of SMEs, the recognition of public documents, judicial cooperation and access to justice.
With regard to Company Law, Mrs. Jourova stated that her aim is to remove administrative barriers for SMEs and stabilise legal environment in order to allow them to predict operations. There are some proposals for simplification in the Commission now and she will work to push forward these initiatives. All companies should be encouraged to grow in Europe but also outside Europe and this means greater harmonization of legal systems in the area of Company Law. The Commissioner Designate also declared that it should be easier for companies to change headquarter and move to another Member State, and this should be done without giving up the employees’ rights or consumers’ rights. An initiative which should help the cross-border trade is the proposal for Common European Sales Law which has the support of the European Parliament. It will represent an alternative to national contracts laws for those companies involved in cross-border trade. In the views of the Commissioner Designate this can be done by protecting both consumers’ interests and also companies, therefore she will support this directive.
Robert Rocheford asked for specific commitments from her with regard to the online dispute resolution system (ODR). Mrs. Jourova replied that the system is being tested right now and it will be available at the beginning of 2015 in all EU official languages for presentations in the Parliament. Furthermore she declared also that the CESL is a good instrument to protect the interests of the consumers and that she will work with all her colleagues in order to assure that consumers are protected adequately in all the fields of action of the Commission. Mrs Jourova declared herself ready to fight against online misleading advertising which targets children and elder people and she is also decided to finalise the approval of product safety package by the Council.
The Single Market is also about people moving from a MS to another and Cristina Windberg declared that art. 21 of TFEU is an aberration because it should allow people to visit their relatives but instead of that, it was used to invade other EU Member States, bring criminality, begging in the streets and engaging in illegal work. The Czech replied that free movement of people is essential to the Single Market. Every Member State presents a different situation when it comes to freedom of movement, but there are very good instruments to tackle abuse, in any case, the Commission is monitoring the situation and it will propose solutions.
When asked about one of the key priorities for the justice agenda she declared that the main issue is mutual trust between Member States. One important point is that of the recognition of national public documents from other Member States, which is essential when private citizens decide to contract marriage or start a business, or simply move to another country. Mrs. Jourova will try to convince Member States but for now the idea is that this should be limited to civil law documents and only for privates, excluding companies.
Mr. Lopez- Aguilar asked about the EPPO and the other available instruments in the field of justice. Mrs. Jourova is convinced about the validity of the EPPO, which will contribute to build a bridge between justice systems. The cooperation between EPPO, Europol, Eurojust and OLAF has been considered in the Eurojust reform proposal. The structure of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, the links to national justice systems and competences are a matter of long debate but the proposals are there and they are good proposals, hence she hopes that MS will understand its purpose.
Emil Radev posed the problem of the lack of trust by citizens, legal practitioners and judges in the decisions taken in other States. The reply was that much work is needed in order to trust the independence of institutions of other Member States and for this reason it is necessary to promote a good implementation of legislation, communication and cooperation between legal practitioners and also training for all those involved in this filed.
Ms Wikström posed the question of a wider use of the European Scoreboard, such as monitoring the respect of fundamental righst. Mrs. Jourova replied that EU Justice Scoreboard, which provides data on the quality, independency and efficiency of justice systems on the Member States, is an efficient instrument in civil law in the framework of European Semester but for now it will not be extended to monitor the respect of fundamental rights. Mrs. Jourova also underlined the necessity to use also other tools to evaluate the justice system but without mentioning them.
Touching the issue of data protection, Mr. Voss asked if she will be able to abrogate the Safe Harbour if the agreement on common standards is not to be reached between US and EU. The Czech outlined that data protection and privacy of EU citizens are at stake here and no compromise is possible, nevertheless it would be irresponsible to cancel the Safe Harbour agreement. The solution lays in finding alternative instruments. With regard to data protection, she also declared that it is necessary to restore trust between EU and US after the revelations of Edward Snowden on the NSA spying American citizens.
Data protection system reform in Europe pursues the important objective to increase the trust of people in online transactions but also to assure that their data is protected. Within six months the reform should be achieved and this seemed a tight deadline to Mr. Albrecht but Mrs. Jourova seemed determined to go achieve this in the established time frame.
The hearing also saw a great number of questions who dealt with discrimination and the possible solutions to that. Sophie ‘t in Veld asked about a roadmap to fight the discrimination against LGBT. The Commissioner Designate considers that anti-discrimination directive should cover these cases and in the end is the task of Member States to tackle discrimination against LGBT, since they are those responsible for the implementation of all the instruments available. The strategy would be that of deciding priorities, find answers and decide responsibilities. Jean Lambert went back to this issue and asked for further information on the strategy. One answer would be the adopting of the horizontal anti-discrimination directive which would deal with all types of discrimination but there is resistance from some Member States who may have their reasons, Mrs. Jourova admitted, but went on declaring that there is the necessity to tackle them and remove barriers.
Marie-Christine Vergiat called the attention to discrimination against Roma people, and the recent case of Czech Republic which should answer to the EU on Roma children situation in education system. This country has two months to remedy the fact that Roma children are being put into schools for children with learning disabilities. On this point the Commissioner Designate was very clear that Roma inclusion is a difficult issue and multi-level cooperation between EU, Member States, local authorities and civil society is needed in order to improve the situation of these people. She believes that the key to all the efforts is mutual understanding. According to Mrs. Jourova, the solution may stand in the success in including Roma people in the labour market. In order to do so, we need to solve some other problems, such as access to education, to housing, to health care systems and consequently to the labour market.
Mrs. Jourova stated that all people coming to EU must respect European laws, in response to the question on Islam and the lack of equality between men and women. She added that people coming from Islamic states are not the only ones who violate women’s rights.
The last Committee to ask questions was FEMM Committee and the main issues faced were the Women on Board Directive, Maternity Leave Directive, violence against women and the pay gap and pensions gap problems.
In this field Mrs. Jourova was convincing and determined to improve the overall situation of women. She declared that “Some things we cannot change from tradition, but I do not see why I should earn less money. I have encountered cases myself where I was less payed and less heard. This we must change.”
Constance Le Grip asked about her strategy towards Women on Boards directive with the Council. Mrs. Jourova outlined the importance of this directive in order to break the glass ceiling. The board-members now are 90 % men while 60% of university graduates are women. The aim is to put the Women on Boards Directive back on the agenda with a view to its adoption in 2015. If approved, this directive should be enforced by States which would decide the nature of sanctions for companies which infringe it. Linked to this matter, there is also the problem of representation of women within the Commission. Terry Reintke raised this issue and asked the Commissioner Designate if she will engage in a project to convince MS to appoint one man and one woman for the next Commission but the Czech replied that this is a matter that is too far from her now. Nevertheless she promised that she will present proposals with regard to a fairer gender-balance in the Commission.
Maria Arena called attention on the Maternity Leave Directive and asked Mrs. Jourova if she will work on the existing text. She responded that the action plan is that of tackling the procedure obstacles. This directive should be reopened also because is not only about women and their rights. It impacts also men and the family rights. This directive should be able to support both parents so it is to be approved next year.
It is difficult situation for women who get trapped between career and the care of family, both with respect to children and parents. But this situation needs a more comprehensive answer. States should be able to offer more child care and pre-school structures. One important source could be the Structural funds which should be also used for aiding harmonization of family and career for women. The problem is not only economic, although feminisation of poverty is another critical topic, it is a result of modern society and it needs multilevel interventions. The EU could organise campaigns in order to raise awareness on the matter and also use the EU Social Fund to tackle this matter.
Catherine Bearder demanded which will be the EU approach to tackle the plight of violence against women. Mrs. Jourova said: « When I think of protection, I think of the plight of women who suffer violence, be it domestic violence or the inhumane practice of female genital mutilation. These are incompatible with everything the European Union stands for. The victims of such violence need our voice. » The Istanbul Convention should be signed and ratified by all MS and she committed herself to convince them to do so. Although, she added, it is impossible to eradicate this from societies but we must use every available instrument, legislative and no legislative, such as debates to find out if it is needed a special legislation like in US.
The questions asked to Mrs. Jourova covered big issues but she managed to answer almost all of them, although the time at her disposal was very brief. During the press conference she stated that there were some technical details that she did not know, and some questions which she was not able to answer to but she believes that a Commissioner should not know every single detail of the portfolio assigned. She certainly seemed more convincing on some issues, such as gender equality, but she failed to present a roadmap for the fight against discrimination of LGBT.
Mrs. Jourova declared to be more interested in soft law instruments, than in proposing new directives. The key words of her hearing were “cooperation” and “dialogue” among Commissioners and with the Member States in order to find alternative solutions. In her view, we need to strengthen the instruments already available, especially those in the field of judicial cooperation, make sure that the existing directives are implemented and approve those directive which are still “work in progress”.
(Ana Daniela Sanda)
To know more:
-. Common European Sales Law http://ec.europa.eu/justice/contract/cesl/index_en.htm
-. Online Dispute Resolution http://ec.europa.eu/consumers/solving_consumer_disputes/non-judicial_redress/adr-odr/index_en.htm
-. European Public Prosecutor’s Office http://ec.europa.eu/justice/criminal/judicial-cooperation/public-prosecutor/index_en.htm
-. Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) http://www.coe.int/t/dghl/standardsetting/convention-violence/default_en.asp
-. Women on Boards Directive http://ec.europa.eu/justice/newsroom/gender-equality/news/121114_en.htm