EESC chief signals fresh start for ‘voice of EU civil society’

The EESC is “more relevant than ever” at a time of growing populism and anti-EU rhetoric, says President Christa Schweng in an interview with Martin Banks.
Christa Schweng

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

03 Feb 2021

Christa Schweng was elected President of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) on 28 October 2020 for a period of two and a half years, to run until March 2023. She has been an EESC member since 1998.

 

Can you update us on the current situation regarding the allegations made against the EESC? Has there been a resolution and, if so, what is it?

Allegations were made on the basis of one of the EESC members. This person is accused of inappropriate behaviour and harassment. The case is now in the hands of the Belgian legal system and the EESC is cooperating fully with the relevant authorities. I have full confidence in the Belgian authorities and I hope the proceedings can be brought to a swift close.

Learning from past experiences and shortcomings and based on the Ombudsman's recommendations and the European Parliament's observations, on 28 January the EESC plenary session voted to strengthen its Code of Conduct, providing for rules and procedures to prevent misconduct, including harassment, more effectively in the future. Should, despite our efforts, any kind of misconduct occur, we will act to resolve the situation quickly, impartially and objectively. A newly‑establishes ethical committee has been given clearly-defined investigatory powers, and in the event of proven misconduct, a range of sanctions appropriate to the misbehaviour will apply.

How damaging has this been for the reputation and image of the EESC? What were the underlying causes/reasons for what happened?

Indeed, 2020 was a rocky year for the EESC. The case of alleged harassment damaged our image and resulted in the European Parliament refusing to grant the EESC budget discharge for 2018.

We learned a lesson. As soon as I took up office as President at the end of October 2020, I started the work on addressing the shortcomings pointed out by MEPs. The reinforced code of conduct follows the guidelines set out by the European Parliament, along with recommendations from the Ombudsman and the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF).

 As for the underlying causes, I believe that the revision of our code of conduct clears things up. Key elements for me are a clear commitment to prevention, impartial investigation in the case of alleged misconduct and strict sanctions where misconduct is proven.

One may ask why a person accused of harassment remains an EESC member. Despite the negative recommendation from the Commission, the national government maintained the nomination of the member and the Council of the EU reappointed the member for this term. The EESC President has no impact on the composition of the Committee.

How will you personally go about correcting the mistakes of the past and improving the image of the EESC?

At the inauguration ceremony when I took up office, I announced a zero-tolerance approach to any kind of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace - be it by members or staff. Since then we have been acting on that pledge and revising the code of conduct is just a first step. I also discussed with OLAF how we can work together better and more closely.

The house of European civil society has to meet the highest ethical and professional standards. I will continue to work to restore both the EESC's and our own reputations and rebuild trust and credibility both externally and in-house.

Turning the page on that matter will allow us to focus on our key role: ensuring that organised European civil society provides timely, high-quality contributions to the EU legislative process. We talk to our partners to know what kind of feedback would be of most use for them.

“The house of European civil society has to meet the highest ethical and professional standards. I will continue to work to restore both the EESC's and our own reputations and rebuild trust and credibility both externally and in-house”

Aside from this, what do you hope to achieve during your tenure?

Two and a half years as President is not as long as one might expect, so I am focusing on evolution rather than revolution. I would like to steer the EESC towards rethinking and adjusting its role so that we can better meet the needs of our stakeholders and respond more effectively to a new, post-COVID‑19 reality.

We want to be active in the recovery process. Our members will examine on the ground how countries implement the recovery plans and whether the huge amount of money available really does reach those in need. We will also work on our contribution to the political resolution for the Social Summit in Porto, which needs to pave the way for societal, social and economic progress in Europe.

We would also like to play an active role in the Conference on the Future of Europe. Europe's new narrative needs to be future-proof and convincing for its businesses, workers and civil society stakeholders. The EESC needs to make sure that experience and grassroots ideas are taken on board when the future of Europe is mapped out.

The EESC has an important role to play. Our work differs from that of lobbyists. They push for particular interests; we seek common ground between employers, workers and NGOs.

What are the main challenges facing the EESC?

To some extent, they are the same as those facing the other EU institutions and other organisations. We need to get the most out of the “new normal” and our online, remote working methods. Achieving compromise on EU policies is easier face-to-face.

On the other hand, nowadays we can travel virtually throughout the EU in just a few clicks - we can be faster, more flexible and we can engage with even more people.

Another challenge we are facing is how to reaffirm the importance of finding common ground among the three EESC groups. Our added value lies in the fact that we achieve one common denominator, which we present to the European institutions and the Member States.

Can the EESC remain relevant at a time of growing populism and anti-EU rhetoric?

I would say that at a time of populism and anti-EU rhetoric the EESC becomes more relevant than ever. Why? Populism and anti-EU rhetoric grow with a lack of information or disinformation about the EU. The EESC acts as a bridge, as a transmitter. We bring the voice of organised civil society to policymakers in Brussels but our members - coming from organisations that represent all parts of society - also take Europe home to their local communities.

They explain the impact Europe has on the daily lives of entrepreneurs, employees, consumers and so on. They play an important educational role, informing people about what the EU is doing.

“I would like to steer the EESC towards rethinking and adjusting its role so that we can better meet the needs of our stakeholders and respond more effectively to a new, post-COVID‑19 reality”

How badly missed will the UK and its members be? What will you miss most about the UK and its members how that Brexit has come to pass?

We will definitely miss their unique, common sense approach to EU regulations in general, and to trade and the single market in particular.

In our daily work on opinions, our British colleagues often brought an unconventional point of view, enriching the discussion and reminding us how multidimensional European integration is. We already miss, and will continue to miss, their sense of humour.

Within its remit, the EESC will be monitoring the implementation of the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement. We would also like to find a new, permanent formula for future cooperation with UK civil society.

What do you hope your legacy will be at the end of your term?

I started working for the EESC 22 years ago, and since then my motivation has remained the same: to make the EU a better place.

By the end of my term I hope to restore the EESC's reputation and credibility in the eyes of the other EU institutions and the public, and to regain their trust. Members and staff should be proud to work for our institution.

I hope to provide the EESC's valuable expertise to policymakers. I hope to ensure that the EESC makes a powerful contribution to Europe's recovery and resilience. Furthermore, I want to have increased the EESC's involvement in turning the digital and green transitions to the best advantage for European citizens and businesses.

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