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European Commissioner

Having asked a few questions about the United Nations from the UK's permanent representative last month we thought we would learn a little bit about the European Commission and interview Maroš Šefčovič who currently is the Member of the European Commission responsible for Education, Training, Culture and Youth i.e. us!

These are the questions we asked:-

 

1. Most of the children we asked have not heard of the European Commission let alone your office, do you think that it is important that they should? What difference would it make to them?

The European Commission is very important in your day-to-day lives, even if you don't realise it.. It's a vital part of the European Union. We work very closely with the UK's government in a whole range of things. This year, for example, we worked together to make rules that protect animals on land and in the oceans. The result is that the EU has made it illegal to put seal products on the market.

Or you may have heard your parents complaining about the price of using their mobile phones when on holiday abroad. Well, there, it was the European Commission that introduced rules that prevent mobile phone companies from overcharging holiday makers for phone calls made while they're abroad. Mums and Dads everywhere were very pleased about that! Another example that I could give is in the area of environmental protection. The environment is precious, and we owe it to you, our children, and our children's children, to keep the environment as clean as possible. So, the European Commission proposed new rules to cut down on harmful pollutants from petrol or pesticides.

In the area of schooling, you might have heard about 'eTwinning'. This is a part of the EU's 'Comenius Programme'. It's a great way for schools around Europe to get together over the internet and form 'virtual partnerships'. More than 63,000 schools around Europe are signed up already. You can find out more about this here: http://www.etwinning.net/en/pub/index.htm

 

 

FACT: In the June 2009 European Parliamentary elections 68.4% of registered voters in Cardiff West did not take part even in a postal vote. It is important that when you reach 18 you vote.

2. One of our jobs is to promote the United Nations Rights of the Child. How do you promote Children’s Rights?

Since 2007, the European Commission's main funding programme in the area of youth, the 'Youth in Action' Programme, can fund projects for children from the age of 13. Many of the Youth in Action programme's projects—that's 7000 projects involving 130 000 participants each year—include an element of dealing with children's rights, as they foster children's and young people's participation, social inclusion and intercultural understanding.

The EU has a new way of working together in the area of children's rights: we call it the Renewed Framework for European Cooperation in the Youth Field (2010 - 2018). It says that "cooperation should be firmly anchored in the international system of human rights", and this includes the rights of the child. When the EU's governments get together in what is called the Council of Ministers, they have promised to include, where appropriate, a children's policy dimension, having regard to their rights and protection, and taking into account that the life and future prospects of young people are affected by the opportunities, support and protection they receive during childhood.

The Council also promises to "observe the principles of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union" as one of the EU's guiding principles .

More specifically, governments will undertake information and education activities for young people about their rights and for the involvement of young people in global policy making, especially as regards human rights.

3. In 2007 a UNICEF survey of 21 nations ('COMPARING CHILD WELL-BEING IN OECD COUNTRIES' which included Europe as well as the United States, Canada and Japan) found “ ...Despite living in the fifth richest country, young people in the UK experience some of the worst levels of poverty. The research found they regard themselves as less happy, and that they drank more alcohol, took more drugs, and had more underage sex. They were also more prone to failure at school, to experience violence and bullying”. Do you agree with the survey, and what can you do to help young people in the UK?

The picture drawn by this UNICEF survey is indeed a bit bleak. The European Commission is less pessimistic, and with our new EU way of working together in youth policy (the renewed Framework I mentioned earlier), we aim to support the EU countries in their efforts to improving the situation of young people, to empower them and invest in them.

The two overall objectives of the new Framework are: more and equal opportunities for young people in education and in the labour market, and active citizenship, social inclusion and solidarity of young people. To carry out these aims, we'll be concentrating on eight fields of action in particular:-

~ education and training,
~ employment and entrepreneurship,
~ health and well-being, participation,
~ voluntary activities,
~ social inclusion,
~ 'youth and the world',
~ creativity and culture.

Throughout, we're keen to make sure that different policy sectors in the EU's countries work together better, to provide more opportunities for young people. To do this, EU governments agreed to set up a dialogue with youth, to make sure that they hear what is important for young people from youngsters' own mouths, and the governments will also devise ways of measuring these things, to gather the right statistics to help policy makers make informed choices based on facts and figures.

This work goes very well together with the "Youth on the Move" initiative that was recently proposed by President Barroso for his vision for the EU in the years to come. It shows the prominence of youth affairs on the EU's political agenda too.

4. We have done lots of work to promote children’s right to education throughout the world, yet in the area where we live some families do not value education. How could we change that?

It always saddens me to hear it when families don't value education. An education is such an important preparation for later life. Without education, we would not be able to use our computers properly, or even understand how to work a DVD player, with its difficult instruction manual! Without education, we risk being cheated in shops, because we couldn't check what we're being asked to pay at the till.

And without education, we will find it difficult to find a job. More and more jobs in the UK and abroad require a good level of education. If you don't have that, then you won't get the job. But the number of jobs that can be done by people without education is becoming smaller each year. Maybe the people who don't value education don't fully understand the risks? It might also be that they had an awful experience when they were school, and developed a hatred for teachers and teaching. Some very negative people even ask if it is worthwhile spending years in education, when there is no guarantee that they will find a job afterwards.

There are many reasons why some people don't value education. So there are also many different ways that we can act to help change people's minds. This is mainly a job for the government and education authorities in the UK. The Commission's role is to help the EU countries learn from each other, because the UK isn't the only country to face this problem.

5. We have energy enforcers at our school to make sure all the lights that are not being used are switched off, how energy efficient are your offices?

I'm very glad to hear that you have energy enforcers. Well done! We continually try to become more energy efficient too.

In the case of the building in which I work, the Commission's headquarters, we have a range of different ways of cutting down our energy usage. For example, we have a system of office lighting that is 'motion sensitive'. In other words, our lights have special eyes that see if we're in the office or not. If we leave our offices, then the motion sensor sees after a few minutes that there is no one moving around in the office any more, and the lights are automatically switched off.

Another energy-saving feature in our building is what we call a 'double-skin façade'. This simply means that we have two layers of windows. The outer layer consists of special window panels that can be swiveled and turned to face the sun, for example. This way, they reflect the sun's heat, while letting the light through, so we don't need to use so much energy to cool the building in summer, for example.

6. Do you think that all the European Commissioners should be elected by all the people of Europe? Do you think that the European Union could be better organised, how?

This is a very wide-ranging question. In fact it is one that the countries of the EU have been grappling with for many years! They have come up with answers to these questions: it's called the Lisbon Treaty, which, as it happens, just entered into force on 1 December 2009. It's a brand new agreement among the EU countries on how the EU should be organised. It says who can do what, and one of its most important features is that it makes the EU better-organised: the European Parliament and the parliaments of the EU member countries will now have a much greater say in how the EU decides things. All European citizens will be given the opportunity to influence proposed EU laws too.

7. How do you keep in touch with all the needs of Young People and Children? Do your own children tell you their views?

I have three children, and yes, they tell me everything. They're all at school, and through them I get a close-up feel for what young people are facing nowadays.

But I don't only keep up through my own children. I am also heavily involved with bodies that represent the interests of young people, such as the European Youth Forum. We regularly meet to talk about things that concern Europe's young people, and I also discuss these topics with the governments of the EU countries, when they meet in the Council of Ministers (another important part of the EU).

8. Do you think that there should be a ‘fat tax’ levied on unhealthy food to tackle obesity in young people? Are there better ways of dealing with it? Has yours been successful?

Well, the Commission isn't proposing a 'fat tax', but we take the issue of obesity seriously. The European Commission is committed to promoting healthy diets and physical activity as a part of healthy lifestyles, both among the young and the not-so-young. One way that we are dealing with the growing problem—excuse the pun—of obesity is to encourage more self-regulation by the food industry. This means that we would like to see food makers make sure their customers understand what is in their food. Sometimes, labels on food don't tell you enough about how much fat is included, or how much salt. So, we encourage clear labeling, and indeed there are Europe-wide laws on this. But we also encourage food makers to reduce the quantities of fat or salt, for example, in their recipes.

Gradually, working with the food makers themselves, and with consumer organisations and scientific experts, is producing good results. We will continue working closely with the European food sector to see that this continues.

9. We do have some French lessons here in school, but in a recent survey sixty-two per cent of respondents from the United Kingdom admitted they could not speak any language other than their mother tongue compared to the average of 44% across Europe. Do you think more effort should be made?

Yes, I certainly do. But I understand that many in the UK don't feel the need to learn a foreign language. After all, in most countries in the world, you can get by in English, without any knowledge of the local languages! The trouble is, though, that English on its own is not enough, especially if you're in business. A couple of years ago, the European Commission published the results of a study (featured in 'Languages mean Business') that showed that in the business world it really pays to know the language of your customer. Every year, lots of European companies lose business and miss out on contracts because they did not have good enough foreign language skills. That's a terrible shame, which is why the European Commission has been encouraging the countries of the EU, including the UK, to encourage more language learning at schools and elsewhere.

 

Many thanks to Maroš Šefčovič and to everyone who helped us with the questions and answers and of course to John for all the photographs of Millie.

The UK Governments representative is Baroness Ashton of Upholland she is the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission!

You can find out more about the Comission here and its own website here You can see what we found out about the United Nations when we asked the UK's ambassador about it.

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