Neelie Kroes on the similarities between the European Commission and the College of Cardinals.
An international college in a European capital is poised to make a decision that will have consequences for the whole world. It is taking place behind closed doors according to mysterious and incomprehensible rules.
No, it’s not the European Commission in Brussels. This time it’s the college of cardinals in Rome. The cardinals will not be voting on budgets, the euro crisis or legislation but on who will become the new pope.
I think this opaque, male-dominated institution is completely obsolete. I realise that many people see the European Commission as a similarly obscure, power-crazed group of people, also dominated by men and operating according to rules that no one understands.
The people on the commission do understand the how and why of what they are doing and for them the importance of what they are doing is a given. To the cardinals the procedure is crystal clear but to the faithful on Saint Peter’s square it couldn’t be less so.
Granted, the Commission and the European Council of Ministers can move in mysterious ways as well. But as a former MP and minister, I know very well that the national policy-making process can be pretty obscure, too, and so widens the gap between government and citizens.
Now the internet has made it so easy to access information, I find it incredible that such closed structures remain in place. The question is: how much longer? When will the first reality soap about the conclave hit the internet? The pope is on twitter already. Will the cardinals follow suit? ‘Is nothing sacred’, I hear people cry.
The church may profit from mysticism and mystery but the European Commission is much better off without it. Closed structures lead to distrust and distance and erode the public engagement we need so much.
The Commission, compared to other government bodies, is relatively transparent and accessible. But this doesn’t translate into a better understanding, perhaps because the institutional rules in the EU are too complex.
It’s not the public consultation rounds that are to blame. Every Commission proposal is subject to several consultation rounds which, by the way, take up far too much time. But we are not reaching the right people and that is something that concerns my colleagues and myself. The decisions made in Brussels don’t just have to be explained and understood. People should also have the opportunity to have a say and express their support or criticism.
The social media make this possible. I receive questions, messages and opinions 24/7. This is no longer a nice fringe activity, it is an integral part of politics and governance. We are moving towards a culture in which transparency and accountability are the norm. That includes the European Commission. It won’t happen overnight. We are not going to see the election of a new pope according to the number of followers on twitter any time soon but the social media will inevitably change even the administration of the church. Isn’t the twitter symbol a white dove? Amen.
Neelie Kroes is european commissioner for the Digital Agenda