Markku Markkula: We have to renew the European project with courage and innovation

Shortly after his election as the new president of the European Committee of the Regions, we met Markku Markkula to discuss not only his views and priorities for his two-and-a-half year term of office, but also his local and regional experience in his native Finland. He stressed that Europe needs to rebuild the trust of its citizens, be more engaged at neighbourhood level, preserve its values and principles, but, first and foremost, in a time of continuing economic crisis, be able to support business-friendly policies and be future-oriented: “Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman had both political courage and vision; today, if we want to renew the European project, we have to be more courageous and innovative and perhaps less politically correct.”

How did you start your political engagement: was it at local level?

Yes, I was elected several times to the council and the board of our student union; I served as the President of the Student Union of the Helsinki University of Technology. Following these experiences, I was elected to the Espoo City council in 1980. My key interests and concerns have been to support innovation, research and knowledge transfer between industry and university – for several years the focus has been on co-creation processes at the various interfaces of entrepreneurial discovery. My political and professional duties have focused on change management in a situation of constant flux and the search for new ideas and that led me to the position of advisor to the Aalto University Presidents, focusing on European Union research and education policy. This all fits in perfectly with my roles as a member of the Board of the Helsinki-Uusimaa Regional Council and Chairman of the Espoo City Planning Board.

I strongly believe in what I have learned from my experience of the local community working together for the common good. I believe Europe should give more support to local experiments and pilot schemes and be less centralised in terms of its political decisions. We have to encourage people in our hometowns and villages to take action. We need to be their voice and in some cases even the facilitators of an open dialogue between European regions and Brussels.

You are well-known for your commitment to future-oriented policies and innovation, as well as high-tech industry and start-ups. Could you tell us more about where this interest came from?

We all have a natural tendency to look at the past and use past trends as a basis for policy making. But this approach would be the same as driving a car backwards by looking in the rear-view mirror. During my terms as a member of the Finnish Parliament (1995-2003), I was an initiator of the methods used in the Parliament’s permanent Committee for the Future which operated as Finland’s policy innovation lab. One of our strong messages, even then, was the need to create favourable conditions for regional self-renewal and regional innovation policy.

As focal issues in that approach, we identified motivating regional players, creating a shared vision, networks based on trust and mutual dependence, free and open information flows and mastering the timing of actions. I should add that the current vice-president of the European Commission, Jyrki Katainen, was the Chairman of the Committee for the Future before becoming Finance Minister, and subsequently Prime Minister. He initiated several pro-business policies and introduced the model of the information society combined with the welfare state.

How did you become a member of the Committee of the Regions?

I became a member of the Committee in 2010 and I have held a number of positions in the institution over the last five years, including the 1st vice-chair of the EPP Group and chair of EPP Group’s Task Force on Europe 2020. It was my pleasure to be rapporteur on a number of opinions including “A Digital Agenda for Europe”, “Horizon 2020”, and “Industrial Policy Package”. Here in Brussels, as in my native Finland, I try to foster competitiveness and the spirit of entrepreneurship.

This is very important, particularly during times of economic crisis. Both companies and political decision-makers need a better understanding of value networking and the innovative development of business processes. Within many business sectors, almost all new jobs are created by start-ups and new companies. In addition to entrepreneurship, new solutions are needed to support potential growth businesses and industrial renaissance.

The regions need to cooperate more with the European Commission in reaping the benefits from many activities related to the Digital Agenda Assembly. The regional decision-makers need to see the benefits co-created by integrating real and virtual worlds. I am actively involved with the European Entrepreneurial Region Awards and the Web-entrepreneurs Awards. I hope that we will foster a new Digital Policy for Europe and finally make a breakthrough in creating a real digital internal market that has become one of the priorities of Jean-Claude Juncker’s new Commission.

What are the most important issues you would like to tackle during your two-and-a-half year term of office?

In times of budgetary constraints that are tangible at local, regional, national but also European level, we have to get more for each tax payers’ euro. European Structural and Investment Funds have a budget of EUR 351 billion (32.5% of the overall EU budget for 2014 to 2020) and are important tools for investment and innovation which can boost recovery, growth and social cohesion. I hope that the new Juncker Fund will add additional resources for viable long-term projects. So my first priority is to support smart growth and sustainable job creation.

Start-ups and new business are creators of new jobs and opportunities and this pioneer spirit also expresses the spirit of Europe and its founding fathers.

As I mentioned before, start-ups and new business are creators of new jobs and opportunities and this pioneer spirit also expresses the spirit of Europe and its founding fathers. Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman had both political courage and a vision of the future; today, if we want to renew our European project, we have to be more courageous and less what has traditionally been regarded as politically correct.

What is your perception of the current trust-gap between Brussels and national public opinions?

We have seen that, since first European elections in 1979, voter participation has decreased every decade and today we face new challenges regarding citizens’ trust in their representatives in Brussels and in the European project itself. The first election of members to the European Parliament in 1979 had a turnout of 62% of voters. For the last elections in 2014, the figure was only 43%. This is a clear sign of dissatisfaction with what Brussels represents today in national public opinion.

The good news is that the figure of the Mayor is one that is still trusted, across countries and political families. With the decreasing popularity of Brussels and renewed Euro-scepticism, we have to rebuild the confidence of our citizens via a more decentralised bottom-up approach, in policy making and experience of public engagement. And I hope that our “Citizens Dialogues”, organised in several European cities and regions will be instrumental in that respect and promote our common European values.

My message is clear: Encourage people to practice thinking together, synthesising, and comprehending: collective and distributed thinking about societal change, real challenges, contributing relevant support, building renewal capital. Citizen and third sector engagement are essential in our EU policy. Nothing will happen without sufficient curiosity, creativity and courage. A start-up mentality, both in the economic sphere and for society as a whole, and voluntary work are important ways to contribute to society, and together they are becoming crucial success factors.

When we speak about European values, what are your views regarding current security concerns and the situation in our neighbourhood?

You are right to ask this question. Even if external affairs are not explicitly mentioned in the Treaties as a responsibility of the Committee, we see its direct impact on our internal policies and local and regional authorities, and not just in the border regions. In the past, we have been very helpful in providing support to the countries engaged in the enlargement process, but also to our Eastern and Southern neighbours wanting to modernise their administration and undertake reforms in favour of decentralisation. Therefore, I would like to point out that we have to preserve our values and principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, as Europe is not only a geographical entity, but also a family of values and principles.

In the Mediterranean countries on our Southern borders, we face challenges affecting freedom and human dignity. I can only stress again that we are concerned by the heinous persecution of some minorities, mainly Christians, by extremist groups in these countries.

This should be stressed not only inside the Union, but also outside our borders: on our Eastern border we see a huge challenge involving decentralisation in Ukraine. I discussed this issue with the speaker of Ukrainian Parliament, Volodymyr Hroysman, in February. We are ready to assist our Ukrainian partners with our technical know-how of multi-level governance and decentralisation.

Similarly, in the Mediterranean countries on our Southern borders, we face challenges affecting freedom and human dignity. I can only stress again that we are concerned by the heinous persecution of some minorities, mainly Christians, by extremist groups in these countries. Freedom and human dignity for every person are basic values of Europe and we must be prepared to pass on to the future generations not only our social and economic standards, but also our values and intangible cultural heritage.

Interview by Branislav Stanicek

Markku Markkula (1950) was elected President of the Committee of the Regions for a two-and-a-half-year term of office in February 2015. He started his political engagement at the local level in his native Finland where he served successfully as a member and president of Espoo City council and a Member of Parliament. As an MP, his international role has included the Presidency of the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment Network (EPTA) Council. As a tribute to his achievements in the field of education policy, he was elected to the International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame in 2008.