A passionate European: An Interview with Secretary-General of the EC, Catherine Day

A passionate European: An Interview with Secretary-General of the EC, Catherine Day

As secretary-general of the European Commission, Catherine Day is the European Union’s most senior civil servant, the first woman to hold this role. On a recent trip to Dublin, she spoke to Ann O’Dea about the challenges and rewards of the job

Dubliner Catherine Day joined the European Commission back in 1979 and steadily rose up through the ranks to reach her position today as secretary-general of the Commission, the most senior official in the European Union, and the first woman to hold this role.

“That means I have lived longer in Brussels than I have in Dublin, but once a Dubliner always a Dubliner,” she laughs.

A passionate European, in a previous role as deputy director of Chris Patten’s external relations Directorate General, Day was deeply involved with the enlargement of the Union from 15 countries to today’s 27. Her role involved working with the accession countries to help them understand and prepare for enlargement. It was a useful precursor to her current position, which involves both the technical and political in spades.

“The secretary-general is the head of the civil service, which means that my role is to be the link between the technical work of departments – or, as we call them, the Directorates General – and the political level of the College of Commissioners. So my job is to help the president of the Commission, José Manuel Barroso, to set the priorities and then to get the machinery of the Commission to deliver them.”

A challenging role, which involves dealing with representatives from the 27 countries in today’s enlarged European Union, Day does not seem in the slightest bit phased, and she is clearly proud of the relatively smooth process of enlargement.

“I think enlargement has been an enormous success,” she tells me. “I mean it’s been a political success and economic success. Yes, there is a feeling of what I call indigestion, but that will pass. We will grow into our new size and shape, even if we haven’t quite done that yet.”

Day admits there is sometimes what she described as a “false nostalgia” among the older member states as to how much easier it was when there were only 15 countries.  “You do get a lot of ‘Oh in the old days it was so cozy, so easy.’ It wasn’t. We’ve done all kinds of analysis to see if the arrival of the 12 new countries has slowed us down in decision-making and the answer is simply no.

“Of course, it is somewhat more complicated because you can’t talk to 27 people individually in the same way as you could 15, and Europe is much more diversified now,” she says. “We were getting very homogenized as a block of 15 western European countries, so suddenly to have to open up to countries with completely different levels of standards of living and various experiences had its challenges.

“But for me, that is what the European Union is all about, that is what makes it exciting and dynamic, just to see how you can continually reshape it. Of course, we are complicated and sometimes slow. The media doesn’t always understand because there is not one person making the decisions. They find it difficult to accept that a collective of 27 can take decisions. But we can.

“Maybe it can be dragged out of us under crisis pressure, and maybe sometimes it’s too late and too little, but we are doing extraordinary things that, had you said to people three years ago – including us – we would be doing, we wouldn’t have believed it possible.

“I think what keeps me so motivated is that it is endlessly possible. We keep setting hard challenges for ourselves and we always get there – in a complicated and expensive way at times, but we do get there!” she laughs. 

Financial governance

The financial crisis of recent years, and the travails of Greece, Portugal, and Ireland, have brought into stark focus some of the inherent weaknesses in the European project. It had clearly not foreseen and was not prepared for such remarkable challenges. However, says Day, whose role also sees her intimately involved in financial governance, there is a determination at EU level to ensure the necessary changes are made.

“The thing now is to co-ordinate our policies much more, and to start with a much better set of indicators to see when things are getting off-track,” she stresses. “Look at the case of Ireland where wage competitiveness was being severely eroded, and watch the correction that has taken place since the recession – spontaneously without anybody imposing it. Had we been monitoring that in more detail earlier on, we would have seen this bike starting to get out of control. So we want to have that kind of monitoring mechanisms in place. It’s not a guarantee that we will not face problems in the future, but it should mean that we do not face the same challenges.

“We are now, of course, in the business of drawing lessons for the future to ensure that we don’t have a repeat of what has happened, and I think one of the experience is clear – that we need much more co-ordinated policy-making.

“For years the Commission has been running after member states trying to get them to change decisions, but we are now putting in place a very tight system of economic policy co-ordination for the future,” she continues. “In the first half of the year, the Commission will issue recommendations to each member state which they should then incorporate into their budgetary and economic policy for the following year. I hope that by getting ahead of the curve, we will have more impact, and also make it politically easier for governments to accept recommendations.”

The member countries have committed themselves to following the Commission’s recommendations as a general rule, or to explain in writing to the Commission should they not. “I think that will help,” says Day. “Peer pressure on governments to follow the right policies in future, combined with much better monitoring and an early warning will, I hope, help us to do away with the problems of the past.

“My belief is that something has changed in this crisis,” she says. “I think there is a better understanding now of the interdependence of our economies, and there is a determination on the part of many to ensure that we enact our economic policy differently in the future. In a way, you can see this as the system completion of economic and monetary union – the parts that we didn’t include ten years ago when we signed up to the euro.

“And then we also want to adapt the policies at EU level to be part of accompanying this process, so we are currently preparing a proposal for the budget from 2014–2020. We want that to be the Europe 2020 strategy in numbers, and to put the money into research, into infrastructures, into energy.

“One of the things that we did recently was to fund an interconnector between the UK and Ireland so that the wind power Ireland generates, above that which it needs, can be exported. This will help Europe to be more sustainable in its energy use, and of course, Ireland can make very nice revenue from that. So it’s those kinds of initiatives we have in mind. The member states have to do most of the work themselves, but we can provide the missing links to bring it all together.” 

Ireland in Europe

Despite recent challenges and strained relations at times, Day believes that Ireland still has a major role at the heart of Europe and that the benefits of membership continue to be highly significant. “Being a small, open economy in a bigger entity takes away a lot of the disadvantages of being small and on the fringe,” she says. “Also in a new digital economy, location becomes less

important, and I think what Ireland has lots of is the kind of creativity that you need in the digital age. It’s not only for tax reasons that companies like Google are here. I’ve talked to them, and it is also because they can get the kind of graduates who have not only the technical training but also that creative side.

“That’s always been a part of the Irish make-up, so I think that’s a very valuable asset – highly educated, English speaking, but also creative, open-minded people.”

That is just one of our many strengths, maintains Day. “Ireland has a very pro-business environment, and will always

attract that kind of investment, but what’s been different in the last ten years is we now have home-grown multinationals as well, something we never had before. It shows that it’s not just an attractive place for inward investment, it’s an interesting environment for investment, full stop.”

Day says the determination of Irish people to recover from the recent travails is striking. “You hear it from everybody here – ‘Yes, it is tough, but what choice do we have but to succeed.’ I think we Irish are probably at our best in adversity, so I think that’s an excellent key to the future.”

And Ireland continues to punch above its weight in Europe, she continues. “Ireland, as a fully paid-up member, can also shape the agenda in Europe. Yes, we have had our ups and downs. There have been times when we’ve been very involved, but we had become more detached in recent years. I think the understanding is there again that you have to invest in this, that this has to be a long-term engagement.”

It is interesting to note that when Day became secretary-general in 1995, she succeeded another Irish colleague David O’Sullivan. It was purely coincidental she says, but is still a testament to how well regarded Irish people are in European circles.

“There are a lot of Irish people in strategic positions in Europe, some more visible than others. Everybody thinks there are loads of Irish people – they don’t realize it is such a small population – just because we get so much. We are also not seen to have the big country agenda, so we’re very acceptable everywhere, and we have that flexibility, and we like tick-tacking and networking. That’s also part of our character and background. We’re very sociable, very good communicators; we don’t take ourselves too seriously, we’re not seen as a threat to people, so they open up more to us. I think all of that is part of the mix.”

Clearly, Catherine Day has herself all the qualities she attributes to the Irish psyche, and it is not hard to see how she has achieved her meteoric rise to become the top civil servant in Europe. Her enthusiasm and drive have clearly not been diminished over the years.

“It has been a very satisfying role,” she tells me. “There is nothing more satisfying than when you see it coming together. Just take the example of energy and climate change. There were potentially two opposing agendas here. The eastern European member states were more concerned about energy security, while the rest of Europe was more focused on the climate change issues. It was only by putting a European package together that addressed all the concerns that everyone could agree on that, and that we have made such significant progress in this area.”

As regards her native Ireland, Day is characteristically upbeat. “It is not only because I’m Irish, but I do think Ireland will come out of this leaner, fitter, better,” she says. “It will be painful. People will have to pay the price for it, including people who had nothing to do with getting us into this situation. But I think Ireland has so much going for it – a strong currency, a sound economy, all the right fundamentals. We have high confidence that Ireland will make it, though, and it will be back again as one of the success stories of the European Union.”

This article first appeared as ‘A passionate European’ in Innovation Ireland Review magazine, which is published on behalf of IDA Ireland by Business & Leadership