Interview with Tiina Astola, Director-General for Justice and Consumers at the European Commission

posted in: CNUE news

image name

For the fourth edition of the Notaries of Europe Congress, the CNUE is honoured to count on the participation of prestigious speakers, such as Ms Tiina Astola, Director-General for Justice and Consumers at the European Commission. A Finnish national, Ms Astola was Permanent Secretary of the Finnish Ministry of Justice before joining the European Commission. She had overall responsibility for international and domestic law matters, including courts and prisons. Prior to that, she headed units responsible for civil and European law at the Department of Legislation of the Ministry and has also worked for the Finnish Ministry of Finance and the Finnish Foreign Trade Association. Ms Astola kindly agreed to answer our questions with a view to the congress.

The Commission has worked hard in recent years in the area of Justice, an essential pillar of European construction. In your view, what are the successes and the areas in which the EU intends to act?

It is worth remembering where we come from in the justice policy field. You might all well remember that this is a rather new policy field for the EU. Over the past two decades it has evolved from an inter-governmental cooperation structure to a mature EU policy. Today the Commission has the flexibility to respond quickly to the new challenges in a quickly moving environment. And we have been able to present timely solutions, be it in the field of migration, terrorism or the rule of law.

EU Justice policy has a major role to play in enforcing the common values upon which the Union is founded, in particular fundamental rights, rule of law and citizenship rights. With the close interaction between EU Member States, a problem in one of them is a problem for all of them. The respect of common values is not just an abstract philosophical concept; it is also what our citizens expect and it is the backbone of the entire European construction. This is why the Commission will always be vigilant on these issues.
 
Initiatives in the Justice area also have a direct impact on our economy, boosting fair growth in the Single Market, but also on the everyday life of citizens. This means we are working to improve citizens’ daily lives through good functioning justice systems and good cross-border judicial cooperation. One major achievement recently has been the agreement on the data protection reform. We are working hard to strengthen the EU’s response to terrorism, including the fight against terrorist financing and freezing and confiscating assets cross-border. For consumers, we now focus to keep pace with the ever-expanding digital economy. This means that we need to modernise and simplify consumer rules for online purchases, and harmonise contract law rules for the supply of digital content. Last, but certainly not least, we need to act to achieve gender equality. There is an urgent need to further our commitment to eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls.

In the field of civil justice, we have seen many notable successes. Last year, we reached agreement among 17 Member States to clarify the rules applicable to property regimes for Europe’s international couples. Another huge benefit for internal citizens is the adoption of new rules to cut costs and formalities for citizens who need to present a public document in another EU country.

Regarding our future actions, we proposed a new approach to business insolvency in Europe at the end of November and are working hard to move this file forward. This will increase opportunities for companies in financial difficulties to restructure early on so as to prevent bankruptcy and avoid laying off staff. It will ensure that entrepreneurs get a second chance at doing business after a bankruptcy. It will also lead to more effective and efficient insolvency procedures throughout the EU.

We also proposed a revised Brussels IIa Regulation in March last year to protect children in the context of cross-border parental responsibility disputes related to custody, access rights and child abduction. When families have disputes or international couples separate, cross-border judicial cooperation is crucial to give children a secure legal environment to maintain relations with both parents (and guardians) who may live in different European countries. 

The congress topic will be “EU Law at the Service of Citizens”. While in many countries there is criticism of the EU, do you believe the law can reconcile the citizens with the European project?

Common European rules matter in our daily lives – whether they increase food safety, improve air quality or make it easier and cheaper for SMEs to bid for public contracts.

However, rules are only as good as their practical application. Member States have the primary responsibility for the complete and correct transposition, application and implementation of EU legislation. Member States must also give their citizens access to rapid and effective redress when their rights under EU law are affected.

We will continue helping Member States in their efforts in many different ways. For example, the Commission will set up high-level dialogues, networks and exchanges of best practice in partnership with national authorities and courts, and the European Network of Ombudsmen coordinated by the European Ombudsman. The Commission will also continue its focus on tackling potential breaches of EU law quickly and at an early stage.

We have put rules in place that help companies trade cross-border, consumers to shop across borders, and families to live and move with minimum hassle throughout Europe. But, we also need help from citizens and businesses. They can contribute significantly to effective enforcement by reporting to the Commission shortcomings in the application of EU law by the Member States. The Commission values this essential role played by individual complainants in identifying wider problems with the enforcement of EU law. At the same time, citizens and businesses are also looking for simple, practical advice on their rights under EU law - and how to make use of them. When their rights are breached, it is important that they be guided towards easily finding and making use of the most appropriate problem-solving and redress mechanisms available at EU or national levels. Via the Single Digital Gateway, the Commission will provide a single access point for citizens and businesses to all Single Market-related information, including assistance, advice and problem-solving services. 

With increasing digitalisation of economic activities and the associated cost and time savings, how much importance should the legislator give to trust and legal certainty?

Digitalisation is today quickly developing in all economic sectors and legal areas. The particularity of digitalisation is its potential for change such as by making processes more easily accessible, more transparent and facilitating workflows. Another particularity of digitisation is that it frequently implies cross-border situations. In the civil justice field, a new insolvency regulation has been adopted on the basis of which the Union will put in place the digital interconnection of insolvency registers. The Commission has also initiated reflections on the impact of digitalisation on EU instruments such as the Regulations on service of documents and taking of evidence. Here this is about issues such as how to make service of documents by digital means possible or to assess the possibility to obtain evidence by digital means and whether this is already possible under Member States’ evidence laws. In the framework of successions we are assessing the possibilities of interconnecting national registers for European certificates of succession. On public documents, the Union recently adopted new rules which will do away with the Apostille requirement and facilitate the circulation of such documents within the EU. In this context, we should keep in mind electronically generated public documents and how we can promote their free circulation as well. Some instruments are already in place which can be the basis for such further developments such as the eIDAS Regulation which provides a common ground for electronic signatures. All these measures should contribute to increase legal certainty and mutual trust.

I know that notaries are highly interested in these developments and have gathered a lot of know-how over the past few years. The European Network of Registers of Wills (ENRW) is an interesting example in that regard. Therefore, notaries should be fully part of this development and we would welcome their useful contribution as they are so to say frequently an interface between the citizens and the registers which operate more and more electronically. Notaries are certainly partners for the Commission as they act through the authentic instruments which they issue and which are regularly the basis for legal transactions recorded in public registers.

However, when it comes to cross-border situations, citizens might still face legal uncertainty when it comes to the cross-border use and presentation of authentic instruments. In that framework, I count on the notaries to contribute to our reflection on how to improve even more legal certainty in the digital context and to eliminate as far as possible legal and technical fragmentation in digital solutions between the Member States.

New European Commission company law initiatives are expected in the coming months. Is the issue of the transfer of company headquarters within the EU one of your priorities?

The company law initiative announced in the Commission 2017 Work Programme will aim to ensure the best use of digital technologies throughout a company’s lifecycle and provide efficient rules – with appropriate safeguards – for cross-border mergers and divisions. In addition, we are considering whether the initiative could also potentially cover cross-border conversions (transfers of seat) and uniform conflict-of-law rules for companies. Therefore, the public consultation - which we are about to launch - as well as the outreach to stakeholders will have a broad scope. This outreach will cover all the issues i.e. digitalisation and cross-border mergers and divisions as well as cross-border conversions and conflict-of-law rules. Our aim is to collect stakeholders’ views as broadly as possible in order to provide a good basis for our decision on the scope of the Company law initiative. The initiative is planned for the end of 2017. 

Do you have a particular message for the notaries of Europe who will take part in the congress at Santiago de Compostela?

I would like to thank them for their contribution to the Commission’s effort for fair access to justice for all European citizens and reaffirm our full support for their projects.
Our common mission –theirs and ours, is and remains to serve European citizens and companies, make their lives easier and promote Europe as a place we can all call home.

Thanks to the Notaries of Europe, we have come a long way in creating the reliable legal framework that businesses and citizens need to benefit from the Single Market.

I want to maintain a constant dialogue with your organisation, as I am convinced that it is the best way for our proposals to meet the needs of all concerned: practitioners, citizens and businesses included.