Anne Houtman, Head of the European Commission Representation in Paris, speaks about the value of academic skills, different fields of expertise within the same European institution and some major challenges that today’s Europe faces in the domains of energy policies, economy and public debate.
In the course of your career you worked in the academic environment and in the private sector, to finally join the European Commission. What were the main factors that encouraged you to change your area of professional activity?
Mathematics was an easy option, it was fun, not too difficult and I loved teaching. But to go far in math, you need passion, a passion that does not allow you to think of anything else when facing a tough problem. And I’m just too eclectic for that. I love architecture, music, politics, literature, food, etc… Marketing research was a choice of curiosity. I learned a lot about business and markets but that world seemed rather limited. Europe was an emotional choice. 6 years in the US and 3 years in the private sector had made it clear I wanted to devote the rest of my career to the European public goal and I’ve never regretted that choice. Even reaching pension age will not stop me from working toward the completion of this exceptional construction.
In the European Union there is a lively debate on the value of academic skills for the labor market. You have a doctoral degree from Princeton University. How do you regard this academic experience in the wider perspective of your career? How can such qualifications help people achieve their professional goals?
Academic experience is what makes you confident that you will always be able to understand a problem if you think hard enough and to find a piece of information if you look for it hard enough. At the same time, it gave me the humility to realize that I never understand nor know it all. It gave me rigor, curiosity and a taste for intellectual risk taking. It taught me that you should always look outside of the box, that solutions often come from other fields.
Since the beginning of your cooperation with the European Commission you have worked as a Deputy Head of Cabinet of President Romano Prodi and in different directorates-general. How have you responded to the challenge of changing fields of expertise within the same institution? What has helped you succeed?
We live in a complex world where you need both "vertical" expertise and "horizontal" thinking. Changing fields of expertise is always a risk but as I said, I like it. I like to learn new things and really enjoy finding useful connections between issues, putting things into a broader perspective. The Commission's decisions are collegial and having worked in many different services helps a lot to build consensus around a proposal. It also helps me now in communicating to citizens around a theme rather than along the lines of a single DG.
You have been a part of the European Commission since 1985. How has this institution changed in the course of the years, what does this evolution look like from the perspective of a true European Commission insider?
Successive enlargements have increased diversity within the institution and changed the use of language from French to English. Just like young citizens now take Europe for granted, many new officials are less motivated by the "construction" aspect of European history than by the more pragmatic "better functioning aspects". The fall of the Santer Commission in 1999 was a turning point and reforms that followed have discouraged many as the administrative burden has drastically increased. There is also less knowledge of the "why" we do certain things.
The economic crisis in Europe has been a major challenge to the European Commission and to the whole European Union. What do you believe can strengthen the image of European institutions in the eyes of European citizens? What do you regard as the best remedies for the deficit of trust caused by the economic turmoil?
I think there is a huge deficit of information in and education by the media, European nations and local politicians. There should also be a better recognition of the mistakes and misjudgments of the past and at the same time we should not be so shy in explaining what we have built, a socio-economic model that is envied in many parts of the world.
As the Head of the EC Representation in France you are in charge of explaining European policies to citizens. Do you think there exists anything we could call a European public opinion? If yes, in what way is it different from national public opinions? Is there any French specificity in this regard that impacts your mission?
Such a European public opinion is still at an embryonic stage. The main obstacles are the absence of truly European political parties or media (Euronews is one, but its audience is extremely limited), which in turn is for a large part linked to language barriers. This being said, social partners have started to liaise at European level and mobility, mainly of young Europeans, though programs like Erasmus are positive factors though still too much limited to an elite. In France, there is a lot of ignorance on Europe and language is still too often seen as an obstacle to mobility and access to other cultures.
On October 25th, the new Energy Efficiency Directive was adopted by the European Union as a part of its updated energy policy 20/20/20. What are the most important challenges European countries need to overcome to attain EU objectives? How can the development of smart grids help achieve these goals?
Among the three 20/20/20 objectives to be reached by 2020, Europe is on track to reach the ones related to CO2 reduction and to the renewable share. We are not on track to reach the objectives of a 20% improvement of our energy efficiency. The new energy efficiency directive should help fill about 2/3rds of the gap. Energy efficiency is a strong priority as it directly contributes to the three objectives of European energy policy: developing competitive, sustainable and secure energy. Smart grids should give a tool to consumers to better monitor their consumption and to operators to manage the network in a more efficient way and improve security of supply.