I said in an earlier blog I would write more fully about the announcement last week of the European Commission’ s new strategy for a more effective fight against child sexual abuse. I wrote that when I had only skimmed the document. I have now read it in full from end to end and I have changed my mind. The reason is obvious. The document, known in Commission parlance as a “Communication”, is itself a summary and a pretty intense and dense one at that.
It is both brilliant and comprehensive, packed with statistics, references and ideas. It would be ridiculous to try to compress it further. I’m afraid you will just have to read it yourselves. It’s worth the effort. And to be clear the document is categorical that any strategy worthy of the name must recognise that addressing child sexual abuse in the physical environment is every bit as important as and integral to tackling it online.
If it is light in any area it is in respect of the Commission’s own internal structures and processes. Children’s issues are cross-cutting in nature. The atomised way Commission Directorates operate militates against anyone having a 360 degree overview.
This must change. There needs to be someone close to the very top, supported by an expert team, who can see things early in the policy development process. They should have the authority to step in and insist that the impact on children is weighed in the balance.
I recently wrote about the near miss with the European Electronic Communications Code but there have been other examples before that.
The example of postal services
I remember ages ago attending an event in Brussels where a Commission official was speaking eloquently about smoothing out inconsistencies in relation to sending goods by post across national boundaries. The purpose of his proposals for a new approach was to stimulate more economic activity between Member States.
In Country A it might cost 2 Euros to send a 1 kilogram package to Country B, the border of which might be only a few kilometres away, yet to make the same trip in reverse it might cost 90 Euros because a border was crossed, or only the same 2 Euros if the identical item went for hundreds of kilometres entirely within the territory. The formalities in Country A might also be very different from those in Country B.
I could see the logic of smoothing out inconsistencies in relation to the higher objective of creating a single internal market but I pointed out that, in respect of children, not all EU Member States had the same regulatory environment in terms of what children could buy online or consume in the physical world so wasn’t there a risk that, without more, this measure was going to threaten…. you see the point.
The chap was disarmingly frank in his reply. “No one has ever mentioned that before. It’s not the sort of thing we ever think about.” Or words to that effect.
A new European Centre to prevent and counter child sexual abuse
It would be absurd to suggest this was the crowning glory of the Commission document but the importance of creating a new European Centre to focus on child sexual abuse cannot be over-emphasised. Few Member States have the capacity to keep tabs on all the research going on around the world or all the developments that impact on this area of work. There are even fewer that, on the scale required, can initiate research and evaluate outcomes. This means learning about new and valuable ideas can be a bit haphazard. People on the inside track find out fast. People on the outside track don’t.
This proposed new Centre could change all that. It will be able to strike up partnerships and engage with key players outside the EU. Disseminating information in optimal ways will be a core task.
The Centre should aim to become a global resource working cooperatively with existing and new poles of expertise. There is plenty for everyone to do.
Again a word of caution. For this Centre to be truly effective it must find a way of strengthening the capacity of civil society to participate in its work. There has to be a strong independent voice that will not feel constrained about speaking truth to power because power is tied up in trade talks with a third party nation about whale meat or because it might be uncomfortable to highlight the shortcomings of a prominent partner. When things get cosy they go wrong. But who doesn’t like cosy? Cosy is the new entropy.
The Communication contains many references to the Child Sexual Abuse Directive (2011/93) a truly ground-breaking initiative at the time which, if memory serves, was inspired by or grew out of an earlier Communication of some sort. The new Communication acknowledges there have been difficulties in securing full transposition and implementation of the Directive. So much so that it has already initiated infringement proceedings against 23 out of a possible 26 Member States (Denmark is exempt) and, according to footnote 22, in the cases of Ireland, Cyprus and The Netherlands we learn there is a “dialogue on conformity” which is seemingly “ongoing”.
That means not a single EU Member State to which the Directive applied has, in the view of the Commission, satisfactorily discharged what they think are the obligations imposed by the Directive. Food for a great deal of thought.
Does anyone know of any instances in other areas where everybody has either been proceeded against for non-compliance or become involved in a “dialogue on conformity”?