Today, the Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, made his first state of the union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg (watch it here). As Ralf Grahn has already pointed out, whether he should is a point of constitutional uncertainty. Executive power in the EU does not really rest with Barroso – perhaps he should have been accompanied by Buzek, Van Rompuy and, for the rotating Presidency held by the Member States, the Prime Minister of Belgium… hold on, not certain who that is at present…
And the BBC said that the meeting of EU finance ministers today may well overshadow Barroso’s speech in any case covering issues of real importance – the economic crisis and regulation of the banking sector…
So leaving aside the issue of who should have been doing the speech, what did they say and what does it mean for EU citizens?
Firstly we should note that this speech is being given to the European Parliament, and that will affect some of the things that are said in comparison with – say- a speech given to the European Council. You’ll see what I mean later.
Second, there’s no underlying coherence to the speech – as Mary Honeyball (who was presumably there) points out, it’s a shopping list. but that’s inevitable as the EU itself is a messy sort of compromise between a lot of ideas.
We’re promised “a Europe of opportunity where those that aspire are elevated and those in need are not neglected“.
“A Europe that is open to the world and open to its people. A Europe that delivers economic, social and territorial cohesion“. I’m not entirely sure what economic, social and territorial cohesion means in practice – presumably it means that we all help each other out, spirit level style. But let’s look at what that has meant in reality.
“Our interdependence was highlighted and our solidarity was tested like never before. We have provided many of the answers needed – on financial assistance to Member States facing exceptional circumstances, on economic governance, on financial regulation, on growth and jobs“. Hmm. If I was in Germany, I’m not totally sure I’d see bailing out the Greek economy where public servants can retire in their mid-40s as solidarity – solidarity needs to work both ways and the reform needed to equalise the exceptional circumstances needs to be in place.
Did anyone bar the most ardent, foaming-mouthed Europhobe really predict “the demise of the European Union” in the financial crisis? I thought it was the Euro which was the target of most scepticism?
“The European institutions and the Member States have demonstrated leadership. My message to each and every European is that you can trust the European Union to do what it takes to secure your future“. I feel very reassured, don’t you? 🙂
He also cited various bits of legislation that were coming forward, prompting one MEP to say it felt more like a forward work plan than a state of the union.
Barroso then turned to the economic outlook in the European Union – better than it was, with higher growth than forecast, and high unemployment sustained rather than growing. I’m guessing that “budgetary expansion played its role to counter the decline in economic activity. But it is now time to exit. Without structural reforms, we will not create sustainable growth” is essentially the idea that once we’ve used tax payers money to bail out the bits of the economy that are collapsing, we need to cut back until its sustainable.
We then got a couple of sentences referring back to the Europe 2020 agenda – “accelerate our reform agenda. Now is the time to modernise our social market economy so that it can compete globally and respond to the challenge of demography. Now is the time to make the right investments for our future“.
The demographic challenge mentioned is falling birthrates and rising retired populations. Basically, to sort this out we need to refocus our idea of work – that it’s not just about full-time, visible in the workplace jobs. If we need as many people as possible to work, then we need to be taking seriously the role that women play – in the workplace, and at home.
First of all, we can’t just assume that everyone should be in full-time paid employment, effectively farming out our childcare and other caring responsibilities to paid carers in some big societal experiment.
We can’t assume that everyone will be fit enough to work into old age.
We can’t just continue to assume that women will fill the gaps – if we’re going for real social cohesion, we need to normalise the idea that men will do some caring – for their children, their partners, their parents – just as women do. That should meant that quality jobs can be done in part-time hours rather than the assumption that working part-time means a lower level of ability. We do need to think about how we identify talent and allow demonstration of leadership so that we really can use everyone’s talents – after all if there are more female graduates than men from European universities, what’s happening to them all that’s preventing them being the majority in leadership roles too?
If Europe takes a lead in this, then I agree with Barroso that “this is Europe’s moment of truth“.
But I’m not totally convinced that this is the angle he’s coming from here…
Barroso also lists 5 key challenges for the EU in the next year:
1) dealing with the economic crisis and governance:
the proposed solution is effectively more monitoring and “true economic union” – I’ll post separately on this another day but I’m a bit concerned that punishing the banks is politically popular but not economically sensible, and a Europe-wide tax on financial transactions on top of national levies is – interesting, when banks are threatening to move out of Europe.
Don’t get me started on the “own resources” debate. Seems the European Parliament took this to mean that EU direct tax is on the cards – I predict right now that this is unlikely to go anywhere.
2) restoring growth for jobs by accelerating the Europe 2020 reform agenda:
This is where getting more women and older people into jobs is mentioned – although again policy on this neglects the wider role of people as people and not just as workers. We do this at our peril.
The numbers are interesting – 6 million people have lost their jobs across the EU this year. There are apparently 4 million job vacancies.
To put this in perspective, there are currently about 2.5 million unemployed people just in the UK (about 7.8% unemployment rate) compared with 4.6 million unemployed in Spain (unemployment rate of nearly 20%) – there are over 22% unemployed in Latvia and an Eurozone average of 10%.
So that’s a lot of jobs needed. Barroso’s solution will sensibly “be centred on skills and jobs and investment in life-long learning” – again just hope that the needs of women, who are, post-children, often working below their skills level are addressed via this approach.
I like the idea of an EU-wide vacancy list, but I’m filled with dread at the idea of an EU skills passport. Many of the things that make you good at a job are hard to quantify – as anyone who has ever tried to move between sectors will know- and we risk lowest common denominator-ing the descriptions of ourselves to fit.
I’m fascinated to know how the EU will cut SME red tape by 38 million euro, and if they succeed, whether the UK press would ever report it as it goes against the EU= bureaucracy message…
There’s a lot too about securing energy supplies and renewables. I guess I’m less worried about how it’s done (although I don’t really want to live any closer to a nuclear power station than I already do) as long as the lights stay on and the heating works in winter.
3) building an area of freedom, justice and security:
This was always going to be hard to read when France is expelling Roma and I noticed the stress on “legal migration”, but the section was remarkably short on detail.
4) launching negotiations for a modern EU budget:
Then we come to the budget, and the Budget Commissioner has already screwed any prospect of sensible debate on this issue in the UK press.
An “open debate without taboos” says Barroso?
This is the issue of European policy where all Member States are mostly about protecting their national interest. Most remeber to wrap it up as in the EU’s interest. The UK, for reasons of historic handbagging never manages to. So I really hope they unpack all the taboos, including location of the EU institutions (goodbye Strasbourg) and that more than 40% of the EU budget is still agriculture, and cuts through the l’Europe, c’est moi waffle of some others.
Yes, it should be about getting most value for our money – as long as that is in line with the priorities we most want to achieve!
And check out the warning that the budget will inevitably go up in future: “Europe offers real added value. That is why I will be pushing for an ambitious post-2013 budget for Europe” – you can call it “spending more intelligently, by looking at European and national budgets together” but that word ambitious will put the frighteners on people who see the EU as a malevolent force trying to take over national budgets rather than as a partner. Barroso even mentioned some areas where a Euro spent at European level brings more than one spent at national level: “energy interconnections, research, and development aid” – essentially cutting costs, avoiding overlap and better retrun on investment. But convincing some that even economies of scale are a good thing is sometimes a bit of an uphill struggle.
And is there a hint at job cuts in the institutions?
“Of course, part of a credible European budget is the rigorous pursuit of savings. I am looking at the administrative costs within the Commission and other Community bodies like Agencies. We need to eliminate all pockets of inefficiency“.
5) pulling our weight on the global stage:
This is the tricky one. Not that the others aren’t, but Europe still has such a way to go in this area.
I have to admit that while I like being British and feeling like people know where I’m from as I travel the world, being British is not universally popular out there. Nor is it that powerful any more. Possibly except when seeking to trade.
But the “Who do I call?” question is still not really answered. Should Clinton be calling Ashton? Von Rompuy? Barroso? Hague?
Something similar to the “Suez moment” that showed to the government of the day in the UK that it could no longer act alone internationally was felt at EU level at the Climate Change talks in Copenhagen last year.
Barroso acknowledges that “we did not help ourselves by not speaking with one voice” but that was not the whole issue.
Barroso may well be “impatient to see the Union play the role in global affairs that matches its economic weight” but ultimately the deal at Copenhagen was done without the EU. It was also done without the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Spain and in fact without any of the member states that consider themselves big hitters.
In the end, the EU simply did not matter enough, because any deal was better than no deal at all. that said, the future belongs to the BRICs, not even to the USA in the long run. The EU is our best hope of still having some relevance.
If Barroso is serious about the EU acting internationally, then its staff need to be the very best diplomats and subject expert negotiators the Member States have to offer, especially in the Member States, possibly as seconded national experts, in the European External Action Service.
And if it is a cards-on-table discussion on how best to act internationally, then the interests of Member States, which vary, will need to be taken into account. It’s hard to tell a proud shipping nation like Greece that, say, an Austrian with only theoretical policy experience of shipping is going to lead the delegation representing them in the relevant international forum. That’s why Commission relations with Member States really matter. The EU is just not going to be able to act with authority internationally if Commission staff attempt to bludgeon Member States into certain positions that don’t necessarily reflect what they would want. Though I doubt anyone is attempting that sort of thing these days?
And if “size matters“, the issue of numbers of votes and seats are particularly important. The rush to be represented as the EU should not be at the price of every Member State’s seat and voting weight – the measure should be what we have now, not what the USA has.
As for helping other parts of the world, while all Member States have “spheres of influence” where they are more likely to focus aid, I want to see that the pan-European effort adds to this rather than muddling efforts.
I’m not clear whether Barroso’s intended extra money for the Millennium Development Goals is on top of national budgets for the MDGs or whether the EU contribution includes the member states’ contributions?
Where’s the clear, coordinated campaign of strong voices against the stoning-for-adultery in Iran?
And yes, it’s crazy that different Member States have different equipment to help with the crisis in Pakistan, but are not necessarily coordinated to get it there helpfully.
As for a Common Defence Policy: don’t we need a common outlook on world affairs first? Wasn’t that the lesson of Iraq?
I’m glad he pointed out that “Europe is not only Brussels or Strasbourg“.
However I encourage you to think on the statement “the Union will not achieve its objectives in Europe without the Member States. And the Member States will not achieve their objectives in the world without the European Union“.
While I obviously agree with the latter part of the sentence, I can’t help wondering:
– Should the EU have many objectives that are separate to those of the Member States?
– If so, where do they come from?
– How legitimate are they?
– To whom are they accountable?
– Do the EU population understand it?
Barroso rounded up with several of the www.bloggingportal.eu Barroso buzzword bingo ideas: bedding down the new institutional set-up of Europe created by the Lisbon Treaty; delivery is what counts; the Community Method (usually codecision- sorry, the Ordinary Legislative Process) is the secret of Europe’s success.
Barroso concluded his speech by saying to the European Parliament that “for Europe to succeed, the Commission needs your support“.
I slightly resent his further call for a “special relationship between the Commission and Parliament, the two Community institutions par excellence“.
If the EU is to work properly, even if the Council does do some things intergovernmentally rather than via the community method, it seems childish to pretend that it is inferior or frankly that the Commission and Parliament are more European. The EU is a combination of these methods and the Commission atempting to sideline or alienate the Council where Member State governments are represented is hardly going to endear it to already sceptical peoples.
I’m trying to take a balanced view, but actually, this part of this speech has made me a bit cross.
Look at the Twitter summaries posted by the
Europarl_EN twitter thread:
#Barroso: Majority in this House wants more Europe #SoEU (yes that is a different hashtag from the one being used for the buzzword bingo #SOTEU)
#Barroso: in a period of change: some want intergovernmental EU: I want community method #SoEU
#Barroso: People want more Europe/ support policies I have put forward #SoEU
#Barroso:On EU budget must win over public opinion about what EU budget should be used #SoEU
And this response by @Nosemonkey:
Note “win over” not “consult” RT @Europarl_EN: #Barroso:On EU budget must win over public opinion about what EU budget should be used #SoEU
Not all MEPs were uncritical of Barroso – Schultz wanted to know more about the haves and have-nots (of course, he’s the socialist group leader). Others were frankly a bit embarrassing – I mention no names.
But if most people in the European Parliament want “more Europe” then there’s a bit of a sales job to be done on why this is a good thing to the wider public. Even in economically good times, the Constitutional Treaty’s referendums way back in 2005 were not all universally and enthusiastically greeted, and few people have had a chance to have their say since then.
There’s a series of posts in the EUblogosphere at the present on eurobarometer that might give some clues as to how the EU is seen at present.
If they want “more Europe”, I’d love to know how they communicated with their constituents on that point: in the UK, Euroelection leaflets are usually about local schools and hospitals and where Europe does get a mention it tends to be from those hostile to the EU about how it will be held back or withdrawn from. I freely acknowledge that this is not the case everywhere, so what does a Europhile MEPs constituency surgery sound like?
And if this is a sign of the Parliamentary Europe that Vihar Georgiev talks about over on his blog, I think there’s a bit more discussion needed. And they certainly need a higher turnout across the EU to legitimise it.
It’s not that Barroso actually said anything so wrong in the rest of the speech. It was just a bit – predictable.
Right at the moment, it feels a bit as if there’s a State of the EU for Brussels/ Strasbourg audience and a whole other speech needed for the wider public with a bit more clear language about exactly how the EU adds value. Barroso was getting there in parts, but this appeal to the European Parliament’s ego at the end just wasn’t- right.
So the state of the EUnion is that the economy’s a bit messy but getting better, unemployment’s high but things are being done about it. While finances are in a parlous state at present, working together saves money, more money is needed in the long run, more aid is needed for the rest of the world. There’s a whole lot of debates still to be had about how things need to be done, but generally we’re all just getting on with it.
Not exactly inspiring, but then what politics is at the moment? Even Obama’s halo seems a little tarnished these days.
And what a missed opportunity to kick off the whole “My Fellow Europeans” expression for starting speeches…