Structured Dialogue meeting – the state of the European Union

Monday, 12 December 2011 00:00

The European Commission (DG Communication) organises ‘structured dialogue’ meetings which allow an exchange to take place with civil society organisations on major EU policies and directions. On December 8th, the latest meeting was held from 9.30 - 18h with a full agenda ranging from presentation on the “state of the Union” from the deputy secretary general of the commission, and a discussion on the multi-annual financial framework, to issues such as the outcome of the year of volunteering and the progress so far for a year of citizens (2013).

Deputy Secretary General Christian Danielsson, painted a fairly bleak picture of the current state of the Union, the most positive message was that it it is not only Europe where times are hard because US is in bad way too. He did not go on to draw the link that many commentators have, between the EU and USA’s championing of the neoliberal capitalist model, and the deep recessions which are affecting millions upon millions of citizens today.

He said that in the Commission’s view need the remedy was to achieve stability and discipline on one hand, and solidarity between member states on the other. Many participants in the room pointed out that this was easier said than done, looking at current rising levels of Euroscepticism, and the EU’s past record in ensuring member states compliance with its economic policy recommendations.

Some voiced concerns over the choice of remedy itself, as there was no agreement that austerity measures and brutal fiscal consolidation were either the most effective nor to the restore sustainable economic growth combined with social justice.empty pocket c

Mr Danielsson mentioned five elements to foster growth which the Commission is hoping will come into place. First, while deficits must be reduced it must be done in a ‘smart’ way. To elucidate his meaning he gave the example that fiscal consolidation should not be done in areas which are important for growth, for instance resource development. In the same vain it was important, he said, to look not only at cutting expenditure, but ensuring adequate revenues, so effective taxation is vital.

In second place, the banking system must get working, in particular to ensure that credit is available to lubricate the economy. Third, and linked to this, the EC believes it is important to enhance growth. Mr Danielsson said that the right questions were being asked - how to make the digital internal market work better; how to ensure the services directive was properly implemented and providing maximum benefit; how to use EU budget in a growth friendly way - bearing in mind that a lot of the budget is not actually being used. A further component for restoring growth is external trade. Clearly the Doha round of trade talks is not going forward. but there are other trade agreements between the EU and its partners.

Fourth, the Commission wants to address the employment crisis - particularly of youth unemployment - which is deepening in most of the EU. To do this Mr Danielsson said it was important to “get the labour market functioning correctly”. For several years after the turn of the millenium, the Commission favoured a ‘flexicurity’ model which was rolled back employment protection legislation but aimed to give workers ‘security’ in other ways, such as income security, or employment security - which means that if you are dismissed from one job, the labour market is sufficiently creative of employment that there will be another adequate job for you to go to in a reasonable time. It appears that in the economic crisis, governments are opting for labour market flexibility at the expense of security for workers and their families.

Finally it was important to ensure better public administration working better Mr Danielsson said that if it takes four weeks to establish a company instead of six months, that is already an improvement.

In summary, he said that the EU was facing a “challenging and scary situation, one which calls for more and deeper EU especially in economic integration.” But he acknowledged that public opinion in the member states did not show “the same enthusiasm. Indeed, there are views which go in the other direction.”

He said that civil society organisations had an important role to play in bridging this gap between the solution favoured by the Commission and the views of the member states and citizens, by explaining and disseminating information, but also by providing “food for thought and advice.”

One participant expressed the view that the main failure of the system until now has been that member states are not obliged to follow Commission recommendations.

The humourously nicknamed “six-pack” of economic proposals is supposed to strengthening this with more binding tools. Mr Danielsson said that the year 2012 will be the real test of they EU semester.

Responding to questions from the floor, which suggested the EC’s approach of prioritising the economic crisis above the social one would alienate citizens, he said that it would be more difficult to engage citizens when times are bad, and that the Commission understood and shared the frustration people are feeling. However he explained that there is no contradiction between looking at fiscal austerity and growth - in fact he said they go together. In his country of Sweden there was a terrible recession in 1990s which was only overcome through restoring confidence, which is done through consolidation. Nevertheless he agreed that it was a politically difficult measure

Clearly there is a European link to build, and it is important to counteract the feeling that Brussels imposes measures, but Mr Danielsson felt that citizens would come to see how EU action has contributed to solving the crisis and he felt optimistic for the future.

(photo: David Castillo Dominici)