The five challenges

The economic crisis and employment take priority

In a European week characterized by discussions on the major financial problems of the time (international supervision, public balances, stability pact, tax on banks, eurobonds) and by reactions to the expulsion of rom citizens, José Manuel Barroso, President of the Commission, appeared at the seat of the European Parliament in Strasbourg to give what was billed as the first “State of the Union” address. The Portuguese statesman appeared in the EP on 7 September, during its plenary session (6-9 September), to describe the current situation and to spell out the necessary measures for the next twelve months to ensure the progress of the EU27. He ended his speech with a long list of proposals, which now need to be translated into actions.Proceeding together. The “main challenges” that the 27 member states of the EU will have to tackle in the near future are “essentially five”, according to Barroso: first, “dealing with the economic crisis and governance; second, restoring growth for employment by accelerating the Europe 2020 reform agenda; third, building an area of freedom, justice and security; fourth, launching negotiations for a modern EU budget; and fifth, pulling our weight on the global stage”. Emphasizing each of these challenges in turn, the Commission President however seemed to give priority to the economic questions, both due to their objective influence, and their importance as a test bed of the Union’s “political resilience” and its capacity to “react together”. “We have learned hard lessons, and now we are making important progress in the field of economic governance”, he explained, listing the measures taken so far and those in the process of being implemented, including the work of the Eurogroup and of Ecofin at the start of the week. “In order not to lose the impetus we will present the most urgent legislative proposals on 29 September”, he explained. He then continued: “Unsustainable budgets make us vulnerable. Debt and deficit lead to boom and bust. And they unravel the social security net. Money that’s spent on servicing debt is money that cannot be spent on the social good, nor to prepare ourselves for the costs of an ageing population”. Spectres of the past. In addition, in Barroso’s view, “we need to tackle severe macro-economic imbalances, especially in the Euro area. That is why we have made proposals early on to detect asset bubbles, lack of competitiveness and other sources of imbalances”. The Commission will strengthen “its role as independent referee and enforcer of the new rules. We will match monetary union with true economic union”. But Barroso himself is the first to admit: “We should be under no illusion”; if some progress has been made, “our work is far from finished”. The repercussions of the crisis on employment, on family income, on consumption, are plain for everyone to see. That’s why it is vital to re-launch the European locomotive, to create new jobs, social security, and opportunities for the young. “I have set out – continued Barroso – how to modernise our social market economy to deliver growth and jobs in a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy through our Europe 2020 flagship initiatives. I have set out how to achieve a common energy policy in Europe”. He then listed other EU achievements and goals: reform of the EU budget; development of EU project bonds to finance major European projects; support for businesses and the single market; reinforcement of the area of freedom, security and justice; reinforced commitment to the Millennium Development Goals; need for a common foreign and common defence policy. Without explicitly citing the French case, he stressed the need to defend the fundamental rights of Europeans, including those of minorities: “Racism and xenophobia have no place in Europe. On such sensitive issues, when a problem arises, we must all act with responsibility. I make a strong appeal not to re-awaken the ghosts of Europe’s past”.Those in favour and those against. Barroso is aware that all this forms an “ambitious” programme and that’s why he urges EU institutions, member states, political and social forces to pull together. But the reactions in the chamber were mixed. The leader of the European People’s Party Joseph Daul praises the work of the Commission, warns of a divided Europe and urges that “the taboo of a European tax be broken” with the aim of “better financing EU policies”. The leader of the Socialist and Democratic groups, Martin Schultz, on the other hand, is critical: in his view the Commission is ineffective, slow to react to economic and social problems, and fails to fulfil the task of “motor” of the EU assigned to it by the Treaties. Guy Verhofstadt, spokesman of the Liberal-Democrats, declares: “Over the past year the economic problems have been very big and European solidarity very small”. The Green Daniel Cohn-Bendit, for his part, is convinced that what increasingly count in Europe are the governments of member countries, and not European solidarity.

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