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Ethics all the way

November 11th, 2013
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The week of 11-15 November 2013 is Ethics Week in the European Commission, a chance to remind all staff about the ethical principles that guide their work as European civil servants. 

During the week, my services in the Directorate General for Human Resources and Security, in collaboration with other DGs and services, will be organising a wide range of activities right across the Commission. 

We’ve also created a new website on the Commission’s intranet to help guide staff through the week and clarify some of the more common ethical dilemmas that Commission civil servants can face in their work. 

Why are we doing this? Well, as public servants, it is of course vital that we maintain the highest ethical standards in all that we do. Without the trust of citizens, our social partners, our political partners or our international contacts, the work of the Commission would count for nothing. And as we all know, trust is difficult to gain and easy to lose. That’s why we must at all times act, and be seen to be acting, to the highest standards in all aspects of our work. 

Contrary to what you sometimes hear or read, I can say from my personal experience that there is no problem with ethical behaviour in the Commission. The standards are high and staff live up to them. But we don’t leave this to chance, of course. We have a wide range of guidelines and rules covering every aspect of civil servants’ work, from the avoidance of conflicts of interest to whistleblowing. We offer training on these issues to new staff, managers and other staff and provide permanent information on the intranet. And every DG has its own Ethics Correspondent, whose role it is to raise awareness of the specific ethics issues that might affect staff working in a specific policy area. 

Some of the guidelines for Commissioners and Commission staff can be found on the Europa website via the Transparency Portal

Ethics Week is about raising awareness of all these features. In addition to the intranet site, there will be a number of special events throughout the week, such as training sessions for staff on the particular risks in financial management, conferences on how to avoid conflicts of interest and a lunchtime debate on “Are rules sufficient to ensure ethical behaviour?”. 

I am proud of the extremely high standards set by Commission staff in their day-to-day work, and thankfully there have been only very few cases of malpractice or unethical behaviour (for example, the recent report by the European Court of Auditors found a 0% error rate with the management of the administration budget). 

But it is nonetheless important that staff are aware of their obligations, and the framework we have put in place to help them meet those obligations – for example, rules on accepting gifts, the obligations which continue to apply when staff leave the service or the information about lobbying at EU level provided in the Commission’s and Parliament’s Transparency Register.

 And at a time when public administrations are under close scrutiny over their ethics – it certainly does no harm to remind both staff and the general public at large of the high ethical standards that are not only expected on EU civil servants but which, more importantly, are maintained on a daily basis.

The EU’s next ‘big thing’

October 3rd, 2013
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Rating: 2.5/5 (6 votes cast)

The last five years of crisis have marked us all. After many years of continued prosperity and strong social guarantees, the collapse of Lehman Brothers five years ago sent an unprecedented shockwave through Europe; all of a sudden, those ‘rights’ that many took for granted – the safety of their money in the banks, their long-term jobs prospects, the hope of a good job for well-educated young people or the right to a decent pension for the older generation – suddenly became far less certain. Europeans felt vulnerable, for the first time really since World War Two. And as the crisis continued, the deeper the frustration and sense of vulnerability became.

Today, of course, we know more about the crisis and its causes – and can act accordingly. Globalisation has arrived with vengeance, and has brought both positives and negatives. But one thing is clear: it is not going to go away. We cannot protect ourselves by walls, old style borders or protectionist policies. All these simple medicines so glibly prescribed by most Eurosceptics, nationalists or extremists will simply not work.

So what can we do to get the most out of globalisation and minimise the risks? Well, for starters, Europe needs to overcome its insecurity and embrace this new world order with confidence. Many of our competitors would love to trade positions with us. Millions of people living outside Europe would love to have the same rights and benefits as we are fortunate enough to have.

But if Europe was seen by some as the sick man of the world, why are so many other countries and people aspiring to be like us? Well, the reality is that we tend to forget that we are far from being sick! The EU is the world’s biggest economic power (with GDP of nearly €13 trillion in 2012) and its biggest trading bloc (the EU accounted for 16.4% of global imports and 15.4% of exports in 2011, ahead of the US with 15.5% and 10.5%, and China with 11.9% and 13.4% respectively). And despite the crisis, our share of world trade is not declining; unlike that of many of our trading partners, it is holding steady.

The EU is also the world’s leading recipient of foreign direct investment (FDI) – some €225bn in 2011 – and the leading provider of development and humanitarian aid. Five of the top 10 most competitive nations in the world are EU countries. Add to this the fact that Europe is the place with the highest respect for human rights and personal freedom, the world’s leading fighter in the battle against climate change, the cradle of democracy and the home of the most widespread and effective healthcare and social policies, and it is clear that we have been running ourselves down for too long. This is a mix that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, and as a result it should naturally give us confidence to take the leap into the new era of globalisation.

This is what I think will be the EU’s next ‘big thing’ – to make sure that Europe keeps this competitive edge, responds to this global challenge and guarantees the longevity of European achievements on the ground.

Which, naturally, in these sceptical times, begs the inevitable question: why is this best done by the EU rather than national governments alone?

The answer, I believe, is that no single country or group of countries has the necessary weight to achieve this – not even for themselves let alone the EU as a whole. This is my firm belief after five years of crisis. The sheer scale of the economic and social transformation, the educational reforms and the investments in R&D that we need to really punch at our true weight on the global stage simply cannot be achieved without doing so on a European scale. Banks are simply too big to be regulated or saved by individual countries alone; multinational companies have more economic power then most governments in Europe; we have unemployment in one country and shortage of skilled workers or employees in another. Only a European response will get the results we need.

We set great store by our European way of life – the economic, social and environmental standards that we have worked hard to achieve over the last 60 years. There are many who fear that globalisation is a threat to this way of life – but they are wrong. A fully modern and transformed Europe has nothing to fear from anyone; rather, it should be an example of what other nations should aspire to be: the safest, fairest, cleanest and greenest place on the planet.

And we really are in this together. There can be no doubt that Europe’s future lies together, not apart. Yes, each Member State has its own efforts to make to reform and strengthen its economy; but even the biggest of our Member States remain relative bit-players on the world stage. While it is entirely conceivable that one day there might be no single European country sitting round the G8 table, for example, the combined might of the 28 Member States surely gives us a permanent seat there.

Through self-transformation and modernisation, by leading by example, Europe’s ‘next big thing’ will be nothing more or less than to shape the entire world in positive and fair way. As big things go, that’s a pretty big one – but if we work together, if we stick to the path that we have set for ourselves, Europe’s collective place at the global top table will surely be assured.

The spirit of Mallorca

July 23rd, 2013
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Rating: 3.9/5 (10 votes cast)

Was it the Balearic sun or wind, the splendid hospitality of Guido and José Manuel (respectively the German and Spanish Foreign Ministers) or the presence of the Spanish Prince of Asturias? I am not sure what precisely the reason was, but the ambience at our discussion on the future of Europe was certainly much different from most “Council type” meetings or bruising discussions with media dominated by doom scenarios about the end of the EU.

Eighteen Foreign Ministers, 5 MEPs and myself have been taking part in very open and frank discussions in the reflection group on the future of Europe. We discussed questions, arguments and issues that are more usually kept for private conversations. All the participants were determined that if we want to preserve Europe’s eminent role in the world, we have to stay united and act as a team. The main argument: “If we want to gain more sovereignty globally, then we need to share it more widely within Europe” sums it up pretty well. Nobody questioned the need to deepen economic and monetary union, including the completion of the banking union before the EP elections in 2014. Even the enlarged introduction of qualified majority voting in the area of Common Foreign and Security Policy appeared to be acceptable under certain conditions.

Interesting ideas were proposed around the table with respect to possible Treaty or institutional changes. The paper, presented by the Spanish Foreign Minister is a very good synthesis of these ideas. A proposal to merge the post of the Commission Vice-President in charge of economic affairs with the President of the Eurogroup was welcomed by many participants.

There was also a strong argument made in support of all reform steps being made on the basis of the Community method and not by intergovernmental agreements. This will not be an easy task. Take the economic crisis. Citizens from the so-called ‘programme’ countries blame the EU for their hardship. Citizens from supporting countries feel that they are paying the bill. But if we increasingly use the intergouvenmental method to make these sort of major decisions, then these national interests will inevitably  come more to the forefront and Member States will be more reactive to the public mood of the moment. The result would be an acceleration of the centrifugal tendencies pulling the EU apart rather than binding us closer together.

We also agreed that whatever plans we make for the future, our main priority is to reconnect with our citizens. There are many ways we can achieve this: by relaunching economic growth, creating new jobs and ensuring social security. The democratic legitimacy and accountability of our actions must be stepped up to ensure that we can continue to build on the European integration process that has brought us unprecedented peace and prosperity over the past six decades. This would, I believe, give our citizens the assurance that they have not been forgotten in our efforts to build a place for Europe in the future of this globalised world.

What I particularly welcomed was the clear call to put an end to the blame game, where European successes are “nationalised” and failures attributed to “Brussels”. There cannot be only sunshine in some European capitals and rain in Brussels. We are in this European construction together and have to communicate honestly with our citizens.

There was also strong support for calls to avoid 28 national campaigns for the EP elections and to have instead one unified campaign where pro-Europeans could campaign on a clear common platform. The Commission wants to play its part in achieving this goal by presenting its own views on the EU’s future. We hope that the first ever elections of the Commission President through the EP elections, a clear vision of how to move the EU forward, will for the first time put Europe and its future at the centre of the European political campaign. Let’s hope that many EU citizens will take part in the EP elections and give the future EP and Commission a clear mandate to strengthen the EU in this truly globalised century.

Getting it right on transparency

May 27th, 2013
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Rating: 2.8/5 (9 votes cast)

It’s nearly two years since the European Commission launched its joint transparency register with the European Parliament, a concerted effort by the two institutions to keep track of the various players in Brussels and Strasbourg who try to influence MEPs, commissioners, officials and even journalists. 

Many of them are not lobbyists in the traditional sense: yes, there are public affairs professionals, certainly, but also NGOs, semi-public organisations, church organisations, think-tanks, foundations and so on. They are all active, and have a legitimate role to play in defending their particular interest. But the Commission and the Parliament believe that if they do so, they should be in the register, allowing the public to see just who is talking to whom about what. 

The transparency register has been a success, not least in the number of registrations, which continues to grow and is currently running at just over 5,700. And we are hopeful that the Council will also decide to join the register in the coming months, bringing even greater transparency to the EU decision-making process. 

But there have been critics, especially among some NGOs that see the register as only partially successful, primarily because registration is not mandatory (as it is in the US) but voluntary. 

I’ve always maintained that the voluntary approach is the best one for the European institutions, in part because there are many legal issues. You need a legal basis on which to propose a mandatory one that would oblige people to register. There is also the question of how to define who should be obliged to register and what the sanctions should be. But I’m also convinced that the vast majority of interest groups have nothing to hide and will register in the end – a sentiment that has been largely vindicated by the fact that so many of them have opted to sign the register already. 

As for those interest groups that have not yet registered… well, let’s just say that public pressure can be a highly motivating tool! 

But don’t just take my word for it. 

A recent academic study by Justin Greenwood, Professor of European Public Policy at the Robert Gordon University and Joanna Dreger, an Academic Assistant at the College of Europe, found that that joint transparency register had “the widest embrace” in the world in terms of scope, even with its voluntary registration basis. 

To quote the researchers: ” Does the Transparency Register component of EU lobby regulation place it in the vanguard of a ‘new wave’ of strong lobby regulation? If the criterion is the extent to which the Transparency Register scheme provides public information, then the scheme’s got merit.  Using various data sources, we estimate that it covers 75% of business related organisations lobbying the EU, and 60% of NGOs.” 

The paper also notes that there are some issues surrounding data quality that need to be ironed out, but stresses that the register’s joint secretariat has already flagged these up as part of its own review following the first year of the register’s operation. This will indeed be the top priority for the current review of the register.  

You can read the whole paper here at the website of the academic journal Interest Groups & Advocacy, but let me just finish with one of its main conclusions: 

“The Transparency Register provides a wealth of public information about most of the organisations. In a short space of time since its establishment there is a lot of transparency, and with incremental development it provides the basis for the public to be fully informed as well as serving as a useful research tool.” 

I’d say that’s a pretty strong endorsement of our approach, wouldn’t you?

Shaped by social media? Not yet, but it’s coming!

May 3rd, 2013
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A few days ago at the Commission’s first Digital Competence Day event, I issued a call to exchange best practices and experiences in the field of modern e-technologies. Neelie Kroes was the first to respond. No surprise there – she is our Digital Champion, pushing the e-agenda across Europe – indeed, it was she who brought Twitter (and her nearly 70,000 followers) to the Commission. And so earlier this week I was privileged to see for myself just how Neelie’s team are putting the most modern technologies to good use.

And this got me thinking about how much we (or should I say I) have evolved thanks to the phenomenon of social media. My first experience of social media was as a concerned parent, nervously and grudgingly accepting the fact that social media (starting with ICQ and then evolving to Facebook, YouTube and you name it) was a major time-consuming part of my children’s life. But pretty soon afterwards I too launched into this brave new world, despite concerns over respect and privacy issues, and of course today I like most people can see the huge transformative power of social media in terms of society, democracy and our quest for better efficiency. Now I can chat with civil society on Twitter on the challenges of the European Citizens Initiative, share some of my views on European affairs through podcasts and engage with Commission staff on the thorny issue of staff regulations through Yammer and the chat function of our Intranet. And this of course is just scratching the surface of what is possible…

Listening to Neelie’s team I was glad to see that the quality and style of presentation and the knowledge of our experts was the same as what I saw in Silicon Valley when I was there last year. The progress we have made in this area is clear. Not so long ago, I had to push hard just to keep the Commission’s experiment with Yammer (brought to the Commission by social media pioneers from DG COMM) alive. Now, there are nearly 9000 registered Commission users taking advantage of all that it offers in terms of asking for and sharing advice, talent spotting, cutting red tape and duplication, efficiency gains, etc. And of course I myself am also signed up – it makes for a very effective and efficient way of engaging with staff!

As you might expect, Neelie’s team are the forefront of the Commission’s efforts to make the best use of new technologies. They have taken platform collaboration to a higher level: realising that newcomers to the Commission always ask where they should sign up and which platform we’re using, Neelie’s team have introduced Jive, which offers tools that are better-suited for crowd collaboration.

Here’s just one example: when the Director General of DG CONNECT had to prepare a paper on how he planned to ‘do more with less’ (I think they know my agenda pretty well), the initial draft of the paper was put on Jive to allow the entire DG to comment. Many of the ideas put forward as a result of this collective approach would never have been discovered without it, and while the Director General, of course, decides what finally makes it into the paper and what doesn’t, the range of ideas thrown up by the exercise was extremely broad, and team spirit was lifted as staff felt that their views were truly valued.

There are plenty of other examples that clearly demonstrate that you can often get help in your work from places you would never expect: the secretary whose previous job was running a hi-tech start-up, or the accountant whose hobby is closely related to a subject on which your unit is currently working and struggling with, to give just a couple of general examples.

The key here is encouragement: active efforts by top management to motivate their staff to come up with innovative new ideas while nonetheless respecting the final decision making process. The Commission, as with many other administrations, is looking for the best solutions to overcome silo mentality and better involve staff in traditional hierarchical decision-making. I believe that the more we embrace the idea of an e-Commission (which is a clear priority for me), the more we are likely to attract a new generation of ‘digitally native’ staff, in turn bringing more expertise and ideas in new technologies. The efficiency gains we can make are clear – as is the resultant improvement in staff motivation. We just need to overcome the initial fear of launching into something new, to learn from the best, support the pioneers and adjust the system to our needs. I know it’s possible, so what are we waiting for? Let’s just do it!

Thank you Oslo!

December 14th, 2012
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I was very pleased to be invited to join the delegation of European leaders who earlier this week accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. After many months of criticism, difficult negotiations and often the tense atmosphere that I have experienced in meetings with ministers, representatives of national parliaments or with the media, the Nobel Peace Prize for the EU came at exactly the right moment.

This award reminded us how Europe looked before the effective cooperation we have today. The strong stories mentioning the millions of people who died during the two World Wars helped to push aside the cynicism and sarcasm which have  lately very often overshadowed  discussions on European issues.

The festive and motivating atmosphere during the ceremony was also created thanks to the enthusiasm of the hosts – whether it came from  the Nobel Committee or from  Norwegian citizens in the streets of Oslo. Little did I think when I set out just before eight o’clock on Monday morning through the dark streets of the Norwegian capital en route for a discussion about the European Union that I would end up speaking in front of hundreds of enthusiastic well-wishers.

This great atmosphere permeated throughout the whole day for me: in the meeting I had with the young winners of the EU competition “What does peace in Europe mean to you?”, who through their pictures or 140-character tweets were able to express more than the politicians with their long speeches; or in the evening, when around 1,800 Norwegian citizens came in a torchlight parade to the main square in Oslo to promote European integration. Moreover, the presence of members of the Norwegian royal family underlined the importance and uniqueness of this moment.

As I said, the Nobel Peace Prize for the European Union came at exactly the right moment – at a time of key debates about its future, which should see us move towards a further level of integration. It is only natural that there are plenty of loud voices both for and against this process. That’s why it is also important to stop for a while, to look back and to gain a new energy that will sustain us through whatever the future may bring us.

I wish to fulfil the words of the Thorbjørn Jagland, head of the Nobel Committee, who during the ceremony expressed the hope that the European Union will receive this prize again in 100 years, confirming the uniqueness of its existence and the power of the message that it spreads across the world through its fundamental values – peace, prosperity and respect for human rights.

I hope that the positive message of this week (the Nobel Prize on Monday, the agreement on Banking Union on Wednesday and the successful summit on Friday) will continue in 2013 and that it will finally bear fruit in a form of economic growth, jobs and a reinforced and deeply integrated European Union.

ECI – the first step towards trans-European e-democracy

November 7th, 2012
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Rating: 3.2/5 (11 votes cast)

The European agenda has been overshadowed in recent years by the  impact of the  current crisis and by the need to take unprecedented measures to overcome it, many of which have often been poorly received by citizens. The solution to the problems raised by the crisis must be ‘more Europe’ – it is the obvious way to proceed given the increasing pressure from globalisation and the shared future of EU Member States through the single currency and the single market. Yet ‘more Europe’ raises concerns about loss of national sovereignty, identity or democratic oversight, and genuine political debate on the issue is complicated because of the growing Euroscepticism that leads to criticism or ridicule of anything branded with the EU mark. 

This is why I am happier than ever to see positive messages about Europe. In this context I was delighted to see that Fraternité 2020, the first European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) using the Commission’s servers to host its online collection platform, recently began collecting signatures of support for its ECI, which aims to improve exchanges such as Erasmus within the EU. 

Why do I consider this such an important step? Well, I have always underlined the vital importance of ECIs – created by the Lisbon Treaty to give citizens from across Europe a more direct role in policy-making – and my services have worked extremely hard to make it as easy as possible to set up and manage initiatives. But despite our best efforts – which include providing all the necessary software for setting up an online collection system for ECIs – it has become obvious that the whole process of installation and certification (designed to ensure the protection of personal data) is more complicated than we would have liked. Part of the problem is that the conditions for the certification of online collection systems vary from one country to another – and in some of them they are not yet in place at all! 

That’s why the Commission decided to help the first ECIs to be formally registered following the launch of the ECI in April this year by offering its servers to host online collection systems. As the Commission’s data centre is based in Luxembourg, we have worked closely with the Luxemburgish authorities to get the necessary certification, and I hope that more ECIs will soon be able to join Fraternité 2020 in launching online collection via the Commission’s own servers. 

The most positive reactions to this approach have come from outside Europe. In a recent article, Californian journalist Joe Mathews praised the Commission for its rapid response to the difficulties surrounding the launch of the ECI, calling Europe “a continent which takes direct democracy seriously”. At the same time, he noted that this kind of support from the executive would be impossible in California. 

Unfortunately, the response from within the EU itself has been more negative – but not entirely so. I was delighted with the positive response from the members of the citizens’ committee behind the Fraternité 2020 ECI, whom I met recently as they launched their online collection, and reaction has also been good from many Member States, who have suggested using this system in the future in a  much broader context. In fact, the reaction to ECIs from some Member States shows that not all of them are aware of the real potential of ECI, which I consider to be the first step towards a new era of trans-European e-democracy. 

Deeper integration in the future will require closer cooperation between the European Parliament and national parliaments and the closer involvement of citizens in the European decision-making process. Traditional representative democracy will be complemented by participative democracy. And of course, today’s digital generation will expect digital solutions. 

The trend is clear we are moving towards a digital Europe of e-government, electronic identity cards (eIDs) and e-signatures. In some countries, such as Estonia, this is already very much the reality, and I expect that in a few years consultation with European citizens on various topics or initiatives via e-democracy tools will become commonplace. In this respect, the ECI is very much a first step on the road to e-democracy. The more we learn from it, and the more experience we accumulate, the better we will be able to respond to the demand from today’s younger generation – the first to grow up in the truly digital era – to be able to participate in the democratic life of the EU using digital tools.

A year of living transparently

June 22nd, 2012
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It is a year since the European Commission and European Parliament launched our joint transparency register – an appropriate time to take stock of our collective efforts to make EU policy-making more transparent. 

The new register builds on the success of its predecessor, which collected more than 4000 registered organisations since being set up by the Commission in 2008. The scope of the joint register differs from the old one in that it also covers law firms, NGOs, think tanks, etc, and not just ‘traditional’ lobbyists, thus reflecting the reality of the situation on the ground and ensuring the maximum number of groups are registered. 

A year on from the launch, more than 5000 organisations – representing 15-20,000 individual lobbyists – have now signed up, and we are on the verge of extending the scope yet again, this time to include Council. An observer from that institution has begun taking part in meetings of the secretariat managing the register and I hope the Council will fully participate in the near future. This is a very welcome development as it adds greater credence to our efforts to be as transparent as possible about the way in which policy-making is carried out in Europe. Furthermore, it is something that both the Commission and Parliament have been pushing for from the outset, and shows just how successful the register has been. Indeed, our approach has triggered interest from several member states where a debate on setting up similar registers is taking place. 

With no legal basis in the Treaties to oblige organisations or persons to register, we rely on voluntary registration, which leaves us open to claims that we are not as transparent as we could be – even though around 80% of Brussels lobbyists are covered by the current register. It’s important that institutions and citizens pay attention to who is registered and who is not: questioning the motives of groups that remain unregistered – and the risk to their reputation that that implies – should be enough to convince organisations to sign. Given the complex legal issues linked to any binding approach, the voluntary approach is also by far the simplest and most effective means of keeping track of lobbying activities. 

It’s also important to put the register into the broader context of the Commission’s efforts to reinforce the transparent character and the ethical aspects of its work. In the last few years, we’ve introduced a new Code of Conduct for Commissioners and new guidelines for accepting and refusing gifts and hospitality, we’ve set up a training and guidance system on ethics for Commission staff and are carrying out a review of our whistleblowing guidelines. The Commission’s entire annual work programme is there for all to see, and public consultations are carried out on most policy initiatives, giving citizens a real opportunity to have their say. A public consultation on the register has been launched, and we’ll soon be carrying out a review of guidelines covering EU staff working elsewhere after leaving the institutions in order to answer concerns that the lines are too often blurred between policy makers and lobbyists. And all this information, and much more, can now also be found in one place, our new online transparency portal. 

Although transparency and accountability have been high on our agenda, there will always be critics who claim we should be doing more. But if we compare with many national administrations, the EU institutions have no reason to hide. In addition, the level of interest from Member States, MEPs and from Council shows that we are clearly heading in the right direction. European citizens need to know that the EU is working for them, and that the right decisions are being taken; transparency and accountability are important elements for increasing trust in the EU project and its institutions. The register is a significant step towards doing just that. 

This blog first appeared as an article in European Voice.

Commission IP/2012/681: Transparency Register celebrates 1st birthday with more than 5,150 registrations, Council engagement and public consultation

European Parliament press release: EU Transparency Register: over 5,000 interest groups sign up in first year

Times are tough – but this could still be the EU’s decade

June 8th, 2012
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Rating: 3.8/5 (13 votes cast)

Here’s a controversial prediction for the future: by the end of the current decade, we will be able to look back on the current economic and political situation and see it not as a threat to the continued success of the European project but as the turning point that led to a stronger, more integrated, more prosperous Europe. Yes, I know it may seem far-fetched to say this given the present uncertainty, but I firmly believe that this will be the EU’s decade.

There’s an old expression – ‘What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’ – that I think is appropriate here. These are the most testing times that the EU has seen since its very inception, and yet it is precisely because we are being sorely tested that I believe we will emerge stronger and fitter than ever before. 

So why do I think this? Well, first and foremost because we have not panicked in the face of the extreme pressure on the euro zone or over the uncertain future facing Greece but instead taking swift and decisive action not only to tackle the immediate problem but, and perhaps more importantly, to put the right governance structure in place to make sure that we never see a repeat of the current crisis. 

We have strengthened economic governance not only in the eurozone but in every EU Member State, we have created new firewalls and provided crucial support for Greece. We have agreed on far greater transparency in the preparation of budgets and the ongoing governance of both national and EU economies. We have proposed a raft of measures designed to bring down the current excessive deficits seen across many EU countries – measures that I am confident will leave the EU with the lowest public deficits of any global player, possibly by as early as next year. 

Of course, the public face of these measures is more often than not job cuts, funding restrictions and austerity – hardly the basis, I agree, for my optimistic appraisal of where we might be in 2020. 

But we are already seeing a momentum away from austerity-only measures towards a more balanced approach that places equal if not greater emphasis on stimulating economic growth and creating jobs – a momentum that I believe will carry us out right of the crisis. 

So what am I basing my optimism on? It’s all in the Communication on Action for Stability Growth and Jobs adopted by the College on 30 May at the same time as our country-specific recommendations for each EU Member State. This paper sets out, in black and white, what the Commission believes is necessary for us to achieve lasting growth and sustainable jobs. But it’s not a revolution – as the Communication points out, we already have very strong bases on which to build. It’s rather a question of frontloading and accelerating the measures we have all already agreed to enhance the growth part of our existing strategy. 

So what are we proposing? First, we need to complete our economic and monetary union, which in large part depends on restoring confidence in the euro, not least by finding a sustainable solution for Greece. We’re already well on the way towards this with the measures I’ve mentioned above, but it is likely that we will have to move towards deeper integration, such as a banking union, euro area financial supervision and deposit guarantees for the eurozone. All of this will of course also need strong political backing – a commitment from the Member States to the future of the euro – to give it democratic as well as economic legitimacy. 

Second, we need to tap the potential of the internal market, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year but which, in reality, remains far from complete. A rapid lifting of the blocks preventing the development of an EU-wide patent and the full implementation of the Services Directive would bring immediate results: for example, adopting the Services Directive in full would lead to an additional 1.8% increase in EU-wide GDP, on top of the 0.8% rise that partial implementation has brought. Completing the digital single market, and tackling cross-border tax barriers will also be priorities. 

Third, we need to build up the momentum on job creation, especially in key sectors such as ICT, healthcare and the green economy. There are more than 3 million job vacancies across the EU that remain unfilled because of a lack of skills, and tackling this mismatch should be another priority. 

Fourth, we need to make sure that Europe has the ability to fund and develop its growth-enhancing agenda. This means agreeing a new multi-annual financial framework that is fit for purpose, agreeing on the development of project bonds to leverage EU funds, targeting structural funds on growth-specific measures, increasing the paid-in capital of the European Investment Bank to allow it to continue its high level of lending and, perhaps most controversially of all, the adoption of an EU-wide financial transaction tax that could raise up to €57bn to support growth measures. 

These are all EU-wide measures that will improve the overall prosperity of the Union as a whole. But there is plenty that can and must be done at individual Member State level as well – not least the implementation of the reforms that have already been agreed as part of the Europe 2020 strategy. These focus on core issues such as increasing investment in research and development, supporting education and boosting employability, particularly for young people and women. 

Far from being on the verge of economic meltdown, I believe all the elements are already in place for Europe to consolidate its position as the world’s biggest economy by the end of the decade. With the measures we have already introduced, coupled with the country-specific recommendations and the pan-European proposals we adopted at the end of May, Europe’s economy will be far stronger and more resilient to potential future crises, with far greater growth potential and more sustainable jobs. 

I’m already looking forward to 2020 and seeing a Europe with strong public finances, a vibrant single currency, low levels of unemployment and an internal market with no barriers to trade in goods or services. I’m sticking by my prediction: this will most certainly be the EU’s decade!

EU-Asia relations: so much to learn from each other

May 30th, 2012
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I’ve just returned from a trip to China, Korea and Singapore, the main focus of which was to maintain the positive momentum in EU-China relations that has been driven by a number of successful summits with our Asian partners. Indeed, over the last few months, a succession of top-level delegations – Prime Ministers and Deputy Prime Ministers – from these countries have visited the EU to discuss trade and economic cooperation and sharing know-how. 

Why are these discussions important? Well, primarily because EU-China trade is worth more than €430 billion! The EU is China’s number one trading partner and it looks increasingly likely that China will soon also become the leading market for EU trade as well (it is currently in second place, behind the US). 

But it’s important to note, I think, that this is anything but a one-way street; China wants EU technology and know-how just as much if not more than the EU wants Chinese goods, manufacturing skills and access to consumers. For example, during my talks in China, it was clear that the European concept of ‘smart cities’ and the development of ‘green’ technologies are both particularly important to China, not surprisingly given the continuing demographic growth there. Indeed, China is planning to build dozens of new ‘smart’ cities, which will be home to millions of Chinese people, and hopes to use European technology and know-how to avoid the congestion and pollution problems that plague many of China’s largest cities, including Beijing. 

Trade relations also dominated my talks in Korea, which signed a Free Trade Agreement with the EU in September 2010, leading to a 20% increase in bilateral trade over the last nine months since it came into force on 1 July 2011, and this despite the global economic crisis. I am convinced after my discussions that we are moving ever closer to a similar agreement with Singapore: the EU would like to conclude negotiations on a free trade agreement by the end of this year. Trade between the EU and Korea and Singapore combined is more than €60 billion, and the EU is both Korea and Singapore’s most important trading partner. There is much to gain for both sides from liberalising trade relations, not least in the area of ICT, an increasingly important driver of the economies of both Asian countries. On the back of this, both countries have also seen a steady increase in the importance of e-government – indeed, Korea is the world leader in this regard. And with seven of the top ten countries for e-government coming from Europe, there is certainly much that we can teach each other in this important area of administration.
Education is also a priority for both countries. Up to 80% of the population of Republic of Korea is interested to get a university degree, and having been invited to give a speech and take part in a discussion at prestigious Yonsei University, I can certainly confirm that students’ interest in European affairs is considerable! Singapore, meanwhile, has a particular focus on R&D, and I was happy to see a high level of interest in and appreciation for European scientific research, as well as in Europe’s longer term ambitions in this area. 

Increasing levels of trade and scientific cooperation underline the growing interdependence of Asian countries and the EU. From my visit, it’s clear to me to the economic and commercial dynamism of the Asian economies is going to be one of the key external sources of economic growth in the EU. It’s not surprising, then, that the first question I was asked at the start of every meeting there was the same – what are we doing about the euro and the future of the euro area. 

What struck me most was that the success of the euro is not just an issue for Europe – the economic dynamism of Asia, and virtually of the whole world, depends in no small part on the EU’s prosperity. The EU is the largest economy in the world and as such it carries an immense global responsibility for overall economic development, as recent events have clearly shown. That’s why my message was clear: the EU has put the necessary structures in place to overcome the current economic crisis and emerge even stronger from the other side, measures that will reinforce its position as the world’s most important commercial and economic powerhouse.