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The European Union on better tracks, but…

Maria João Rodrigues
FEPS President

The last European Council was important to put the European Union on better tracks, culminating the long and dramatic effort which was undertaken by larger European and progressive forces to respond to the current unprecedented and multidimensional crisis. Nevertheless, daunting challenges are still ahead of us. The swift implementation of the agreed policy measures will be crucial and still raises many uncertainties.

As it has often happened over the recent European history, the European construction is gaining a new shape to cope with a new and unexpected crisis. A Health Union is now perceived as a vital necessity. The same happens with a coordinated economic recovery counting on a stronger European budget. This is to be financed, for the first time, by a joint issuance of bonds which are backed by new own resources involving new European taxation. The need for a more coordinated European external action is also perceived as a top priority because global governance and cooperation have been in disarray, but a window of opportunity to relaunch and renew multilateralism is being opened by Biden’s election in the US. Overall, a qualitative leap of the European project seems to be underway.

The common access and distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine will be the founding act of the European Health Union. But many other developments will be required from now on. Besides the current efforts to coordinate European mobility and national curfews, it is necessary to coordinate the national European research and health systems to have a common capacity to respond and prevent pandemics and common diseases. It will equally be necessary to equip our health systems with the necessary facilities and human resources. Furthermore, the importance of care services is showing the necessity to organise them as a new professional sector, which will create many new jobs. The irreversible push for gender equality will turn this even more necessary, because this vital activity is still basically depending on women’s hidden work.

Nevertheless, even with the vaccine at the end of the tunnel, the impact of the current economic recession has painful consequences for viable companies, viable jobs wages and living conditions. According to sectors and EU-regions, these consequences unfold with huge differences. Rather than an equalizer, Covid is a huge un-equalizer! The only way to prevent an internal collapse is to act swiftly with much stronger monetary in budgetary instruments. This motivates the current action by the European Central Bank. The ECB has learnt from its huge mistakes during the recent financial crisis, before Mario Draghi took over as President. It is also crucial to open the straitjacket of the national budgets and to complement them with a strong European budget, providing not only the loans but also grants for future EU programmes as well as for regional and social cohesion.

This was the indispensable historical leap, which was made by this European Council, overcoming the blockade created by the Hungarian and Polish governments. Access to the next European budget will depend on compliance with the rule of law, to be monitored by a new European mechanism. Let us see now how this will be enforced within the political game between Council, European Commission, Parliament and Court of Justice! In any case, it must be complemented with a larger framework of measures to take care of the quality of democracy in European Union.

In the meantime, to ensure the full potential of this new European budgetary capacity, we still need the final negotiation of the various community programmes between Council and European Parliament and the ratification of the new own resources by the national parliaments. At the same time, Member States must launch their national recovery plans with a real impact, not only to counter the recession, but also to drive a fundamental structural transformation. We are late in our response to climate change and this European Council could also start moving to more ambitious targets to cut carbon emissions, putting the European Union internationally in the lead. This agreement was made possible by strengthening the financial instruments to support the regions which will be particularly hit by the energy transition and that risk losing many jobs. Nevertheless, we must be aware that even if some flexibility was accorded on the energy mix to be chosen by each country – something controversial – a task of gigantic proportions remains to be accomplished to transform all sectors, from agriculture to manufacturing, housing and transports.

The capacity for European Union to act in a more coordinated way regarding external partners was also under stake in this European Council. The difficulties were visible regarding Turkey, as while its recent manoeuvres in the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya and Syria should be deterred, Europe should also create the conditions for the Turkish democratic forces to be strengthened. Europe also depends too much on the Turkish management of migration flows and this is another reason – on top of the humanitarian one – why Europe must have a common migration policy. Something still to be seen…

By contrast, there was much more cohesion in this European Council about the need to welcome, with open arms, Joe Biden’s election as US president: as a relief from the nightmare of Donald Trump and also as a promise of a new chance to relaunch the transatlantic relationships. But we are now in a new world with other strong poles, notably China, and the cooperation with United States will probably involve lights and shadows: a new engagement for multilateralism, climate action and human rights, but difficulties when it comes to trade, the regulation of the digital sector and the need to update tax policies.

A decisive test for European unity is also taking place during the last episodes of the Brexit saga. It seems that there is a big and fundamental misunderstanding since the beginning. Leaving the European Union with the argument of regaining full autonomy and national sovereignty on its standards is a democratic decision we might regret, but we need to accept. But it is also crucial to make clear that if a former Member State wants to keep autonomy on setting (meaning reducing) its own economic, social and environmental standards, it cannot be given a privileged access to European single market. Just because the standards of the European single market are also a matter of sovereignty: the common European sovereignty, defined democratically by EU Member States and citizens.

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