Fabian Demicoli

Civil Society debates EU recovery with Commission President Barroso

 The European Economic and Social Committee's 478th plenary session provided the opportunity for EESC president Staffan Nilsson to welcome the president of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso for an in-depth debate on the EU 2020 strategy and the steps required to address the current crisis in Europe ahead of the Committee's vote on the related opinion on the Annual Growth Survey 2012.

The debate was followed by the adoption by the EESC's three groups (Employers, Workers, Various Interests) of a highly topical resolution, which stresses the Committee's grave concern at the current economic and financial situation in the European Union, the fundamental need for renewed European unity and solidarity, broader economic policy governance and a more ambitious budget to finance measures directed at promoting growth, SMEs, young people's access to the labour market and efficient energy policy.

The plenary session also saw the signature of the renewed protocol on cooperation between the European Commission and the EESC, which strengthens the EESC's role of enabling civil society participation in the policy-shaping and decision-making processes of the EU in the light of the Lisbon Treaty and provides for stronger civil society input into the definition of the EU's political priorities, the European Commission's annual work programme and the Europe 2020 Strategy. It further reinforces the role of the EESC in the EU's external action by involving civil society in the monitoring of the EU trade agreements and recognises its strengthened consultative role.

Staffan Nilsson opened the debate by welcoming the opportunity for an exchange of views on the Commission's priorities to help Europe recover from the crisis and the contribution civil society could make in this respect. "Indeed, I feel we need to talk more about the potential when we tackle the crisis", he said, underlining the Committee's conviction that what was needed now were structural reforms with a long-term effect, reforms that couple austerity programmes with measures conducive to stimulating growth and creating jobs. He further stressed the EESC's ongoing contribution to paving the way for a concrete action plan for sustainable development ahead of the Rio+ 20 summit and its commitment to making the Europe 2020 strategy a reality.

Mr Barroso thanked the EESC for its support of the implementation of the Europe 2020 national reform programmes, the Community method and the focus on sustainability, pointing to the EESC's fundamental role as a key interface between the European institutions and civil society. "This is not about ideology, it is a strategy", stated Mr Barroso, referring to deeper integration as the only way to defend European values, to safeguard the interests of European citizens and to maintain Europe's status in the world, especially its position vis-à-vis other political powers such as the US, Japan, China and India. He insisted that a strong Europe was unthinkable without strong social cohesion and that a key challenge was to achieve increased competitiveness without undermining the European social model.

Mr Barroso concluded by quoting Alexis de Tocqueville's "History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies", addressing the EU's unique ability to qualify as such a rare original.

In the ensuing debate, Henri Malosse, president of the EESC's Employers' group, echoed the statements by Mr Nilsson and Mr Barroso by drawing attention to some of the key assets the EU was able to rely on in the present situation, namely the new intergovernmental treaty, the 2014-2020 budget perspective and the all-important EU 2020 strategy, but stated that only the leaders of the European institutions can embody the European dream and spread the message among the European citizens. Georges Dassis, representing the EESC's Workers' group, compared the efforts to move forward as a united Europe to the works of Sisyphus and underlined the importance of ensuring respect of labour rights in the context of austerity and economic hardship, while Luca Jahier, president of the Various Interests' group, highlighted the issue of democratic legitimacy at the national and European level resulting from the current crisis and called on the Commission president to convene an extraordinary summit on the future of Europe which would directly involve its citizens.

The relevant opinion adopted by the EESC (rapporteur David Croughan, Employers' Group) addresses civil society's main concerns about the Annual Growth Survey 2012 (AGS). The AGS 2012 sets out what the Commission believes must be the EU's priorities for 2012 to boost growth and employment under the Europe 2020 strategy. The EESC's message with a view to the Spring European Council is clear: the Union must now demonstrate its political capacity to tackle the debt crisis by ambitious and sufficient measures to restore confidence. A much greater emphasis must be put on smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.

The opinion welcomes the increased focus on growth of the AGS 2012, especially since it takes on board many ideas reflected in the past opinion of the EESC on the 2011 Annual Growth Survey. However, the Committee is gravely concerned about the lack of implementation of commitments agreed upon in the European semester process and stresses that without decisiveness and effective implementation of reforms by European institutions and member states, Europe is set to face a long-term growth crisis.

The opinion expresses concern about the emphasis on austerity measures. Although there is no doubt that budgetary consolidation measures are necessary to correct severe fiscal imbalances, these should not put long-term sustainable growth in danger.

The EU needs to give ambitious answers to current challenges – such as creating jobs and improving its competitiveness in an ever increasing global competition – the ultimate goal remaining Europeans' well-being in the long term.

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