Does the Commission take unemployment as a serious challenge? What future for the Europe 2020 strategy? A few comments on European Commission: “Results of the public consultation on the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth”
This new note from the European Commission is clearly a step further down the road towards marginalising the Europe 2020 strategy in relation to the omnipresent European Semester and economic governance procedures. In its Executive Summary of the online consultation, the Commission presents the outcomes as follows: Europe 2020 is seen as “relevant”, its objectives and priorities as “meaningful”, the five headline targets as “key catalysts for jobs and growth”, most “flagship initiatives have served their purpose” and there is a need to improve the delivery “through enhanced ownership and involvement on the ground”. All in all, the summary gives the impression that the 755 respondents are totally happy with the 2020 strategy with its targets of 75% employment, 3% research etc.
The note starts with a quite biased interpretation of the Eurobarometer 81 on Europe 2020. In the Eurobarometer the findings are presented as follows:
45% of Europeans consider that the EU “is going in the right direction to exit the crisis and face new global challenges”, while 25% instead believe that it is going in the wrong direction. Nearly a quarter of Europeans (23%) spontaneously respond that the EU is going in neither the right nor the wrong direction, and 7% expressed no opinion.
In the wording of the Commission’s note the result of the opinion poll becomes the following:
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Findings from the latest Eurobarometer survey on the Europe 2020 strategy indicate that the overall direction taken by the EU in response to the crisis is supported by EU citizens – nearly twice as many respondents consider that the EU is going in the right direction to exit the crisis and face its challenges as those who do not.
First of all, by keeping the question in very general terms (“face new global challenges”), Eurobarometer fails to relate it to the 2020 strategy. Despite this vague formulation, there is still no absolute majority supporting the Commission’s policy. Even the simplest calculations are exaggerated: 45% is a relative majority, but not “twice” 25% which would amount to 50%. It should not be overlooked that 23% of the respondents say it is going in neither the right nor the wrong direction and another 7% abstained.
The question points to the “direction to exit the crisis” and “global challenges” leaving enough margin of interpretation to the respondents: Some might see things from the point of view that the worst is behind us, the Euro has not collapsed, and in some countries the crisis was cushioned by automatic stabilisers; others might think of high unemployment, in particular youth unemployment, new divides between North and South, periphery and centre, and in terms of global challenges they might think of climate change, environmental questions, globalisation of the economy etc. You can also read the findings as: not even 50% support the direction taken.
After setting the tone, the note explains the context of the consultation: The delivery of the jobs and growth objectives is “mixed, notably due to the impact of the crisis”. The main factor hindering progress towards the 2020 objectives is the crisis on the one hand and the “time lag with which structural reforms produce their full impact on the economies” on the other hand. It is never the fault of Commission policy (vicious circle of austerity, liberalisation/privatisation, structural reforms, lack of internal demand and job losses) but the fault of the crisis and the Member States’ unwillingness to follow quickly the neoliberal recipes of the Commission.
Another shortcoming is the analysis of the crisis. This might have some roots in the liberalisation of financial markets pushed for by the European Commission in its “Financial services action plan”, adopted in 1999 under Commissioner Bolkestein. Did the crisis, indeed, have something to do with financialisation getting out of control? Is the narrative correct that the Commission is pushing for more employment, but the “crisis” and a coalition of unwilling Member States in the European periphery prefers unemployment?
The second and third chapters present the background of the consultation and a general overview of the main outcomes. The Commission acknowledges that many respondents see the “added value” being overshadowed by “overlapping policy actions” – or, putting it less diplomatically, by the austerity framework. It is “disconnected” from broader policy areas – or, putting it more clearly: not linked to the objectives of the European Semester, even directly in contradiction of these. Apparently, the Commission has decided not to repeat criticism of the strategy in the hope that most of the readers will not find the time to look closer into the responses to the online consultation.
The only point which could not be totally ignored or glossed over by the Commission is the delivery of the 2020 strategy: 60% of the respondents answer positively but 40% negatively and underline “implementation gaps”. At the same time, the Commission does not cite the critics who say that the instruments of the strategy are inadequate. In this way, all the problems can be related to “weaknesses in terms of awareness, involvement and enforcement”. Less than half of respondents say that they are involved in the strategy and three-quarters express a willingness to get more involved. As an example of best practice, the Commission refers to the Danish Stakeholder Committee bringing together around 30 organisations. Respondents underline the need for an “enhanced enforcement framework” to ensure that the strategy delivers results, through “the right level of … enforcement tools” whatever that may be.
In this context of improving delivery, the Commission starts by repeating the usual credo of better “communication and information”, exchange of best practices, involvement of stakeholders, close monitoring, before taking up an ETUC proposal: “the introduction of incentives to foster the commitment to the strategy’s objectives” as one option favoured by participants. Unfortunately, neither the “Summary of the main lessons learned” identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, nor the “conclusion” take up this idea of an incentive-based approach.
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Behind this embellishment of the results is the hidden attempt to continue the strategy without any major changes. Any proper analysis of the relations between the 2020 strategy and economic governance procedures, in particular the European Semester, has been carefully avoided in this note. The main purpose seems to be to whitewash the strategy and the European Commission itself by shifting the blame and responsibility for the failure of 2020 onto the “crisis” without any proper analysis of its roots and onto the Member States for lagging behind with the implementation of “structural reforms”.
The Commission promises to take the results into account in further reflections on how the strategy should be taken forward and it will present proposals for the review before the end of the year. If the Commission reduces the results to its own Executive Summary, there will be neither stronger coordination nor a new incentive-based approach to the 2020 strategy, but the start of another decade of reliance on peer pressure and extensive bureaucratic reporting systems which have no impact on the social and economic reality of dramatic unemployment and continuing crisis symptoms. Expectations won’t be high in that case.
Wolfgang Kowalsky is a policy adviser working in the trade union movement in Brussels.