Merkel: “Van Rompuy, the battle against youth unemployment is going badly. We need a futile gesture to take the pressure off.”
Van Rompuy: “Yes Ma’am.”
Merkel: “Go to petty cash and draw out about €6 billion. Then give it all away for training and jobs for young people. But not all at once.”
Van Rompuy: “Yes Ma’am. And when I have spent it, can I have some more?”
Merkel: “No, Van Rompuy. We must save for the next futile gesture.”
After ‘Beyond the Fringe’, 1960.
Rarely do we see a European Council adopt a spending policy and then acknowledge that it is unlikely to have much effect. Yet last week the Council indulged in one of the most excruciating examples of political cosmetics in its history. The youth unemployment package tosses derisory small change in the direction of up to 6 million unemployed 15- to 24-year-olds purely out of a need for Europe to be seen to be doing something.
At least, some leaders made an effort afterwards to manage expectations. The Finnish prime minister emphasised that it is national not European policies that can make a difference. The European Union does not have the powers to guarantee a job, training or an apprenticeship for school leavers. Sadly for this “lost generation” nor can several member governments safely deliver the “Youth Guarantee” recommended by the Council. Does anybody imagine that Greece’s public administration can conjure up these options with anything like the urgency demanded by an almost 60% unemployment rate among young people available for work?
In Italy, cosmetics are eliding into confusion and possible misrepresentation. From his first week in office in April, Prime Minister Enrico Letta has built his job creation policy around the extravagant idea that European support and action will be crucial for reducing Italian unemployment. After the Council, he claimed with some bravado that Italy would be receiving €1.5 billion from a €9bn pot. The Council’s conclusions allocate €6bn across the union.
Cosmetic “solutions” can sometimes be justified. They are intended to highlight Europe’s relevance and its ability to respond to the concerns of ordinary people. But if the EU is ever to recover some of its lost standing with public opinion, it would be best to avoid behaving as if there is no limit to public gullibility. And it is, of course, paradoxical that governments who wish to cut back or limit the exercise of the Union’s competences should exaggerate them by conniving in a deception of this kind.
These governments, most prominently those of the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, are leading what could yet emerge as a serious reform movement in the Council, though the two have fundamentally different objectives. The UK wants treaty reform to allow it to repatriate powers, while the coalition in The Hague, according to a document reported in European Voice last week, is not aiming at treaty changes, only for a stricter interpretation of the hallowed principles of proportionality and subsidiarity. While usefully defining the contours of Dutch Euroscepticism, the government’s “subsidiarity review” also, somewhat bizarrely, spells out its negotiating position on 54 specific issues, many of which are in the legislative pipeline. At the very least, this distracts from its core conviction that “the time for an ‘ever closer union’ in every possible policy area is behind us”.
Scheduled for debate in the Dutch parliament, the review’s conclusions are as much for domestic political consumption as to rally other member states behind its position. Yet its argument that member states must rein in a European Commission that, in cahoots with the European Court of Justice, is perpetually seeking to expand its competences will strike a chord in other national capitals.
David Cameron may see a bandwagon to be rolled behind this view, although nothing short of fundamental treaty revision will satisfy the Eurosceptics in his own party. Much depends on whether a critical mass of member states will want to ring-fence the Union’s powers after the rapid expansion brought about the forced march towards a banking union and much greater fiscal stability and discipline. Last week’s criticisms of the performance of the Barroso Commission by French ministers reveal unease bordering on unhappiness with the powers that Brussels can wield.
Charles Grant argues in a recent paper for the Centre for European Reform that member states’ confidence in the Commission is diminishing because it proposes too many detailed rules in areas such as environment, food safety and social policy. Moreover, this tendency is being strengthened by a European Parliament in thrall to lobbies and NGOs which “find it quite easy to get MEPs to support their projects for new EU rules”. Grant says the Parliament puts pressure for new laws on underemployed European commissioners who happily oblige to avoid trouble. His solution is for governments to agree to appoint a political heavyweight as Commission President and to cut the number of commissioners.
Shrinking the Commission almost certainly needs treaty changes and treaty revision is receding as the Council backs away from adopting the full fiscal and banking unions they committed to in June last year. With 27 colleagues and too few proper portfolios, the next President may even feel it necessary to create a new responsibility within the College: for futile gestures.
John Wyles is an independent consultant based in Brussels.
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