Thursday

23rd Mar 2017

Focus

New EU 'strategy' fudges British, German and Italian demands

  • Van Rompuy has to find a compromise on EU priorities, among divergent views (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

A draft plan for EU priorities in the coming years tries to strike a balance between the devolution of powers demanded by Britain and the anti-austerity drive of Italy, in a typical German-inspired fudge.

The "strategic agenda for the Union in times of change", seen by EUobserver, is the second draft of a paper by EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy after consulting with member states. The final text will be adopted on Friday (27 June) at a summit in Brussels, which should also decide on who should fill the top posts in the EU institutions for the coming five years.

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The text speaks of rising "public disenchantment with European politics" and of EU fatigue after years of economic crisis.

"It is the right time to set out what we want the Union to focus on and how we want its institutions to function in the years ahead," the four-page document notes.

It tries to include everybody's point of view: the German insistence on "stronger governance and economic policy coordination" in the eurozone; Italy and France's calls for "more solidarity"; and "openness towards non-euro countries" – a British and Polish concern.

But the language was watered down compared to a first draft, also seen by EUobserver, where it was said that "it is ... imperative not to create barriers between euro and non-euro member states".

The second draft notes that unemployment remains the EU's "highest concern, especially for young people". But the blueprint offers more of the same in terms of solutions: carry on with structural reforms; increase competitiveness; allow for more "solidarity"; finalise the EU-US free trade agreement by 2015; complete the single market; and reduce red tape.

On more powers for national parliaments – a joint German-British request – the blueprint says only that "effective dialogue with national parliaments contributes to the success of European policies in our countries".

The plan also says "the Union should only act when together we can achieve more than individual countries on their own. It should show self-restraint in exercising its competences when member states can better achieve the same objectives."

But the language was again toned down from the first draft, where national parliaments were supposed to strengthen their "means of participating in the debate and making their voice heard in the decision-making process".

The Spitzenkandidaten process is no longer mentioned.

The first draft had said that the "complementary dual legitimacy of the EU through the directly elected European Parliament and the elected national governments in the Council needs to be respected", while the work of the two bodies has to be "in full respect of the Treaties and of their respective roles".

Migration blues

The second of five priorities is "a union that empowers and protects citizens", talking about the fears connected to open borders.

"People expect Europe to defend their interests and keep threats at bay, but also to respect their identities and sense of belonging. The Union must be stronger outside, more caring inside," the draft says.

"Welfare tourism" angst, another British-German common concern, is mentioned, but in a more balanced way than in the first draft. The blueprint speaks of the need to "protect the achievement of free movement of EU citizens from frauds and abuses which, though limited, affect trust in member states' welfare systems and hinder citizens whose mobility contributes positively to thriving economies".

The fight against tax fraud and tax evasion is mentioned too, along with the need to have "safety nets in place to accompany change and reverse inequalities, with social protection systems that are efficient, fair and fit for the future".

Rising migration flows from outside the EU are mentioned further down in the blueprint, as a challenge for the coming years due to conflicts and poverty in other parts of the world.

This is portrayed as "a matter which requires solidarity and responsibility, and also modern management of the Union's external borders".

As specific measures the leaders will envisage "increasing the attractiveness of Europe for non-Europeans with specific skills", "dealing more robustly with irregular migration" and fighting terrorism and radicalisation.

Poland's energy union and foreign relations

The third priority, called "towards an energy union" – a phrase coined by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk – looks at ways to reduce Europe's energy dependence on Russian gas given "geopolitical events", a reference to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

"Energy efficiency is essential, since the cheapest and cleanest energy is that which is not consumed," the blueprint says.

Finding ways to increase EU's "collective bargaining power" when dealing with foreign energy suppliers – at the core of the Polish plan – is included, but the paper is scarce on details.

It says green energy sources, investments in research and building interconnectors between energy-isolated EU states are further ways to strengthen the "energy union".

On foreign relations, given the recent conflicts in the southern and eastern neighbourhood, the EU should have a "stronger engagement in world affairs" in order to be able to defend its interests and to protect its citizens.

More co-ordination between member states and EU foreign policy goals is needed, it adds, as well as more "consistency" between the EU's trade, energy, justice, development and economic policies.

Juncker opponents: Focus on reforms, not names

Failing to agree on Jean-Claude Juncker as next EU commission president, the leaders of Germany, Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands said it was important to focus on EU reforms rather than names.

Van Rompuy sets out minimalist EU vision

Europe should shift its focus from open borders to "protection", while avoiding interference in areas where national governments can better act alone, the EU's Van Rompuy has said.

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