At the end of the day, it’s all about values – isn’t it?

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Dharmendra Kanani
Dharmendra Kanani

Chief Operating Officer and Chief Spokesperson of Friends of Europe

As the EU Council meets again on 19 June, the MFF and the recovery plan are on the table. Will they behave as their predecessors have and discuss an EU-wide approach with their fingers crossed behind their backs? Running on the classic EU autopilot of negotiations won’t work.

This is a new and different kind of territory. Just look across the Channel if you want a lesson in underestimating the economic shock of COVID-19 – and this from an economy that’s perceived to be well managed.

The package proposed by the Commission will be a test of saving the single market and the Eurozone; that’s what’s at stake and much more. It is a renaissance budget for the Union, one that is bold both in terms of numbers and creativity and designed, according to Director-General Geert Jan Koopman, as a “budget for the future of all our children so that they are not saddled with debt through extra taxes”. The proposal is a positive-sum exercise: economic growth in one part of Europe will benefit and have a knock-on effect on the rest of Europe.

So, what’s not to like about it?

The old rules of the economic game no longer apply

Well, for starters, Council leaders have been prioritising their national interests over collective ones, doing far more harm than good.

The impact of COVID-19 has shown how inextricably linked member states are to one another. Individually they don’t have the financial tool kit, the means or economic underpinning, let alone the experience, to respond to an economic shock of this scale. What’s more, climate and digital shocks and crises are waiting in the wings.

The old rules of the economic game no longer apply. The values of the EU project aren’t just for messaging and vapid sloganeering, they should be at the heart of the budget negotiations.

The budget proposal nails member states’ interdependencies and their mutually shared interest to combine innovation and financial capabilities on a level hitherto unknown. It creates a dramatic tension that implores joint action for the common good, or be resigned to the failure of the project.

There’s money and there’s how the money is spent

This moment offers an opportunity for members states to finally implement long standing reforms of their economies. This is also a once-in-a-generation chance for the European Parliament and member states’ individual parliamentary processes to reconnect with the idea of the EU and its worth to the daily lives of citizens.

Because, at the end of the day, trust matters.

There’s only so much the Commission can do and inspire by coming up with a bold package, when political leaders respond as they have always done. Their decision will be a message, not only to citizens but to the world at large. This moment will tell us whether or not the European project can live up to its true potential.

Here’s what EU Council leaders need to think about and do:

There’s money and there’s how the money is spent. Sure, amounts are important, but how it is deployed and accounted for is far more important.

This is an opportunity to set a modern, progressive form of economic solidarity

Know that values matter to citizens now more than ever. The budget proposal is the biggest use of their tax money and it’s their economic future that’s at stake. After the largest EU election turnout in two decades, they will be unforgiving if their loud calls for change are ignored.

Think about a better governance model to account for the money spent – a ‘European Parliament plus’ model that inspires trust among citizens, civil society and the private sector.

Use the concept and potential of ‘conditionality’ to become the public guarantor and deal maker for public good. Remember that the future has to be green and more equal. Digital literacy and capability across all sections of society are also key.

This is an opportunity to set a modern, progressive form of economic solidarity and a new social contract between the EU, citizens and the private sector. Protectionism, faux sovereignty and an overreliance on markets won’t save the day.

This July’s Council meeting is D-Day if this plan is going to work and have impact

Remember that the clock is ticking both in terms of getting the money agreed and investing it to absorb the economic shock; delay will only make matters worse. The borrowing proposed under this package relies on the ‘new EU own resources’ decision being in place by early next year. This will need to be ratified by national parliaments, which takes time. This July’s Council meeting is D-Day if this plan is going to work and have impact.

The biggest uncertainty is whether the capital markets will serve the assumptions and economic modelling in the long term – that’s the key risk to manage.

Last week, the Dalai Lama said: “In the past there was too much emphasis on my continent, my nation, my religion. Now that thinking is out of date. Now we really need a sense of oneness of seven billion human beings.”

There is a lesson there and a wisdom we must all seek to embrace.

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