Will everyone play ball for ‘operation recovery’?

Frankly Speaking

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Dharmendra Kanani
Dharmendra Kanani

Director of Insights at Friends of Europe

Ursula von der Leyen pulled off a bravura performance last week; there was grit, emotion, empathy and integrity in her delivery. It struck the right tone and provided the right message. But moving off centre stage from the State of the Union speech, what matters more is the action behind the scenes.

The unpredictability of extreme weather patterns is only just biting us in Europe – we have yet to experience the full brunt of the climate crisis. In parallel, the blow of an economic crisis will hit hard. People are going to feel the pain in various ways; and those at the sharp end, will have the double whammy of no income or opportunity, as unemployment levels rise, and job markets become saturated.

We should not underestimate what happens next. There’s often a ‘drag effect’ with such crises, but it’s likely that we will feel the impact much quicker given these unprecedented times. The European Commission needs to watch out for what’s around the immediate corner – it’s not going to be pretty.

If the grand recovery plan is to work, the old way of doing things will have to be upended

Yet the responsibility for distributing the EU’s historic recovery package lies squarely with member states. They will have to ensure that the recovery isn’t about business as usual. The funds should be the motor for a more resilient social fabric that places a premium on being greener, digitally-savvy and innovation-focused. There can’t be a trade-off between saving the economy and transitioning to a more sustainable existence.

Thus, questions arise about the Commission’s ability to ensure these huge sums of public money can be properly managed and credibly accounted for. It’s a gargantuan task. We should not underestimate what’s expected, and what’s at risk. Member states will need to find feasible ways to implement the Commission’s goals, while avoiding the risk of unintended consequences, or the climate and economic shocks that will hit left field.

If the grand recovery plan is to work, the old way of doing things will have to be upended. The Commission, Council, Parliament and member states need to forge a new deal for delivery. This will require difficult conversations about values, approaches and infrastructure to get this right. While COVID has created a new normal in all our lives, it must also mean a new normal in the way institutions interact. Their behaviour must be underpinned by a guiding belief that solidarity and interdependence will see them through the storms ahead.

What does this mean in practice? The Commission should lead by pulling together a major intra-institution war room to eyeball each other and iron out differences and agree on expectations. The regular Council meetings aren’t going to make the cut. We need to a complete overhaul in how things are done.

When will we, and they, realise that the constant reference to unprecedented times, means exactly that? 

There’s an opportunity here for the Commission to ask difficult questions about itself, how it works and relates to member states. This could be a game-changer. Temerity, vision and the guts to do the right thing are what’s required in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform archaic approaches and deliver on ‘operation recovery’. The big question is will everyone play ball or simply revert to type?

When will we, and they, realise that the constant reference to unprecedented times, means exactly that? The current model isn’t going to help us out of this crisis, let alone the ones around the corner.

People across the world are taking unprecedented action, placing themselves in harm’s way, to demand better and fairer livelihoods. They are simply demanding politicians do what they promised, which is public service. We’ve lost sight of the principle of public service, it’s time to revisit this enduring foundation of our public institutions to be the compass and anchor for their actions.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg lived by this principle, a beacon of hope who understood public service – a tenacious warrior for equality, fairness and justice. Politicians and public servants need to adopt this mindset, a hunger to do good and be impatient about making positive social change.

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