Philippe de Buck is director-general of BusinessEurope, the European employers' organisation. He spoke to EurActiv Managing Editor Daniela Vincenti.
You will step down soon as director-general of BusinessEurope at the end of the year and you are a candidate for the presidency of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). Coming from BusinessEurope, which has great power in the framework of social dialogue, going to an institution which has only a consultative role, isn’t that a step back?
Well, firstly I want to say very strongly, this is not a personal agenda. This is not because I end my mandate here that I was looking for a job somewhere. That’s not the case.
I was asked to join the Belgian delegation in the EESC, based on my credentials on European and Belgian affairs. Secondly, I was asked by some friends to go for the presidency.
Why? Because we consider that the EESC can play a crucial role in offering decision-makers useful common positions.
Based on all the good work that has been delivered so far, a lot can be improved, especially the position of the president, who needs to have more visibility. I think that is the purpose of my candidacy, backed by a lot of people, to go a little bit against the traditions. And to offer let’s say, yes, my experience, my credibility, if I may say so, for that position.
Do you think the EESC and the other consultative body, the Committee of the Regions, need to be reformed?
I’m not talking for the Committee of the Regions. Now again, I’m not there to revolutionise everything because that will not happen. Going there to say “I will change it all overnight because I’m the new president”, that will not happen.
My intention is to work closely with the presidents of the three groups [employers, workers, various interests]. To have an in-depth and continued dialogue with them, to fix the main issues that should be discussed, to offer decision-makers our opinion. I think this will be already an improvement.
You know that the Economic and Social Committee has an official duty to give opinions on proposals when they are requested, and there are many. The EESC works on a lot of issues.
There are on average more than 150 opinions a year decided during 9 plenary sessions. So there’s a lot to vote on. But where are the main issues? The main items that we should discuss in the Economic and Social Committee? That’s what we need to review.
Are you saying that the committee be more of an agenda-setter rather than react on proposals?
Well, we have to fulfil our obligations, but I think we should set a certain agenda on priorities. For an Economic and Social Committee, you have it in its name - that is the economy and the social issues.
Those are the two pillars that we should look at. How do we drive the economy? And what are the consequences in the social field? Even as BusinessEurope we are defending the principle for a European social model, but it has to be made sustainable, and I think the EESC is the only body capable to present the views of European civil society. I think we have a powerful role to play as we are an exception: there aren’t many bodies representing all voices - employers, employees and civil society – of public opinions at European level.
Media interested in European affairs at large are not that numerous, either. So I think we should also improve the visibility of the Economic and Social Committee, through the media. How often are you writing about the EESC? That should be improved.
But if the EESC become more of an agenda-setter, will it not compete precisely with BusinessEurope, ETUC and NGO umbrella organisations - like the Social Platform, CONCORD, EPHA etc.?
Yes. This could happen, but not too often. BusinessEurope never presents a common view with NGOs. It is not easy to achieve something with the trade unions, within the social dialogue framework. But in the EESC it’s much more open. Can we make better links? Yes, I tell you, the group two – workers – is more linked to ETUC than the group one to BusinessEurope and other business organisations. That I can assure you. But there is room for improvement. And I would say even, there’s a need for the Social and Economic Committee to play an important role at a European level. It’s my vision and I would say also it’s also my ambition.
A question on communication. We have seen how social media and the internet have revolutionised policy-making and in some cases even disrupted legislation, like in ACTA, when citizens organised themselves to oppose lawmaking. So looking at how these movements are shaping up, how do you think an organisation like EESC can maintain its legitimacy as a representative body of civil society?
I think it goes together. Or at least I hope it goes together. I’m a grandfather so I can look at how society evolves with new communication tools. Some are very powerful. Some you can question.
Surely, the ACTA has received thousands of critics from the whole internet community and it has blocked the system. And I think everybody was taken by surprise. Because we thought, frankly spoken - and we still think - that ACTA is a good agreement. It’s a good instrument in order to fight counterfeiting, which is really harming the economy – consumers, companies, workers.
This being said you always need to have organised communities. I still consider the internet community as disorganised. Powerful, interesting, but at a certain point of time you need to have interlocutors who can take responsibility, who can work on a common vision.
I think this is the usefulness of the EESC - with its almost 350 members coming from the 27 member states from all walks of life: they sit together, they work together. You have tens of meetings of all kinds and at the end you can offer something coherent. That instrument should be made more productive, more assertive. There is a role to play there.
If you were to become president of the EESC, what would you want your legacy to be?
I will be able to answer after two-and-half years into the job. I can tell you what is my dream.
After having invested myself 100% in the business community, I would like to invest myself at 100% in the Economic and Social Committee, which is a very huge and complex organisation.
I would like to use my experience and political knowledge to position it better so that journalists come spontaneously to listen to some of the debates. I would like that we are asked not just by Commission people at the administrative level, but also at a higher political level, to present some views on debates taking place in the Parliament, or in the Council. The idea is that reference is made openly to what is said in the Economic and Social Committee.
That would be my dream. But you know dreams are never completely fulfilled.
A few pre-summit questions: BusinessEurope is rightly pushing for growth. But where is growth supposed to come from, considering sluggish domestic demand and exports being hit by slowing growth in emerging economies? Besides, political uncertainty in the US over the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ is discouraging companies from investing or hiring until they can see the future more clearly …
You have already given my answers. You put the finger on the economy. We have put forward our outlook for 2012. We can say that having growth of 0.1% is no growth for 2012 and in the euro area we have a slight recession. If that happens, it is worse than what we expected for 2012.
We have a better forecast for 2013, which will occur only if some decisions are taken in 2012. At our Council of Presidents in Copenhagen [in June] two elements were strongly stressed: first, the issue of confidence. In Europe, today nothing is done to create a climate of confidence.
Do people and businesses feel at ease in our political monetary, economic and social environment? The answer is No. Whether you are in Germany or Spain, you have the same feeling of uncertainty.
Secondly, as you said, the economy is driven by internal consumption and/or exports. But it’s even more driven by the willingness to invest, and investment not in the public sector, but in the private sector -companies and households.
This willingness to invest will materialise only if the conditions for confidence are created and where companies see new opportunities.
At the European Council of 28-29 June, the decisions to be taken need to reinforce the system. We don’t expect that all the problems will be solved. We don’t want to put the bar too high, but we want an important step in the right direction to restore confidence.
Precisely - not put the bar too high - but realistically, what do you think can be achieved?
Well, firstly safeguard the euro. We go a step further. We need to keep the eurozone as it is and even expand it. Certain member states are still willing to join, Latvia for instance. Then, we need to reinforce the banking system, as we have seen in Spain. Steps towards a banking union will have the support of business.
Now the question is how far and how? It must be productive. It may not be counter-productive. We surely need reinforced supervision for cross-border activity. There are two elements here: make sure that the financial sector can be supported and that deposits are guaranteed. The other important element is to make sure that the financial sector can properly evolve cross-border.
We are now paradoxically in a more national way, in a more national approach in the banking sector. There are different regulatory regimes. International banks have to comply with different rules. This goes against a real internal financial market in Europe.
From the banking union to a political union: should we be already thinking of a roadmap for more political integration?
I think everybody is well aware that the problems we face are European problems and they must be tackled at the European level. So yes, we need more Europe and more European integration. But we also need more Europe at the national level. I mean by that it would be wrong, in my view at least, to expect everything from the European institutions.
If the member states at national level, in the remits of their competences, don’t take into account the fact that they are bound to each other not only in a monetary union, but in a larger European Union, then it will not function.
A lot is being done at European level. But the main problem of Europe today is the internal market, which could be an important driver for growth. There is a lack of implementation of decisions that are already taken, or a lack of enforcement of regulations that are put in place at national level.
So let us begin with what can already be achieved. If there is an important lesson to learn from the crisis, [it] is a need for a sense of urgency. And then we’ll have to rethink the decision-making processes.
Do you think the change of leadership in some EU countries - namely France, but also Greece - is the right one to tackle the crisis?
That is a question that we should not ask ourselves, because if we ask ourselves if they are the right people, we will never make progress. You always have elections somewhere. The European Union can only work if there’s also continuity in the way national member states react to European affairs.
And the best example is in France where after all with the new government, they will have to comply with what has been decided. Now, you can always renegotiate one aspect or the other, but you have to comply with the core of existing decisions.