The EU's next long-term budget for 2014-2020, which the European Commission unveiled on 29 June, needs to focus more on competitiveness for growth, according to the BusinessEurope chief. "I think the proposal is stuck halfway," he said.
According to de Buck, the EU should double funding earmarked for R&D, "but we are not there yet".
"We have asked to review the way all the means were allocated for regional development or agriculture. We are not there even though there are improvements," he said, stressing that employers will put pressure to up the competitiveness angle of the proposal.
The Commission should learn the lessons of the past budget period. "We have quite some concerns on the European Social Fund, for example, the way the money is being spent, the extent to which we the business community but also our counterparts, the trade unions, are being involved in the process," de Buck said, stressing that social partners on the ground should also have a say in the selection of projects.
BusinessEurope sees the economy growing at a lower rate than expected, but does not believe there is any risk of double-dip recession despite the austerity measures being taken across Europe. The organisation advocates more structural reform, which it finds too slow in some countries.
"Take the case of Italy. We have known perfectly well for years that measures had to be taken there. But Italy reacted only after the markets and the European Union put pressure on Berlusconi's government this summer and measures were adopted suddenly over a weekend," de Buck noted.
Countries should understand that part of the growth we will enjoy in Europe comes from emerging markets, because of our strength as an export-driven economy, but to benefit we need growth-led structural reforms, BusinessEurope's leader argued, adding that the bloc suffers from internal divergences and low competitiveness adjustments.
"It's not only about wages, it is about investments. It's about research. It's about education. It's about all the necessary elements that will force the growth," he said, calling for more flexibility to counter low labour utilisation and productivity growth.
Labour productivity is the main determinant of economic growth and prosperity and is tightly connected to the ability to innovate and compete at global level, reckons BusinessEurope.
While the EU needs to do more to stimulate R&D, it also needs to maintain a flexible labour market. The main challenge for EU companies remains access to a highly-skilled workforce. Active labour market policies must ensure a more efficient match between skills demanded by employers and those available on the market, de Buck said.
To negotiate or not to negotiate on Working Time
One of the pressing aspects in reforming labour markets is resolving the deadlock over the EU's Working Time Directive, which dates back to 1993.
The last round of negotiations broke down in 2009 after the European Parliament and national governments had failed to compromise on three crucial points: opt-outs, on-call time and multiple contracts. The failure prompted a host of finger-pointing as to who was to blame.
The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) – the key voice on the workers' side of the argument – is calling for comprehensive negotiations, with everything including the controversial opt-out up for discussion, and has said it will not step up to the negotiating table without preliminary talks.
"There is no need for preliminary discussions: a negotiation is a process. The first meeting will be an exchange of broad ideas. Is that a preliminary discussion? Perhaps. But it's part of the negotiation, it's part of the process," de Buck argued, refusing to bend to ETUC's demands.
He added: "We are coming with a positive agenda to solve two issues and we will listen to the trade unions when they have made up their minds, because they have not yet made up their minds."
ETUC is expected to decide whether to return to the negotiating table in the coming weeks.
"If they [ETUC] refrain from it [coming to the negotiating table], they have a huge responsibility for social dialogue at EU level, because they will leave it up to the European Parliament and the Council. I will not be there in 5-6 years to see the failure, but why should it go better this time?" de Buck concluded.
Philippe de Buck was speaking to EurActiv Managing Editor Daniela Vincenti.