Commission criticised on all fronts for economic crisis response
Parliamentarians and stakeholders alike joined a growing chorus of criticism of the Commission’s response to the financial and economic crisis.
"First the Commission failed to predict the crisis. Secondly, it is perceived as having been reluctant to regulate financial markets before the crisis emerged," according to Piotr Maciej Kaczy?ski of the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS). He argues that it also failed to respond to the outbreak of the financial instability and economic recession.
One of the most vocal political critics of Barroso's response to the crisis is Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, president of the Party of European Socialists. Barroso's response to the recession was described by Rasmussen as "too little, too late". "His main concern seems not to be providing leadership but to avoid criticism from any member-state government," he said.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-chairman of the Greens, noted that "Barroso has neglected the environment, social issues and individual rights. A fine example is his stuttering response to the financial crisis: first inaction and then an EU recovery plan of member state and industry pet projects, instead of real green investment for jobs and sustainability" to restart the economy.
Even the liberals criticised Barroso's recovery plan. Slamming the Commission's lack of a clear strategy to fight the financial and economic crisis, former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, the current leader of the liberal group in the European Parliament, has written a book-manifesto on how to rescue the European economy, which in his words he wrote "out of anger".
"What we need is a proposal from the Commission," he said, recalling that the EU's single market had begun with an ambitious proposal by Jacques Delors. 70% of the Delors plan was rejected, but the approved 30% led to the establishment of today's internal market, said Verhofstadt (EURACTIV 13/05/09)
The challenge for the incoming executive will be to define an integrated response, said CEPS' Daniel Gros. Hedge funds, capital adequacy, rating agencies and financial-market supervision: all will need coherent policymaking, said the analyst (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on financial regulation).
The EU Stability and Growth Pact will also need to be reinstated, believes Gros, as many member states are struggling to keep in line with its defined parameters amid a more flexible approach shown by the Commission.
Lack of leadership, inability to supervise member states
While the dominant perception across the EU is that the Commission has been steadily losing its leadership as it seeks to anticipate national concerns when formulating proposals - thus undermining its role - some analysts accuse the Barroso executive of also failing to truly supervise and benchmark member states.
"There is a glaring gap that continues to grow between the ability of the Commission to propose and adopt legislation and the implementation of that legislation," said Kevin Bradley, senior director of multinational scientific and regulatory consulting firm The Weinberg Group.
"This is especially true in the environmental and regional policy areas. In the latter case, the Commission has effectively reduced its role to writing cheques. It plays practically no role in the supervision of the spending of the considerable budget resources devoted to regional development," Bradley said. He argues that this trend is worrying because it means that spending programmes are not being implemented properly.
Praise for energy and climate package
Most observers agree that the EU's historic agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 20% by 2020 and the decision to put in place the necessary steps to make it happen has been the greatest success of the Barroso Commission (see EURACTIV LinksDossier).
From 2013, the quantity of greenhouse gases industry can emit will be cut on an annual basis. Companies which fail to reduce emissions will have to buy so-called 'allowances' on the market, and these will become more scarce and more expensive each year.
For the European wind energy sector, the greatest achievement of the Barroso Commission was the Renewable Energy Directive, which featured in the energy and climate package agreed in December 2008.
"This directive is the most important piece of legislation for renewable energies worldwide. By setting binding targets, the Commission has sent the right message to the investors and made sure the vast European potential to develop RES technologies will be fully exploited in Europe," said Paolo Berrino, a European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) spokesperson.
By 2020, EWEA predicts that 230 GW of wind energy will be produced in Europe, equal to 14-18% of electricity demand (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on EU renewable energy policy).
"The Renewables Directive was a good proposal," echoed John Hontelez, secretary-general of the European Environmental Bureau. But he added that the full energy and climate package was clearly not enough to represent the EU's sole contribution to limiting global warming to 2°C. "It is better than nothing, and it has the potential to be improved, in particular in case the Copenhagen Climate Conference leads to success," Hontelez stressed.
EU sustainable development strategy in limbo
According to the European Environmental Bureau, the Barroso Commission had no interest at all in making progress towards an EU sustainable development strategy.
A draft strategy produced at the end of 2005 was "unreadable" and "without any ambition," said Hontelez, arguing that the Luxembourg and Austrian EU Presidencies at the time should be congratulated for their efforts to develop what became in the end "at least a comprehensible and logical text," adopted at the June 2006 summit of EU leaders (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on the EU's sustainable development strategy).
"But the Commission has not done any meaningful follow-up since then," Hontelez added.
'Timid' efforts to decarbonise Europe's transport
Until 2007, NGOs had not seen any meaningful action from the Commission on tackling the environmental impact of the transport sector: emissions from cars, trucks and aviation. This only changed when Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas decided to take on the powerful car industry after it had failed to respect its voluntary commitments, and proposed the introduction of legally-binding standards to reduce the climate impact of cars, in the eyes of the 'Green 10' coalition, which groups the views of key environmental organisations like Greenpeace and WWF.
It is unlikely, however, that the EU's targets will be met without targeting emissions from the transport sector. According to Christian Egenhofer of CEPS, there has been little progress in designing an integrated response to rising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, security of energy supply issues and the transport sector's innovation challenge.
The EU really needs a transport and climate change package to set the EU on track towards decarbonising its transport sector, which is 97% dependent on fossil fuels and produces large amounts of GHG emissions, noted Egenhofer.
The Commission introduced legislation to include aviation in the ETS, as well as on road fuels, tyres and trucks, said Dudley Curtis, spokesperson for Transport & Environment, an NGO. "But these efforts are still too timid," he added, stressing that transport emissions would keep on increasing.
According to CEPS, the transport and climate package must be reviewed to include a number of policies both at EU and national level. These include a tax regime for fuels and rethinking transport infrastructure, as well as introducing fuel efficiency standards for vans, trucks, aircraft and ships.
In recent months, however, the Commission has managed to resist massive lobbying from road industries to allow so-called 'mega-trucks' (oversized heavy goods vehicles) to circulate freely within the EU. "They bravely resisted these strong lobbying attempts and have so far rejected mega-trucks, which pose a serious safety risk and raise environmental concerns while distorting the transport market," noted Patrick Keating of European Rail Infrastructure Managers (EIM).
Stronger single market: Barroso's greatest hit
Decisions taken in the past five years to strengthen the EU single market have been well-received by most member states and stakeholders. The fact that the Barroso Commission has produced "tangible results" for European citizens is generally perceived as a positive development, said Piotr Maciej Kaczy?ski, a research fellow at CEPS.
New rules on roaming have brought affordable and transparent pricing for all cross-border mobile calls. The Services Directive, despite some divisive opinions, has largely attracted positive feedback, as has the 'Better Regulation' initiative, which was particularly welcomed by small and medium-sized enterprises.
By cutting roaming charges, "the European Commission has demonstrated to consumers that Brussels is not only a nest of bureaucrats. The merit for this successful achievement goes mainly to Viviane Reding, a visionary commissioner who has put consumers and the market at the centre of the Commission's action," said Innocenzo Genna, chairman of the European Competitive Telecommunications Association (ECTA). However, Genna acknowledges that the EU executive has failed to create a truly single and open market for telecoms. "Coordination proposals in the telecoms framework review were watered down and competition has stalled in the sector," he said, blaming the protectionist tendencies of member states.
Social Europe: Barroso's falling child
Barroso clearly sidelined the social agenda, instead prioritising the economy, which he saw as his "sick child". Rebranding the Lisbon Agenda as the Growth and Jobs Strategy in 2005, he said: "It is as if I have three children – the economy, our social agenda, and the environment. Like any modern father – if one of my children is sick, I am ready to drop everything and focus on him until he is back to health. That is normal and responsible. But that does not mean I love the others any less!" (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on relaunching the Lisbon Agenda).
Social NGOs consider this shift of focus to have been the main failing of the Barroso Commission. "The growth and jobs agenda was expected to increase social cohesion, stimulate employment, reduce poverty and advance environmental protection. But the trickle-down effect did not happen and economic growth and competitiveness became objectives in themselves, rather than a means to an end," said Anne Hoel of the Social Platform, stressing that the number of "working poor" had increased and poverty and inequaliyy had continued to grow.
Even the Swedish EU Presidency admitted in June 2009 that the Lisbon Agenda had failed. "Even if progress has been made, it must be said that the Lisbon Agenda, with only a year remaining before it is to be evaluated, has been a failure," Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt wrote in a joint article with his finance minister, Anders Borg (EURACTIV 03/06/09).
The Commission has failed to present a Europe that protects citizens and their rights, according to social NGOs. "Barroso's executive emphasised the internal market, competition and the flexibility of the job market (rather than security for workers), and didn't defend workers' rights in the Working Time Directive negotiations," said the Social Platform's Hoel.
But not all is considered lost. Although the Barroso Commission was not a social Commission in the beginning, "we could witness a slight change of focus with the economic crisis and the consequences people face throughout Europe," noted the social activist.
In 2008, the Commission proposed a recommendation on Active Inclusion, which aims to encourage member states to develop a strategy to integrate people excluded from the labour market. "Not only does it cover lifelong learning and activation schemes, but it also recommends providing an adequate level of income support and better access to services and employment," Hoel stressed.
"If implemented by member states and executed properly, these policies will enable millions of people across the EU to live in dignity, free from poverty," argued Hoel. Social NGOs also greeted the long-awaited draft directive on anti-discrimination presented last July, despite strong opposition from member states and business.
This was a promise made by Barroso to the European Parliament in 2004. If approved, the new law will enhance protection of victims of unfair treatment, no matter where this discrimination takes place, NGOs underlined.
The directive aims to implement the principle of equal treatment, irrespective of religion, beliefs, disabilities, age or sexual orientation in areas outside employment. It applies to social protection and health care, social benefits, education and access to goods and services, including housing.
Migration: Where are the policies?
Justice and home affairs has become an increasingly important issue for EU policymakers. EU competencies in the area have increased, and will continue to do so if the Lisbon Treaty enters into force after being ratified by Ireland, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic this autumn.
While the Commission has delivered legislative proposals on judicial and asylum matters, only one – the least controversial – of the five measures announced in the 2005 migration policy plan came to the fore: a proposal on qualified employment, the so-called 'Blue Card', which was adopted in May 2009 (see EURACTIV LinksDossier).
"The Commission fell short in prioritising migration policy issues. The three main areas of the 'Global Approach to Migration' did not receive the balanced attention we would have liked to see," said Caritas-Europa spokesperson Annalisa Mazzella, who stressed that the fight against irregular migration had been given a lot more attention than managing legal migration.
"We believe that the Commission could have played a more decisive role by planning its work in a different way, and hope the next Commission will increase efforts in order to further change the tone of the debate from 'security' to'workers rights' protection, including the integration issue," she added.
NGOs working on migration noted one way for the EU executive to end its mandate positively would be by presenting a clear action plan to implement the Stockholm Programme on Justice, Freedom and Security, to be adopted under the Swedish EU Presidency.
"Such an action plan should indicate clear policy initiatives, refer to the appropriate legal instruments [the review and new ones], and specify a well-defined implementation calendar," said activists at Caritas-Europa.