Details emerge of EU’s ‘wise men’ group report


With a 9 May deadline fast approaching for the EU's 'group of wise men' to submit its report on the challenges facing Europe until 2030, EURACTIV has gained an insight into the team's secretive work over the past 18 months.

After an initial period of hesitation over how to communicate (EURACTIV 22/01/09), Felipe González, chair of the 'wise men group', told his team that he had chosen "privacy, not secrecy" as a working method, insiders told EURACTIV.

In practice, little information – if any – has emerged from the 15 meetings the group has held since its launch in October 2008. In the meantime, González himself has made very few comments and rejected all interview requests.

But as the deadline approaches for the group to present its 30-page report on the challenges facing Europe in the next twenty years, González and his team are expected to reclaim media attention.

The report, to be presented on 9 May for Europe Day, will be debated by EU leaders at a summit on 17 June. The group is also considering holding a series of meetings with the wider EU public during that period.

For now, González is expected to hand over the report to EU President Herman Van Rompuy on 8 May in Brussels. Before that, members of the Reflection Group are expected to hold a final meeting in Brussels on 30 April and agree on a communication strategy. Indeed, González indicated that he would like a consistent message to be issued to a wider audience in the days and weeks following Europe Day.

Lost in translation?

Every month, one or two experts addressed the team on selected topics. One of them was a high-ranking UN official on climate change and another a representative of the McKinsey consultancy.

Working relations have not been easy, according to sources close to the group. For a start, it proved unpractical to hold meetings outside the EU Council building in Brussels, because translation was required in nine languages.

Translators were needed for González, who worked on the original version of the report in Spanish, Lech Wa??sa, who only speaks his native Polish, and Nicole Notat, who only speaks French (see 'Background'). German Reflection Group member Wolfgang Schuster sometimes switched to the language of Goethe.

Due to the cabin translation system, the meetings took on a rather formal character, which frustrated some Reflection Group members. But group members also met informally over lunch or dinner, where they chatted between themselves mostly in French and English.

Some group members felt that there was a need for them to "throw a big ideas net" over the European public arena to select the most promising ones for the report, as well as formulate prescriptions.

'Elephant' lunches

Another format was to invite political heavyweights to lunch, such as former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, former Commission President Jacques Delors, former Commissioner Peter Sutherland or WTO Director General Pascal Lamy.

Those 'elephants', however, did not prove to be enormously productive, sources said, because most of the political heavyweights delivered their own message.

Another form of informal consultation took place with MEPs, as well as with think-tanks, such as the Brussels-based European Policy Centre (EPC), the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), the European Movement, the Trans-European Policy Studies Association (TEPSA), the London-based University Association for Contemporary European Studies, the Policy Network, Paris-based Europanova and others.

Action-oriented report

As for the content of the report, the final draft is not ready yet. Diego López Garrido, Spanish secretary of state for EU affairs, said last December that the report would be "very provocative" (EURACTIV 09/12/09).

Insiders told EURACTIV that the main message would be that Europe should either get its act together or slowly begin to decline – something which is not completely original per se, they admitted. But the report will be very much action-oriented, the sources said.

What seems almost certain is that the 'f-word' – federalism – will not appear in the text, partly due to the presence in the group of British and Danish members.

But the idea of "partnership in multi-level governance" should be developed in the report, a notion which could be seen by some as another word for federalism.

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Kalypso Nicolaidis, a Franco-Greek member of the Reflection Group and professor of international relations at the University of Oxford, told EURACTIV that one of the core messages of the Reflection Group's report is that "after 50 years of introspection and consolidation trough enlargement, the EU is now ready to enter a second phase, a second fifty years of greater extroversion and playing a greater role in the international arena, in global affairs".

"In order to do so, we need to have our house in order," she added. "Saying that after 50 years, we move from introspection into greater extroversion doesn't mean internal policies are not important. On the contrary," she pointed out.

Asked how the Reflection Group had been working over the last eighteen months, she said: "We didn't have to agree among ourselves in the Reflection Group on how we would describe or promote the European Union as a political animal, as a political entity. But I think what we all share is a sense that a great deal of the solutions to the problems of Europeans lie with the EU. And we all believe in the European project, even if we have different visions of what the EU is and how it should be described."

"And we all agreed that 2010 is a turning point, that it is a moment when Europe can still make a difference in the world. But its leaders and its populations need to take difficult decisions," she said.

Vaira V??e-Freiberga, vice-chair of the Reflection Group and former president of Latvia (1999-2007), told EURACTIV that she would not anticipate what the report will say, because the text, to be published in all EU languages, would speak for itself.

"What I can say is that a lot of work has gone into it. The twelve members of the Reflection Group have worked very hard on participating in this report. We had a very difficult task, because we had to look into the future, but we can only extrapolate from what we can see in the present situation. The emphasis of our report will be what should we be doing now, and thinking about the long-term horizon of 2030."

"Putting our heads together, we do come up with certain recommendations. These indeed are recommendations. The heads of state and government will of course take their decisions, in common and separately, as they always have."

"What we hope is that someone will ready this report, because I am told that there are a lot of good reports about the state of Europe, the future of Europe, the past of Europe, excellent reports have been written, but nobody has followed up on them."

Asked if she or other members of the group had been frustrated about not having a mandate to discuss certain issues like the institutional framework of the Union, or enlargement, she said: "Don't say that, because you haven't seen the report yet. You have to wait a very short time," she mused.

Rainer Muenz, a member of the Reflection Group who is head of research and development at Erste Bank, Vienna, and senior fellow at the Hamburg Institute of International Economics, told EURACTIV that the result of the group's work depended on the recipients – the EU heads of state and government who convened it.

"The anticipation is that the report will be made public when EU leaders will have to deal with the Greek debt crisis. The agenda 2020 is also probably more urgent than looking into the year 2030. One might guess that a report like ours doesn't create a sense of urgency such as the Greek or the unfolding Portuguese debt crisis," he said.

Asked if it was just the timing that was not right, he said that the timing was never right for events that will happen 20 years from now, at a time when current leaders will have retired.

But he added: "Any good idea has a chance to make its way to the EU institutions. Plenty of the things we are taking for granted today, like the euro or the Schengen border-free area, have emerged within a similar time-span."

Asked if the future enlargement of the EU and the place of Turkey in Europe would be part of the report, Muenz said "something" would be said regarding the topic but that the group was still working on the text.

Asked if the report would contain 'key words', he said that topics like climate, energy, demographic ageing, migration, security and the terrorist threat would be "in".

The European Council of 14 December 2007 decided to establish a 'reflection group' of no more than nine people, selected from across the Union on the basis of merit, to identify the key issues which the European Union is likely to face in the future and how these might be addressed.

Former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González was named chair of the group, while Vaira V??e-Freiberga, a former president of Latvia, and Jorma Ollila, former CEO of Nokia, were named vice-chairs. 

At the 15-16 October 2008 EU summit, it was decided that the group would consist of 12 men instead of nine (EURACTIV 14/10/08). The other members of the group include: 

  • Lech Wa??sa, the historic leader of the Polish anti-communist movement 'Solidarno??' and a former Polish president; 
  • Mario Monti, a former Italian competition commissioner; 
  • Richard Lambert, director general of the Confederation of British Industry and former editor of the Financial Times; 
  • Lykke Friis of the University of Copenhagen, who recently resigned, having been elected as Minister for Climate and Energy of Denmark; 
  • Nicole Notat, French former leader of the CFDT trade union; 
  • Wolfgang Schuster, German conservative and mayor of Stuttgart; 
  • Rainer Muenz, an Austrian economist; 
  • Rem Koolhaas, a Dutch architect, and; 
  • Kalypso Nicolaidis, a Franco-Greek professor at Oxford. 

The group's secretary-general is Dr. Žiga Turk of Slovenia, who keeps an online diary on Blogactiv.

González is expected to present his team's report on 9 May, Europe Day (EURACTIV 29/03/10).

  • 30 April: Reflection Group meets for last time.
  • 8 or 9 May: Felipe González to present report to Council President Herman van Rompuy; report published in all EU languages.
  • May-June: Reflection Group meets with wider EU public, answers questions.
  • 17 June: EU heads of state and government take stock of Reflection Group report.

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