Special EU summit to focus on economy, jobs

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On his first day as president of the European Union, Herman Van Rompuy called a special summit to seek a way out of the current crisis and start mapping the EU’s economic and social agenda for the next decade.

On Van Rompuy’s initiative, EU leaders will meet in Brussels on 11 February to tackle the economic and social crisis.

“This is my first official working day,” Van Rompuy said in a video address on Monday (4 January). “I’m already preparing the next European Council on 11 February,” he said, insisting: “I took the initiative to convene this Council.” 

“We need more economic growth in order to finance on a sound basis our social model [and] to preserve our European way of life,” he explained.

Unemployment is expected to soar in 2010, with Eurostat predicting a peak of approximately 10.3% for the EU-27 towards the end of the year (EURACTIV 16/12/09).

The Baltic countries, Ireland and Spain are the EU member states that have been hit hardest, with unemployment rates doubling or worse since the economic crisis began. Youth unemployment in particular has reached new historical highs in recent months, according to a recent EU report (EURACTIV 25/11/09).

The state of public finances in some European countries has also started to raise concerns. Deficits in Greece are expected to run at over 120% of GDP in 2010, surpassing Italy’s for the first time in years. This prompted agency Fitch to downgrade Greece’s debt to a ‘B’ rating for the first time in ten years (EURACTIV 10/12/09).

EU ‘2020 strategy’

“I believe the economic issues – how best to coordinate to counter the adverse impact of the crisis on jobs and on public finances, how to plan strategies for the next stage once recovery is secured – will top the agenda of the heads of state or government for the months to come,” Van Rompuy said.

Last November, the European Commission launched a consultation on the EU’s new economic and social strategy for the next decade. The new strategy will replace the EU’s flagship Lisbon Agenda for growth and jobs, adopted in the Portuguese capital in 2000 and which expires this year.

In its consultation document, the Commission invites member states to lead Europe towards a green, knowledge-based economy by 2020, placing the emphasis on four key priorities: innovation and knowledge, fighting exclusion, green growth and a new ‘digital Europe’ agenda (EURACTIV 19/11/09).

Other issues on the summit’s table will include the aftermath of the Copenhagen conference on climate change, energy challenges and Europe’s “aspirations for greater security and justice,” Van Rompuy said.

A first test for Van Rompuy

The February summit will also be Van Rompuy’s first test as EU president, a job created by the Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force late last year.

Some analysts have warned that the creation of the new role, which comes in addition to existing senior EU positions, will only create confusion and lead to “institutional chaos” (EURACTIV 08/12/09).

But Van Rompuy suggested he could bring greater political focus to the European Council, which gathers the 27 heads of state and government. 

“We must form a group, a circle, that agrees with itself and works for the same cause, the European Union. We must also lay more emphasis on the political decisions that go beyond our traditional conclusions. We must send the public a clear and visible message. We have already worked on that, and we will continue to do so.”

Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said he would seek a greater political dimension to the EU's economic policy when his country takes over the EU presidency in the first half of 2010 (EURACTIV 29/04/09).

Speaking in April last year, he said the EU needed "a much more solid economic government […] with tools" to act as a bloc on the economic front. "I can't see a single market, a single currency, then not see an economic government with powers, with tools," he said.

French Secretary of State for European Affairs Pierre Lellouche said Europe "should imperatively seek new sources of growth," and cited the knowledge economy, innovation and green technologies as drivers of this.

Speaking in December 2009 to fellow national ministers in charge of competitiveness, he said the EU's new 2020 strategy should also "give all its room to the social dimension" by anticipating industrial restructuring, investing in educational systems and support retraining of laid-off workers.

He also called on the EU to follow a more pragmatic approach to trade policy, saying the bloc should apply "reciprocity" to countries that restrict access to public tenders, which restricts European companies' ability to compete on world markets.

"The question is not whether competition is perfectly ensured between France and Germany, it is whether Europe has the necessary instruments to fight against the extremely strong competition from South East [Asia], China, India or the American continent," he said.

He also insisted that the new 2020 strategy should not limit itself to the "summing of 27 national strategies" but should be "more political", "ambitious" and take full advantage of the new institutional setting offered by the EU's Lisbon Treaty. The strategy "should be defined by the heads of state and government" and its "strategic steering" should be followed up by EU leaders, he said.

Fabian Zuleeg, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre  (EPC), a Brussels-based think-tank, said the successor to the Lisbon Agenda for growth and jobs was "unlikely" to deal with "deep-seated challenges" posed by the deterioration of public finances, demographic change and increased demand on social protection systems.

"There seems to be little appetite, in Brussels or the capitals of Europe's member states, to tackle structural change head on," Zuleeg wrote in a November commentary for the American Chamber of Commerce in Brussels. "Europe's member states are also reluctant to consider new mechanisms to implement structural reforms at the European level, even though it is clear that the sole reliance on soft measures is one of the key weaknesses of the current Lisbon Strategy."

"Politically, many governments are afraid of pushing forward changes. Structural reform involves restructuring and transition, which imposes costs on parts of the population who are already suffering from the crisis." The impact of such changes on health, education, social benefits and pensions "affects large parts of the population directly and can impact on electoral prospects," he added.

At a summit on 20 November, EU heads of state and government chose Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as the EU's first permanent president and Briton Catherine Ashton as high representative for foreign affairs (EURACTIV 20/11/09). 

The two positions were created by the Lisbon Treaty, which came into force on 1 December 2009 following ratification by the Czech Republic.

Van Rompuy's main task as EU president will be to chair the bloc's summit meetings for a two-and-a-half year term, renewable once, and represent the Union on the world stage.

He started in his new position on 1 January 2010.

  • 15 Jan. 2010: Consultation on EU 2020 strategy closes. 
  • Jan. 2010: New European Commission to table final proposal for EU 2020 strategy. 
  • 11 Feb. 2010: Informal EU summit to tackle economic crisis and map out 2020 strategy. 
  • March/June 2010: EU summit expected to approve final strategy.

On 8 September 2009, Fondation EURACTIV held a workshop on the priorities for the next European Commission and the replacement of the Lisbon Strategy for growth and jobs (
see programme here
). As the new Commission settles in, EURACTIV will continue to cover the review of the Lisbon Agenda in its 
EU Priorities section and during 'Special Week' coverage (
see programme here
).

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