CoFoE: Time for a more united and progressive Union

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Putin's military aggression in Ukraine has demonstrated the need for unity within the EU, now more than ever. [Shutterstock/Alexandros Michailidis]

It is only by deepening political integration, presenting genuinely progressive and realistic solutions and gaining more influence in the European political space that we can deploy our ambitious social and economic agenda, write MEPs from three different groups of the European Parliament and members of the Progressive Caucus.

This op-ed was written by MEP Domènec Ruiz Devesa (S&D), MEP Ernest Urtasun (Greens/EFA) and Vice-President of the European Parliament Dimitrios Papadimoulis (Left).

We are living today in the context of an unthinkable war. Putin’s military aggression in Ukraine has demonstrated the need for unity within the EU, now more than ever. The path to this unity is through political integration, primarily the implementation of concrete and lasting proposals stemming from the resolutions of the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE).

The economic collapse of 2008-2009, the Euro crisis of 2010-2012 and the COVID-19 pandemic shall be viewed as hallmarks of the demise of the neoliberal doctrine that for decades arrogantly touted the benefits of financial deregulation, labour market liberalisation, privatisation of state companies and public services, industrial delocalisation, unbalanced free trade and the minimal state.

As a result, the economic system as a whole has become unsustainable, fragile and prone to shocks. Economic, social and regional inequalities have increased dramatically, and essential public services – particularly healthcare and social welfare systems – came into the pandemic from an already weakened position.

Many of these neoliberal policies were promoted and endorsed by the EU and its member states throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, despite essential instruments of social policy like the European Social Fund, the European Social Chapter, and critical legislative milestones like the Working Time Directive.

The birth of the Euro in 1992 created both opportunities and challenges. In many cases, it enhanced neoliberal approaches of market-oriented competitiveness, focusing on disinflation, deficit and debt reduction as paramount objectives, based on an unsuccessful EU economic governance framework to the detriment of full employment, social policies and the environment.

True to form, the EU led by Merkel and Sarkozy and a right-wing majority in the European institutions responded to the debt crisis of 2010 with extreme austerity policies, thus provoking a second recession, social deprivation and discontent, and the rise of far-right, Eurosceptic, anti-European and anti-immigration political forces.

Nevertheless, some EU policies started to change with the expansionary monetary policy of the European Central Bank, and later on with the first Investment Plan for Europe, albeit very limited in scope, and the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPRS), an important declaration but of a non-binding nature. However, other important projects of that era – also extremely relevant today – remain uncompleted, like the banking union endowed with a common deposit guarantee.

The pandemic has already forced the Union to step away from or even abandon old dogmas in favour of a more flexible and progressive approach, trying to rebalance the market-state equation in favour of the latter. The public debt rules of the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) have been suspended to sustain incomes and jobs. The Health Union has been launched, including the common purchasing of vaccines.

A Recovery Plan for Europe, financed by Eurobonds (the same ones blatantly rejected in 2010), is in place to distribute loans and grants, to be paid back by future EU taxes on financial transactions, CO2 and digital platforms. This is tantamount to an embryo of financial and fiscal union, which we welcome, but this also requires continuity and political-strategic planning for concrete results and full democratic legitimation by enhancing accountability and transparency.

Indeed, CoFoE constitutes a significant opportunity to consolidate the pandemic’s progressive openings. The SGP must be thoroughly reformed and converted into a Sustainability Development and Employment Pact to incorporate social justice, full employment and a green economy as key objectives, adopt new realistic debt and deficit rules, set real and upward social, economic and regional convergence targets, while excluding public investment from debt and deficit calculations.

The Recovery Plan must be converted into a permanent tool for financing social convergence and the green and digital transitions and as an anti-cyclical fiscal capacity. The ECB should be allowed to provide direct financial assistance to the Union during emergencies like the pandemic. The EPSR should be incorporated into the Treaty with the same binding force of the four market freedoms and the climate neutrality goals.

It is also high time for a reformed and humane migration policy that fully respects human rights and our founding values, based on the shared responsibility of the member states. Europe, facing demographic decline and rural depopulation, can only benefit from the well-managed and orderly arrival of migrants and must at the same time show solidarity with people fleeing tyranny and war. During this crisis provoked by Putin’s aggression, our Union should deliver guarantee peace and safety for all through the implementation of common efforts and initiatives.

In the long decade between two crises – the financial crash and the COVID-19 pandemic – the EU has been frozen with a de facto overconcentration of powers in the Council, to the detriment of the Parliament, the only institution directly elected by the citizens. At the same time, the Commission’s role as the guardian of the Treaties is fading away, sliding closer to Council’s positions. This strong intergovernmental bias against the Community method has not only widened the “democratic deficit” of the Union, but also constrained advances in social policy, among others, due to unanimity requirements. The nascent financial and fiscal union only deepens this democratic dilemma.

Therefore, the Parliament should be empowered to co-decide on EU debt and taxation with the Council, with the right to initiate legislation. The Council should become a true Chamber of States, making decisions with a qualified majority. The EU should show zero tolerance when the rule of law is not respected. Lastly, a pan-European electoral constituency should be established to generate a transnational debate and campaign, make European political parties visible and more powerful, and strengthen the lead candidate system for the election of the President of the Commission.

We commit ourselves to strive towards these policy and institutional objectives at CoFoE, an innovative forum with the participation of social partners, organised civil society, and randomly selected citizens. We firmly believe that this occasion can pave the way for a more united and progressive Europe, equitably providing the much-needed transnational public goods that citizens need and expect from the Union.

Europe must be capable of establishing itself as a virtuous model in the eyes of its member states and the whole world, as a champion and defender of the values of democracy and peace on which our Union was built.

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