The European Council: Balancing short term crisis and long-term strategy

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

"The [spring] summit is unlikely to give decisive answers to any of the questions" on Europe 2020, Greece or climate change, writes Fabian Zuleeg, chief economist at the European Policy Centre, in a March paper.

"Heads of state and government are due to meet this week to discuss the proposed economic strategy for the EU, Europe 2020. But the Greek difficulties are threatening to overshadow this discussion, with pressure especially on Germany to make concrete commitments to avert the crisis.

This is an all-too-familiar story: the 2010 Spring Council was intended to focus on the Lisbon strategy but it is being sidetracked by more urgent issues.

This time round, there are good reasons for focusing on Greece. While Greece is not in immediate danger of defaulting, the need to find a longer term solution is pressing. Many different ideas are on the table, all relying on Germany to underwrite any solution. A decision will be necessary soon and this summit is a good opportunity to take a collective decision on what direction the solution will take – if there is now the political will.

As a consequence, however, much of the crucial debate on Europe 2020 might be postponed. The Commission proposals for the new strategy are not uncontroversial. Much of the controversy has focused on the five headline targets, questioning the choice of indicator and the level of the targets. The targets on graduates and on poverty have especially provoked criticism from some countries, pointing to differences in education systems, regionally devolved responsibilities for education, and a lack of EU instruments to reach the targets. Even the climate change and innovation targets have been under fire from some for not being ambitious and/or defined enough.

So does it matter if some fundamental decisions are postponed? The initial plan was that the Spring Council would agree the high-level targets but much of the detailed implementation, including country-specific targets, would not be worked out until the June Council.

The EPC take

Having a bit more time could turn out to be a blessing in disguise if it is used to further improve the proposals. The EPC's Challenge Europe publication on 'Europe 2020: Delivering well-being for future Europeans', published this week, called for more time, noting that the detailed work and achieving buy-in should take us towards the end of 2010.

Much work remains – and it is not simply a question of reaching commitment from the member states to reach specific targets. Challenge Europe notes that we must learn from the Lisbon Agenda that better governance is needed to ensure delivery. While the Commission proposals contain significant improvements, in terms of governance and implementation, they do not go far enough.

Challenge Europe also highlights the many challenges Europe 2020 must encompass: not only climate change and social challenges but also the public debt crisis and the delivery of public services.

More also needs to be done at EU level to make the targets of Europe 2020 a reality. The flagship initiatives set out in the Commission proposals are a start but these need to be made more concrete. Challenge Europe calls for the EU institutions to 'walk the walk', demonstrating that the principles of Europe 2020 are integrated across all its activities.

So a delay might buy more time to further improve the Europe 2020 strategy. But much will depend on whether there is a real will to have an open discussion on Europe 2020 which will involve stakeholders and citizens across the EU. The proposals of the Commission should be a starting point for a critical and open debate, not merely a step in the usual European decision-making processes.

But this is unlikely – member states do not seem to be too keen on achieving buy-in for the targets they are expected to sign up to nor, indeed, for the whole strategy. The whole debate lacks conviction. Europe 2020 should be the key mechanism to get Europe out of the crisis and onto a more sustainable growth path. But few seem to believe that Europe 2020 can actually achieve that.

This is unfortunate – the crisis highlighted the limits of purely national actions and should therefore become a triggering factor for more decisive action at EU level. Even the Greek tragedy which is currently being played out should actually be a driver to improve Europe 2020: it is a classic example of how growing interdependence and shared challenges should imply better, common governance.

The current summit is unlikely to give decisive answers to any of the questions. On Greece, the EU seems to move forward in small and incremental steps, with the overall destination still unclear and Germany reluctant to commit. Europe 2020 is in danger of becoming Lisbon II – a worthy ambition but without many of the instruments needed to deliver.

Even climate change – the other topic officially on the agenda of the summit – where Europe had reached an ambitious agreement is in danger of being derailed by the disappointment of Copenhagen and the lack of action and interest outside the EU. But there still is still a possibility to devise a credible roadmap to making the necessary decisions. If not now, then when?"

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