MEPs unimpressed with Barroso’s state of the union

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Despite much anticipation, the European Commission president’s yearly speech on the state of the Union today (11 September) failed to meet expectations, as MEPs told José Manuel Barroso that he offered an overly optimistic snapshot of the EU.

 

 

Speaking in Strasbourg, Barroso said recovery was within sight. “That proves we are on the right track. On the basis of the figures and evolutions as we now see them, we have good reasons to be confident,” he said, adding that Europe had to get out of the structural crisis by "creating a new normal".

“If we are where we are today, it is because we have shown the resolve to adapt both our politics and our polices to the lessons drawn from the crisis,” he said. But he warned recovery was still fragile and political leaders must "keep up our efforts".

Barroso added that all the EU's economic efforts must be focused on growth to solve "today's most pressing problem: unemployment”. With 26 million people unemployed across the union – was "economically unsustainable, politically untenable, socially unacceptable".

MEPs challenged Barroso’s optimism and stressed that the eight months before the end of the legislature should be used to make sure Europe is put on a sustainable path for growth.

The real barometer of the EU's response to the crises during the president's five-year tenure will come next year when citizens head to the ballots to nominate their next representatives in the European Parliament.

Japanese winter

"We see some early signs of recovery. But these are proof that we have hit the bottom of the recession. So rather than the end of the crisis, these figures may just indicate the start of a new phase of the crisis. We risk entering a period of stagnation, of slow growth, a period of high and long term unemployment,” said Liberal (ALDE) leader Guy Verhofstadt.

"We need to fundamentally reform our economic and political governance if we are to avoid such a Japanese-style winter,” he added.

Verhofstadt has drawn this parallel before. In a recent op-ed for the International Herald Tribune, Verhofstadt said that after Japan’s financial crisis in the early 1990s, Tokyo had failed to sort out its banks quickly. The consequence was lackluster economic performance lasting for more than 10 years.

Only with a bold European plan for its banks and the setting up a European financial regulator, would the European Union be able to prevent a Japanese winter and another crisis, he argued.

Hannes Swoboda, president of the Socialists and Democrats Group, also slammed Barroso’s optimism by saying that he brushed over the fact that Europe was still in the midst of a crisis.

“With unemployment stabilising and statistics showing minor economic growth, there are some signs of recovery in the EU. But it is an incredibly feeble recovery. This recovery is a numerical one and the struggling people in Europe have not yet seen improvement,” he said, adding that austerity measures were still increasing the rift between rich and poor and the continent's North and South.

The Greens criticised the exit strategy of the EU executive. “You could have done better by pursuing different policies,” said co-chair of the Greens Rebecca Harms.

We live in a different Europe from Barroso, said Takis Hadjigeorgiou, the Cypriot vice-chair of the United Left.

Case for Europe

Barroso's political affiliates, the centre-right European People's Party, backed the Commission president by stressing the crisis was not due to Europe. “If anything it is because of Europe and the euro that we have survived,” said EPP president, Wilfried Martens.

Barroso avoided pushing for a federation of nation states as he did in last year’s state of the union. But he said that Europe still lacked the power to do what was asked of it.

Perhaps with an eye on the 2014 EU elections campaigns, the Commission chief called for greater coordination among the EU institutions to explain to citizens that Europe had not grabbed too much power.

“A fact that is too easily forgotten by those, and there are many out there, who always like to nationalise success and Europeanise failure,” he said.

“Now it the time to make the case for Europe,” he said.

Election mode

Speaking during a press conference, European Parliament President Martin Schulz said that todays differences in the European Parliament would become more evident during European election campaigns.

The European Parliament launched its information campaign yesterday under the slogan "this time it's different".

The election debate risks to be heavily polarised between pro- and anti-Europeans. Eurosceptics have been vocal in calling for a new Europe.

Rather than reacting to Barroso’s speech Martin Callanan, chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists group, used the floor to urge people to use the European elections as a fresh start for the European Union. “Wanting a new type of EU does not mean being anti-European.”

Banking Union now: All agree

Barroso called for EU countries to deliver on the banking union proposal, a priority for the president before he finishes his term.

MEPs concurred. "We must use the time we still have, to forge ahead on two fundamental points. The first concerns the banking union, more precisely, the setting up of a European resolution fund. The second concerns the completion of our internal market, namely the Digital Agenda,” said Verhofstadt.

"It is vital that we establish a banking resolution fund as a matter of urgency as one of the pillars of the Banking Union that will re-establish confidence and stability in the banking sector. The Commission made a solid proposal in July. We must push for an early agreement with the Council on this text and thereby restore healthy lending to small businesses and support growth in the real economy," added Verhofstadt.

Sealing a banking union, however, would also depend on member states ability to find a consensus.

Chairman of the European People's Party Joseph Daul calls on Member States not only to keep up the reforms, but at the same time to implement the right solutions for growth and jobs: “We need impetus at European level to stimulate growth through legislation and targeted investments that focus on job creation. We had to clean up our public finances. But good fiscal behaviour is not an end in itself. We need to tackle the second half of the match. Completing the Single Market is part of this. A Single Market that is complete represents nearly 1% more in growth. Without costing a single Euro more in investment.”

Joseph Daul also urges the Member States to respect the decisions agreed before the summer break as regards the long-term EU 2014-2020 budget, and demands a guarantee from the Council that the outstanding excessive due payment claims for 2013 will be covered: “I expect the Council to fulfil its commitments so that we can implement them.”

Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Martin Callanan spoke of  next year's European elections, and the many candidates jockeying to replace Mr Barroso as president. None represented new ideas: "They represent vested interests. The people of the European District in Brussels not the people of Europe.

"Next May the choice won't be about anonymous candidates. It will be about whether you want to merely shuffle the deck of cards, or throw out the old deck and start afresh.

"The essential flaw of the EU is that it does not trust in the capacity of people and markets to overcome problems. Problems can only be solved by Europe. If someone falls off a ladder, we need a new directive. People cannot be trusted to decide their own working hours or even whether to take up e-cigarettes to mention a topical subject," he said.

Henri Malosse, president of the European Economic and Social Committee, said “people at the grassroots expect practical measures, in particular to remedy European legislation that has overstepped the mark – like the Bolkenstein Directive, which has had the effect of legalising social dumping – to tackle tax evasion more vigorously, to slash over-regulation, to make room at last for young people in European society, to once again create jobs in industry and so on.

“The proposals made by the President of the European Commission in today's address regarding employment, young people and European enterprises look good, but they must be translated into facts right away, and that means putting the necessary budgetary resources in place. Just saying everything is fine will not make people believe or, more importantly, see it: only determined and immediate action can rekindle confidence in Europe. And Europe's people cannot wait any longer. "

The Party of European Socialists (PES) President Sergei Stanishev described the State of the Union address as a “pat on his own back for measures he did not support and solutions he did not achieve. If there is any change in the economic situation it is not thanks to the Conservative measures, but despite them. Only the PES progressive initiatives are making a positive impact on citizens”.

The PES President stressed that “as positive as the signs might be, it is too early to pretend that the crisis is over when millions of Europeans are still jobless, below the poverty line or even homeless. If we want to get out of the crisis together, we must keep fighting for PES ideas such as the European-wide implementation of the Youth Guarantee, a progressive industrial policy and a European Social Union based on growth, solidarity and investment”.

President of the Platform of European Social NGOs (Social Platform) Heather Roy reacted, saying that “contrary to President Barroso’s address we are not all suffering the crisis together. The crisis has had a disproportionate effect on the most vulnerable in our societies.” 120 million Europeans are at risk of poverty and social exclusion, 26 million are unemployed and austerity measures have sharply deepened the level of inequalities in our societies.”

“Strengthening the social dimension of the Economic and Monetary Union is one necessary step but it will not be sufficient,” Roy said. “As President Barroso rightly stated ‘we are much more than a market’; indeed we are more than just consumers, we are people. Europe now needs a more social face with concrete proposals for actions in the social field if we want to shape a ‘new normal’.”

The 'State of the Union' speech, largely modelled on the US president's annual address to Congress, is a recent initiative by Commission President José Manuel Barroso. The first such speech was delivered in 2010 in a chaotic atmosphere, after suggestions that MEPs be forced to attend.

In last year's state of the Union address, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso passionately pleaded for launching a wide-ranging public debate for a major transformation of the European Union into a "federation of nation states".

European Commission: State of the Union 2013 (Highlights)

European Commission: Making the case for Europe

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