EU 2018: A big year to be big on big things

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A general view of the European Parliament during in a voting on a new fishing law in the EU at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, 16 January 2018. [EPA-EFE/PATRICK SEEGER]

With European Parliament elections, a new European Commission and Brexit scheduled, attention of some EU observers is already beginning to drift to 2019. However, focus should not shift too fast as the twelve months ahead promise major EU developments, which could mark 2018 down in the annals of EU history, insists Tom Parker.

Tom Parker is vice-president of the British Chamber of Commerce in Belgium and CEO of Cambre Associates.

In terms of anniversaries alone, 2018 is no small occasion: 25 years of the Single Market, 50 years of Customs Union and 100 years since Woodrow Wilson set out his 14 points that resulted in the League of Nations (not strictly EU, not strictly in existence but a foundation of international law as we know it). All of these are major milestones, a testament to the value and success of the EU which should be celebrated with enough fanfare to remind the Brits what they will be missing.

Then there is the not insignificant matter of EU reform. As Manfred Weber Chairman of the EPP Group has said, “it is now or never”. In Germany, Chancellor Merkel and Martin Schulz seem to have withstood the opposition of Kevin Kühnert the leader of the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) youth wing, and are one step closer to a GroKo (Grand Coalition) being in place by May. By which time Italian elections look like they could usher in a right leaning, not too EU sceptic government, which will bring an end to a tortuous electoral cycle that at one point looked like it would throw a major spanner in the works of the future EU.

Major challenges ahead include: Shoring up the Eurozone – turning the European Stability Mechanism into a European Monetary Fund and making further progress to strengthen the banking union; agreeing a new long term EU Budget; resolving the migration crisis in an equitable manner, in keeping with European values; and finally, bringing some sort of closure to the trifling matter of Brexit.

All of these points raise the wider question of EU reform and with all the brilliant minds sitting at the EU top table, let’s hope collective wisdom overcomes short term politics and delivers an agenda that not only strengthens Europe’s core but also paves the way for old members and new and established partners to co-exist in a coherent framework for a wider and stronger sphere of European influence.

The next twelve months are also loaded with key “micro” policy developments. The year kicked off in style with the entry into force of Mifid II, introducing a big shake up for financial market operators. In May, the arrival of new EU data protection rules (GDPR) will create a similar shockwave for any organisation, anywhere that collects, processes and stores “EU data”.

At the same time Member States will have to transpose a cornerstone of EU efforts on Cybersecurity, the NIS Directive.  Between now and then, further progress will be made to bring closure to discussion on Europe’s Clean Energy Package, kick-start negotiations on Clean Mobility and advance efforts to put in place a Digital Single Market. New proposals will also be made on key issues like collective redress.

This Commission has endeavoured to bring focus to decision-making at the EU level, being big on the big things and trying to leave matters that can be dealt with best nationally to Member States.

The report of the Taskforce on Subsidiarity, Proportionality and “Doing Less More Efficiently” to be presented by 15 July, must address how EU decision-making can be accelerated to keep up with the pace of technological and innovative change that is driving the global economy.

Concern is rightly growing that if change does not materialise, the EU will be left in the wake of the US and China as we advance headlong to a data driven future. So important is the challenge, it wouldn’t be a surprise if it was formally on the agenda at Davos this week.

Additionally, if this EU term wants to leave a proud legacy and set the right stage for the future, it must ensure that in this 25th year the Single Market, for which the EU is so rightfully proud and which underpins EU influence in the world, is fully and properly implemented and that all Member States are treated equally.

When a leading European sports retailer can open 301 stores in member state X, 149 in member state Y but only 50 in member state Z (the largest in size), at the expense of thousands of jobs and billions of Euros of value added, something is not quite right under the EU’s bonnet.