EU socio-economic goals are usually bundled into five-year policy initiatives. The two previous ‘agendas’ were weak, and then overshadowed by the debt crisis. The next one should appeal more broadly, while spurring more momentum for change, writes Christophe Leclercq.
Christophe Leclercq is an entrepreneur and EU policy expert, founder of EURACTIV, and previously EU official and strategy consultant.
There is consensus about the main issues with the old Lisbon agenda: a lack of support by national stakeholders, and complex monitoring via the ‘open method of coordination’, which does not quite represent real benchmarking. The following ‘Europe 2020 Agenda’ had clearer ‘flagship projects’, and fewer indicators.
However, during its long constitutive phase, the Barroso II Commission did not wish for an open debate, so support in EU countries was even poorer. Due to the financial crisis, the EU then turned to short term mode, and some relevant policy initiatives were disregarded. This time, one should think ahead of institutional renewal taking place next year and ‘hit the road running’.
Learning from past shortcomings: Broader and firmer agenda for change
The past two agendas were in effect built on the triptych of competitiveness / social issues / environment. The first notion appeals to businesses and the centre-right, the second to the public sector and the left, the third to NGOs and the youth. Most discussions have centered on stakeholders’ fear of any little move toward ‘the other side’. But what do we wish? Keeping it all like before does not work… How about dynamism, out of the stagnation? What did the Lisbon Agenda mean? What did Europe 2020 really stand for?
Let’s replace the triptych with an action plan, under one clear and meaningful headline.
The seriousness of economic and social change is highlighted by the debt crisis. The Union should adapt clearly to public opinion demands: mainly growth and jobs. Muddling through, weak compromises à la Bruxelloise, are not an option any more for our continent. The next agenda should convey change, in a ‘broadchurch’ way that does not antagonise key political actors.
Parties and Parliament would support innovation
Opinion polls for the May 2014 elections point to an increase of eurosceptic and populist votes while preserving a smaller majority of MEPs from mainstream parties. Under the Lisbon Treaty, now well in place, EU campaigns will also be more politicised and personalised. All this may focus the minds within the informal coalition between centre-right and social-democrats, supporting coherence and delivery. ‘Government’ negotiations during the summer of 2014 could deliver a more explicit Commission programme.
As for overarching EU strategy, yes, it is possible to combine under one heading the necessary concepts. The four main European parties are EPP, PES, ALDE, Greens. They all call for competitiveness, sustainable solidarity, freedoms, green growth. It is possible to bring this under one umbrella: ‘innovation’.
What could innovation mean in practice?
We talk of ‘innovation’ as a narrative in the widest sense, of doing new things, or pursuing existing goals with new methods. Two third of the policy substance will be the same as before, innovating not chiefly on ‘what to do?’, but on ‘how?’, and especially ‘who and when?’
In Brussels circles, innovation is often understood as an extension of R&D programmes, made to sound less like subsidies, and closer to market and enterprise. For many years we have seen turf battles between at least three Commission departments: research, the digital agenda and enterprise. This first definition of innovation should now shift further to industrial policies, in better cooperation with countries and companies.
Innovation could also permeate other agendas, such as enterprise policy, smarter regulation, affordable health, social reforms and new ways of debating national budgets. And indirectly completion of the internal market and trade, which brings opportunities for new products and new services.
Over the past few years, bankers and regulators have also innovated, under time pressure. Now, changing the Treaty further could also be seen as an innovation, be it adjustment like finalising the banking union or rather deeper differentiation, like both Brits and federalists wish.
Packaging for real leadership
I would not call this government programme an ‘agenda’ (implying: for further debate), but the plan resulting from elections and nominations: a ‘mandate’ (explicitly: for mandatory action, based on strong legitimacy). Stating a future date is good for gathering together forces, but I would not choose a far horizon (like ‘Europe 2020’, chosen 11 years earlier, in 2009).
Even ‘2020’, still 6 years ahead, has been over-used in various policy areas. In line with political accountability, I would pick 2019, the end of the political mandate given in 2014. 2019: that is when Europe’s citizens should re-elect the same politicians, or send them home.
Unlike the overused words ‘reform’ and ‘competitiveness’, innovation is still an attractive goal. In addition to the official Summit this week on innovation, there is a flurry of events and reports on the topic. Just like on ‘competitiveness’ a few years ago, and on ‘information society’ before that. Hopefully these public and private initiatives will serve a purpose: shaping the 2014 campaign around a better programme guiding the EU until 2019.
So, I would now make innovation ‘Chefsache’ the boss’ matter. It should be the thrust of the Commission president’s goals next Summer and then inauguration speech in Autumn. Top EU officials already work on policy suggestions for their next collège, discreetly. Telling them to work more openly, under ‘innovation’, could channel their efforts, in a non-partisan way. Providing these policy options to presidential and MEPs candidates, early on, would then facilitate decisions and adjustments after the elections.
EU policy-making can change and speed-up, if we start now, under the heading innovation.