Šef?ovi?: ‘Debate on net recipients and contributors is unhealthy’

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The European Commission is considering boosting the role played by the EU's own resources in the next budgetary cycle, the institution's vice-president, Maroš Šef?ovi?, told EURACTIV Slovakia in an interview. 

Maroš Šef?ovi? is a graduate of the Bratislava University of economics and of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations. A career diplomat in his native Slovakia, for four months he served as a commissioner in the Barroso I team, responsible for education. He is currently vice-president responsible for inter-institutional relations and administration in the Barroso II Commission. 

He was speaking to EURACTIV Slovakia.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

The European Union is going through difficult times. It is facing huge challenges, which seem to demand changes to the Lisbon Treaty. At the same time, support for the EU among citizens is decreasing, as indicated by the latest Eurobarometer. Do you see this merely as an unavoidable consequence of economic hardship, or a continuation of the long-term trend of dying enthusiasm for further integration?

The Lisbon Treaty entered into force only recently and now we have to adjust to a new set of rules. It is obvious that in spite of long negotiations on the new institutional framework – they took more than ten years – when we get to their practical implementation, we still need to get used to them. It is a natural process. Such huge institutional change has to bring some tensions, which will be solved later when rules and procedures become automatic.

Besides that, this huge change coincided with the worst economic crisis in the last 80 years. Our reaction had to be very fast, even using some non-traditional solutions and tools. What was positive was that this crisis has energised member states and the Council. It has highlighted that we need to solve problems together. And in the end we are negotiating measures which would have been unthinkable six or twelve months ago.

This drop in public support could largely be explained by the fact that the poll was executed at a time of mounting crisis. If we compare historical data, public support has not dropped more than during the bursting of other economic 'bubbles' – for example during the Internet bubble.

Still, we should not hide from the fact that it is important to search for ways to include our citizens in European developments. We need to remind ourselves that many things which we consider natural and given are here thanks to the European Union – travelling without borders, a Single Payment Area, the possibility to study in other European countries, etc. The problem is that many sceptical voices take these benefits of integration for granted.

A few days ago the European Commission president held a speech on the 'State of the Union' in the European Parliament. Does it mean that the official voice of the EU, the 'number to call', is José Manuel Barroso and not Council President Herman Van Rompuy?

It is not that easy in the EU. By the way, it is not that easy even in the United States. Whom should you call when you want to discuss climate change? Is it the environment secretary, the White House, Congress, or even some agency?

The European Union is a sui generis entity, based on cooperation and the division of competences. Cooperation between European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and Commission President José Manuel Barroso is very good. Both have an enormous interest in coordination and their competences are clearly delimited also by the Treaty.

Van Rompuy communicates in the name of the EU all issues related to the Common Foreign and Security Policy. Barroso communicates in areas of Community policy – agriculture, external trade, energy. The international community has accepted this division of tasks.

The reason why we established this speech on the State of the Union is to increase the quality of programming, to increase the predictability of the EU. Barroso’s speech gives an overview of the EU's plans for the near future. It was received with great interest in the European Parliament, as well as in the media. It is a kind of opening of the political season in the EU, launching the discussion on the working programme of the Commission for 2011.

When we look at the problems that the EU has faced recently – energy security, regulation of the financial sector, etc. – the answer was always 'more European cooperation'. At the same time, this crisis is pushing governments to be more assertive of 'national interests'. Do you observe a strengthening or weakening of European solidarity?

There is no simple answer to this question. It is true that we need to assert European ideas every day. A worsening economic situation in Europe always awakes protectionist reflexes. They would bring simple solutions, which might even bring some results in the short-term, but would mean a huge long-term loss.

The European Commission managed to prevent ambitions to renationalise some policies. We defended the single market: that was our big victory. We can use the words of Mr. Barroso from his recent speech on the State of the Union: we either float together or we sink individually. This could be observed also in the G20: Europe is heard only when it speaks with a single voice. There is no European country which could act as a global actor.

However, it is a fact that the economic situation is encouraging some to assert national interests. This sometimes leads to a game which is not very fair. Governments take the credit for good developments, and blame Brussels for bad ones. Brussels is presented as a kind of external force; we do not realise that we all are part of it. It is our ministers who negotiate in Brussels; MEPs are elected by citizens.

The budget reform will be a hot topic. What chances do you give to the proposal of introducing new EU own resources, in the form of an EU tax, for example?

At the time of preparing previous financial perspectives, the European Commission was already given the task by the European Council of preparing an analysis of the budget review at the halfway point of this financial framework.

This analysis should cover all aspects – exceptions, scope of policies, financing of policies, including considering the option for strengthening the EU's own resources. So we have a clear commitment.

The Commission is working on this report very intensively and it should be ready at the latest at the beginning of October.

What kind of own resources is the Commission going to propose?

Our philosophy is to try to get resources from those activities which would not exist without the European Union. From the added value the EU offers. It is not going to be an easy task. I remember very well the complicated discussions about own resources a few years ago, when we discussed the current financial perspectives. The Commission will only publish data about revenue and expenditure, and propose alternatives, but the decision is up to member states and the European Parliament.

On the one hand, several ministers keep telling us that they would welcome an increase of own resources, because it would decrease the contribution of the member states. But on the other hand, ministers of finance want to have the shaping of the EU budget under control and they would rather see any new resource as a source of national budget, from which it could  then be redistributed to the EU.

The Commission has to consider all this, but for the time being I would not talk about details.

It is not only the size of the EU budget but also its character – how redistributive it will be – which interests the new member states. It is no secret that large contributors want the budget to be more focused on competitiveness and new priorities such as energy policy and research, and less on regional cohesion. From your point of view, which approach is going to prevail?

There are several factors that are going to affect the new EU budget discussions. The first is that they are going to take place during difficult fiscal consolidation. The European Commission will try to align the EU budget closer with the priorities of the 'Europe 2020' strategy.

It is also clear that without an adequate cohesion policy, it is not possible to build a successful European Union. Elimination of differences is one of the key policies the Union cannot work without.

But another thing is also clear – without focusing support on an innovative economy, the EU will not be able to preserve its competitiveness and the economic growth necessary for sustaining our quality of life. We have to find a way to support new priorities set in 'Europe 2020', and to develop a Europe of successful regions at the same time.

However, the discussion about net contributors and net recipients is very unhealthy. It reflects an accounting point of view. Net contributors also benefit from the economic development of the new members. Those benefits are there, even though it is difficult to count them. We have to look at Cohesion Policy from this perspective.

How do you perceive from this perspective the decision of the Slovak government not to take part in the rescue loan for Greece?

I do realise how sensitive this question is in Slovakia. I also know what context has formed the opinion of current representatives of government. I am convinced that if they had participated in the difficult decision-making process, when it was not only about the Greek rescue but also about the stabilisation of the common currency and of the European, even global, economy, they would have looked at this issue very differently.

Thanks to the principle of solidarity, which is one of the main pillars of European integration, Slovakia, just like other new member states, has increased the living standard of its citizens since its EU accession six years ago. It is therefore important to preserve this principle also in the next period – during the new financial perspective.

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