Local Rep: ‘Regions have a lot to offer on Lisbon Strategy review’

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A consultation of European local authorities and cities has revealed strong criticism of the way the Lisbon Strategy for growth and jobs has been implemented across the 27 member states of the European Union. Christine Chapman, rapporteur on the consultation for the Committee of the Regions, spoke to EURACTIV in an interview.

Christine Chapman is a member of the National Assembly for Wales and rapporteur for a consultation on the Lisbon Strategy post-2010 for the EU’s Committee of the Regions. 

She was speaking to EURACTIV’s editor Frédéric Simon.

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

The Committee of the Regions ran an online consultation recently to assess EU regions’ expectations for the Lisbon Strategy’s revision after 2010. Could you summarise their views? 

One of the main concerns from the consultation was that they wanted to be much more involved in setting the strategy, because as regional and local authorities, ultimately they play a strong role in carrying out the strategy. There was a strong sense that they had a lot to offer. Maybe in the past they had not been adequately recognised.

We think regional and local authorities are the ones which have access to ordinary citizens, so this is why they are very keen to be part of this dialogue. 

Did the regions give any indication as to how they would want to be involved?

There can be a lot of sharing of best practice. The Committee of the Regions is a good vehicle for communicating best practice, but there is always room for greater involvement of the committee there. We try to pull out some case studies from across Europe which is helpful. There are study visits as well. 

The main thing is better communication. The Committee of the Regions feels that the ordinary citizen doesn’t always appreciate what is happening across Europe.

What kinds of communication are you talking about? Is it top-down information from Brussels, or from other constituencies too? Can the Internet play a role?

Information is important and the online aspect of it is important as well. The Committee of the Regions, for example, has got its own website. But as far as the Lisbon Strategy is concerned, I don’t think it strikes a chord with the ordinary citizen. And one of the messages in my paper is that, if we redefined the strategy, we could ensure that the ordinary citizen identifies with it. It is about how you define it really, and not only about communications.  

You seem to be talking about communicating on a mass scale, directly to citizens, who understandably may not have a deep interest in EU affairs. So how about targeting communication efforts at intermediaries, such as national business associations, which are directly influenced by the Lisbon Agenda?

Certainly we have drawn on research with business associations such as BusinessEurope and others across Europe. But personally, I don’t see the Lisbon Agenda as a business agenda, this is about all citizens. If we acknowledge that, I think the whole thing becomes much stronger. If you look at the basic message in my paper, first of all we need to re-balance the Lisbon Strategy, because the economic crisis has brought a need to redefine the strategy, and we do need to ensure that all citizens benefit from the Lisbon Agenda. The economics is not only about businesses, it is also about ordinary citizens. It is a much more holistic agenda. You alienate whole sectors of society if you do that, and ultimately it fails if we don’t include everybody.

But as you widen the strategy to the ordinary citizen, isn’t there a risk that it will lose its focus and become a catch-all concept?

Well, the current strategy is actually quite business-focused and it has been questioned how efficient it has been until now. Before the economic crisis struck Europe and when the economy was considered to be performing relatively well, high levels of poverty continued to exist as well as growing levels of income inequality.

Poverty existed even before the current crisis started, so that does put into question how successful the current strategy is. So I am looking for a much more ambitious revision for the next ten years.

How do you see the fight against poverty taking place under the revised strategy? Have any practical suggestions come out of the regions’ consultation?

We need to take a much more inclusive approach to the strategy, involving women and different sectors of society. Because if you don’t get that right, then even if the economy is doing better, if people are left behind, then it is not performing well, is it? So there is a strong message about social inclusion. And of course young people too, because of rising unemployment levels among them. And there are still communities which were being left behind even before the crisis started and we just can’t afford to let this happen. 

One of the texts which I have drawn from in my report is ‘The Spirit Level’, which says that more equal societies are performing better in terms of health, happiness, etc.

What can the EU level bring on those issues? Employment and the fight against poverty are after all a competence of the member states, not Europe…

It is about speaking with one voice. Although the Committee of the Regions is a diverse group, we can put our weight behind a joint call for action on social issues.

The other big message coming out of our consultation is that you cannot exclude the green agenda from the revision of the Lisbon Strategy. The environment has got to play a key role in the strategy because our economic growth must be achieved within the Earth’s ecological limits. And Europe could play a leading role in this. 

Switching to ‘greener’ economic growth can also have negative implications for employment, for example when coal mines are abandoned and workers laid off when switching to cleaner sources of energy. So isn’t there a risk of the green agenda backfiring in terms of job losses, at least in the short term?

In Wales, which is the area I know best, we have published a green jobs strategy, and I think some of the work being done there has been seen as very innovative. What we’ve done is include a series of good examples from Scotland or Denmark, where community-led action to address climate change has resulted in over 100% power consumption and more than 80% heat consumption without the use of fossil fuels. There is another example with wave-power being installed off the coast of Cornwall in 2010, so there are plenty of examples that we have pointed to, and if we recognise that these things are already happening, I think it does strengthen the message as well.  

There are certainly challenges, no doubt about that. But I think it reflects the importance of local communities taking this agenda on board as well. It is leadership from Europe and the regional, local and national governments, but it is also about local communities as well, and there are lots of really good things happening across Europe. 

And also about education and training – raising awareness about sustainability issues and the green jobs agenda – I think these are very important. 

So I don’t think it is a question of something that we could do, it is actually essential for us to do it. People realise now how serious the situation is, we have to be brave but we have to bring in the people as well. And I think the Committee of the Regions is again a very good vehicle to do this, because we have access to the ordinary citizen and it is about bringing the ordinary citizen with us. 

But again, this must be central to the Lisbon Agenda, we can’t say it is outside it, it has to be part of it really.

Are regions actually ready to put some more effort into communicating the Lisbon Strategy, or are they too financially constrained to do this?

There is definitely a will to do it. Everybody is under financial pressure, there is no doubt about that, but there is a will to be more involved. Because they know their communities very well, they have a better chance of success.

But will all regions subscribe to the agenda? I guess not all will identify with the priorities, maybe for political reasons, and will resist promoting it…

I think we need first of all to look at an explicit overarching objective that everybody can subscribe to, whatever background they come from. What I have suggested is that we re-brand Lisbon to something like ‘A high quality of life and well-being for EU citizens’. Well if that was to go forward, who would disagree with it?

So we should start by redefining the agenda. If you ask people in the street what they think about the strategy, they would not have an opinion. Because they don’t understand what it is, or what it does. They don’t feel it may be important to their lives. But in fact the strategy does affect people’s lives and we want this Lisbon Strategy to be much more ambitious. It is about communication, it is about the language you use, and to me it is about a much more socially cohesive society. 

Now, I know that this is a political view, but when I prepared my paper, we were very keen to involve people across Europe and get as many views on board as possible. Now I know I won’t get 100% support on everything, but I am hoping to get a greater sense of consensus around it. Because it stands a far better chance of success if we do.

And another important thing – we’ve had the European Parliament elections in June, and I know from speaking to colleagues at the Committee of the Regions that we want to work even closer with MEPs on this. 

The Committee of the Regions and the MEPs really need to work more closely together. We are working at different levels of government but at the end of the day, it is the same people that we serve. We need to work as collaboratively as possible and we need to share and promote good ideas.

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