EU budget: Deal done, mission not accomplished

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Now that a budget deal has been brokered between EU heads of states and governments, NGOs intend to be uncompromising in tracking the spending decisions at national level, writes Markus Trilling .

Markus Trilling is EU funds coordinator for CEE Bankwatch Network.

The battle over the EU budget 2014-2020 was concluded last Friday afternoon after overnight skirmishes during the negotiations gave way to some pragmatic reckoning and acceptance that a deal had to be done.

Victory was duly claimed by all parties to the negotiations that saw the first ever reduction – by three percent compared to the 2007-2013 period – to the seven year spending programme.

To the victors, the spoils, although while these are far from clear, it became immediately apparent in the aftermath that the European Parliament – afforded the right of veto over the multi-annual financial framework (MFF) for the first time – is spoiling for a further fight. What kinds of reparations and white flags might emerge remain to be seen. 

For environmental NGOs who have been following the MFF proceedings, concern about the longer-term 2014-2020 budgetary ‘war’ persists: will quality EU spending be able to get a look in to avert the usual long list of casualties that accompanies the MFF, and will we get to see the €960 or so billion delivering more robustly – and sustainably – for Europe’s people and environment?

An observation on Twitter from a member of the Brussels press corps just after one of Friday’s ‘victory’ press conferences may have sounded cynical but perfectly captured the underlying reality of the MFF victory moment: “Not 1 single question asked @ Cameron's briefing on content of budget deal – only about the headline figure. But 4 Qs about horsemeat!”

Of course, it is no secret that this has been primarily a big numbers game ever since the European Commission tabled its €1.033 trillion proposal – and, subsequently, a range of Europe’s big gun member states set about training their sights on paring this figure down to a level deemed acceptable for their own respective domestic audiences.   

However, the Commission had also proposed a new innovation: a 20% earmarking of total MFF 2014-2020 spending for initiatives and projects devoted to tackling climate change.

Amidst widespread cutting of other innovative proposals, the EU’s heads of state have now signed up to the low-carbon 20% commitment – although whether they honour this in their spending programmes remains one of the big challenges going forward.

Indeed, the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) was quick to sound this warning on Friday afternoon: “A smaller budget could trigger unfavourable changes to the proposed concentration of the regional development fund on low carbon objectives.”

Reflecting further on just one implication of now having to treat and care for certain wounded items still standing after the budget battle, IEEP also noted that:

“One perverse consequence of drastically cutting the Connecting Europe Facility could lead to greater pressure on the future Cohesion Policy to prioritise road building and fossil fuel facilities rather than more sustainable modes of transport and cleaner energy supply systems.”

These are the details of the MFF deal that must take precedence with the financial details now in the bag, assuming that members of the European parliament see fit to retreat and vote in favour of the package in the coming months.

Hinging on these details are big picture aspects of the budget such as whether or not it still has the ability – less via raw financial muscle and more now through smart deployment of the funds – to spur the European economy through support for sectors with huge potential such as clean energy, and in the process create tens of thousands of new jobs.

As NGOs have been calling attention to via the ‘Well Spent EU’ website, these details have been spotted already on the margins of the current EU budget ledger book. We have documented projects that have served European communities well: through the creation of new jobs, reduced fuel bills and more efficient and sustainable use of scarce resources.

A clear trend is that the gains made via these projects come about because they have involved in their design and implementation the very people who are now reaping the benefits.

The challenge now is for the EU’s next budget to massively multiply such success stories, and mainstream them.

Will the 20% climate mainstreaming commitment be up to the task? Certainly it is a lot better than nothing, though €20 billion or so over seven years appears to give us little more than a shaky foothold for clambering up the colossal cliff-face presented by climate change and our current harsh economic realities.

This is put into even sharper relief by the indications emerging from Brussels corridors that subsidies for fossil fuels may be slipped into the eventual national-level EU spending plans for 2014-2020.

Preventing such slippage is vital for Europe’s long-term development: instead of pouring EU billions into the construction of gas pipelines, and thus locking European economies into carbon dependency for decades, the transition to more efficient, renewable energy based economies now requires all the investment support we can muster, including from the EU budget.

Last year the International Energy Agency put the price tag on holding global warming to an acceptable level as $36 trillion by 2050 for global clean energy investments.

Equally, a greater role for the ‘Partnership principle’ as an integral part of the roll-out of the 2014-2020 spending is a detail that needs to be much better understood.

The European Commission is very much alive to the role that a range of stakeholders can play in improving the overall quality of EU spending – harsh experience over the years of EU funds abuse in the highways and byways of Europe has clearly been a factor in the Commission’s efforts to bolster such partnership.

For Bankwatch and our NGO partners across Europe, the compromises over the MFF’s financial details – a billion here, a billion there – have long been expected. Now that a budget deal has been brokered, we intend to be uncompromising in tracking the spending decisions at national level, where things really start to count.

Big picture EU funds delivery – whether on tackling climate change, providing jobs or, ultimately, improving quality of life for people living in Europe – ultimately depends on scrupulous, public-led attention to detail.

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