Britain, Economic policy and the Single Market, Euro, Future of the EU, Regional policy and co-operation, Social policy and anti-discrimination, Uncategorized

Challenges for European regions: social-economic problems and the need for more Europe-wide democracy

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of Randstad Regio last week in Brussels, the question arose what the future is for European regions. The economic crisis seems to strengthen the tendency towards centralization both in the European Union (for example, fiscal policy making) as well as in its member states. Still, regions as well as municipalities could play an important role in the Union that is troubled by limited legitimacy. Many citizens do not regard the Union as the government that is providing public services to them.

The economic crisis has led, as an emergency measure, to closer European cooperation on fiscal policy making. With the coming into force of the Fiscal Compact, the member states have designed a complex arrangement of fiscal norms as well as monitoring devices to control national government spending. What is fascinating about this development is that the increase of European fiscal power will reinforce a call for a European view on social-economic policy. Fiscal and social-economic policy making often go hand-in-hand and cannot be easily disconnected. National budgets were often used to combat economic stagnation and to stimulate economic growth and employment. Moreover, these problems have a strong spatial component, because economic problems are not the same in all parts of the EU (or a country if you wish), while solutions to these problems often have a strong regional component. Here lies a first challenge to European regions in the coming years. How can they support and contribute to social and economic development, together with others? And how can regions participate in the further development of these policies both at the national and the European level? In my view, their input will be essential for the success of these policies.

The second and but connected issue relates to the role of citizens in Europe—since 2013 is the year of the European Citizen, it warrants further attention. In his speech on the future of Europe David Cameron mentions one point I agree with and that is that citizens still have a problem identifying Europe as a government for them. I disagree with Cameron that a possible British exit would be the right answer to this problem, but that is a different issue. It seems that so far we have not given a good answer to this problem. In a reply to Cameron, the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz, proposes to have more transparency and ‘open’ debates in Europe. I am not convinced that this is the way to go.

Our national governments, including regions, are struggling with the increased mobility of goods, persons and services, while citizens also would like to see their local and national choices being respected. In trying to be as efficient and effective as possible, the Union seems to have taken on more and more tasks over time. Many problems nowadays have cross border effects suggesting that solutions need to be developed at the European level. But is that really necessary? Not all problems with cross border effects need to be resolved by Brussels. Not all problems put on the European agenda need to lead to Europe-wide legislation. Subsidiary needs to be taken seriously, also when it concerns the distribution of tasks between national and sub national governments. Unfortunately, for many the consequences of greater mobility are not yet clear. Moreover, often this discussion is dominated by nationalism and populist rhetoric. Still, what is needed is a discussion about the role of various levels of governments in Europe, including regions. If we want to be democratic, we may have to live with some policy inefficiency. When regional governments can no longer adapt their policy to the demands of their citizens, our democracies will be in danger. That is a second challenge for all of us, also for regions!

Europe in the news, Public opinion, Social policy and anti-discrimination

Why EU Commissioners Are Poor Politicians

EU Commissioners might be seasoned bureaucrats but make for lousy politicians. Viviane Reding, currently responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, and Commissioner since 1999 (!) is surely a masterful mandarin, but doesn’t play the politics game very well. And by politics, I don’t mean the internal bickering between the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament: I am sure she is a world champion at that – I mean politics as the art of pleasing the public while getting things done. Perhaps after so many years in the Brussels bubble Commissioner Reding has forgotten altogether that pleasing the public is part of the politics game as all. But when public support for the EU is hitting a new low, I can’t help but think that the feelings of the public should be high on the Commissioner’s mind.

In September this year Viviane Reding announced that the Commission is coming up with a proposal to set a compulsory 40-% quota for women on boards of public companies. Immediately, nine countries (including the Netherlands, Sweden and Britain) and a few fellow Commissioners (including several women) expressed very strong disagreement. This, however, was not enough to put the brakes – on 14 November, the Commission approved a watered-down version which ‘sets an objective of a 40% presence of the under-represented sex among non-executive directors of companies listed on stock exchanges’, a “flexi quota” and a statement that ‘given equal qualification, priority shall be given to the under-represented sex’. Now, I haven’t much to say about the quality of the proposal as such – to put my cards on the table, I agree there is a problem with the unequal representation of women on company boards, and I don’t know enough about the effects of quotas to have a strong opinion about the proposed solution.

What is blindingly clear, however, is that the European citizens do not feel that this is an issue for the EU to solve, and there is virtually no popular support for such action coming from Brussels. How do I know? It’s data collected by the EU!

According to Eurobarometer, in 2007 ten percent of the European population agreed that the EU has an important role to play in combating discrimination (page 26, QA11). That’s just one out of every ten Europeans! Only three percent mentioned that they would turn to the EU in case of discrimination at the workplace (p.32, QA 13). In all fairness, 77% said they want to see more women in managerial positions, but no indication they wanted Commissioners poking their nose into that, or a policy which guarantees 40% of these positions for women.

If anything, the case for European involvement into the matter has become even weaker since. A red-hot new survey made available last week shows that only 31% of European citizens agree that there is widespread gender discrimination in their countries:  seven out of ten Europeans find gender discrimination rare or non-existent. Moreover, only 22% agree that being a female puts you at a disadvantage when looking for a job (page 87, QC4). In fact, more people feel that their accent might be a problem. Again, this is not to say that, objectively speaking, there is no underrepresentation of women in top positions. But it seems that the majority of people do not find gender discrimination at the workplace very widespread, nor a political priority.

In 2009 Europeans generally supported measures for monitoring hiring practices and the gender composition at the workforce, but 58% found enough was already being done in that respect. Interestingly, the new survey from 2012 doesn’t even ask people whether they think it’s a good idea for the EU to get involved or whether a ‘compulsory quota’ policy is the way to go. These are quite curious omissions given that the survey is otherwise quite comprehensive and comes out in the same week as the Commission’s policy proposal.

In summary, there is no broad support for further EU action in combating gender discrimination and even less so for a policy of quotas. So why is Viviane Reding pushing this agenda in the face of absent popular support and explicit opposition from national governments? She probably strongly believes that this policy is the right and progressive thing to do. And that the Commission has the obligation to lead rather than blindly follow popular sentiments. But the fact remains that people, and many governments, don’t like the idea.

Irritating an increasingly hostile public with such proposals is not a very smart thing to do because the policy would never be approved by the member states anyways, but you still get the bad press. What is stuck in people’s minds is the fact that the Commission ‘approved’ something that they didn’t like: they won’t remember that the Commission only proposes and the Council and the Parliament decide, and that the initial proposal has been quickly watered-down to a more widely-acceptable version.

That’s why Redding’s recent actions are not smart and politically savvy in the way in which EU-bashing politicians like Nigel Farage are politically smart and savvy. The forefathers of the EU from Jean Monnet to Jacques Delors managed to be both true to their ideals and politically shrewd in order to achieve them.

New policies like women quotas do not win new supporters for European integration. The people who like the idea of positive discrimination are likely to be the people who already support the EU: the more educated, cosmopolitan, and well-off. For the average woman, a position on the board of a top company is equally distant with or without a quota for females. But such policies would alienate people who disagree with the substance of the policy and are already suspicious of the EU. Which, as the numbers show, are by far the majority.

In her term as Information Society and Media Commissioner, Viviane Reding put a lot of effort to increase the visibility of the European Union. Well, now people definitely pay more attention to what the EU does. And they often don’t like it. Now it’s time the Commission starts to pay more attention to what the people have to say.