Strategic Agenda of the European Council fails to address inequality

26 June 2019

Remarks in the Dáil on post-EU Council meeting statements by Brendan Howlin TD, Leader of the Labour Party.

I want to focus my remarks on the publication by the European Council of its New Strategic Agenda for the period 2019 to 2024.

It is worth recalling the composition of the European Council.

Of the 28 prime ministers and other heads of government from around Europe, eight of them are allied to the conservative European People’s Party, which is Fine Gael’s group. And seven come from the economically liberal ALDE / Renew Europe group, which is Fianna Fáil’s group. Seven now come from Labour’s group, the progressive Socialists and Democrats, and the others are independents or from smaller groups.

Given the clear majority of right-wing heads of government, it is not surprising that the Council’s New Strategic Agenda reflects conservative, free market economic policy.

The priority of the Agenda is, firstly, security and rule of law, including control of Europe’s borders and control of migration. There is also strong commitment to European foreign policy, defence co-operation and support for the rules-based international order.

Economic policy comes in second place and both social policy and environmental policy are relegated to the bottom.

There is some hopeful language in the Council document.

There is an important commitment that the European Pillar of Social Rights should be implemented at EU and member state level, and there is important recognition in the document of the growth of inequalities in Europe, especially for young people.

However, the limp promise of “opportunities for all”, “adequate social protection” and “inclusive labour markets” shows the lack of appetite among conservative European governments for more robust action on these issues.

The call for “good access to healthcare” is easier said than done, as there is no suggestion in the Agenda of how that might be achieved.

This highlights the weakest part of the document, which is the section on implementation.

The New Strategic Agenda essentially commits to laissez faire “free market” principles.

It calls for the non-regulation of social and economic actors by the EU.

To quote the text, it says that the EU [quote] must leave economic and social actors the space to breathe, to create and to innovate.” [end quote].

The implication of the New Strategic Agenda is that European leaders recognise the problems of inequality, but they either could not agree measures to address these inequalities or else they are content to rely on market forces to resolve these issues.

That is a wholly contradictory position.

Market forces are the reason why we have growing inequality in Europe.

We cannot expect so-called “opportunities” and “space to breathe” to resolve the failures of the free market.

Recent examples of so-called “innovation” in the economy have included zero-hours contracts, the replacement of workers by automation and speculative investment in housing that is driving up costs without adding any value.

We have spent the last five years legislating to reduce the harm from these innovations in the economy, in order to protect people.

There is no reason to believe that the market is going to produce better innovations in the next five years.

European leaders should be focusing on agreed regulations to steer the economy in a new direction.

This is an even bigger concern when it comes to climate change.

Labour welcomes the pledge to make sure no-one is left behind by changes to the economy in response to the transition to a low carbon economy.

In our view, there is potential for Europe to be a world leader with respect to environmental policy.

But the big test of this will be when powerful economic interests have to be curtailed in order to protect our biodiversity or our oceans.

There is almost nothing in the New Strategic Agenda to suggest that Europe is going to push forward with an ambitious agenda to regulate the economy in new ways or to channel economic activity into sustainable and renewable forms of production.

There is therefore no reason to think that Europe is going to make any exceptional advances in the crucial period of the next five years.

This is extremely worrying, in a context where international experts tell us we have only 11 years left to make substantive changes to our economies in order to limit climate change to global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Overall, the Agenda proposes rowing back on EU intervention, except in the area of defence, where more EU integration and decision-making is proposed.

The section on security and defence calls for enhanced defence investment, capability development and operational readiness.

While there is an oblique reference to the Treaties, and by implication to the protections the Treaties give to Ireland’s military neutrality, the intent in the Council’s Agenda is clearly to signal greater defence co-ordination at EU level.

In conclusion, there is nothing “new” in this New Strategic Agenda.

The proposal is for another five years of the same economic policies, which means another five years of unsustainable economic activity and growing inequality.

In particular, there is a large hole in the new Agenda in relation to integration of migrant workers and new communities.

Europe needs to integrate migrant workers into the mainstream economy, including those with lower educational attainment or skills, and avoid creating ghettoised sectors of the economy, which in turn manifest as second-class social status and lower living standards.

This is an urgent social need, and it is a pity that the Council’s document is silent on this major issue.

But it is not too late to steer away from this depressing vista.

The new four-party coalition in the European Parliament needs to demonstrate a real change of direction from the past ten years of European economic policy in order to show that European democracy is responsive to people’s concerns.

There are three practical measures suggested in the Agenda which could be the basis for a genuinely new departure for European economic policy.

The Agenda suggests designing an industrial policy fit for the future, addressing the digital revolution, and ensuring fair and effective taxation.

Given the right leadership, these three areas of policy could all make a real contribution to climate action, and to ensuring workers can look forward to a better future.

Frans Timmermans, the Socialist and Democrats’ lead candidate for the role of President of the Commission, is still the best placed candidate to lead this change of direction.

However, it was clear from President Donald Tusk’s post-Council statement that the process of nominating new Presidents of the Commission and Council, and other senior EU officers, is still in negotiation.

I welcome the announcement of a special extra Council meeting next week, which will focus on agreeing the new European leadership team.

While it has traditionally taken several meetings to finalise these agreements in the past, Europe does not have the luxury of time given the immediate threats posed by Brexit, Russia, US President Trump, migration, climate change and instability in the Middle East.

It is essential that new Presidents of the Commission and Council are chosen before the summer, so that whoever takes up these roles has time to prepare for the many challenges they will face in the autumn.

The threat to the future of the European project has not gone away.

The recent European elections saw populists gain fewer seats than predicted. But nonetheless, many people voted for Eurosceptic parties. And several EU member states have Eurosceptic parties in government.

There is a real danger of complacency in the Council’s Strategic Agenda.

It is not too late to recognise the paucity of ambition in the document and to seek to move European economic policy in a new direction, to more robustly address climate change and economic inequalities.

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