Europe's elite must take action now or the future of the EU will be jeopardised!

Portfolio
Brexit could still go either way; the EU’s cross-border co-operation programme along the Austro-Hungarian boarder and between Croatia and Hungary is exemplary; and the key cohesion and agricultural funding for Hungary should not be reduced drastically from 2021 because the most disadvantaged regions do need significant assistance. These were some of the matters the President of the European Economic and Social Committee addressed in an exclusive e-mailed interview with Portfolio. Luca Jahier, who has visited Budapest recently, stressed that after the EP elections, Europe’s political elite must take steps as soon as possible to reinforce the European projects, make the economy more sustainable, strengthen social and environmental strands, because without such action the frustration of the people will deliver the hardest blows to the most vulnerable groups and it will only feed populism and anti-democratic voices.
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The future of the European integration and the economic/geopolitical challenges brought on by Brexit will also be on the agenda of Portfolio's Budapest Economic Forum conference on 16 October. Further details:

On 19 August, you attended the 30th anniversary of the ‘pan-European picnic’, a peace demonstration held on the Austrian-Hungarian border near Sopron. Before that, you were in Belfast, Northern-Ireland on your focus visits on "Peace and Borders", as the ongoing Brexit-discussions threaten the return of a ‘hard border’ between Ireland and Northern Ireland. This is the most disputed element of the Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and the EU. What is your take on this matter? Can the two partners eventually find a really workable solution in Brexit negotiations that will not necessitate the re-establishment of a hard-border, and instead it will preserve the Single Market concept as well? Or we should prepare for a no-deal Brexit, including the hard border and other disruptions?

Luca Jahier: I believe we should prepare for any scenario, including a no-deal. The EU will continue to protect the interests of its citizens and companies, as well as the conditions for peace and stability on the island of Ireland.

We should not forget that the dismantling of borders and barriers has allowed Europe to grow together, to further the European project of unity, peace and prosperity.

Hungary too has played a major role in the unification of our continent and the fall of communism. This was done through the symbolic opening of the Austro-Hungarian border in 1989. Hungarians have therefore not only contributed to the unification of Europe through the historical role of borders. They also have strongly benefitted from what Europe could offer in terms of freedom of movement and equal protection of all citizens beyond the national borders.

Going back to Brexit, it cannot wipe out this great achievement that the EU has created in more than 60 years.  We cannot risk of reigniting intra-community conflicts in Norther Ireland.

I am convinced that civil society has a role to play to ensure continuous exchange, understanding, and joint cooperation and future-oriented solution making.

This is why we, at the EESC, have proposed the creation of European Peace and Reconciliation Centre based in Northern Ireland, a proposal that was backed by the European Parliament and the European Commission.

The EU should continue to shine a light on its role in the success of the peace process and show, by example, what conflict zones around the world can learn from the Northern Ireland experience. Whatever its location, whether Londonderry, Belfast or elsewhere, a European Peace Centre would provide a focus for European peace-building at its best and recognise the value of grass-roots civil society involvement in conflict resolution.

As far as whether at the end the two sides will find a workable solution, I believe anything can happen. A group of experts has come up last month with an alternative to the backstop, which includes the setting up of EU trade centres in the UK and Ireland. These will do the processing of all goods destined for the EU or the UK via Northern Ireland.

So solutions can be found as long as we avoid populistic diktats.

Brussels , 09/04/2018eesc nouvelle présidence + Cabinet.Credit : Frederic Sierakowski / Isopix

How do you assess the importance of the cross-border co-operation between Member States via EU funds? What are the best examples, in your view? Do you see such good examples in the case of Hungary and its neighbours?

Borders, both geographically and psychologically, have a great impact on our European Union, its economy, social tissue and cultures. Therefore, cross-border-area cooperation between member states is a must.

Interreg, thus European territorial Cooperation is certainly a major component of this project, and a cornerstone of European integration. It brings us closer together on a very concrete basis, overcomes borders, facilitates exchange and joint projects.

I have always thought that bringing together regional and local players to carry out joint measures and exchange practices and strategies is a little bit the 'soul' of the European spirit.

This is why at the EESC we consider that the financing of cohesion policies should be maintained in the MFF 2012-27.

An example of good cross border cooperation programme that comes to my mind, is the one between Hungary and Croatia, which aimed not only at strengthening the economic ties between the two countries, but also at preserving the region's environment. Another example of good cross-border cooperation, is the one happening along the Austro-Hungarian border, 'Interreg V-A Austria-Hungary'. Strategically, the programme focusses on environmental protection and joint management of natural resources, but also at improving the protection and development of the region's rich cultural and natural heritage. It has promoted regional sustainable transport and removed bottlenecks in network infrastructures, enhanced the competitiveness of SME and promoted competitive regional products, as well as further improved cross-border governance structures. But I am sure there are many.

For the next long-term EU budget 2021-2027, Interregional and cross-border cooperation will be facilitated by the new possibility for a region to use parts of its own allocation to fund projects anywhere in Europe jointly with other regions. That is a positive development bringing all regions closer together.

The European Commission presented its proposals for the next MFF 1.5 years ago. There have been heavy debates ever since about the proposed sharp cuts to Cohesion and Agricultural Policy Funds due to Brexit and other (new) objectives. How do you assess the recommended sharp cuts from a net beneficiary country’s point of view like Hungary? What do you think the final outcome of these tough debates will be and when do you think the debates with Member States could be concluded (this year or next)?

The European Commission made a considerable effort to come up with an EU budget fit for the future. The proposal contains many constructive elements for a Europe that protects, empowers and defends, yet, on one crucial point, I would have preferred a more daring and ambitious plan.

I remain convinced that the current ceiling for EU expenditure has to be increased to 1.3% of GNI to face the growing EU agenda.

As EESC President, I refuse to choose between the "newer" and "older" priorities. If we want a Europe that delivers then we have no option but to provide the means to address transnational and common challenges.

European cohesion, the European social model and the Common Agricultural Policy have worked well. They do not deserve such drastic cuts. These policies and tools have proved their resilience and added value during a difficult crisis. Europe must, at all costs, continue to protect the most disadvantaged regions and the most vulnerable social groups.

Genuine own resources would help to put an end to the debate focusing on net balances ("juste retour" principle) that must be abandoned as it is contrary to the values of solidarity and mutual benefit which underpin European integration. It is a very good first step forward. I hope that the Council and the European Parliament will now increase the own resources rather than decrease them.

I can already see some member states declaring, once again, that the EU budget has to be reduced. These member states may even be the ones, which, in a few years, could be tempted to say that the EU is not delivering the way it used to.

To these member states – too prompt in accusing the EU of not being able to deliver on transnational issues (migration today, climate change tomorrow), I say that they cannot have it both ways. We can simply not call for cuts in the EU budget and ask to the EU to take on new tasks, while at the same time demanding the same efficiency. This does not work.

For sure, Europe must constantly adapt to the new challenges that are emerging today with surprising intensity and rapidity (migratory flows, digitisation etc.) and, if needed, should be prepared to change but I firmly believe, without being complacent, that Europe has served us well: it gave us peace, democracy, economic growth and solidarity.

This is why at the EESC we are calling for a real and ambitious budget for Europe, a Europe which must remain competitive, inclusive and sustainable and that can still achieve, what I call a rEUnaissance.

Brussels , 09/04/2018eesc nouvelle présidence + Cabinet.Credit : Frederic Sierakowski / Isopix

Which areas (e.g. climate change, energy efficiency, social protection or a new European Social Fund Plus) should be given greater/smaller emphasis and resources in the next MFF from EESC’s point of view?

Deciding on the future EU budget is a political act, not an administrative one. Therefore, I welcome the growing investment in the research, innovation and digital fields, but also in youth (mainly Erasmus), security and EU borders and, more globally, in external action. I also welcome the new instruments for a stable EMU (a new reform support programme and a European investment stabilisation function), although many details remain to be clarified.

The 20 principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights adopted in Gothenburg must be properly implemented and appropriate financial resources must be available to make the Pillar a reality.

In the same vein, it is of the utmost importance that the EU maintains its commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals: the 2030 Agenda must remain the EU's horizontal priority and this has to become more evident.

As President of the EESC how do you see the outlook for Europe and for European integration after EP elections? Do you believe that the deepening of the integration will gather momentum, and if so, in which areas? Or do you think that the next few years will be all debate and no results?

The unprecedented mobilisation of civil society during the recent European election campaign and the impressive increase in turnout vigorously confirmed citizens' attachment to the European project. The much-feared triumph of the populist forces didn’t happen. Some were successful in Hungary, the United Kingdom, Italy and even in France by a very small margin, but they haven’t made us cave in.

Now, more than ever, it is time for EU leaders to send out a clear message and restore people's trust. All European actors must show their determination to ensure unity, prosperity and well-being for our citizens by defending democracy, human rights, separation of powers, the rule of law and the European social model.

We have five more years to make clear decisions on the things that really matter and consolidate the European project by tackling interconnected economic, environmental and social challenges.

As said, the Sustainable Development Agenda is the strategy that can provide the necessary responses to the five fundamental transitions that we have to address, namely: an economic transformation, an energy and ecological transformation, an extensive social transformation, a democratic and participatory transformation and a geopolitical transition in international relations.

We should not squander the chance and properly implement the 2030 Agenda and the transition to sustainability. The support for the European project and for the Sustainable Development Agenda are two sides of the same coin and we should handle it to the full with the enthusiasm of our founding fathers. I believe Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen has made clear, outlining the political guidelines for 2019-2024.

At the same time, with growing geopolitical uncertainty I believe the EU should continue to position itself as a defender of multilateralism to counteract the resurgence of protectionism and global rivalry. We have no other choice than use our weight, not only to preserve the UN and the multilateral trading systems, but also to ensure that it protects democratic values and improve the quality of life of citizens in a sustainable and long-lasting way.

Europe should continue to be a strong global actor when it comes to trade and investment policy, by expanding measures to support sustainable development, fair and ethical trade and human rights, including anti-corruption rules in future trade agreements.

It is for the EU indeed to take the lead in these matters with a view to making the US-China rivalry an opportunity for the world, rather than a threat. 

As far as EU enlargement is concerned, I believe that we need a new renaissance, a genuine "revival" in this policy area. Last year we witnessed a renewed focus on the Western Balkans with the ambitious Commission's Strategy for the Western Balkans and the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia, first such a Summit in 15 years, and now we need to keep it alive.

At the EESC, we are convinced that enlargement, and in particular the spread of EU's democratic values and legal standards to the Western Balkans region, is in the interest of both our partners from the Western Balkans and of the EU.

It is in our EU interest not just of the countries and citizens of the Western Balkans, to integrate this region into our common Union as soon as possible.

Given the name of your organisation and the name of the Social Pact Member States adopted in 2017, it is only natural that the social aspects of the European model are essential for you. What do you think should be strengthened further in Europe to make sure that (i) the Single Market remains alive and continues to compete with the U.S. and China, and (ii) the EU can protect vulnerable social groups? In other words, how could the EU become more competitive and more social at the same time?

The Single market is increasingly affected by a global rise in protectionism and distorted competition. I believe the way to tackle this situation is by strengthening the social and environmental strands. The European economic and social model is based on the shared understanding of the importance of increasing employment, social progress and productivity, as the underlying key factors for sustainable economic growth, which benefits everyone in a fair manner.

The Union has renewed its commitment by adopting in 2017 the European Pillar of Social Rights, which must be used to implement the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, as the SDGs are linked to the rights and principles that flow from it.

The implementation of the Social Pillar will be the real test. The EESC has asked for a roadmap for the Pillar's implementation and a clear division of tasks between the different actors. The EU can provide regulation and an impetus, but member states and civil society organisations are the ones which have to make sure these are implemented on the ground. 

Non-action and continued lack of social progress would be like turning a blind eye to the needs of our citizens. And citizens will respond by turning their frustrations in two possible directions, against vulnerable groups and against those in power. These frustrations are feeding populism and anti-democratic voices.

So, we must redouble our efforts to jointly implement the 2030 Agenda and the European Pillar of Social Rights, ensuring adequate funding for it.

The European Semester and the future MFF represent two key tools for the implementation of both the EPSR and the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development.

Photos and cover photo by European Economic and Social Committee

This article is part of the work programme titled "The impacts of EU cohesion policy in Hungary - Present and Future" which is carried out by Net Média Zrt., the publisher of Portfolio.hu, between 1st April 2019 and 31st March 2020 with European Union financing. The views in this article solely reflect the opinions of the author. The European Commission as the funding entity does not take any responsibility for the use of information presented in this article.

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