Development of the EU requires clear goals and flexibility

The European Union has been hit hard by, for instance, Brexit and the refugee crisis. At the same time, a window for improving cooperation has opened up, and the Commission and leaders of the Member States have presented ambitious plans. What will happen in the future likely depends on whether the work on the future can be focused so that concrete reforms can be achieved.

What one thinks of the current status of the European Union depends on one’s point of view. According to several macro indicators, most of the Member States are doing somewhat better, and the debt crisis has also eased up. Meanwhile, the EU has faced some setbacks, such as the Brexit process and difficulties in handling the refugee crisis. Regardless of the pessimistic atmosphere that was still prevailing last year, 2017 has been a year of open-minded proposals that probe the future of the EU.

In February, the European Parliament voted yes to extensive development plans, while in March the Commission published five scenarios of the development of the EU by 2025. A declaration on the future of the Union by leaders of the Member States in March was general in nature, which was to be expected. The Commission continued its work on the future by publishing reflection papers regarding five sectors: the social dimension, the management of globalisation, the economic and monetary union, defence and EU funding.

In September, President of France, Macron, delivered a speech that increased faith towards the future of the EU and Juncker, President of the Commission, presented visions regarding different political sectors in his State of the Union address. Juncker’s sixth scenario is based on freedom, equality and the principle of the rule of law. This scenario successfully reminds that for the basic principles to be realised, the Union requires comprehensive instruments. Mere existence of mechanisms is naturally not enough: instead, the fundamental significance of EU processes is based on how functional they are in practice.

European Semester needs a common goal

The European Semester is a good example of an economic policy instrument that could benefit from some improvements. The Semester provides EU level contribution to national decision-making with annual country specific recommendations and recommendations for the entire euro area. The current European Semester is a complex choreography between the Member States and the Commission. The parties formally perform their roles, but without emotions or commitment. The recommendations have not been implemented to a very large extent, so it remains unclear whether the problem lies within the recommendations or their recipients. An important question is whether the recommendations given by the Commission are relevant and consistent.

According to an assessment by supreme audit institutions, there are differences in the participation of the national parliaments and communication practices about the European Semester within the Member States. Communication is important from the viewpoint of national ownership of the process. The European Court of Auditors will comment on the functionality of the Semester in the near future.

The Commission has also hinted that the results from the monitoring of social indicators could in the future have a greater impact on the recommendations given within the Semester. Developing the social dimension of the EU is important, but extending the somewhat vague process to new areas does not seem justified. Integrating broader perspectives into the Semester on economic policy would most likely not be efficient. Instead, it could hamper the development of the Semester.

The attention should be focused to correcting the observed problems. The starting point should be a clear idea of what we want to achieve. In the case of rules on public finances, the rules and their interpretations by the Commission could, on one hand be deemed to offer too much flexibility, but on the other, the flexibility has offered a means to walk a fine line between the inherently strict rules and political uncertainty. If expectations differ to a large extent, it is not surprising if a common goal cannot be determined.

Successful work on the future requires a focus

The need to focus also applies to EU development plans at large. The presented goals on the development of the EU are so expansive that their exhaustive realisation is unlikely. The danger is that if we try to do too much, we may not achieve anything. There are already more than enough issues to be negotiated regarding the day-to-day business, such as the preparation of the new EU multiannual financial framework. That is why the resources allocated to work on the future should, in the short term, be focused to areas where concrete, visible results can be achieved and thus confidence in the Union’s performance can be increased. Meanwhile, the significance of a strong underlying vision should not be underestimated.

A small Member State needs to get involved in potentially successful projects in different sectors, and it also needs to be flexible. The Member States will inevitably progress in some policy areas at a different pace. Increased solidarity will also be part of the plans in some of the areas of cooperation. For Finland, a significant period will be the EU Presidency in 2019. At present, it seems that the Presidency will take place at a time when Brexit was recently realised, new relations with the UK are still being formed and the new Commission is starting its work. Preparing for the Presidency and allocating the correct resources, taking into account the demanding agenda, is important.