During his “State of the Union Address” last week, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso dropped the F-bomb in front of the European Parliament (we liveblogged his speech here). Despite being appointed to his position as the “most pragmatic” (i.e. least federalist) candidate, President Barroso argued for the first time that the EU needs to federate if it wants to survive the coming decades. “Let’s not be afraid of the words,” he told MEPs, “we will need to move towards a federation of nation-states”.
Barroso also called for the “development of a European public space, where European issues are discussed and debated from a European standpoint”. As part of this effort, the Commission’s spokespeople were taking questions after the speech not just from journalists in the press conference, but also from citizens online (using the hashtag #EUChat on Twitter). The response on Twitter was mostly positive, though some users argued that the experiment would only appeal to people already interested in EU affairs:
You can see a Storify of the #EUChat here. Debating Europe also took part in the chat, and we put some of your comments about President Barroso’s speech to the Commission spokespeople.
Firstly, we began with a question from Davor, who argued that there were: “Too many languages [for a European public space, but] with the accepance of English as a primary one, something can be done.” This question was taken up by Koen Doens, Head of the Spokespersons’ Service of the European Commission:
A ‘European Public Space’ is about content, not language. You can debate Europe from a European angle in any language…
Next, we took a question from Lee, who argued that: “A federation is just as bad as a superstate. A confederation is just about bearable, one with easy mechanisms in place to forego this mental project.” How would Doens respond?
A federation of nation-states is not a superstate. It’s about marrying efficiency with legitimacy.
Finally, we took a comment from Andrew, who argued that: “There is no common European culture or identity and the more you seek to impose it the more people will resist, and rightly so“. Pia Ahrenkilde, Spokeswoman of the European Commission, responded:
The European Union is not about imposing, but working together while respecting the cultural diversity we are proud of.
Let’s be honest, these weren’t exactly in-depth answers; the 140 character limit on Twitter doesn’t really allow for much detail or elaboration in a single tweet. However, on Monday the Commission spokespeople also organised a live video chat with citizens, which Debating Europe also took part in, and the answers were a bit more meaty. You can see the full video from the chat here.
We started with a question from Jai about the recent announcement by Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, of a plan for ‘unlimited’ bond purchases to assist struggling eurozone members. President Barroso had said, during his speech, that he supported Mario Draghi’s plan, and Jai’s comment was that: “They may say they are acting within the ECB’s mandate but are they really acting to ensure the stability of the euro?” In other words, has Mario Draghi overstepped his mandate? Simon O’Connor, European Commission Spokesperson for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Euro, responded:
The European Central Bank obviously acts in its full independence, and we welcome the decisions and the announcements that were made ten days ago… The ECB has made it very clear that they are taking those decisions in order to ensure that the transmission of monetary policy can be repaired and take place effectively, because with the current instability in financial markets, the volatility in yields and spreads and so on, the transmission of monetary policy decisions into the real economy is not happening as it should be. So, the ECB sees this as within its monetary policy remit and we fully respect and recognise that.
We also took a related question from Daniel who argued that: “The criteria by which such intervention is justified need to be very strict, because it the safety net is too safe there will be no motivation for a country to behave.” In his answer, Simon O’Connor gave a hint at some of the conditions that could be expected:
In terms of the conditions that would be attached to this, it’s very important that the risk of moral hazard should be avoided. This is a principle that guides the European Commission also when we draw up the programmes and the conditions that are attached to financial assistance provided through the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) and the new European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to countries like Greece, Ireland and Portugal. The financial assistance is tied to commitments from those countries which are agreed between the Commission, the IMF and the ECB and the governments in charge of these countries to ensure that they put their public finances back on track; that they take measures to ensure that, in the future, public finances will be managed in a way that is sustainable, in a way that is sound, and also that they undertake necessary structural reforms to boost competitiveness, to increase flexibility and security in labour markets; that they create the conditions for more job creation and also that the financial sector gets repaired; that the regulation and supervision of the financial sector is improved, is enhanced and strengthened, and that banks are recapitalised when necessary whilst being reformed and restructered.
So, all of the financial assistance that is being provided to countries throughout this crisis by the EU and by the Eurozone has come with strict conditions, and similar conditions would be attached to any requests for assistance that comes through our stability funds and which, in parallel. could trigger an intervention by the ECB. And we’ve made clear that that conditionality would be based on the country-specific recommendations that the European Commission presents every year, and last presented in May this year, and which were then agreed and endorsed by the heads of state and government of all of the 27 member-states, so it would be based on those recommendations which cover fiscal policies, structural policies, employment policies and so on. But it would need to be fleshed out in a memorandum agreed together with the member-state in question, with clear, specific policy objectives and a clear timeline.
Finally, we took a comment from Gerry, who argued that: “To put a fast end to this Eurozone crisis, there must be a Eurozone budgetary union [and] Eurozone Bond“. This comment was taken up by Olivier Bailly, Coordinating Spokesperson of the European Commission:
Well, it’s part of the debate, and [Gerry] rightly point to two real blocks. The EU budget is one aspect; we consider that there is no credible budgetary policy for the EU. There is not a credible budget of redistribution and investment from the EU, and we consider that in times of crisis it is even more important when member-states are cutting their national budgets that the EU can still invest in growth and jobs. So, that is one aspect.
But the mutualisation of the debt, or how to make sure that the member-states take responsibility for each others’ debts – for part of it or the totality of their debt – is actually a second type of answer that we see in this debate. Simon has just referred to the green paper, certainly this debate will continue.
President Barroso said last week that he will present some ideas about how to deepen the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), and I also mentioned that a possible treaty change in the future would be linked to these eurobonds. But, let’s be clear about this debate, because not all the member-states see it from the same angle. If you have a lot of debt, of course you would be happy for someone else to cover part of your debt. If you have less debt, of course you’re not interested in covering someone else or taking the risk of bad fiscal policy in these countries. So, this is why I think it is crucial to refer to fiscal discipline, and these are the two sides of the same coin. Solidarity will come with more responsibility.
What do YOU think? Is EU Commission President Barroso’s ‘European federation of nation-states’ just as bad as a superstate? Or is it the only way to marry efficiency with democratic legitimacy? Are there too many languages for a common European public space? Or is a public space more about content than language? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.