Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Post-European Council: Statements
Last week’s summit discussed many topics but delivered very little progress. It was in many ways a summit about beginning the transition to the slightly revised agenda introduced by the new presidents of the Council and the Commission and continued shadow-boxing over profound issues that must be resolved in the coming year.
Europe has been a world leader on climate change. It has not done enough and it must do much more, but it has taken a lead in trying to introduce legally enforceable and financially supported action. Every significant study says that we must immediately and rapidly accelerate efforts to reach carbon neutrality in our economies and to protect our gravely endangered biodiversity. It is a profound challenge that is not just environmental but also potentially touches every aspect of economic, social and cultural life. Therefore, the debate on setting a clear target for achieving carbon neutrality and refocusing activity on reaching this target is so important, and equally it is why it is so disappointing that agreement is proving so difficult to achieve.
It is entirely fair to say that a target that is jointly agreed and jointly enforceable must also have a significant amount of joint funding. This is at the root of the problem in reaching agreement. No government is supporting the position of the climate change deniers and no government has, publicly at least, argued against the idea that the only way of achieving climate goals is to act collectively. This is a positive start and it sets Europe apart from much of the world. However, what we have not yet done is to set out a credible pathway from today to achieving carbon neutrality. We need to be honest enough to admit clearly that there are industries and activities that face a dramatic, and in some cases terminal, period of change to meet the goals. We cannot stand back and simply let the communities and families involved find their own way forward. We know there is a need for targeted investment and a permanent programme to help create not just new jobs but also jobs that offer a good and sustainable future.
It must also never be forgotten that one of the core foundations of the European Union is that it offers each of its members an opportunity to achieve and sustain prosperity. Where members impose a major commitment on all, they have the responsibility to help implement the commitment. Action by the European Union is realistically the only way of achieving the climate goals being discussed. The European Union must be the leader in helping to achieve a transition that is just and that prevents large numbers of communities from suffering the decline that is likely if nothing is done. Fianna Fáil’s proposal for the just transition fund for communities in the midlands is an example of how this can be done. Indeed, it is an example that is so good that the Taoiseach wants to claim credit for it even though he wanted to spend the money on a tax giveaway. The EU cannot only reach agreement on a target but also reach the target, but to do this it has to accept a step-change in the funding of climate initiatives, including research and innovation supports and direct aid for the regions that will be worst hit by the transition to a carbon-neutral economy and society, which simply has to be made.
Of course, action by Europe is only one part of the more important global challenge. In this respect the failure to achieve a breakthrough in the COP 25 negotiations in Madrid is deeply regrettable. Europe must now consider with other willing partners what other actions can be taken to enforce climate objectives, including within trading agreements. The lack of movement on financing was at the core of the failure to move the climate agenda onwards during last week’s council meeting, and this is linked to the discussions on the EU’s future budget.
The communiqué contains only two lines on the budget. Unfortunately, it appears that the debate is driven by countries, supported by Ireland, trying to hold the EU to a budget level that will directly prevent it from addressing many vital issues. How is it possible to demand and expect an organisation that represents 1% of the combined economies of the EU to meet the demands that are placed on it? The fiscal hawks are doing great damage to the Union and to our economies because they are preventing more serious action on driving innovation, supporting a just climate transition, and helping communities and regions to prosper. The position of countries like Ireland to start with the red line on funding rather than asking the basic question of how much is required to fund the activities we have prioritised is also self-defeating.
This is particularly so with the eurozone. An essential part of making sure there is no repeat of the eurozone crisis is to create a fiscal capacity that can help convergence and ensure that regions experiencing an economic shock have some stimulus available, given that devaluation is not an option.
Yet because of a group of countries, including Ireland, the massively watered-down and ridiculously-named budgetary instrument for convergence and competitiveness, or BICC for short, has been hobbled before it has been even established.
This is unfortunately a continuation of the sort of casual Eurosceptic opinions which have been so common in England since Margaret Thatcher’s day, namely, the idea that everything which goes to the Union is "them" taking "our" money. The facts show that the net fiscal and economic benefit to net contributors are enormous. Even net contributors gain from the increased effectiveness of the Union and overall convergence.
The idea that next year some form of conference on the future of Europe will be convened is reasonable. However, things should be made clear at the start. There is no public interest or support concerning the major rewriting of the treaties or starting on a new round of constitutional change. It seems increasingly obvious that the issue is not how do we change the competencies of the Union, the issue rather is what will we do to help it be more effective in fulfilling the roles we have already set for it.
Many parts of the Union are dealing with a period of great change in terms of population changes, both depopulation and rapidly expanding populations, communities outside of major metropolitan areas are feeling squeezed, we must tackle the climate emergency, we must deliver energy security and the Union’s core values are under threat. What is needed is a practical agenda for the future, showing how the Union intends playing a leading role in tackling these and other problems. A Union based on never-ending zero-sum arguments about money and influence cannot be effective.
A number of other important issues arose at the summit. It was right that the leaders decided to stand with Greece and Cyprus against Turkey’s aggressive posture in the Mediterranean, including completely unacceptable drilling activity. The continued repression of opponents of the Ankara government and its shocking attacks on Kurdish communities in northern Syria suggest a further move away from respecting basic rights and seeking to be part of the free democratic world. It is now over five years since Russia invaded and partitioned Ukraine. Since then Russian-controlled and supplied forces have worked to partition off further major parts of the country. It is one of the most striking things of recent years how the far right and far left in much of Europe have served as apologists for Vladimir Putin in this, and they have recently been stepping up efforts to remove any consequences for Russia of this behaviour. The European Council was correct in rolling-over the sanctions for the next six months. While it is correct to support the Minsk process it is the responsibility of Europe to stand with Ukraine in opposing any moves to create another permanent frozen conflict in the east of the country.
Finally, the Council commented on the World Trade Organization, WTO, and reaffirmed its commitment to the idea of a rules-based trading system. At a time when many international institutions are breaking down it is right to defend principles which have directly enabled enormous numbers of new jobs and opportunities both here and throughout the world. If the rules-based trading system breaks down it is the workers of the world who will suffer the most. The US behaviour in this regard is very regrettable. The Government should be making representations in that regard.
This was a low-key start to the work of the new Commission and President Michel at the Council. It achieved little but it did discuss important issues. Hopefully, 2020 will see significantly greater urgency and a willingness by countries such as Ireland to help break the self-defeating arguments which are preventing the Union from doing the job which we need it to do.