Over the past few months, the EU’s budget has emerged as a defining issue in the debate about the future of Europe. At regular intervals, it has dominated news headlines, with discussions and public statements emphasising different philosophies and perspectives on budgetary rigour, urgency and sustainability. In brief, it was portrayed as a political battle.
However, it also indirectly underlined (alleged) deep divisions between Member States, sometimes even pitting them against the EU institutions. A sound budget, a prominent role for the European institutions, addressing issues of oversight and financial stability, are all paramount for the functioning of the European Union. Unfortunately, discussions and negotiations tend to exacerbate ideological discourses instead of being pragmatic dialogues focused on reaching fast results.
“The EU budget is not an impossible obstacle, the Union itself is not an association of selfish national interests, the negotiations are not wars, and the leaders involved in them don’t represent abstract entities, but actual citizens, whose lives are heavily impacted by these decisions”
One case in point: the 19 June summit, which was used to re-issue old statements devised by national leaders for the national media and electorates, unsurprisingly reached no results. When it comes to MFF negotiations, there were always disagreements that won catchy labels - we had the “friends of cohesion” versus the “friends of better spending” during the Barroso Commission; then, the “friends of cohesion” reconfigured against “the frugal four (or more).”
Now, there is even talk of a three-way conflict, which comprises the “rich” North, the “Coronavirus-stricken” South and the “poor” East. These formulas are mostly based on exaggerated simplifications perpetuated by “political sources,” which in turn tends to generate two perverse effects: it further complicates the actual negotiations, and it gives the public the perception of unsurmountable discord within the EU. It is not a minor effect and it should not be underestimated: public opinion, in all these countries, is a significant factor that needs to be considered by all political leaders.
“The people” are conspicuously missing from this complicated equation - yet, they should be at its centre. EU budget-related procedures lack transparency. Intergovernmental compromises, as well as the actions of EU institutions, are rarely publicly explained and nobody ever asks “the people” what they believe about budgetary priorities. All these factors contribute to diminishing people’s trust in the European public policy process and raise questions about its legitimacy.
This is why we need to give citizens a voice and a role in the drafting and adopting process of the European budget. We need a participatory budget - an EU citizens’ budget - that should serve as a budgetary counterpart to the European Citizens’ Initiative. An effective, democratic and transparent procedure, that can benefit European citizens directly and increase the legitimacy of the entire mechanism.
Strangely enough, while European leaders seem divided, EU citizens confront themselves with similar problems and express convergent expectations. The EU budget is not an impossible obstacle, the Union itself is not an association of selfish national interests, the negotiations are not wars, and the leaders involved in them don’t represent abstract entities, but actual citizens, whose lives are heavily impacted by these decisions.
This is the reality that we all need to comprehend, especially during this very difficult crisis that we are confronted with. There’s no time for conflict, but for swift resolutions with beneficial results. It is unfortunate that very little actual progress was made during the latest summit. And more and more voices express low expectations regarding the upcoming July summit.
Time is running out, and the importance of compromise has never been clearer. All actors involved must understand that sacrificing part of their position is important in order to reach the common goal of adopting a budget quickly. Without compromise everyone loses, whether they stand for cohesion or frugality.
We need our political leaders to show commitment to the European project and to prove they understand the dire consequences that any unjustified postponement of the adoption process entails. We are already in a position where the deadline set for the end of July risks damaging the effectiveness of several EU policies and actions, with numerous programmes at risk of being unable to start at the beginning of 2021.
“The current generation of European leaders must have the courage to give up petty debates, to learn from the mistakes of the past and urgently find compromise around a common plan towards a safer and better future”
A compromise budget is paramount for the functioning of the Union and for any prospect of recovery. A sensible settlement is important precisely because insisting on divisions risks undermining people’s trust in the Union.
The EU is neither a club of subsidised Southerners taking advantage of Northern generosity, nor is it an instrument for exploiting cheap labour and resources for the advantage of the most developed economies. The EU is a family with common values that should work together for shared prosperity.
Exacerbating tensions raises the prospect of long-term risks to the legitimacy of the Union itself, discrediting its most powerful instrument: its funds and its policies. In the aftermath of the most serious healthcare crisis in decades, the current generation of European leaders must have the courage to give up petty debates, to learn from the mistakes of the past and urgently find compromise around a common plan towards a safer and better future.
It is not just about money; it is about trust and hope for a shared future.