On 15 October 2014 the plenary session was honoured by the attendance of former President of the French Republic, Mr Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, at a debate on the topic of "Future Prospects for the EU."
Statements by the Workers' Group
The Group's President, George Dassis, began by thanking Mr Giscard d'Estaing for granting the Committee the privilege of debating with one of the great political figures involved in the process of European integration.
He agreed with Mr Giscard d'Estaing's assertion that the Treaty of Maastricht was good, but incomplete. The trade union movement did indeed highlight its shortcomings at the time. For example, economic governance was entirely omitted from the Treaty. In addition, even the States which established the criteria (arbitrarily) have not adhered to them.
Mr Dassis did not share Mr Giscard d'Estaing's opinion regarding the current absence of political decisions. Whilst Mr Giscard d’Estaing suggested that this absence is due to a greater number of Member States having representation at the Council, he attributed it to a lack of will among governments when taking the necessary decisions.
Mr Dassis subsequently invited the former French President to put forward his own proposals to counter the damaging action of this hidden government formed by the financial sector - a sector largely responsible for the financial crisis, for which workers have paid the heaviest price.
He welcomed Mr Giscard d'Estaing's tax proposals, while noting that they were not sufficient. He also highlighted the need for substantial investment in research, development and education in order to stop young people leaving Europe. The EU also needs a common border maintained by the whole of Europe and not just by those on its outer edges. Lastly, Mr Dassis stressed the importance of ensuring that all Europeans receive a minimum income and benefit from social protection.
Carmelo Cedrone suggested that although the French referendum may have put an end to the process initiated by the Convention - which was inspired in part by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing - hope for a different Europe still remains. However, after six years of crisis, such hopes have been dashed by a lack of action and by the absence of a vision for Europe - which has been reduced to the role of mere administrator.
The crisis has highlighted the limitations of the Maastricht Treaty. Mr Cedrone fully shared the former French President's opinion that going forward, it is necessary to build a genuine union, equipped with a common economic and social policy, through a transfer of sovereignty.
The fundamental question today is that of the direction that the Union wishes to take. Even the most determined of Europeans - and the members of the EESC are certainly determined - cannot move forward if there is no precise vision of the EU's future.
Part of the plenary session of 15 October was dedicated to a debate on the revision of the Europe 2020 strategy, attended by: Marcello Messori, Director of the LUISS School of European Political Economy, Philippe Pochet, General Director of the European Trade Union Institute and Conny Reuter, Secretary General of the Solidar network of NGOs.
Statements by members of the Workers' Group
Gabriele Bischoff noted that the review of the Europe 2020 strategy had come at an opportune moment. The financial crisis and the new terms of office at the European Commission and the European Parliament provide an opportunity to write a new chapter in European history, along with the possibility of refreshing a tired strategy which, in its current form, no longer offers future prospects for the people of Europe. However, as Mr Giscard d’Estaing suggested, unless we manage to establish new prospects for a common future, the general public - who bear the brunt of austerity policies - will turn their backs further on Europe.
For this reason, the strategy put forward must focus on establishing an investment programme which creates jobs and which delivers tangible benefits for all Europeans. The EESC's opinion on this matter highlights the need for investment in future European qualifications, as well as the importance of strengthening innovative capacity. Gabriele Bischoff also expressed her desire to see this opinion adopted by a large majority, as this would ensure that the whole Committee sends a strong message to political decision-makers, indicating that more than a simple review of the Europe 2020 strategy is needed to get Europe back on track.
Xavier Verboven shared rapporteur Stefano Palmieri's view that the Europe 2020 strategy needs to be reformed, since its original objectives will not be achieved. The main reasons for this failure are the economic crisis and the austerity policy imposed on Member States. It is also due, however, to a failure to envision a strategy that includes a social dimension and social dialogue, rather than simply sticking to technical and budgetary details.
Xavier Verboven next raised the matter of the European Semester, which is a cornerstone of the Europe 2020 strategy. The EESC has stated that it would like to be more actively involved in this process, in order to be able to put forward its views on the consequences of proposed policies, but its offer has not yet been taken up. We must now correct this mid-term. Given the extent of the required reforms, corrective measures will not suffice and it is doubtful that they could even be implemented. In other words, it is unlikely that a new revised proposal would equip Europe with the tools it needs to tackle the economic crisis and to reinvest for the last four years of this strategy. Such a proposal comes too late and is not ambitious enough.
On 16 October 2014, the plenary session welcomed Mr Czesław Adam Siekierski, Chair of the EP's Commission on Agriculture and Rural Development, who participated in a debate on the topic "The European agricultural model: is it on the right track for the future and can it be a role model for others?"
Statements by members of the Workers' Group
George Dassis, President of the Workers' Group pointed out that the CAP has long been the only genuine European community policy. The budget for this common policy, which has been criticised by some due to its size (it accounted for 75% of the total community budget at the time), has allowed it to meet people's nutritional needs both in the Member States and in other countries.
This policy should therefore not be undermined, even if errors have occurred - it would be better to reform it. Globalisation must obviously be taken into consideration, but must not lead to the widespread impoverishment of farmers and the general public. To avoid this, the Union must present a united voice at the WTO, in order to better safeguard community interests.
George Dassis subsequently highlighted the important role of family-run farms in contributing to the historic success of the PAC. They must be supported. There is a price to pay for this policy of providing support, but it is money well spent, as it will allow us to reverse the trend towards rural depopulation. Otherwise, young farmers will continue to move to industrialised cities where they will simply join the ranks of the unemployed. If we want to progress, we need to develop models that encourage young people to join the agricultural sector and which support those who make this choice.
Mr Dassis concluded by emphasising that agricultural policy should serve the general public and not large, agri-food multinationals corporations. The policy must be improved accordingly.
Joana Agudo i Bataller
Joana Agudo i Bataller highlighted that the situation facing European agriculture is highly diverse. On the one hand, smallholdings are able to offer quality products and to guarantee their workforce a decent income. On the other, the sector has an increasing number of unstable, temporary jobs which do not provide adequate social protection and which are often occupied by migrants and/or women. Two models could be said to co-exist in Europe and the Workers' Group believes that we should choose the first of these.
The question should be asked as to how well the CAP funds have been invested and how far they allow us to consolidate this model, which we must ensure prevails over the other. By way of example, Ms Agudo i Bataller discussed the problem of a lack of infrastructure (public transport, communication, healthcare, social services, education, etc.) which affects rural areas and family smallholdings in particular. This problem contributes to the abandonment of rural areas which Europe is currently experiencing. This is a phenomenon that has been aggravated by a poorly implemented austerity policy, which has put the regions concerned at serious risk.
Ms Agudo i Bataller concluded by addressing the role of social dialogue and civil society within the CAP. She cited Regulation (EU) Noo 240/2014 on the "European code of conduct on partnership in the framework of the European Structural and Investment Funds" as a good model of participation. However, she questioned whether trade unions and other civil society organisations are truly participating in this process at all levels, across all Member States. If this participation were effective, it would guide the CAP towards implementing the first of the two aforementioned models: the model which would ensure genuine sustainable development.