EESC hearing calls for systematic stakeholder involvement and new long-term EU policy strategy for improved European semester

The member states of the European Union must strengthen stakeholder involvement in their efforts to reform national economies. Together with a new long-term EU strategy for sustainable development, improved stakeholder involvement could help create a more efficient and inclusive European semester that enjoys the support of society and is prepared to tackle the challenges facing the EU.

These are some of the main findings of a public hearing held by the European Semester Group (ESG) of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), chaired by Gonçalo Lobo Xavier (ESG president), on 28 February. This hearing focused on the state and outlook of the European economy and analysed stakeholder involvement in the European semester process. Through the hearing, the Committee wished to facilitate an exchange between national and European stakeholders and gather ideas on how to improve the European semester.

Opening the event, EESC president Luca Jahier said: Over the years the semester has become an extremely efficient economic and social governance tool, both for the European institutions but also for national ones. He went on to state that, after the last crisis, the semester had made an important contribution to the recovery of the EU economy. Now it was time to consolidate it and focus on inclusion, creating decent lives for people and decent conditions for businesses and giving growth a more resilient, innovative and sustainable perspective.

With a view to the challenges currently facing the EU and the economic outlook, participants considered it essential to boost infrastructure and social investment. This could help build economic resilience, increase productivity and tackle digital and climate challenges.

Participants also asked for the social partners, civil society organisations and national parliaments to be systematically involved in reform processes. Grassroots consultation would be a condition for winning public support and should be mandatory. The EESC's regular country visits, involving organised civil society at national level in the semester process, are an efficient way to bridge the European and the national level.

Ricardo Rodriguez Contreras, Eurofound, said there would be strong grounds to ensure that the social partners are involved at national level in the implementation and design of at least labour and social policies. The European employment guidelines, which are also mirrored in the European Pillar of Social Rights, called for Member States to facilitate this. However, Mr Rodriguez Contreras argued that the quality of involvement in structural reforms and the development of national reform programmes varied greatly across Europe, including between policy areas, and that the more a national government is committed to the semester, the better the social partners are involved in it.

At present, delivery on country-specific recommendations was not satisfactory in all Member States. Two-thirds or more of the recommendations have had some response, explained Massimo Suardi from the Cabinet of Commissioner Dombrovskis, referring to the outcome of the recommendations since 2011. Since last year, however, there had been some "loss of momentum". One of the main reasons for this was a lack of ownership over reforms. In this respect, Mr Suardi welcomed EESC initiatives such as the country visits of its European Semester Group.

Reasons for the lack of ownership included bureaucratic complexity and a lack of administrative and budgetary capacity. These needed to be addressed.

At the event, stakeholders were generally of the view that adopting the principles of partnership and multilevel governance, enshrined in the Treaties and used in cohesion policy, could help improve not only ownership but also the efficiency and inclusiveness of the semester process.

Under the next EU budget, the Commission aims to link its initial suggestions regarding the possible use of cohesion funds as well as the new reform support programme to the semester. This link would call for the systematic involvement of cities and regions, said Rob Jonkman, member of the Committee of the Regions, as it posed challenges to the principle of subsidiarity.

In the course of the hearing, participants also urged that reforms be properly monitored and evaluated, and called for more transparency in the decision-making process and a feedback mechanism for the consultation process.

The recent inclusion of the Social Pillar in the ongoing semester cycle was welcomed as a positive step. This would help make the process more inclusive. However, stakeholders lamented the fact that the semester scoreboard did not consider other factors such as climate change.

Anne Demelenne, rapporteur of the EESC opinion on the "2019 Annual Growth Survey", said: The growth survey and the semester face many challenges to do with sustainable growth. This is why the growth survey really should be considered sustainable – economically, socially and environmentally – and should be renamed the 'annual sustainable growth survey'.

In this connection, speakers called for a long-term EU strategy to be linked to the semester process. Linking the process with the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development would be in the interest of everybody and also in line with Article 3 TEU, the EU's climate goals and the proposals for its future budget. All tools should be linked in a single strategy.

Finally, EESC ECO section president Stefano Palmieri stated that the findings of the hearing would be useful for the next country visits planned by the ESG. Only with a bottom-up approach will we be able to resolve some of the thorny problems that still exist in the semester process, stated Mr Palmieri, concluding the hearing.