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How could we use the EU budget to strengthen democracy?

In March, Jean-Claude Juncker presented five future scenarios for the European Union. They failed to include ideas about how the EU could make its citizens happier, healthier or better off.

Jean-Claude Juncker. NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.In March this year Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, presented five scenarios for the future of the European Union.

They failed to include ideas about how the future EU could make its citizens happier, healthier or better off. The scenarios were more about reforming European integration and finding ways to make Europeans less frustrated about the European project, as living in a peaceful cooperation without a war for many decades no longer seems to be enough. And for many people, just ask the Brits, it is clearly not enough.

In a response to these five scenarios, European civil society came up with an alternative vision, the 6th scenario. In this paper, inspiring policy goals, with potential to unite Europeans in reinvigorating the European project are put into the spotlight.

In our view, Europe (and the whole world), needs a future with sustainability at its heart. Because it is not progress that economic growth is skyrocketing, if at the same time millions of people cannot afford food or basic services. Equally, it is not progress if we manage to eradicate poverty - for a while at least - if we do this by undermining the ecological preconditions of our wellbeing. We would still end up condemning future generations to dangerous climate change, and the loss of one third of our crop yields due to the disappearance of pollinators.

So all in all, even if we achieve absolute financial and macro-economic stability, improved security and a more efficiently managed EU, if future reform does not achieve a deep socio-economic transition towards sustainability, it is simply good for nothing.

Of course, Juncker’s paper only presents broad ideas about European integration, and the devil is always in the detail. Following up on the five scenarios, the European Commission has published five reflection papers on different topics, including globalisation, the social dimension of Europe, and most recently on the future of EU finances.

The reflection paper on finances includes a lot of nice language, sometimes even too nice and too optimistic in its assessment of the current situation, but it also proposes some new ideas, which could truly contribute to sustainability and building strong democracies.

As an important innovation, it includes common European values: peace, democracy, the rule of law, freedom, fundamental rights, equality and solidarity as criteria for determining ‘EU value added’. Even though EU value added might seem like a small technical detail, it is still the most important criterion in making the decision as to whether a project or investment is worth financing with EU money.

Adding common European values to these criteria is a new idea, explicitly added to the list in response to public pressure. Others include supporting the EU objectives and obligations as enshrined in the Treaty, spill-over effects for instance between regions - as a result of Cohesion Funds payments, and the slippery concept of generating public good at a European level, which noticeably means something totally different for a Budget Commissioner and for a civil society activist.

If the EU budget is to support European values, including peace, maybe it should not start by diverting more and more European money to defence research, or by increasing its present assistance to partner countries in capacity building, as well as in military missions. Europe must remain a peace project.

It is also rather sad that building democracy is an emerging need in Europe, but let us face it: with recent developments in countries like Hungary, Poland or Bulgaria, where NGOs are under increasing state pressure that makes it difficult to operate freely and represent citizens’ interest, this is a  reality.

Many Europeans think that these efforts should go well beyond supporting educational exchange programmes or NGO activism. Making the rule of law and the respect of fundamental rights an ex ante condition in accessing EU funds would be a strong message not only to national governments, but also to European citizens.

Many of us are already tired of turning “Brussels” into a punching bag for populist politicians. It is high time that the EU stands up for itself and also for its values, because no community of any kind can be successful without holding to common values.

Of course in a strong democracy citizens need to make well informed decisions, and when it comes to the functioning of the EU, the role of national and European decision makers, and particularly to specific European decisions in areas from food security to energy performance of buildings or youth unemployment, people today are surprisingly ill informed.

Especially if it lies in the interest of national governments to keep it that way. Otherwise it would be hard to carry out national consultations when false claims such as: “Hungary is committed to reducing taxes. Brussels is attacking our country on this” are being made. If you are not aware: tax rules are unanimously decided in the EU, with the consent of each Member State. The EU would be doing itself a big favour if the future budget also supported programmes to improve the ‘EU literacy’ of the people.

Surely, strong democracies, resilient economies and a fair society need to be founded on a broader basis than just a bit more knowledge and common values. Therefore, within the cross-sectoral alliance of civil society organisations SDG Watch Europe, we have developed a set of sustainability principles, which, if mainstreamed into the future EU budget, hold the potential for meaningful reform.

These principles should work together to ensure that EU spending and lending makes peoples’ lives better, reduces our unsustainable environmental impact and builds a resilient economy where socio-economic inequalities are reduced. 

Within our PeoplesBudget campaign, we will work towards introducing sustainability proofing, a new and innovative approach in the design and implementation of the future EU budget, which can ensure that the budget contributes in the greatest way possible to sustainability and the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals for the benefit of all Europeans. 

About the author

Klára Hajdu lives in Hungary working for the NGO network CEEweb for Biodiversity.


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