BRUSSELS – Rarely has an election resonated so widely across the European Union as the French presidential ballot has done. Rarely has a leadership change in one EU member state created expectations of a real policy shift.
Remarkably, a new European demos and public sphere are emerging from the economic crisis. Europeans are recognizing how interdependent they are. One country’s failures can threaten the entire European economy, and can call into question the fruits of 60 years of integration. Peace, solidarity, and prosperity are not irreversible achievements; only 27 countries working together can guarantee them.
François Hollande’s victory is a fresh chance for Europe. It should spell the end of a policy oriented exclusively towards austerity, which has paralyzed our economies and divided the EU. The new French president’s commitment to a European growth policy has brought hope to citizens, and should not alarm anyone – certainly not the financial markets.
Hollande’s plans for a growth initiative fall on fertile ground, especially in the European Parliament, which has repeatedly called for such measures. I am delighted that this message is increasingly echoed by the political mainstream, including most recently by European Central Bank President Mario Draghi. Likewise, the European Commission is working on a “growth pact” to be discussed by EU leaders in June. Indeed, Europe needs a master plan to avoid a tailspin of recession, growing unemployment, and weakening banking systems.
A new master plan for growth would not be about printing money. Fiscal discipline remains essential, as are deep structural reforms. The growth pact can be properly financed by new sources of revenue, such as a financial-transaction tax and joint project bonds for infrastructure investment, or by curbing tax evasion and tax fraud and eliminating tax havens, as well as by more efficient and intelligent use of structural funds.
What is to be done? First, targeted investment should be given priority. The European Investment Bank would be a good vehicle – in addition to new project bonds – to boost spending on major infrastructure projects (for example, in the energy sector). The EIB could be given significantly more resources to boost its loan programs. In the longer-term, we should revisit the idea of joint Eurobonds.
Channeling EU structural funds towards innovation is essential, given that spending on research and development is alarmingly low compared to our global partners. Fundamental reform of the Common Agricultural Policy should not remain a taboo. Indeed, the CAP is ensuring neither sustainable agriculture nor decent incomes for all farmers. Undoubtedly, tough negotiations lie ahead on this front, including with Hollande.
Second, young people must be a top priority. Our responsibility here is twofold: to put growth back on track, but also to respond immediately to the human tragedy that has hit our youth. The eurozone’s unemployment rate, at 10.9%, is at its highest level since the euro was introduced, and young people everywhere, as the first to suffer the consequences of the crisis, are paying a disproportionally high price. Youth unemployment in Spain, for example, is above 50%.
We cannot afford to sacrifice a generation, or, rather, risk creating a lost generation that could destroy Europe’s social fabric and stability. We need an immediate contingency plan: invest to finance job training, improve educational opportunities, and, crucially, create incentives for employers to hire young people.
The ECB has been offering long-term loans to banks at a favorable rate. This money should be loaned out to small and medium-size enterprises, which are the lifeblood of Europe’s economy. The EU also needs common initiatives to replace piece-meal bilateral agreements on tax evasion and tax havens, which undermine the goal of a fair society.
Third, member states should not cut the EU budget indiscriminately during negotiations on the Union's long-term spending plan for 2014-2020. If we are serious about a master plan for growth, we need to provide the necessary means. The EU budget is an investment vehicle that boosts economic growth and creates jobs. It finances crucial pan-EU transport and energy links. It helps to foster innovation and boost research and development. The EU budget leverages investment, allows for economies of scale, and cannot run a deficit.
The EU’s lack of solidarity, imagination, courage, unity, and vision in recent years has made Europe a symbol of division for some, if not many. We cannot let this continue. Hollande’s election offers us a valuable opportunity to meet the challenges that the EU faces. Alternatively, we can allow growing poverty, fear, and anger to give rise to xenophobia and racism, and thus place at risk the EU’s greatest accomplishments.
But let us be optimistic. It is not too late. Europe can still emerge stronger from its current economic woes. The EU is changing direction at last, and Europe’s leaders will find an energetic partner in the European Parliament.