I think there is an election on? From where I sit here in Luxembourg you would hardly know. The lamp posts are not festooned with every manner of local and European election candidate posters. Now and then a billboard reminds you that there is in fact a European election on – and only a European election. Meanwhile, the commuter buses are daily packed with bureaucrats busily going about the policy work of the EU – policies which are having an ever-increasing and direct influence on Irish people but which have barely registered in the European election debate.
Take for example the Europe 2020 strategy which is currently the flagship overarching policy initiative of the EU. The strategy is built around five ambitious headline targets for each Member State to achieve by 2020 in the key areas of employment, R&D, climate and energy, education and the fight against poverty and social exclusion – pretty much the entire sphere of national government. Yet, reviewing the European election manifestos of each of the major political parties and trawling news reports on the elections, the Europe 2020 strategy is not mentioned, not once.
These are not vague or distant targets which have no immediate concrete policy meaning in practice for Irish people. The Europe 2020 strategy is now implemented and monitored through the new European Semester, the yearly cycle of coordination of economic and budgetary policies at EU level. Within this new process the European Commission can, depending on performance towards achieving targets, issue Country Specific Recommendations on the basis of National Reform Programmes which must be carried through in the annual budgets of each Member State. Where recommendations are not acted on within the given time-frame, policy warnings can be issued. There is also an option for enforcement through incentives and sanctions, including by withholding structural funds.
Ireland’s National Reform Programme 2014 was published just last month – again without a murmur in the media so fixated on reform at the last election. It is clear from EU monitoring that Ireland is struggling badly to meet many of our 2020 targets, particularly in respect of poverty and greenhouse gas reduction, which could prompt policy warnings from the European Commission. As part of the National Reform Programme, the government also published the Draft National Risk Assessment 2014 for public consultation. This new strategic policy initiative is designed to identify the future risks, both financial and non-financial, which Ireland faces and, which according to the Taoiseach, is “an attempt to avoid the mistakes of the past by not only identifying risks the country faces, but also encouraging debate in the Dáil and by the public”.
It is hard to think of a more meritorious political debate to be had during the European elections than the future direction of the Europe 2020 strategy. However, judging by the woeful election campaigns, most Irish people, including most of the candidates, have most likely never heard of it. Just this week the European Commission announced a review of the Europe 2020 strategy as it is now considered time to reflect on the design of a new long-term ‘post-crisis’ strategy. The review presents an opportunity for an informed national debate on a whole series of risks and issues which can now only be effectively tackled at pan-EU level including: fiscal imbalances, renewable energy, growing energy dependency, greenhouse gas emissions, real estate bubbles, unemployment, widening social inequalities, dysfunctional financial systems and underperforming public administrations. These are the real European policy issues which struggle to rise above the clutter and polemic of the election campaigns.
As we creep incrementally towards greater European integration and an ever greater importance of EU policy, it may be about time that we consider separating European from local elections. Having both elections on the same day, and with both sets of candidates competing for scarce space on lamp posts and in the media, inevitably results in a conflation of local, national and European issues. Granted, there may be a genuine fear of plummeting voter turnout given the general apathy towards Europe. However, I am equally unconvinced that the status quo is the way forward. The important European reform agenda needs to be met with a maturing political discourse in Ireland and a significant change in attitude in how we engage with EU policy making.
- Submissions on the Europe 2020 Strategy can be made here before the 31st of October 2014
- Submissions on the National Risk Assessment 2014 are being accepted before the 30th of June 2014. See here.