The European Semester springs into action without citizens.

Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz team 

The European Semester provides a framework for the coordination of economic policies across the European Union. It allows EU countries to discuss their economic and budget plans and monitor progress at specific times throughout the year. The Semester is yet another example of Europe’s top down approach as there is little involvement or consultation with European civil society. 

As a result of the pandemic, the 2021 European Semester timeframe is being temporarily adapted to coordinate it with the Recovery and Resilience Facility. This Facility will make €672.5 billion in loans and grants available to Member States to support reforms and investments. The aim is to mitigate the economic and social impact of the coronavirus pandemic and make European economies and societies more sustainable, resilient and better prepared for the challenges and opportunities of the green and digital transitions.

On 2 June 2021, the European Commission announced its European Semester Spring Package stating that “The European Union has taken unprecedented actions to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, cushion the impact of the crisis, and put our economy on a path of robust, sustainable and inclusive growth. Over the last year, the EU and the Member States have shown decisiveness and solidarity in adopting a series of policy measures to fight the pandemic, limit its economic and social impact, preserve favourable financing conditions, safeguarding the integrity of the single market and prepare a swift sustainable and inclusive recovery.” 

Is this how the Commission really believes European citizens see the work of the Commission and the Member States? “Decisiveness and solidarity”? – Such political rhetoric clearly demonstrates that the Brussels bubble still exists in its own vacuum and has managed to self isolate well away from the reality which European citizens are currently living through. 

European citizens and civil society organisations have repeatedly expressed that they have been ignored, or not included in addressing the challenges imposed by the pandemic – neither in proposing solutions for citizens and communities, nor in supporting the transformation of this crisis into new opportunities. The Recovery and Resiliency Facility is a good example: Both the European Commission and Member States made little effort to engage with regional and local stakeholders, nor civil society organisations, in a timely or constructive manner. 

The urgency of local support appears to be total absent. Whilst Member States have wrangled over how much they will each receive, and protectionism and selfishness ruled, it was grass roots communities and European citizens who suffered. Bureaucrats benefitted as lengthy negotiations continued, after all their salaries are secured and many were working from home in their country houses, whilst those in tower blocks across the EU were made jobless, or sent home without payment, to isolate with their children who were not is school. Now projects to begin the recovery, to support local communities, businesses, entrepreneurs, employment and education remain in a holding pattern desperately awaiting finances which the EU has promised. Where is it we are all asking? 

Moreover,  where is the clarity? Civil society is asking for transparency in the dissemination of funding and the monitoring of resources. The national agenda of some countries means that not all citizens will benefit equally. Gender equality and socially excluded communities, despite having suffered the most, are still expected to receive the least, whilst the consultants and professional organised civil society representatives swallow up the bulk of the funds without deliverables, impact or accountability. Data collection, and especially gender disaggregated analysis, will be essential if there is to be an equal and fair recovery. For the European Commission and Member States to state that data is not available, only highlights that discrimination continues.  

The barriers to including civil society and citizens can only be overcome by European policy makers by making it obligatory for the European Commission and Member States to consult directly with civil society, local stakeholders and citizen representatives prior to any policy adoption. Consulting with the European Parliament and other EU Institutions is acceptable as an additional source of information, but not a substitute, only the people know and understand the reality on the ground. 

It is understandable that in times of crisis emergency packages and urgent resources need to be put in place, but the relevance of those packages cannot be created by bureaucrats who have lost touch with the real world. Citizens, local stakeholders and civil society organisations, not EU institutions, play a vital role in bringing that reality to those in policy making, it is a mistake to attempt to side step them in the development of any frameworks which will directly impact their lives. European civil society has an active role in every European Semester and in every aspect of policy making and must therefore have concrete and transparent mechanisms to be included.

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