Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Economic Ideas Forum, Dublin Castle 2012. Day 2.

The second day of the Economic Ideas Forum started in a more laid back atmosphere and lunch at 13.00 pm. After that, the fourth panel of talks was introduced with an opening speech by Mr. Elmar Brok MEP (Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament).

Mr. Brok in his speech made references in the EU-USA relations of the past few years and said that their relations are of utmost importance during those historic changes in our world. He also noted the similar values, culture and historic links of the two regions while reminding us that the USA is still by far the most important partner that Europe has.

"Yet" he continued, "the EU and the USA have not a free trade agreement!" He said that he hoped in the EU-US Summit in June, in Chicago USA, those two regions to establish one between them; because "we must exploit the full economic potential of our relationship with America."

Mr. Brok continued his speech by comparing the economic situation that engulfs both Europe and America recently and mentioning the importance of setting up rules to avoid similar situation of happening again.  He concluded his speech by stating that Europe's cooperation with USA is more important now than ever since WW2!

Mr. Brok's speech opened the fourth panel that took place right after and focused on the shared economic challenges that the EU and USA are facing together. Part of this panel were Mr. Brok himself,  Mr. Sean Kay (Professor of International Relations at Ohio Wesleyan University), Mr. James Elles MEP (Member of the Delegation for the relations with the US of the E.P.), Mr. Fredrik Erixon (Director and Co-Founder of the European Center for International Political Economy, Brussels), Mr Thomas Spiller (Vice President, Global Public Policy Europe, Middle East and Africa, The Walt Disney Company) and of course Mr John Bruton, former Taoiseach of Ireland and former Ambassador of the EU to the USA. The panel was moderated by Mr. Tomi Huhtanen, CES Director.

The conversation was initiated by Mr Elles that made a short account on the European-American relationship over the past few decades; from the '90s that was dominated by the economic and political agenda due to the changes in Europe (fall of the Berlin wall), the '00s that was dominated by security after the 09/11 attacks and now, that our common focus must be on growth, jobs and trade.

Mr Erixon answering a question by Mr. Huhtanen about the Doha round of negotiations, he admitted that it is "dead;" but not the WTO (World Trade Organization). He suggested that we got to recover various negotiations taking place there and through bilateral, multilateral and unilateral relations, "use the trans-Atlantic Axis to lead the world, with capacity to create growth both in USA and the EU."

Mr. Kay reminded us that there is no real change in the EU-USA relationship, apart from small "structural" ones, like the US Presidential election and the inauguration of President Obama. He also mentioned the inability of Europe to take action in incidents like the one in Libya; "so the USA feels overstretched." He suggested that Europe should be able to "operate" without the military help from the USA.

Mr. Kay noted that there is no advocate in Washington for the EU, for trade or other issues; while of course there are US advocates in Brussels, giving EU's policy officials their opinion on  future EU policies. He also admitted that there is a negative opinion in America about the euro-zone and its crisis, the recent President Obama social policies (that many have accused him that was inspired by Europe) and a lot that happen in the EU in general. "Europe is being used as a political punching bag in the USA," admitted Mr Kay.

Mr Spiller agreed with the idea that the EU-US relations stand in a historic moment right now and that their cooperation "is crucial for  companies and growth." So he encouraged for more EU-US cooperation, with focus on transparency, stability and the rule of law, for both these two blocks and the rest of the world.

The conversation moved into the US-EU competition with China and the new challenges they both face from the rise of the BRICS, they called for more European presence and a stronger voice in Washington and they mentioned Ireland's economic success and failure; Mr. Kay blamed Ireland's recent economic woes to two factors that do not get on well together: US taxation system, with European social state laws!

They debated and concluded in many things like: Europe and the USA must remove the remaining trade barriers, a move that China and other competitors fear. That if Europe proceeds with the structural changes, it will be strong again within two or three years and the need to sharpen many strategic relationships between the EU and the US, that will include agriculture. Here there was a mention of the CAP and how it was changed recently and the fear of Europeans of GMO crops.

The panel then praised Ireland for its diversity, its success in multiculturalism its education system and many more, with others agreeing that the creativity that exists in Ireland attracts a lot of American companies. They also concluded that Europe has done more than the US to reform and deal with the current crisis. The only way to deal with China according to this panel was to establish free trade between USA and the EU. Otherwise China, that has so many European and American customers and companies investing there, is not afraid any threats coming from the EU-US.

The panel concluded its discussions agreeing that if all the above are not implemented during the next 2-3 years, our economies will collapse. Then Mrs Creighton, Ireland's Minister of European affairs took to the stage and announced Ireland's Taoiseach, Mr Enda Kenny TD joining the forum, right after she told us that the Dail Eireann (Irish Parliament) has passed the ratification of the EU Fiscal Treaty.

Mr Kenny started his speech in reaffirming his belief and support for Ireland, the euro and the Fiscal Treaty. He called the Treaty as "important for the future of Ireland and the eurozone." He said that the current crisis shed a light on how we've been progressing all those years and it gives us an opportunity to find out what we did wrong and gain a better understanding of the crisis.

He stated that the eurozone is in the epicenter of the crisis, simply because there are more concerns about European integration and solidarity, that exposed its weaknesses. Therefore we need new economic tools of substance and credibility to deal with the crisis. He also noted that there is no support for the creation of USE (United States of Europe) just yet.

Mr. Kenny blamed also previous "incompetent" Governments and their mistakes for the current situation in Ireland and express his hopes that this will never happen again. "The eurozone is a key element for Ireland attractiveness for investment," he added and he urged for a "yes" vote on the referendum on the approaching EU Fiscal Treaty.

Mr. Kenny mentioned the damaging role of the banking sector on the Irish economy but he expressed his confidence that the country will "bring its public finances on a sustainable path."  He also added that the crisis "is not a problem of the peripheral EU economies only" and that 23 of the EU's states have been borrowing excessively; "Europe must face up to what it's really meant to be."

Mr Kenny concluded his speech by saying the Ireland and Europe must focus on the digital and Single Market development, but also continue our drive for research and innovation. In that way, "by 2016 we are going to demonstrate that Ireland is the best small country to invest in! We should give a message to Europe and the world with a yes vote, that Ireland is showing that Europe is the way."

With the conclusion of Mr Kenny's speech, the fifth and final panel of guest speakers took stage. It was moderated by Mrs Creighton herself and its speakers included Mr Kenny, Mr. Inigo Mendez De Vigo (State Secretary for the EU in Spain), Miguel Morais Leitao (State Secretary for Europe, Portugal) and Mr David Lidington (Minister for Europe, United Kingdom).

The panel's discussion was focusing on the question of a political union and if it is needed in Europe right now. Mr Lidington started the debate by stating that Europe has got to become more competitive by focusing on the Single Market; but we should not discuss about structures, rather about outcomes. We should focus on institutional reforms for prosperity rather pushing forward for institutional changes. "We must ensure that politics remain democratic in Europe," he said.

Mr. Leitao gave us an insight on how the Portuguese citizens feel about Europe and their country's EU membership. He explained that they have a great interest on how Europe will evolve, but "the lack of knowledge and transparency is worrying for the Portuguese." So Mr Leitao reminded us about the importance of EU becoming more transparent and democratic. Mr. De Vigo also added that when Europe started with the creation of the Maastricht Treaty, it focused mainly on the monetary side not the financial one. We need structural reforms, first back home in our own countries and then in a pan-European level.

"We need economic and political integration, to think, act and reflect together," concluded Mr De Vigo. Taoiseach Mr Kenny agreed with Mr De Vigo and added that we need adjustment of our public services, education and public spending. He said that "we got to pass to the people that we are all a member of a club of countries and we need to compromise and abide to certain decisions, but we must also continue to draft our own budgets."

Then Mr Lidington re-entered the discussion and focused a bit on why the UK failed to be part of the Fiscal Treaty and that a British referendum on EU membership that so many in his country desire, "will depend on the outcome of future referendums in other European states that will require further handing over of power to the EU." He reminded though the audience about his country's committed involvement in major events that transformed Europe, from WW2 right until the fall of the Berlin wall. He described China's rise as a huge opportunity, as 10% of its population for the first time are getting European spending power, resulting in a huge market. Mr Leitao focused of European affairs and described the Fiscal Treaty as a step forward for Europe, as it will boost the Market's trust in EU.

The panel continued their discussion and concluded that being European is an added value, complimentary to your nationality and that there is no EU without the eurozone; their fate is entwined. They reminded the audience about the importance and relevance of EU in our everyday lives; either we realize it or not it affects us daily, but sometimes we take for granted the benefits it offers us.

Then the debate turned its focus on how can we make a more democratic Europe and the integration process continue. The panelists brought the example of the falling percentage of the global GDP that will be attributed to Europe in the future, just 7% down from 28% that it is now! "Will Europe become a museum for the rest of the world to come and visit," the panel questioned, if the current changes and shift of the balance of power continues in the world. 

The conclusion of the panel was that we need a greater transparency in Europe, while the EU should focus on things that matter for its citizens: increasing prosperity and enhancing security. "A Europe of results," as Mr Lidington put it!

Well I hope they stick to this. The forum offered a lot of food for thought, with some negative and some positive signs of what is about to come. My personal overview of this forum will be a blog-post on its own, which I will publish later this week.

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