Relaunching Europe? – A midterm review of the Italian EU Presidency

IMG_0391The European Union is currently confronted with numerous challenges that, at least to many of its citizens, seem insurmountable. The slow recovery from the economic crisis, high unemployment rates in large parts of Europe and also the conflict with Russia over Ukraine, to name just a few, render concerted action by the European Union’s member states absolutely necessary. In this context, the Presidency of the Council of the European Union plays a major role. Since July 1st 2014, Italy has held this position and has thus been in charge of brokering inter-institutional compromise between the Commission, Parliament and Council as well as among the member states. Most importantly, the presidency also gives Italy the chance to put issues on the agenda of the Council that it considers to be of primary importance.

In order to discuss the general orientation of the Italian EU Presidency, its achievements halfway through the term and also the remaining agenda for the following months, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and the ALDE Party invited the Italian Permanent Representative to the EU, Stefano Sannino. Sir Graham Watson, president of the ALDE Party, welcomed Sannino and congratulated him on what “promises to be a first class presidency”, in line with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s call for an “idea of Europe that corresponds to an attractive adventure, rather than just a financial of economic exercise”.

Sannino argued that the creation of jobs through economic growth is of vital importance for the European Union in its current status. This has been exemplified by the recent European elections, in which radical and Eurosceptic parties gained a large share of the votes, which can partly be understood as a consequence of the economic and social conditions in many parts of the continent. As of now, Sannino contended, “many citizens view the EU as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution”. In order to “relaunch” Europe and create more support for its institutions, Sannino then suggested complementing the European Fiscal Pact with public investment programmes, as has previously been proposed by the new Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Generally, the fiscal pact, while preventing the excessive accumulation of public debt, should also remain flexible so as not to nip economic growth in the bud.

Digital economy and energy policy are two other focal points that Italy set for its EU presidency. It is out of the question that providing all Europeans with fast internet access is vital for development in the 21st century. Moreover, the importance ofdiversifying and developing Europe’s energy supply has not least been underlined by the conflict at Europe’s eastern borders in Ukraine. Needless to say, Sannino also addressed the foreign policy dimension of this conflict, which currently overshadows most other policy areas. While the Russian behaviour in Ukraine is doubtlessly a provocation, the Italian ambassador pointed out that a solution to the crisis can only be achieved by political, never by military, means.

In any case, cooperation among the member states is necessary to address military but also civilian challenges at Europe’s external frontiers. Regarding migration for instance, Sannino criticized that the issue has so far only been dealt with in an “ad hoc manner” while the underlying structural challenges remain unchanged. As migration and the security of external borders affect the Union as a whole, states lying at the outer borders of the Union should receive more support from other member states in order to better manage migration streams.

In the upcoming months, two issue areas will receive particular attention within the Council. First, the negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) should despite all difficulties be continued, aiming for a conclusion within the near future. Secondly, Sannino pointed out that despite of all the mentioned challenges, the European Union has not lost its appeal to neighbouring countries, which is why the door for future enlargement of the Union should remain open. The project of European integration is still alive, he concluded.

Sascha Riaz