Friday, February 18, 2011

Barroso Push on Europe2020 Agenda

The European Commission President José Manuel Barroso was in London yesterday to meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron in a bid to shore up support for his flagship Europe 2020 strategy.

Mr Barroso is personally spearheading the drive to ensure Member States implement the numerous recommendations laid out in the strategy. Europe 2020 is a successor to the Lisbon Strategy on jobs and growth and is designed to ensure that Europe can compete with emerging economies such as China, India, Brazil and Russia. Inevitably, the strategy is laden with targets for improving productivity, competitiveness, education and skills, both at an EU level and at national level.

This is starting to ruffle feathers in London where Ministers are starting to realize just how intrusive the targets can be. At a Council meeting on Finance Ministers in Brussels on Tuesday, UK Chancellor, George Osborne signalled that the European Union had no place in setting targets for reducing early drop out rates in British schools. Europe 2020 sets a European-wide target of reducing early-school leaving at 10% or less and will publish an action plan next week. The new UK Government is averse to target-setting at the best of times but to have them imposed from Brussels must be especially galling.

However, the UK along with the 26 other Member States, have signed up to the Europe 2020 strategy and can’t cherry-pick the targets they would find easy to meet, as much as they would like to. The EU has no competence in national schools policy and even though a single market is beginning to develop in European universities, the EU has a limited role in higher education too. Nevertheless, Europe2020 is unapologetically focused on education and skills. The competitiveness challenge will only get worse if standards in skills and education are not raised.

The scale of the challenge is considerable. Europe suffers from a massive skills shortage which stems from under-performing schools. In 2009 more than six million young people, 14.4% of all 18 to 24 year olds, left education and training with only secondary school qualifications or even no qualifications at all.

The European Commission wants to have by 2020 at least 90% of young Europeans completing upper secondary school. Europe2020 even has targets for toddlers. Europe’s education ministers have agreed to target that 95% of four year-olds should have access to pre-school education.

Europe is also poor at importing skills. Almost 70 million migrants (about 43% of the world’s total) come to Europe but highly skilled foreign workers account for only 1.7% of all workers in the EU, compared to 9.9% in Australia, 7.3% in Canada and 3.5% in the United States.

Europe2020 sets targets for increases in employment levels also. Employment rates in the working age population should increase from 69% to at least 75%. Of course, this would require growth in the economy – and here too the Europe2020 strategy sets out some priorities for measures that support growth in sectors such as digital communications and renewable energy. In turn, investment in research and development of new technologies is required to reach at least 3% of GDP.

Signing up to these general policy aspirations was easy – who doesn’t want to see employment levels increase or educational standards rise? However, things are starting to get tricky now that national reform programmes, based on the 2020 guidelines, have to be drawn up and “political warnings” issued if progress in structural reforms too slow.

Any Europe-wide strategy for competitiveness and growth will only work if there is continuous political will and on-going peer-pressure. Some of the targets – such as reducing the number of people living below the national poverty lines by 25% and lifting 20million people out of poverty, are very ambitious and may be quietly dropped. However, the Commission will still need to focus on the targets that can be achieved if it improves competitiveness prosperity in the EU.

Political will is difficult to maintain. Already some member states are diverting funds away from R&D as massive budget cuts force governments to make some painful decisions. Commission President Barroso will have to keep up the pressure on national leaders like David Cameron, to stop the Europe2020 project from de-railing and going the same way as its doomed predecessor, the Lisbon strategy.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Human Rights in Europe - Where does the UK stand?

“IT’S UP EURS”, says today’s Sun Newspaper. The headline in the Daily Express is “BRITAIN IN THE EU: THIS MUST BE THE END”. The Daily Mail’s front page reads; “DAY WE STOOD UP TO EUROPE”.

Its not uncommon of course for the media in the UK to confuse anything “European” with the European Union. Whether it is the Council of Europe, the European Council, the European Courts of Justice or the European Court of Human Rights, they are all “Eurocrats” who can over-ride the UK’s national interests. Of course, serious matters of sovereignty are raised when reporting on any supra-national issue but the media could be more careful about apportioning blame.

The UK Parliament last night kept a ban on the rights of prisoners to the vote despite a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights. It was immediately hailed in the press as a victory against Europe, with implications even for the UK’s membership of the EU – even though the European Court of Human Rights is not an EU institution. European Commission officials can only despair of news reports in the UK which mislead the public on the EU.

Members of Parliament voted overwhelmingly to adopt a backbencher’s motion which calls on the Government to oppose the granting of democratic rights to convicted prisoners. However, it would only be fair to say that the UK government was never instructed to give all prisoners a vote – the ECHR had said that a blanket ban on prisoner votes was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The UK Attorney General, Dominic Grieve has acknowledged this and believes that the UK could comply with the most minimum application of voting rights – perhaps for those on sentences of less than four years. He has said that the UK would be in breach of the “rule of law” if it simply ignored rulings from the court. For a country that is a big believer in the rule of law, simply rejecting the rulings is not an option.

The question is: should the UK leave the European Convention on Human Rights and have instead a supreme court in the UK which interprets a Bill of Rights. UK centre-right think-tank, the Policy Exchange, this week issued a timely report on the UK and ECHR jurisdiction which argued that the UK could withdraw from the ECHR’s jurisdiction and quit the European Convention which the UK signed 60 years ago.

The author of the report, Dr Michael Pinto-Duchinsky, believes that mission-creep has meant the court has gone beyond protecting human rights and instead is influencing policy by issuing increasingly eccentric judgements. He also points to the lack of experience of the Courts judgements and a backlog of cases that would take 46 years to clear.

Dr Pinto-Duchinsky believes that withdrawal would not affect UK membership of the EU. However, if the UK does leave the jurisdiction of the ECHR, will there be pressure on the government from human rights groups to sign up to the European Union’s own human rights rules?

In 2007 the UK opted-out from the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.

An intergovernmental conference in 2007 made the Charter legally binding without incorporating the text into Lisbon Treaty. Nevertheless, the Charter contains no new rights beyond what is covered by the Convention.

The effect of the opt-out protocol will essentially be that the charter cannot be used to challenge current UK legislation in the courts or to introduce new rights in UK law. One argument for the opt-out was that it was unnecessary given that the UK, like all other EU member states was already a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights which is much more binding. But for how much longer? The United Kingdom has traditionally been a standard-bearer for human rights but withdrawing from international and EU treaties on human rights could damage that much-cherished reputation.