Weimar Youth Forum 2014/2015 : Paris in the heart of the debate on the Europe’s future

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Weimar_Triangle (licencja cc)

Between the 27th and 29th of March 2015, the representation of Center for International Initiatives (Centrum Inicjatyw Mi?dzynarodowych – CIM) participated in the Weimar Youth Forum organized in Paris. The Forum is a yearly meeting leaded each year by a young NGO from one of the “Weimar Trangle” States (Poland – Centrum Inicjatyw Mi?dzynarodowych, Germany – Studentenforum im Tonissteiner Kreis and France – Conférence Olivaint). Traditionally, since several years a Belgian association (Conférence Olivaint Belgique) has also been taking part in the Forum. The Weimar Youth Forum was first organized in 2004, and since then, all annual editions have dealt with social, economical and political issues concerning Europe.

The Conférence Olivaint (French) was the one who held this year’s edition in Paris. Due to the fact that, beyond the “Weimar framework” there are also participants from Belgium, it broadens the scope of the consultations and emphasizes the European dimension of the event. The working language of the conference was traditionally English.

Indeed, every edition of the Weimar Youth Forum is based on a specific theme, concerning international and European matters. This year the main theme was: “Social Europe”. It was connected with all contemporary phenomena concerning Europe, especially the European Union, in three main points:

  • The links between the Economic and Monetary Union and the building of Social Europe
  • Social Europe as a tool to renew the European integration
  • The Welfare State in Europe.

The participants arrived to Paris on the 27th March in the evening for the inauguration of the conference at the Institut Catholique de Paris. The introductory lecture, called “Social Europe as an answer to the Eurosceptic’ critics?” was held by Mrs Pervenche Berès, member of the European Parliament from the Party of European Socialists. Being an experienced French MEP, she admitted that the contemporaneous president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, underlined the need for social dialogue in Europe. However, as Mrs Beres said, throughout the history of the European Communities, freedom of market was the main aim of the European integration and has always prevailed the social rights.

As an example, the lecturer referred to the idea of the common, European financial transaction tax. According to her, the fact that only 11 countries supported it, demonstrates lack of the European social solidarity. In her opinion, promoting social rights and the European solidarity may be the proper answer to the rising wave of euroscepticism. Furthermore, the French member of the European Parliament realized that the Russian Federation, by its aggressive attitude in international relations becomes a threat to the European solidarity. In her opinion, the whole Europe should be united and speak in one voice towards Russia; a deeper European integration could lead to such a result. On the contrary, focusing on austerity measures can only strengthen the euroscepticism (as an effect of social dissatisfaction).

The second day of the conference (the 28th March), on the contrary to the previous Weimar Youth Forum edition held in Bonn, was interactive to a large extent. The introductory speeches given by recognized experts were followed by workshops regarding the topics discussed before. After the opening addresses there were rounds of questions as well, but actually the main emphasis was put on debates between the young participants of the conference. After each panel, participants took part in Oxford Style Debates, divided into two teams and restrained by strict time conditions (1-2 minutes for a talk).

The first panel took place at the French Assemblée Nationale (Parliament, Lower Chamber). The topic of the discussion dealt with the crisis in the Eurozone. It was held by two renowned French experts on European affairs: Olivier Coppens (civil servant of the European Commission) and Bernard Barthalay (Professor of Economics at the University of Lyon, specialist of the European economic integration). Prof. Barthalay recalled and described in detail the history of the common EU currency – Euro, as well as the history of the very Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). As a result, participants of the conference had an occasion to realize that, initially, in the minds of EU founding fathers, the economic union should have come before the common currency, due to the economic differences existing between European countries. Actually, it was a well-known fact that, if there was no common European economy, in terms of economic indicators, tax rates etc., a monetary union would be risky. Nevertheless, because the lack of a political has been restraining the economic integration, the decision to introduce a common European currency was made in the 1990s, without implementing any common fiscal policy.

What is more, the economic integration was not the aim as such, but was rather invented as a means to evoke deeper political integration. Prof. Barthalay also admitted that it was France that has many times weakened the integration processes, either by rejecting the Joschka Fisher’s proposal of deeper European integration in 2000, or voting in referendum against the European Constitution in 2005. Despite being a European federalist, he acknowledged that during and after the great economic crisis, European countries have tended to deal with problems on an intergovernmental, not community level. What is also important, the austerity measures applied due to the crisis, have led to a deeper polarization of economies of the EU countries. This happened because the austerity deteriorated the volume of public investments, not mentioning such facts as decreasing salaries and therefore, the economic demand as well.

Afterwards, Mr Coppens gave some remarks about practical aspects of the economic integration from the EC perspective. Emphasizing that presented opinions are his personal, he explained the general strategy of the new Commission under President Juncker. Juncker’s priorities, according to Mr Coppens, are: more direction for integration, more contribution of people in policy process, probably also less technocratic and more political approach to problems. In overall, the Coppens’ views were more optimistic on the European matters. He stressed the role of Euro not only as an EU currency, but also as a symbol of Europe.

Also, contrary to popular beliefs, Mr Coppens claimed that there was a significant success in overcoming the economic crisis. For instance, the European countries’ debts have been reduced, the monetary systems have been adapted to cope better with difficult economic situations in the future. Emphasizing the fact that “currency is just a paper in which you believe”, he mentioned that big European countries undermined the credibility of Euro many times because of their participation in excessive deficit procedure: France and Poland 11 times each, Germany violated the threshold of budget deficit 8 times. Therefore, since the crisis, the EU lost a significant part of credibility in terms of common currency. Coppens also stressed the nature of the problem: having common currency (not all members of the EU, anyway), member states have still different economies (fiscal rates, social transfers etc.), however they are strongly intertwined. An example of such interdependency can be the fact that 17% of Belgian GDP is directly connected to French economy, and between France and Germany it is around 5-6% GDP, so still a huge amount.

As a result, the plan of Juncker’s Commission is mainly to restore the confidence in Euro and the EU due to investments – not only in infrastructure (as it was until now), but also in structural reforms leading to more responsible public finances. In the long turn, the EU should try to incline the capital market to invest more and not only through the banking system. The second priority in the long period is to reduce the energy dependency from third parties (especially from Russia), mostly by self-reliance and developing renewable energy sources. Finishing his remarks, Mr Coppens stressed that in the economy, there are always three elements of equilibrium: investments, fiscal responsibility and structural reforms (the “triangle”), as to stimulate investments it is necessary to improve the last two elements.

After the panel concerning the crisis of Eurozone, the young participants from France, Germany, Poland and Belgium took part in a workshop, in the framework of Oxford Style Debate. According to the experts’ discussion, the debate concerned the Economic and Monetary Union, how it influenced the idea of the European Union as such, and whether the legitimacy of EMU is sufficient. It was said that lack of social legitimacy is a problem of most of the EU institutions and that the bad image of Euro and the EMU after the crisis undermines the European integration. Participants generally agreed that a better information campaign and more social dialogue in the EU are necessary to maintain the common European market.

In the second discussion panel dealing with social security matters, two experts took part: Arnaud Emeriau (the Permanent Representative of the French social security institutions to the EU) and Philippe Langlois (a specialist of labor law, social security law and employee savings schemes). The main problem pointed out during the panel was the particularity of the social protection in the European Union. It is worth mentioning that the national particularities of social security systems in Europe contradicts the free movement of workers (the common labor market). The phenomenon hinders the efforts towards establishing a common social standard in Europe. On the other hand, European countries compete between each other regarding such elements as salaries, levels of social contributions, pensions, age of retirement etc.

Mr Emeriau also noticed that the social policy is mostly a sphere of competence of the member states, and as a result every member country has the right to veto initiatives leading to introduce common standards in salaries or other benefits. Actually, the other key issue is that the idea of “Social Europe” had not been initially designed in the European project. The priority has always been the employment, not social matters. Therefore, the outcome of social policy in the EU is always a result of social dialogue and cooperation between member states, and not because of the European legislation.

Even taking into account the social standards, as the interlocutors said, it is impossible to fully harmonize remunerations in Europe because of the economic differences among the EU countries. A more reliable initiative would be, according to the speakers, to introduce a kind of the EU minimum wage, which might diminish the extent of competition between countries for a greater European social solidarity.

To sum up, the Weimar Youth Forum organized in March 2015 in Paris by the Conference Olivaint was again an interesting occasion to exchange views on international and European matters which this time focused mostly on their economic dimension. The invited experts, especially for the first economic panel, gave us a valuable insight on the economic integration of the EU, as well as on the social aspects of the integrating processes.

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Marek Russjan

Marek Russjan – absolwent stosunków międzynarodowych w ISM UW (specjalność bezpieczeństwo i studia strategiczne, 2012) oraz prawa na WPiA UW (2014). Stypendysta programu LLP Erasmus na Uniwersytecie Antwerpii w Belgii. Obecnie (od 2014) słuchacz Krajowej Szkoły Administracji Publicznej.

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