Personalisation, local community involvement, grass roots politics…as an antithesis to today’s globalised world, what we seem to want from our brands, political representatives, even the media, is a sense of home, involvement and belonging.
It is no wonder then that political campaigns leading up to the European Parliamentary elections which have just taken place, focussed, by and large, on national issues – and not Europe. Eurosceptic and pro-European politicians alike have been using the European Union (EU) to manipulate public opinion in their own favour. Depending on the political stripes, the EU has either been blamed for constricting the economies with its supranational regulation, or seen as a safety harbour away from political turmoil and market volatility.
All of this has left the public across Europe misinformed and, at best, confused about the reasons their countries are a part of the EU, as well as the benefits – and shortcomings – of the membership. According to the Eurobarometer survey on the 2009 European elections, two thirds of Europeans had said they knew little or next to nothing about what the European Parliament did, and only a third had planned to vote in the elections. In fact, the voter turnout was on average 43% across Europe – the lowest since direct elections to the parliament started in 1979. The disconnect between the European public and the EU clearly remains strong.
But, while the political debate has often been off the point and the media coverage sparse, the public must not, and businesses simply cannot, ignore the EU.
With insufficient public deliberation of the issues within the EU realm of power, it is easy for businesses and their communicators to fail to pay sufficient attention to the EU regulation and decision makers. What they may fail to realise, however, is that many of the fundamental issues affecting their operating environment are being decided at the EU level.
And, while it’s true that member states in many ways dictate the regulatory outcomes, businesses can not ignore the institutional dynamics and the need to find common ground, which play out in the corridors of the EU. Thus, businesses have to look beyond the local political debate to understand the context in which the EU decisions are being made. This is critical to businesses’ ability to frame their arguments in the manner that not only resonates with their political representatives, but is also actionable and likely to lead to real results.
Rather than engage in political blackmail, businesses must put forward arguments and proposals that are workable and can help make not just their own case, but the case for the industries they belong to – within and beyond the national borders.
The EU exists to advance the interests and project the values of member states on the issues they cannot address as effectively on their own – issues such as trade, energy, climate change, migration and security. No matter the sentiments, these issues have to be tackled through consensus of the nations involved, as isolated policies and actions are simply not sustainable.
Inevitably, this means that many local industries and ways of life are being affected – from food production, consumer safety standards and infrastructure planning, to education, research and development, and air quality regulation – all of these are being influenced by the decisions made at the EU level, and not just locally.
In fact, if the long-awaited passing of the Lisbon Treaty actually materialises later this year, the European Parliament’s sphere of influence is set to significantly expand. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) would become co-legislators with the Council in a number of policy areas – including energy, common financial provisions, economic interests, the Euro, structural funds, European intellectual property rights, personal data protection, immigration, public health, agriculture and fisheries policies, and tourism.
While the Lisbon Treaty failed to pass in June 2008 due to the Irish rejection in a public referendum, the current public polls suggest that a new Irish referendum would likely result in an approval vote this time around. It is worth noting, however, that due to the sharp fall in the Labour’s share of voice and the rise of the Conservatives and the far right, it is not entirely inconceivable that the UK may prove a new stumbling block to the passing of the Lisbon Treaty, creating new tensions between the UK and the EU.
Regardless of the outcome, key issues currently on the European Parliament agenda are bound to have, in one way or another, great implications for businesses. These include:
- Economic and Monetary Affairs – If there were any doubts beforehand, the recent collapse of the financial markets brought home the extent of interconnectedness and interdependency of global economies. Regulation of the European single market and financial sector will be high on the EU agenda in the year to come, as nation states look for ways to protect their economies from future market events to the extent that may be possible.
- Climate change and energy – Europe is leading the global dialogue on climate change mitigation. The European standards and global agreement on post-Kyoto climate regime are to be determined at the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December of this year.
- Enlargement – Croatia, Turkey, Albania and Macedonia are official candidates. Others, such as Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo, are recognised as ‘potential candidates’. Debates about whether they should join the EU and when will be high on the Parliament’s agenda in the coming years. Iceland, currently a member of the European Economic Area, is also likely to apply for membership in near future.
- Agriculture – MEPs will take part in preparations for the next major overhaul of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), scheduled for 2013. The Lisbon Treaty, if ratified, will give the Parliament joint decision making powers with agriculture ministers in this area.
- Immigration – Countries will continue to seek ways to align various national policies.
- Foreign affairs – Current key foreign policy issues include replacing the expired Partnership and Co-operation Agreement with Russia, preventing the disruption of gas supplies from Russia via the Ukraine, removing non-tariff barriers to trade with China, seeking a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and monitoring progress towards association agreements with Latin America.
At the time when businesses are preoccupied with ensuring their survival in the face of recessionary pressures, worrying about European elections may be the last thing on executives’ minds. But, it is exactly the same recessionary pressures that are likely to provide an additional argument for paying close attention to what happens at the EU level. Seeing how vulnerable economies are to massive volatility of consumer and shareholder confidence, regulations and agreements made at the EU level are likely to carry more weight than ever, as it is clear that no single country is immune to what happens outside its borders.
The EU member states just elected 736 MEPs to five-year terms. By proportional representation, they will be accountable to half a billion of Europeans, marking these elections as the biggest transnational elections in history. If your business hasn’t paid attention to the workings of the European Parliament and its representative MEPs, the time to begin doing so is now.
To find out where you stand in comparison to the national political parties on issues relevant to the 2009 European Parliament agenda, http://www.euprofiler.eu may be a good place to begin identifying allies and informing your plan of action to ensure your business can both influence the EU debate, as well as prepare for any regulatory adjustments likely to affect the way you operate.