Om de feestelijkheden naar aanleiding van de 125ste verjaardag van het VBO wat extra Europees cachet te geven, nodigde het VBO ook zijn Europese zusterfederaties uit. En zo kwam het dat op 13 februari meer dan 25 nationale werkgeversfederaties, én de voorzitter en de directeur-generaal van koepelorganisatie BusinessEurope (waarvan het VBO het Belgische lid is) de officiële plechtigheid in BOZAR opluisterden met hun aanwezigheid.

Voorzitters en/of directeurs-generaal van de nationale federaties
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Voorafgaand aan dat onvergetelijke verjaardagsfeest organiseerde het VBO een high-level rondetafelgesprek met de voorzitters en/of directeurs-generaal van die nationale federaties en met Herman Van Rompuy, emeritus voorzitter van de Europese Raad. Het gesprek ging onder meer over de rol die de EU speelt in grote, actuele geopolitieke situaties en handelskwesties, over de Europese soevereiniteit, vooral dan op het vlak van technologie, over de uitdagingen die de energietransitie met zich meebrengt, of ook over de Brexit, opflakkerend populisme en politieke versnippering binnen Europa. De deelnemers hadden het ook over de plaats van ondernemingen en werkgeversfederaties in al die thema's.

rondetafelgesprek met de voorzitters en/of directeurs-generaal van de nationale federaties en met Herman Van Rompuy
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Naar een ‘Europa van resultaten’ 

In hun interventies benadrukten Pieter Timmermans (CEO), Bernard Gilliot (uittredend voorzitter) en Bart De Smet (aantredend voorzitter) dat het VBO voorstander is van Europese economische integratie (ter herinnering, de voorganger van BusinessEurope had zijn hoofdzetel op het VBO op het moment van de oprichting, en de eerste voorzitter was een Belg). Ze wezen ook op de nood aan een ‘Europa van resultaten’ in aangelegenheden waar het optreden van de EU een heuse meerwaarde inhoudt voor burgers en bedrijven.

Meer info over de Europese rol van het VBO

Pieter Timmermans, Herman Van Rompuy en Bernard Gilliot tijdens de rondetafel
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De inzichten van Herman Van Rompuy die de rondetafel inleidde

“ My leitmotiv during my mandate in the European Council was: ‘Expect the unexpected'. It applies to everyone. 

Two of the three pillars of the EU, the euro area and the Schengen area, were not designed to cope with respectively the largest financial crisis since the 1930s and the largest inflow of people from outside the EU since time immemorial. We overcame these two existential crisis, but we are not strong enough to survive another one that probably originates outside Europe. The scale and speed of China's rise, of the global digital revolution and of the disappearance of communism in Europe, is unprecedented and unexpected.

But even in very recent history, we are surprised to see unexpected twists and turns. Let me give a few examples:

  • Who would have taken trade war and protectionism into account when everyone knows it's a lose-lose business and after it turned out that globalisation has created so much prosperity and reduced poverty so much?
  • Who had foreseen very low inflation despite an unprecedented creation of money by central banks? 
  • Who would have foreseen a lasting negative long-term interest rate? Another miracle: Greece’s ten-year bond yield drops below 1%.
  • Who still believes in the famous Phillips-curve that linked low unemployment to strong wage increases and thus to higher inflation?
  • Who would have thought that Germany would have the lowest GDP growth rate in the EU in 2019, except Italy?
  • What is the link between economic growth and employment now that we see that a slowdown in growth has no impact on the unemployment rate? 
  • The decline in the labour force and slow productivity growth are certainly responsible for this.
  • Who would have taken a Brexit into account as the UK was the least integrated country of the EU, being neither a member of the eurozone nor of the Schengen area?
  • Who would have predicted the return of the social question to the EU? Growth but for whom?: is now a major electoral issue. Look at Ireland with its growth rate of 6% in 2019. Or look at the yellow vests. The malaise in a country is now mainly non-economic. 
  • Who would have expected that the USA would become a net exporter of oil and gas, with all the geopolitical consequences this would have, for example, in the Middle East?

My list is not even complete. Besides, we don't know what surprises the future holds. 

Western economies have to work in a new landscape. The primacy of politics reigns at the expense of the economy. Just look at the Anglo-Saxon world in which populism is in power. The tariff war and Brexit (and the anti-economy continues there) are the opposite of what our economies need. As I already said: the social issue is high on the agenda. Populism in general is also rooted in real or perceived growing inequalities. Even migration is about more than just identity: it is also about who pays and who receives benefits and jobs.

The fragmentation of the political landscape and the volatility of the electorate explains why there are ten minority governments in the Union today, and that all coalition governments are working under high tension, even in the most stable member states. Societies are on the move and so is politics.  How can the Union be strong when national governments are weak? How can one think in the long term when every election can bring a punishment? However, there are two main positive points. The first is that support for EU membership is the highest in 27 years. The second is that many citizens are well aware that the major challenges of our time also require a European approach.

It is in these confusing times that the Union must find its way. There are three major challenges: climate change, European autonomy and competitiveness and social cohesion. 

The Commission's Green Deal is a project that is more important than the single market and the EMU of the great Jacques Delors, if implemented. It is a tectonic energy shift. It is also a gigantic opportunity. The European Council has endorsed the objectives in December. This is not self-evident because the climate theme is also highly controversial in its implementation. Awareness has grown everywhere, even in countries like Australia where this was not the case. But the devil is as always in the detail. The question here, too, is as with a budget cut: who pays what? Behind the debate on burden sharing, there is also a hidden resistance to change his or her way of life or the business as usual. We all only change under pressure. But showing leadership in times of weakened governments manned by weakened traditional parties, is more difficult, however necessary it may be. On the other hand, don't expect courage from populists. By definition, they only want to be popular.

However, a lot is already happening on the ground in terms of climate policy. The EU reaches its climate targets for 2020. But more is needed, even more than what was asked for in the Paris conference of December 2015, because the situation is much more dramatic than previously thought. However, it should not be forgotten that the implementation of climate objectives is to a large extent a competence of the national and regional authorities. The Union is also the sum of the Member States. The success of this transition requires also the full commitment of industry players. All sectors will have an important role to play in not only reducing their own emissions, but also in providing solutions to achieve climate neutrality. The competitiveness of our industrial fabric for the next 30 years can only include the green dimension. We can and must become the world leader in green technology. We're not starting from scratch. Europe is already today the world leader in terms of green patents, i.e. in green technology (28% of the world's green patents).

A second theme is European autonomy. This does not only concern defence, but also and especially the digital economy, energy, migration, the currency. We are making progress in all these areas but it is going too slowly. 

We have the largest single market in the world, but it must continue to operate according to our rules and in full respect of reciprocity in our relations with other global players. Europeans must also own their data and it must be processed in Europe, according to our rules and values. We are lagging a long way behind, especially on artificial intelligence, but also on batteries (only 3% of the world production) , which are so essential to the future e-car industry. Sometimes we have European technology like 5G (we own 55% of the patents related to 5G), but our companies often do not have the scale to compete. Sometimes we have inventions but lack the economic and financial translation into innovations. Among the fifteen most important digital companies in the world, there is no European one. We are too little autonomous! France and Germany have finally understood that scale and size matter and are now starting to work together. If they disagree on macroeconomics, they work together on microeconomics. Yes, there is an American and a Chinese challenge, be it of a different nature. Protecting and promoting our interests and values without falling into protectionism is a difficult balancing act. This approach results in a just transitional funding and assuring a level playing field with respect to our main competitors. A future-oriented European budget is needed in the short term. Don't let us lapse into a one-sided accounting mentality when so much is at stake.

There is no European autonomy without competitiveness.
The EU cannot be a geopolitical actor if one is insufficiently autonomous.

We are also making progress on energy to reduce our dependence on Russian gas and oil. Micro interests have to give way to the macro public interest.
On migration, we are now better protecting our external borders, but it's not enough. The possible quadrupling of the African population by the end of this century is also a time bomb for the EU. Only when we have irregular migration under control, will we be able to convince our citizens of the inevitability of legal migration, both for skilled and unskilled people. After all, our working population is declining dramatically in many countries. Just to give you an indication: if there is no influx from abroad for the rest of the century Italy’s population is forecast to be half of the current level.

The euro is the second largest currency in the world, accounting for one third of all payments, but the US dollar is used as a political extraterritorial lever against which we have no recourse. Here, too, we need to strengthen ourselves.

All this does not detract from our choice of a multilateral, rules based order with institutions that function. The WTO is toothless at the moment. That is a real threat. Unfortunately, there is no consensus on this in the Western world. In fact, the EU is the only global player that still truly believes in multilateralism. The rest is against or commits lip service. With its new FTAs, the EU proves that it is resolutely anti-protectionist.

Social cohesion is a real challenge. Our societies are individualised, fragmented and increasingly unequal. There is this contrast between the higher and lower educated, between cities and countryside, between young and old, between natives and migrants. This dichotomy is given an electoral translation. It makes governing increasingly difficult in times when much is at stake. To govern better, we must govern together. 

I wouldn't want to leave this stage without saying something about Brexit. Avoiding the worst is doing the good. There are at least two inevitable truths. An FTA will always be worse than being in the single market and an FTA will inevitably involve border controls, with the consequent impact on supply chains. By the way, the current European red tape cannot be compared to the bureaucracy on our borders after Brexit!

What worries me very much is that the UK government is in fact no longer respecting the non-binding Political Declaration including on diverging regulations which  was approved together with the Withdrawal Agreement. That is a warning signal to the EU. 

The UK threatens to diverge on sectoral standards but also on horizontal issues such as data protection, consumer protection, etc. The choice of the UK of a negotiating period of barely eight months indicates that there can be a hidden agenda: either a no-deal or a mini agreement that is hardly any better, still requiring border controls but only covering the manufacturing sector, which in the UK is half of what it means in relative terms in the 27 economies. An extension must be legally requested in July. Impossible to do it later this time. 

The EU strives for an agreement but is not prepared to sacrifice fundamental principles such as the four freedoms and fair competition, for a country that has become a 'third country'. In terms of financial regulation, too, we will continue to be sovereign rulers and supervisors on our territory. We showed our flexibility that led to the divorce agreement but also that there were red lines that we won’t  cross. 

In these talks, the EU-27 will first and foremost defend its unity, its principles and its interests. The UK on the other hand is not acting in its own economic and social interest but for an immaterial goal: ‘get back control'. Brexit might even result in an immaterial loss: the disintegration of the United Kingdom. But that, too, is a British matter, although the EU must be aware of this eventuality. 

The EU is already a geopolitical actor in areas where it sends out the same message as in the case of trade, Brexit, climate, sanctions against Russia, Iran nuclear deal and others. It needs to do much more, especially in its neighbourhood. However, the era of  systematic interventionist geopolitics is over. Geopolitics has declined, because it failed. That’s why the USA has been reluctant or even retreating for ten years or so. Russia has become a regional actor and China is mainly interested in geo-economics.

In any case, the European caravan continues its journey towards 'an ever closer Union' because it is also a necessity in the new world in which we live. In the past we succeeded in ‘mission impossible’. ‘Pessimism is mood; optimism is will’ (Alain).”