European Commission pushes ahead with European Semester

The COVID 19 outbreak is a public health crisis quite different than anything Europe has faced for many years. As education personnel and their trade unions grapple with the outbreak, we are supporting and informing member organisations in any way we can.

The European Semester is the EU’s annual policy coordination cycle, in which the European Commission analyses and assesses national economies and policies before issuing recommendations to member state governments. These are mainly economic recommendations, aiming to ensure that countries are in line with the fiscal targets of the Growth and Stability Pact. However, their scope can be broad and the Semester is anchored to the principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights. This give the process meaningful influence on areas like education policy – especially as it relates to public spending, investment and reforms. This makes it vital for education trade unions to engage with and influence the Semester process at national and European level.

The European Commission has announced that it intends to push ahead with the current European Semester cycle, despite the COVID-19 crisis and a plea for suspension from the ETUC. The Commission is currently drafting the Country Specific Recommendations (CSRs) for released on 20 May. The CSRs will be built on the Country Reports which the Commission issued in February. ETUCE has analysed these Country Reports in detail, creating a thematic overview of the whole set of reports which gives a sense of the priorities identified in the field of education and training. We have also gathered comments on the Country Reports from national member organisations and sent them to the European Commission, making our voices heard at this crucial stage of the drafting process for the Recommendations.

Of course, the scale of the COVID-19 crisis means that these Country Reports could not take into account the sharp drop that many European economies are now experiencing. Indeed, only this week, two reports from the International Monetary Fund (the World Economic Outlook and the Global Financial Stability Report) predicted the largest global downturn since the Great Depression in an optimistic scenario that sees the virus contained by mid-2020. The Euro Area economy is predicted to shrink by 7.5 per cent, with a record drop of 10 per cent in Greece.

We still do not to know to what extent, if at all, the European Commission will adapt the European Semester process in light of these unique circumstances. However, the Growth and Stability Pact’s fiscal rules have been temporarily suspended, implying that the Commission will exclude measures taken in response to the outbreak from its assessments of national compliance. Moreover, a so-called ‘enlarged Eurogroup’ meeting of all EU finance ministers agreed in principle to a programme of emergency measures to help deal with the economic shock. This programme has three axes: a new emergency ‘SURE’ fund to support the income of employees and self-employed workers; the activation of specific credit lines by the European Investment Bank to support companies, especially small and medium enterprises; activation of the European Stability Mechanism to support direct or indirect costs of national health systems related to the pandemic for the Euro Area countries. Details are still being finalised for potential adoption at the European Council meeting of 23 April.

The present state of emergency risks deepening and shifting the challenges and reform priorities outlined in the Country Reports. It is therefore of utmost importance that ETUCE and national education trade unions engage with economic governance frameworks like the European Semester. We must use every tool we have to prevent a repetition of the failed austerity measures that followed the last economic crisis and rebuild public investment for an attractive teaching profession and quality education for all.