The European Council’s agreement on the EU budget for 2014-2020 has been greeted with relief in Brussels. The dark scenario of endless wrangling and brinkmanship – à la Washington – has been avoided. Perhaps this is the start of a more positive period for the EU, if the Heads of Government can continue to build on recent progress in tackling the Eurozone debt crisis.
There was predictable gloating from eurosceptic quarters about having “won” budget cuts. But for most people, austerity and recession are hardly a cause for rejoicing, whether in Britain or in Europe. The bigger questions remain about how to create growth and jobs and tackle the everyday problems of people.
The good news is that we can now look forward. London should make the most out of being one of Europe’s premier capital cities. As a Londoner, I know that ordinary people are facing great difficulties in the current climate. I also know that London is greatly admired in Europe and can set an example in many ways. So there is the potential for a rich and vibrant agenda for London in Europe.
The priority is the economy, growth and jobs. Here the EU needs to do much better in delivering action that matters. The EU has come up with some interesting ideas which need to be translated into action. A Youth Unemployment Fund has been decided and a Grand Coalition on digital jobs has been launched. Whilst London is certainly not amongst the poorest areas of Europe we know that there is shocking inequality and that young school leavers are particularly hard hit. Who would pretend that the social conditions underlying the 2011 riots have somehow disappeared ? At the same time, Silicon Roundabout in London points to Britain’s leadership in the digital economy. So London definitely needs to be involved.
Secondly, the new Connecting Europe Facility worth € 29 billion will boost the European economy by building infrastructure networks in transport and energy. As the main staging post between continental Europe and the rest of the UK, London has to be part of the picture. Big decisions will be taken which will shape our future mobility, energy security and quality of life. (NB: Broadband networks were dropped from the facility as part of the austerity drive, despite the UK having the biggest digital economy in Europe: no doubt the eurosceptics are particularly proud about that. )
Fighting crime and ensuring the streets of London are safe remains a major concern. The cuts to front line policing combined with widespread violence and drugs are a reality. The European Union is part of the solution. Through judicial and police cooperation, countries in Europe can work together to tackle international organized crime. By rooting out organized crime we can avoid it spilling over on to our streets, whether it comes from inside the EU, the Balkans or further afield. Emma Reynolds has quite rightly underlined how the European Arrest Warrant was key to extraditing a suspect in connection with the 2005 London bombings.
London is home to a dazzling variety of cultures, nationalities and ethnic minorities. A bit like Europe. In London, in Europe, we must cherish our diversity and fight against intolerance, xenophobia and racism. Austerity and recession have fanned the flames of populism and the hard right – in Eastleigh and in Europe – and we must be vigilant.
In Europe, regions and cities can be active players and not just rely on central government. London, one of Europe’s great capitals, needs a vision for its role. On youth unemployment, on crime, on fighting racism, Londoners have so much to benefit from and so much to contribute to Europe. The elections to the European Parliament next year will be a time to set out this positive agenda.