Climate, growth, social issues: why the EU so often fails to achieve its goals

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu knew that “only those who know their destination will find the way.” If that is true, the European Union should be very well oriented - after all, it has set itself so many, so ambitious and so detailed goals in the past few weeks set like hardly ever before.

Brussels' powerful have promised that the continent will be climate-neutral from 2050 onwards. They want Europe's companies to produce more industrial goods themselves instead of buying them abroad. And at their most recent summit in Porto they adopted an extensive catalog of social guidelines: By 2030, 78 percent of Europeans are to be employed, 60 percent are attending further training every year and 15 million fewer are at risk of poverty. Big goals, so the message of the 27 heads of government, will eventually turn into big politics.

EU critics, on the other hand, feel more reminiscent of the five-year plans of communist planned economies in view of the meticulous specifications. Especially since the gap between announcement and reality is often as large as there was in the Eastern Bloc. Hadn't the EU already promised in its Lisbon Strategy from the year 2000 that it would become the fastest growing region in the world? Didn't she want to introduce a financial transaction tax years ago that still doesn't exist today? And has the EU not become the vaccine snail of the western world with its joint purchase of vaccines - instead of the pioneer in the anti-corona fight, as was planned? Since then, EU skeptics have sneered since then that only those who set themselves ambitious goals can miss them.

If Brussels fails to achieve goals, new ones are simply drawn up

But anyone who draws the conclusion from the gap between aspiration and reality that the EU is failing in general is wrong. In Brussels, goals are seldom set in order to be implemented. In the complex network of EU institutions, they mostly serve other purposes. Sometimes they are a weapon in the political struggle for direction, sometimes they are supposed to put the nation states under pressure. Above all, however, they are an instrument of the EU Commission to make up ground against the Parliament or the European Council in the eternal Brussels competence wrangle. The fact that a lot of things are not eaten as hot as cooked in Brussels is often not the problem, but the method.

This is not least due to the basic structure of the confederation, which provides for a clear division of labor. According to this, the Commission is designed as a blueprint machine that has the sole right to propose new EU rules in almost all areas. Turning them into decisions, on the other hand, is a matter for the Council and Parliament. And to implement them locally, a matter for the Member State. Firstly, this means that the EU Commission likes to formulate maximum targets based on the logic of collective bargaining in order to achieve at least part of them. And secondly, the officials don't have to worry too much about the practicality of their plans. After all, this is what the nation states are responsible for. This leads to extremely human reactions in everyday life in Brussels: If EU targets are not met, efforts are not increased. But simply set other goals.

This applies, for example, to European industrial policy, in which the provisions of the so-called Lisbon strategy have long since become obsolete. No wonder, since the European growth rates have not been above, but below the values ​​of practically all comparable countries for years. And so the EU no longer sets itself the goal of increasing prosperity, but rather increasing European sovereignty. Which means for the responsible commissioner Thierry Breton to double the European production share for semiconductors.

That Europe's industry will achieve the target is about as realistic as that the EU will achieve the old Lisbon goals. But that is not what matters to Breton. His aim is to promote the European chip industry from Brussels. Europe's ambitions cannot be big enough to achieve this.

Who sets the goals determines the agenda. This is also the EU logic in social policy, which according to the wording of the treaties is solely a matter for the nation states. Nevertheless, the former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has already begun to diligently draw up guidelines. Not because he wanted to implement it. But to point out the failure of the EU countries, for example in the fight against youth unemployment. Wouldn't it be better, the ulterior motive of his advances, to shift the powers on the question more to Brussels?

So is Europe a bad design? Chamber!

The calculation can certainly work, as the debate on the debt criteria of the Maastricht Treaty shows. For years, more Member States have failed to meet these requirements than they have complied with. And the economic and financial policy recommendations issued by Brussels in the so-called European semester are consistently ignored. Nobody would therefore have thought it possible that the EU could secure additional powers in the hotly contested questions of financial policy. But that is exactly what happened last year. With the new EU reconstruction fund, the Brussels officials are finally allowed to do what they were previously denied: take on debts.

So is Europe a bad design, as the EU critics claim? A monstrous bureaucracy that has decoupled from reality in its power games? Who no longer knows what it is for and notoriously misses its goals?

Chamber! Anyone who looks at the confederation soberly finds that it can still achieve great things. The European single market, for example, is an unparalleled success story that keeps European companies fit for global competition and sets standards in many markets. And when it comes to decarbonising industry and the energy sector, Europe has recently achieved its targets even faster than planned. The examples show that the EU is always successful when it not only has ambitious goals but also the instruments to implement them. As in the case of the internal market, where the Brussels officials can ensure that competition works with extensive control and sanctioning rights. Or with climate protection, in which the EU is setting global standards with its emissions trading system.

So perhaps in future the Commission should set its goals primarily where it has the necessary instruments. Be more ambitious where she can act and hold back when her influence is limited.

Less is more is what the vernacular calls it. Or, to put it in Laotian diction: only those who stay on the right path will achieve their goal.