As we await the arrival of the New Year, perhaps enjoying a few quieter days to plan for 2014, the Greeks are getting ready to take over the presidency of the EU for the next six months.
For many Europeans, that thought could be rather unsettling. If the Greeks can’t manage their own country, how come they’re now in the driving seat of the EU??! Fair question. The rotating presidency among the member states can be confusing for us all, as yet another ‘presidency’ of a seemingly multi-headed European Union joins the president of the European Commission,(José Manuel Barroso), the president of the European Council (Herman van Rompuy) and the president of the European Parliament (Martin Schultz).
Actually this is a deliberate and healthy strategy to balance the supra-national institutions with intergovernmental cooperation. And it’s not really the driving seat: most of the key decisions are still made in Brussels, Berlin and Paris.
Despite–or maybe because of–the economic, political and social tensions at home, Greece will focus its agenda mainly on plans for a banking union and the immigration crisis in southern Europe. Athens wants to enhance financial cooperation and solidarity within the currency union. The Single Resolution Mechanism for banks in the eurozone, initially agreed on by member states just before Christmas, needs to be ratified by the European Parliament before the EU Parliamentary elections in May.
Unrest in northern Africa and the Middle East (primarily in Syria) has caused new waves of refugees and illegal immigrants trying to penetrate the southern border of the EU–most notably Greece, Bulgaria and Italy. The question of whose responsibility the migrants should be is a hot topic as the countries least able to absorb the migrants are having to bear the brunt, and the northern countries are reluctant to share the load more.
Economic recovery, employment and ‘deepening the Union’ would be major challenges for any presidency, let alone Greece. Eurozone economic growth is presently just 0.1 percent, with an expected growth of around 1 percent in 2014. Unemployment will probably stay above 12 percent on average across the eurozone, and some 27 percent in Greece itself. Half the Greek youth face no prospects of a job–disheartening for families, communities and the whole nation. Last month, the OECD predicted Greece’s debt would be over 150 percent of GDP by 2020. No doubt Athens will push for debt cancellation during the presidency, and no doubt few willing ears will be listening.
Economic pressures will spill over into political tensions in 2014, as populists and Euroskeptical political parties are already relishing the prospects of electoral gains in upcoming elections: Greek local elections on May 14, and for the European Parliament, May 22-25.
All of the above sets the context for a timely State of Europe Forum in Athens, May 8 & 9. This annual event aims to evaluate Europe today in the light of Robert Schuman’s vision for a ‘community of peoples deeply rooted in Christian values’. Politicians, theologians, academics, economists, educationalists, social activists, media specialists, church leaders and others interested in Europe’s future will gather for a public opening event in the Old Parliament Building addressing the topic of ‘Hope in times of crisis’.
A full-day programme follows on Europe Day, Friday, May 9, at the Electra Palace Hotel for registered participants. The morning begins with a bible study on Acts 17, held on on Mars Hill where Paul delivered his famous speech, to lay biblical foundations for themes to be addressed in the forum, of solidarity, migration, democracy, economics, freedom & Christian hope.
For the first time this year, a Youth Forum will be held concurrently with the SOEForum, starting a day earlier and finishing a day later, May 7-11. Participants in their 20’s, interested in engagement in the public square, will be formed into interest groups to study one of the above themes, and will fully participate in the SOEForum, interacting with experienced practioners.
At the last forum in Dublin last May, Greek participants shared the pain of Greece’s situation as well as the encouragement of seeing how God can turn crises into opportunities. As you plan your new year, maybe this event should be on your calendar too.
Till next week,