European Union

The European Union: A People-Centred Agenda - An International Perspective


Remarks by Angel Gurría

OECD Secretary-General

6 May 2019 - Brussels, Belgium

(As prepared for delivery)




Dear Commissioner Moedas, Chief Spokesperson Schinas, Director-General Duch Guillot, Dear Mrs Mettler, ladies and gentlemen,

I am happy to be here this afternoon to launch the OECD’s report: ‘The European Union: A People-Centred Agenda—An International Perspective’.

Why are we here today? In the current election debates, and with Brexit in the background, there is a lot of noise which tends to blur what the people of Europe have achieved since setting off on the journey of the European project over 60 years ago. There is also a very topical, ongoing debate about what should be the orientation of the project itself: is it too economic and market focused? Is citizens’ well-being receiving sufficient attention? Is the EU responding adequately to a changing global landscape?

The philosopher Hannah Arendt once said: “What convinces masses are not facts, not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.” In this vein, with the launch of this report we are following the philosopher’s advice by taking a broad view of the European project and considering – from an external perspective and in an international context – what the European model and common values have delivered for Europeans, how it can evolve to enhance well-being across the continent and what place it has in the world economy today.

A Europe for citizens, for the world, for our planet

Over the past six decades, the EU and its member states have delivered remarkable progress for their economies and societies. Our report focuses on three overarching themes.

First, People’s rights and solidarity for human progress. The EU has added value well beyond its role as a free market economy by advancing citizens’ rights and conditions in a rapidly evolving global environment.

For example, the EU continues to be a staunch defender of social rights. Among others, over 50 EU directives focus on social and workers’ rights; ongoing support is provided to members states to invest in youth; and specific targets have been established for childcare. Another more recent example is the EU General Data Protection Regulation, aiming to safeguard citizens’ rights in the digital world.

Moreover, the EU has been a tireless advocator and promoter of skills – one of the most valuable ‘currencies’ of our time. Through initiatives such as the New Skills Agenda and the Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition, the EU is supporting its Member States to boost skills and improve the quality and the relevance of their education systems. The EU has created the largest educational mobility area in the world: in 2016, 845,000 European students studied abroad, 80% of which in another European country. This is largely helped programmes such as Erasmus+ which will have benefited more than 4 million people between 2014 and 2020.

The EU has also been crucial in closing regional gaps and promoting regional development. In fact, one third of the EU’s budget is allocated towards reducing economic and structural differences between EU regions. Particular emphasis is given to supporting the most disadvantaged regions and to reducing regional inequalities. Since 1995, inequality of GDP between European regions has declined by about 25%, even if the recent economic global financial crisis has undone some of that progress.

All these efforts go hand-in-hand with national policies underpinned by high levels of social spending and are leading to greater levels of income equality for the EU’s member states, compared to non-EU countries, even though they have increased in recent years but less so than in other regions of the world.

Second, Making Europe more resilient in a digital and interconnected world. As the world has become ‘smaller’, Europe and its citizens have become ‘bigger’. By furthering economic integration and becoming a single trading bloc, the EU today is a major player on the global scene. It accounts for one fifth of world output, almost a quarter of global trade and more than half of total OECD trade.

It is also a driving force for the consumer, helping to ensure high food safety and food quality. The Single Market continues to deliver to consumers more and better choice at lower prices. It has contributed to a greater interconnectedness of electricity markets, leading to significantly lower electricity prices for consumers.

Moreover, the EU has been paramount in levelling the playing field for large companies and for SMEs by ensuring fair competition, tackling anti-competitive behaviour and fostering competition by supporting women in entrepreneurship.

Third, the EU: Allied for the Planet. The EU is leading the charge on the protection of the environment. Under the Paris Agreement, the EU and its member states have collectively committed to reduce GHG emissions by at least 40% from 1990 levels by 2030.

Through efforts such as pricing carbon emissions; the Emissions Trading System and the EU Plastics Strategy, the EU is actively reducing the carbon intensity of GDP, improving its air quality, and focusing on protecting the oceans. In fact, in March this year, MEPs overwhelmingly supported a ban on throwaway plastics by 2021.

Nevertheless, leading international efforts on this front means that the biggest efforts are still to come if Europe is to take resolute action against climate change; to maintain biodiversity; to better protect the oceans; and to achieve a more sustainable agriculture. The world needs the European Union to continue to step up its ambition and also lead in implementation.


The EU project remains a work in progress

Looking ahead, the European project faces some very real challenges. It very much remains a work in progress and a lot needs to change and improve for it to deliver the results that citizens expect and deserve.

There is frustration with the pace of needed reforms and the speed at which decisions are taken. There is discontent with the response to the crisis and its effects, especially among the most vulnerable. And difficulties remain to foster high levels of growth; a more even distribution of opportunities and outcomes; to revive labour productivity and reduce high unemployment, in some cases especially for the youth; as well as build more innovative economies.

In many ways, many of the current debates at the level of the EU are no different from those taking place at the domestic level in most advanced countries of the world and relate to how we promote more inclusive and sustainable growth.

Our report highlights several areas of focus where work can be taken forward and where the EU can add value, hand-in-hand with its Members’ domestic policies which also have to be strengthened to address the aforementioned challenges.

Among others, they include: better targeting the current EU budget, which also remains small, to make it more inclusive and growth-enhancing; completing the banking union in the Euro area; taking greater steps to deepen the construction of the single market – particularly when it comes to services and labour mobility; speeding up recognition of professional qualifications, stepping up mobility programmes such as Erasmus+ with more targeted actions towards disadvantaged groups; improving financing conditions to firms; providing the Euro area with a stabilisation fund – distinct from the EU budget – so that it can cope with recessions and negative shocks; reinforcing EU instruments to anticipate and monitor international refugee flows; and better jointly protecting external borders, while keeping the European humanitarian values strong and effective in this regard.

There is also a significant economic potential in the digital single market which remains largely untapped. Boosting R&D and especially business R&D, completing the reforms of the Digital Single Market Strategy, focusing on closing digital divides, equipping citizens with digital skills and firms of all sizes with advanced digital tools, better linking firms with universities. All these efforts will not only help address the digital disruption but will also transform the EU into a digital powerhouse.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

The European project is a bulwark of peace, borne out of the horrors of World War II. Let us heed the advice of the ‘fathers’ of Europe and continue on this path of integration, co-operation and peace, for Europe and for the world. Thank you.


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