Last year, I attended the pensions Green Paper Conference in Brussels, and afterwards I happened to share a taxi to the airport with UK pensions minister Steve Webb. Apart from the fact our dyspeptic Belgian driver felt the need to fling epithets at every other car on the road while puffing on a cigarette, the journey was memorable for one other reason.
At the conference, there had been much kerfuffling among the constituents over the wording of the Green Paper - or perhaps more accurately, what they believed that wording to herald. I had just recently read the Green Paper from front to back and confessed I had seen no cause for alarm in what struck me as a rather innocuous, well-intentioned document. The minister smiled at me and said: “Well, it’s the thin edge of the wedge, isn’t it?”
It hadn’t been the first time I’d recognised this sentiment - a sort of ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ dismissal of the European Commission’s project. Since the Green Paper was first published last July, IPE has received numerous emails (from the Netherlands and the UK in particular) decrying what has been widely perceived as the harbinger of great meddling by the European Commission in member states’ respective and unique pension systems.
This is why I found myself somewhat perplexed when, poring over the Commission’s recently published summary of responses to the Green Paper, I learned the consultation had been “extremely successful”, receiving nearly 1,700 replies from across the EU, and that comments had been “largely positive”, even welcoming the Green Paper’s “holistic approach”. The Commission concedes that nearly all respondents underlined the “need to respect the principle of subsidiarity” while at the same time agreeing that some co-ordination at EU level and some interaction with the EU would be “essential”.
Forgetting for a moment the fact that 1,000 of the Green Paper’s 1,700 responses came from highly agitated, highly organised British pensioners living in Canada (and with way too much time on their hands), it is still difficult to see how the European Commission has deemed this consultation such a success. No less baffling is how it managed to distil such varied, strident feedback into a broadly supportive, largely positive endorsement of the Green Paper’s thrust. Perhaps its detractors have been writing to the wrong organisation.