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IPE Views: Talk-talk-talking in Brussels

Jeremy Woolfe is less than impressed with level of discourse among Europe’s bureaucrats 

Progress in the Juncker investment plan to boost the European economy is advancing in Brussels. Is it? In the European Parliament, yes, things look good. The Parliament’s relevant committees have recently voted support, subject to provisos on robbing R&D and transport budgets. And the European Investment Bank is making a racing start.

But a conference organised by one of the 45 or so less prominent EU institutions brings to light a woeful Brussels feature. This is to seize any new initiative to feed into an un-stoppable Brussels industry, the talking shop … talk-talk-talk, for its own sake. 

For the Juncker plan, the EU’s Committee of the Regions (CoR) called in an audience of 300-plus as the victims. The guest list included representatives from fund management, insurance, pensions, political bodies and infrastructure interests such as from railways and other sectors.

As experts themselves, they would have learned little. Few could not have known that the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) legislative proposal is planned to tune up €21bn into a €315bn investment fund, much to come from institutional investors.

What the CoR Junker evening did give its audience was access to a palatial building, a state-of-the-art conference room and enticing food and drink to round off the evening. Also, items on the menu were, sadly, not atypical. There was an abundance of lecturing, some of it verging on pontification, and a plethora of generalisations.

How’s this for a verbal jewel from someone who should know better? He would be “pleased to engage constructively with MEPs and civil society through this new structure about the Investment Plan for Europe and how it can help give the EU economy a boost”. Perhaps not drivel in itself, but relatively meaningless.

Well, some sensible voices at the meeting did state one obvious truth. Potential investors in European infrastructure developments could not be forced to participate, they said. Investors should be free to judge projects on merit!

So what do we get from the Committee? In fact, an “opinion”, drafted by its official CoR coordinator, who apparently disdains market-based principles. Claude Gewerc warned against the “risk of territorial concentration”. And he called for “greater attention to be given to weaker regions”.

Politically correct? In Brussels, it would sail through! So how about another verbal gem related to EFSI, as a “push forward [to] a new wind of positive change; thus we will boost smart growth and create sustainable jobs”. Good on you, Markku Markkula, Mr CoR President, done at his inauguration into office, in February.

However, the CoR did one thing well, to have invited as a speaker Christian Thimann, member of the executive committee at AXA. Thimann suggested EFSI could benefit from setting up a list of viable projects, preferably including a prediction of cash flow for each.  

With Solvency II in mind, he would like to see a more rational categorisation of the relevant finance bonds. No doubt, he believes a better a status for EFSI bonds would add considerably to their market attractiveness as compared with simple ‘corporate bonds’.  

The Juncker plan conference is, regrettably, not alone. In Brussels, one conference on a subject can follow after another. This talk-talk ‘industry’ achieves little, apart from spinning time away.

Furthermore, the actual delivery of speeches is commonly pathetic. And audiences are too polite – or are they too “wet” – to protest at experts delivering incomprehensibly. Some speak at more than 130 words a minute.

Talk-talk, indeed.

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