Dear readers, I am happy to present to you the views on EU elections, MFF, education and employment of Prof. Jo Ritzen. Prof. Jo Ritzen is the former Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Sciences, who will continue to play his role in the EU public policy arena within the upcoming months and in 2014, a year which will shape EU future. In order to retain the authenticity of our discussion, the following has not been edited from the interaction.

1) Prof. Ritzen, in 2010 you founded Empower European Universities (EEU), in 2102 you initiated Vibrant Europe Forum (VEF). Looks like big projects come biyearly, so what should we expect for 2014, a role in the European Parliament elections?

Mr. Gentili, it is so good of you to help to communicate that we, citizens of Europe, have a lot to win by joint action to realize the promise of Europe. Also we have a lot to lose by inaction and letting the populists get away with their false promise that without  European unity citizens would be better off. Rather than regretting inaction at some later point,  you support action with your blog.

The European Parliamentary elections of May 2014 are going to be a decisive point in the development of the European Union as the leverage for the welfare of the citizens of the European member states. I have worked in the past 2 years and will work till the elections helping political parties to frame their election programs in such a way that they can clearly present the voters with a European promise of more vibrancy, less income inequality and more greening.

My own role has been Convener, bringing experts from academia, political and business leaders together to highlight that we need not lay back in despair and see our joint future crumble. There is an alternative.

It is a hard choice whether one also wants to step up to the plate and be up for election for the EP from the largest of the small countries of the EU. One almost needs the assurance from bigger countries that one can play a role in the EP (where quantity -the number of parliamentarians- plays a substantial role). Here the organization of the EP is clearly wrong: Parliamentarians are chosen from national constituencies to represent all Europeans.

I clearly would opt for a list of EU wide candidates at the next EP elections. But lets us concentrate on the present. We need to make major changes in the organization of the EU to truly make Europe a leveraging force for the nations cooperating in the EU.

You see that I avoid a choice between a federal model and an intergovernmental alliance. This is a false choice. Europe needs a sui generis construction based on the role of the union to leverage countries in joint responsibility.

2) As chair of EEU you investigated thorough the best way for the EU to improve its universities. From your perspective what does the EU lack to be the most attractive place in the world for students?

Most university systems of the EU member states have become inward looking during the times of the great expansion of the universities. All EU member states have made substantial room for social mobility and rising expectations, leading to what we call a massification of higher education in the period 1960-2000. In the process old, cherished values of university intellectual autonomy and empowerment of the university staff were abandoned and replaced by bureaucracy and political short sighed control. Also the funding of universities did not keep pace with the increase of student numbers. It was not until the 90’s that the awareness grew that we should look for a European model which provides the excellence by which our graduates can feel at ease among the best in the world.

The UK has been most prominent in making the necessary changes (its special status vis a vis the US and the English language have helped). The Nordic countries and the Netherlands have also made great strides. Europe could be the best place if foreign students if:

  • universities are empowered again;
  • the funding is improved through public and private means;
  • the English language is accepted as the first language in some universities.

3) As initiator of EEU and VEF are you satisfied with the Multiannual Financial Framework that was recently approved by the EU? How to make the most of it in terms of education and employment?

Yes. It is a step forward with more funding for Erasmus for all and for Horizon 2020. And yet: make cohesion and structural funds for 50% minimally available for R&D and higher education to ensure convergence within Europe on innovation and knowledge.

4) In some documents of VEF I was intrigued by a statement on full employment, then I was pleased to see some pragmatic proposals following the statement. Could you please name 2 measures the EU could already implement and 2 competences the MSs should give to the EU, with the aim of tackling unemployment?

Full employment is feasible, yet requires a substantial price in terms of increased labor mobility incentivized by more free labor contracts and by more new firms (involved in greening). This in turns requires a social contract between the different stakeholders (business, employers and workers as well as Government) in which income differences are kept in check.

I find the notion of surrendering sovereignty a strange one. It is accepting a different sovereignty, with joint responsibilities. It is not Europe which takes over, but rather a Europe which supports  a course of change. Because change is what is needed.

Two measures for joint responsibilities:

  • The Country Specific Recommendations (CSR’s) issued by the European Commission for the labor market should be made sharper and taken more seriously. They should be the topic of joint discussion by Europe and the national Parliaments.
  • The Banking union needs to arise as quickly as possible, so that credit flows can resume.

There is little the EU can implement already without a decision of the Council. This also applies for our proposal to have  a social loan sytem for youngsters in the order of magnitude of some 60 billion Euro (based on Eurolending rates). Essentially this scheme says that every youngster in the age of 20-30 can apply for a loan (for study or for starting an enterprise). The interest rate on the loan is the (low) Euro-interest rate plus 2% (covering administration and defaults) such that repayment is limited to a maximum percentage of the earnings and to a mximum period of 15 or 20 years. The Dutch experience with social loans (starting in the 1990s has shown a full payback).