He usually prefers to express himself with concrete figures. But this time he was more forthcoming and without overlooking “factors” and “numbers”, he shared his thoughts on 2019 Europe. “We must be strong to defend Europe and its values, both internally and externally. That is why this year is so important.” Jyrki Katainen, Finnish Commissioner, born in 1971, former Prime Minister in his Country and Vice-President of the EU Commission, renowned as an advocate of the “rigorous interpretation of Euro zone policies”, thus extended an overarching gaze. Tasked with presenting the results of the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI, one of the key measures of the Juncker Plan, named after the Commission President), he went on to convey his political vision.
Katainen, who served as European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs in the second Barroso Commission, is currently responsible for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness.
Speaking of economic affairs, he said: “there are many uncertainties, coupled by the risk of a new trade war” triggered by the protectionism of Trump’s administration and by the flooding of Chinese goods. He then changed topic: “The EU faces internal and external challenges.” The former appear to worry him the most. “Europe is based on solid values, that all of its Members must share and respect”: he mentioned Poland, Hungary and Romania, on which EU Commissions and Parliament have focused their attention for the defence of the rule of law and democratic process, largely viewed to have been trampled upon by the governments-in-office.
At international level, in addition to the afore-mentioned economic and trade challenges, he voiced concern over the many areas of conflict in the world, with tensions and wars. In particular, he noted, the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, on the doorstep of the EU. 2019 “is an important year. “We also need strong European national ownership to stand for our values and defend our citizens’ security, rights and values”, he said. But his remarks were clearly addressed to EU Member States governments. Those same governments that continue shifting their responsibilities, unfulfilled reforms and delays, on the EU.
Finally, Katainen broached the theme that brought him to the press room of the Berlaymont building, the seat of the Commission. The Juncker Plan, he said, “has delivered positive results.” Conceived to boost economic investments in the post-crisis phase, to date the Plan has triggered a total of €371 billion in investments, that include €69.5 billion from the EU and other sums – the largest amount – triggered with a multiplying lever: Member States, local authorities and “private” investors (large companies, small and medium-sized enterprises …) co-finance initiatives in the area of research and innovation (22%), in the energy sector (19%), digital development 11%, transport (7%), as well as social infrastructures, environment, territorial development, support to SMEs (the most consistent figure, amounting to 33% of all investments so far).
In short, EFSI is an EU-budget guarantee “providing the European Investment Bank (EIB) with a first loss protection. This means that the EIB Group is able to provide financing to higher-risk projects than they normally would”, states a note by the Commission. An independent Investment Committee “uses strict criteria to decide whether a project is eligible for EFSI support.” There are no quotas – by sector or by country. Financing is purely demand-driven.
For Katainen, “We contributed to overcome the crisis, and now unemployment is at the lowest since 2000, 6.7% in the EU28. EFSI and related initiatives contributed to the creation of some 750,000 jobs and benefited 850,000 small and medium sized businesses”. According to the forecasts of the Finnish politician, the Juncker Plan is projected to trigger €500 billion in investments by the end of 2020.
Astonishing amounts. “Actually – the Commissioner explained – we need to adopt the tool in concrete terms, for when a business recovers momentum or when somebody who doesn’t have a job gets a job … it changes life for the better.” Answering a question from journalists, he gave a few examples: “In Spain we supported with a €85 loan the project of a business that created 200 jobs, a large number of which designed for people with disabilities. A €30 million loan will let a Croatian company invest in research and innovation to help it develop the world’s first electric super-car. Another €30 million loan will help a French company to expand its research department to develop one of the world’s most advanced artificial hearts.”
In Italy EIB funds, through FEIS, support some eighty projects with investments totalling €7 million. These include the Treviso hospital (to become the healthcare citadel), Dolomiti Energia (gas and electricity distribution networks), Telecom Italia high speed broadband, benefitting 7 million more households, Italgas “smart metering”. Which countries have benefited the most from the Juncker Plan? Katainen was not caught unprepared and replied: “Greece is the primary recipient, followed by Estonia, Portugal, Spain, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Finland, Poland. Italy ranks tenth.”