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Towards a sustainable Europe: "Put people in the centre, prioritise social well-being, empower societies to master technological change"

The debate on a long-term strategy for a more sustainable Europe was launched by the EESC with a public hearing on 1st March. Based on an assessment of long-term trends and challenges, such as the digitalisation of the economy, the shift to a low carbon economy and the transformation of labour markets, the hearing explored the transition to a new economic model that is economically more resilient, socially more fair and environmentally more responsible.

Entitled "Towards a more sustainable Europe", the event hosted the following speakers: Mr Karl Falkenberg, former Director General of the European Commission's DG ENV, Ms Marina Larkin from the World Economic Forum, Professor Karl Aiginger from the Austrian Institute of Economic Research WIFO, experts from ESCP Business School, the think tank Confrontations Europe and the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS). The debate with experts from European civil society organisations and  EESC Members was chaired by former EESC Vice-President. Mr Hans Joachim Wilms.

Martina Larkin presented the 4th industrial revolution as a new era with convergence of digital and other technologies that will have a non-linear systemic impact on all areas of society and all businesses. She suggested that in order to master this transformation, we should:

  1. Focus on systems, not on technologies;
  2. Empower societies to master technologies. Society must not experience the change as a threat, but share in the benefits it brings;
  3. Shape the future rather than let it happen: cooperation between all stakeholders is key;
  4. See values as an asset, not a problem.

Employment will be one of the biggest challenges; our professional world will face huge changes – this was the position of Carole Ulmer from Confrontations Europe. According to the OECD, 9% of today's jobs will disappear as a result of automatization and 25% (up to 50% according to other sources) will be highly transformed. In addition to manual jobs, skilled and intellectually demanding jobs will also be at risk. This is particularly challenging for European education and vocational training systems, as new skills are needed in the era of digitalisation. The "life-long learning and training" approach needs to be institutionalised to help people adapt to the new demands.

The importance of a long-term vison for Europe 2050 was stressed by Thierry Libaert, a French EESC member. He stated that this would steer the direction of the transition and coordinate it across all services and disciplines. "Our unsustainable economic model needs to be changed, putting people's well-being at the forefront," he said.

A vision based on goals, not on problems

Karl Aiginger, Professor at WIFO, called Europe "a successful model having a midlife crisis". He affirmed that Europe is focusing on problems and is unaware of its numerous strengths. What it needs is goals, together with a new, long-term strategy that brings wellbeing for all based on environmental sustainability, social inclusiveness and economic dynamism.

Make Europe the responsible leader in sustainable development

Europe must go for a high road path. Referring to the US, Mr  Aiginger sees our Atlantic partner as being on the "low road path", with low wages, social, ecological and financial dumping ("trumping"), fracking, drilling, new pipelines and no carbon taxes. This is the wrong route –

Europe should consider its strengths. Europe could be a role model for successful region by 2050:

-           Stronger dynamics based on innovation and human capital

-           Less differences in incomes, higher employment

-           World leader in environmental technology, energy efficiency

-           Heterogeneous preferences, a pluralistic policy approach

-           Open area, enjoying globalization; inviting neighbours                                                                                                

The 21st Century can still become Europe's century, provided European Member States pull together to make their common goals a reality

We have come a long way signing up to the universal Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement. Now we have to find ways to implement these unprecedented milestones", stated EESC rapporteur Brenda King.

Facing the 4th industrial revolution, we know we are not going to stop innovation because we need it, but we must think about what needs to be done to create value for society. We have to put people back into the centre of politics and the economy. What is very clear in this rapidly changing world is we need more policy, not less! "

The results of this hearing will feed into an opinion on a long-term strategy moving towards a more sustainable Europe the EESC is currently preparing.

All presentations from the hearing are available here.