84 million Europeans live below the poverty line and 26 million are unemployed. The economic and financial crisis has turned into a social and democratic one and only 31% of Europeans trust the EU. Is the EU ready to respond to its citizens' expectations and concerns?
On 23 October, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a high-level conference in Vilnius to discuss the opportunities and challenges facing the EU and the need for an equitable, social and accountable Europe. Under the auspices of the Lithuanian Presidency of the EU, representatives of European civil society and the Lithuanian authorities explored new ways to protect the European social model and help it recover. Economic stimulus must be accompanied by social measures. All participants agreed that democratic and political legitimacy were at stake.
Luca Jahier, president of the EESC's Various Interests Group stated: “As a result of the crisis, in some austerity-hit countries we have witnessed increasing political extremism, demagogy and prejudice. The fiscal, banking and financial unions are necessary pillars of Economic and Monetary Union. But they must be complemented by measures to promote growth and equity, employment creation, poverty reduction and territorial and social cohesion. Today, it is up to Lithuania, this economically performing country which is now at the helm of the EU, to share the experience of its own difficult economic reforms. Lithuania has important lessons to teach its European neighbours. It is not for nothing that 80% of Lithuanians think that EU membership brings benefits.”
Vydas Gedvilas, Deputy Speaker of the Seimas, added: “Since its independence, Lithuania had a very clear direction towards faster integration into the EU. It took us a decade, after intense efforts, but it happened in 2004.”
During the conference the following proposals were made:
- A European Education Network for Unemployed Workers, which would offer job seekers a two-year re-training course and cross-border education vouchers.
- A new European Social Action Programme with clear tangible targets (i.e. a minimum guaranteed income)
- European Social Bonds to support investment in economically viable social projects
- A stronger European Youth Guarantee Scheme with additional EU funds, extended to young people aged 30 and to regions where youth unemployment is less than the current requirement of 25%
- Rapid measures to stimulate the real economy, SMEs and employment
Miroslavas Monkevičius, Secretary of Vilnius City Council highlighted: “Youth is our great potential but it has not been used effectively. Now more than ever, we need measures to get young people into the job market.”
Rolandas Krisciunas, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, concluded: “We need more Europe in the European Union. The EESC is very valuable to civic society and its work should be more visible. The Lithuanian Presidency of the EU, is pleased to be able to count on the support, expertise and advice of the EESC”.
 The EESC is an EU institution and the 'bridge' between European policymakers and organised civil society.