Since 2008, we have had one crisis after another - what is known as a "multiple crisis". Many people are simply wondering what will come next, showing how fear and uncertainty have grown. It is true that most crises are imported. But still. The Union overcame all those dangerous hurdles that sometimes threatened its existence. We are good at that. But at the same time we also have positive challenges: are we as good at dealing with those?
When I see how the Union is using the Recovery Fund designed to combat the social and economic impact of the pandemic in order to accelerate the environmental and digital transitions, I have hope! We are combining crisis management with a long-term vision, and this is the hardest thing to do in today's politics, which is obsessed with short-term thinking and action.
Achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 is not just literally vital for our survival, it should also help us keep our economy competitive. We must not make the same mistakes we made with the digital revolution. We almost missed that train.
A real climate policy will also help us achieve another central objective: the strategic autonomy of the Union or some form of European sovereignty. A climate policy will enable us to reduce and avoid fossil fuel imports like Russian gas. The Green Deal will help with climate and economic issues and will make the EU more autonomous. None of these aspects stands alone: they are all dependent on the others.
I'll go one step further. If the Union wants to play a geopolitical role, it has to be competitive, because the economy determines the balance of power in the world. That is why the environmental and digital transition is so important. That is why we must continue to speak with one voice on trade - as we did with Brexit, with the series of Free Trade Agreements that we have concluded such as the one with Japan, and with China on investment. Even during the Trump era, the Comission president was able to avoid a trade war because we were united. But geopolitically we can only be really relevant if we become much less dependent on other global actors in many areas: digital technology, energy, migration, financial services (and this includes being less dependent on the City and the US dollar), food, public health, etc. We can only do this if we join forces at industrial level. Size matters. Scale matters. We are making progress in all these areas but sometimes that progress is too slow. We need to think more strategically, less naively and more European.
I hope that the Conference on the Future of Europe will also focus on our internal challenges. We live in a new world technologically, demographically, economically, environmentally and geopolitically. All these developments are happening faster than we thought or feared. Yes, everything has become urgent.
Within the Union, we must take care to remain or regain social and political stability. The pandemic has created new inequalities and exacerbated old ones. Labour markets are increasingly split between people who are less and more educated and so some groups risk feeling abandoned, especially now that the digital revolution seems to have begun. The Recovery Fund and joint purchasing of vaccines show that European solidarity exists. At national level too, there is much work to be done to improve social cohesion. The pandemic caused a spectacular increase in the number of poor people, just as extreme poverty increased again worldwide after decades of decline. Social cohesion is rightly so dear to the European Economic and Social Committee. Politically, actions in a number of countries have undermined the rule of law and the freedom of speech and of the media and thus of elections themselves. This has triggered a reaction.
We are certainly not short of challenges so we must make sure we are ready, willing and able to face them together. This is no time for doomsayers but for people, governments and organisations of hope.
Herman van Rompuy
President of the European Policy Centre