Event on the Conference on the Future of Europe "Setting out a New Vision for the Future of Europe"

Dear colleagues, distinguished speakers, ladies and gentlemen,

I warmly welcome everybody, whether attending this event in person at the premises of the EESC or connected remotely from all over Europe. Thank you for joining us!

The world and Europe have been fighting the COVID-19 pandemic for more than a year now; not only the disease itself, but the economic and social crisis it triggered. While we are still battling the virus, our focus is more and more on the recovery and the way forward.

Indeed, the autumn 2021 Economic Forecast of the Commission offered good news as it showed that the European economy bounces back from the pandemic recession faster than expected. In fact, the EU economy is projected to growth by 5% in 2021, 4.3% in 2022 and 2.5% in 2023. However, we must not forget that these forecasts greatly depend on the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic, both within and outside the EU.

The stricter measures introduced again in several countries clearly indicate that the pandemic is far from being over. There are also economic risks relate to the potentially prolonged impact of the supply constraints and bottlenecks. There is a pick-up in inflation, driven by the surge in energy prices, but it seems to be also linked to a broad set of post-pandemic economic adjustments.

The biggest challenge now is to ensure a balanced recovery throughout Europe while laying down a path towards a resilient and sustainable future.

It therefore remains crucial that enterprises and workers receive continued support to survive, recover and help rebuild the economy. This is why it is imperative that the NextGenerationEU, the EU's recovery instrument of which the centrepiece is the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF), makes available the necessary financial means to counter the negative economic and social effects of the pandemic. The support must reach those truly in need.

Importantly, this economic stimulus goes beyond simply encouraging consumption, as it is linked to structural reforms, concentrated along two important axes: the green and digital transformation. Thus, the RRF not only restarts the economy, but perhaps even more importantly, it supports the design and implementation of fundamental quantitative and qualitative changes in the European economy.

The European Semester plays a very important role in the implementation of the Recovery and Resilience Plans (RRPs). It cannot be overstated how important it is to implement the RRPs effectively and fairly. The more parties are involved and the more transparent the implementation is, the better the end-result will be, for the benefit of the entire EU.

The organised civil society has a crucial role to play in this and as you know, the EESC is ready to play its part. Through our dedicated European Semester Group, we follow closely the implementation of the RRPs by using our network of social partners and NGOs across Europe.

The EU must bring the benefits of sustainable and inclusive growth to all European citizens through upward convergence, a strong Single Market and help prepare Europe to face current and future challenges.

In October, I took part in an event organised by Eurochambers on an entrepreneurial future for Europe. I found it a very interesting exercise as it enabled us to look into the new narrative for Europe that we endorse.

In these stormy times, working towards the economic recovery of Europe by ensuring that Europe becomes the most attractive place to start, run and grow a business should be high on our agenda.

European entrepreneurs and SMEs are currently struggling to survive. Estimates show that in 2020 the number of SMEs fell by 1.3% with over 90% of SMEs reporting a fall in turnover. European SMEs lost 1.5 million jobs to the crisis.

To encourage SMEs and businesses in general to become greener, their potential for radical and disruptive innovations must be stimulated. With the right legislative support, SMEs will be able to capitalise on innovative and sustainable practices quicker than larger firms will.

To succeed in the green transition, we have to focus on circular economy, which is fundamental for developing Europe's future economic model. As you all know, our Committee and the European Commission jointly set up a European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform. It is a European one-stop-shop for the circular economy community and one of our great successes.

Regarding digital transition, the COVID-19 crisis showed the important role of digital technologies and significantly accelerated their adoption by consumers and businesses. But digital business models need to be designed in a people- and values-oriented way.  That is why we need to provide a transparent and fair policy framework: the digital transition needs to be just, sustainable and socially acceptable. We need a European, human-centred approach to digitalisation.

Let us not forget that our SMEs need to be supported not only financially but also through an appropriate legislative framework. We would like to see a real guarantee that the recovery funds will reach all SMEs in need by providing tailored support measures. This requires a more comprehensive policy review and more precise and specific proposals on how to boost digitalisation, innovation and sustainability of SMEs. This is what we stressed in our opinion on the SME Strategy and I thank the rapporteur, Ms Angelova, for her excellent work.

I would like to recall that Europe’s global competitive advantage in high value-added products and services translates to more than 20% of the EU’s total value-added, with industry directly providing 35 million jobs. We need to make sure that the industrial sector, its companies and workers, are enabled to transition into a sustainable and digital future.

It is clear that there is much to do and Europe needs to use this crisis as an opportunity to re-define itself and determine its future. The Conference on the Future of Europe provides this opportunity on a silver plate.

We are at a key juncture as we are moving from the phase of outreach and direct involvement of citizens to the discussion based on the inputs received and to proposing solutions.

We are still organising events, but, at the same time, we are also ramping up the Committee's focus on the next phase. During this time, it will be important to defend the input that citizens and civil society provided to the Conference as their relation with the EU is at the centre of our efforts.

We want to bring the citizens, civil society and the EU closer together and make sure their interaction is not limited to the passivity that comes from being subject to institutional communication.

The Conference, from our perspective, is the perfect moment to establish a new narrative for Europe. One, which must rediscover an emotional connection going beyond the arid bureaucracy of an international agreement.

Europe's selling point has long been the fact we were on the same boat, moving towards a common goal. The Conference on the Future of Europe has bring this back to the centre stage.

This can happen only if we make sure that the Conference is inclusive, remains transparent, and if it brings visible results that are in line with the desires expressed by citizens.

This last point, translating the Conference results into policy is, in my opinion, the part that will require the highest level of attention and where the risk of deluding the citizens' expectations are the highest. For this reason, I proposed the creation of a dashboard that will allow citizens to monitor progress and will ensure transparency on the destiny of the ideas they produced.

We need to join forces to develop a vision for a new, post-COVID Europe.

With the EU recovery programme, NextGenerationEU, we have an unprecedented opportunity to not simply get back to the pre-crisis status quo but to foster the necessary reforms to help Europe face the digital and green transitions and to make Europe more sustainable, inclusive and resilient after this crisis than it was before.

Through the Conference on the Future of Europe, we continue to discuss what Europe we envision, but now, we have to make sure that this discussion has tangible results, for the benefit of all Europeans.

Thank you very much and I look forward to a fruitful discussion!

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"Setting out a New Vision for the Future of Europe"