Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to thank you for inviting me to this very inspiring Summit. I am very glad to be with you, although I could only do it remotely. I am also very pleased that the European Economic and Social Committee offered the patronage to this event and is represented with another five speakers on various topics. The Committee is the only EU institution created more than 60 years ago to build a bridge between Brussels and the organisations of civil society in all the EU countries and even beyond. The members of the EESC come from all walks of life and represent employers' organisations, trade unions and the organised civil society at large. The EESC has an advisory role for the European institutions and is consulted on most of EU policies by the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU.
So, what is the way forward for the European Union according to organised civil society represented in the EESC? First of all, I am convinced that there can be no future if civil society is not placed in the driving seat. This means reconnecting Europe with its people and give them a new sense of ownership on the European project. This also means placing civil society organisations at the centre of the recovery that we now need for the European Union. It also means that economic prosperity and social inclusion as well as ecological sustainability can very well go together. It also means defending our common values and the rule of law.
It is quite an ambitious project, considering the challenges confronting our continent. We have experienced two major crises whose effects have held no bounds on our lives: the COVID-19 pandemic and the war against Ukraine, the first-since-World-War-II conflict on European soil. The latter is destroying lives and forced millions of innocent people to flee their homes. The war also caused the surge of energy and food prices across Europe. "Heat or eat" is now the sad reality for many Europeans, who also struggle to pay their bills. Because of inflation, high energy prices and lack of raw materials, many businesses are closing and EU competitiveness is suffering. Business confidence for next year is even lower than during the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the height of the pandemic – this comes out of a very recent Economic Survey carried out by Eurochambres, and based on responses from over 42.000 businesses across 25 European countries. These developments put in jeopardise the early signs of good recovery from the pandemic. It is extremely difficult to implement an economic policy that can simultaneously reduce inflation and ensure economic growth, employment and the sustainability of public finances.
In this context, the revision of the EU's economic governance framework is crucial in supporting the EU growth agenda. We need a framework that strengthens public investments, allows for more cyclical leeway and permits greater flexibility for countries in the adjustments of their debt's paths. At the same time, we need to guarantee fiscal sustainability. To tackle the cost-of-living crisis, the EESC supports a coalition against energy poverty, pooling together civil society organisations and policy-makers. We are convinced that the way forward for the EU is to show that nobody will be left behind and to ensure that our societies become more resilient to future crises, as more are coming.
Regarding the COVID 19 crisis, our opinions on the pandemic have put at the forefront carers and recovery. We are bringing together all relevant stakeholders to help build stronger and resilient health and social care systems across the EU. Demographic change is another crisis. Declining birth rates combined with increasing life expectancy are turning the European population "increasingly grey" and will add more and more weight on European workers and on younger people. Promoting solidarity between generations and including as many people as possible in the labour market – including more women, young people and migrants – needs to become a true priority for the EU.
Dealing with yet another crisis - the climate urgency - cannot be put on hold, as we were reminded by COP27. The EU needs to accelerate the reshaping of its energy and climate policy to address short term shocks while advancing towards the inescapable decarbonisation of societies. As the house of the European civil society, we believe that Europe has to be a leader on climate action, closing the gaps between ambition and policy measures, although the EU cannot do it alone – the efforts of countries and partners worldwide are necessary as well. But the rapid shift towards a decarbonised economy will entail massive challenges for companies, workers, citizens and regions, especially those that are the most reliant on carbon-intensive sectors and industries. All of them need to be supported in this transition.
One of EESC's concrete recommendations is to encourage governments and regional authorities to create Just Transition Commissions to allow the social partners and civil society organisations, including youth organisations, to make proposals and to negotiate just transition plans. The EESC is also very active to promote circular economy strategies across sectors and nations, as they have the potential to slash global Greenhouse gases emissions by 39%! Yet, we still have a long way to go. The EU is only around 12% circular despite the major legislative upgrading process launched in 2015. Further progress can only be achieved by engaging with all civil society components, notably to overcome remaining barriers. That's why initiatives such as the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform are very useful, and the EESC plays a crucial and leading role in it. The war in Ukraine and the resulting energy crisis is only one additional argument in favour of the green transition. That is also a priority of the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF). As EESC, we have called for the full implementation of the national Recovery and Resilience Plans and supported the inclusion of REPowerEU chapters in them, as a way to speed up the EU’s strategic autonomy in the energy transition. The EESC is also asking a better involvement of civil society organisations, in line with the partnership principle. This will entail greater accountability by the national authorities as well as a more effective and meaningful deployment of the funds.
Speaking about transitions: to speed up the green and digital transitions enshrined in the EU Green Deal and the EU digital strategy, enormous investments will have to be mobilised. We need an additional annual private and public investment of about EUR 650 billion over the next decade. The green and digital revolutions also entail an unprecedented change in the world of work, with the skills required for many jobs changing. With less than half of Europeans in possession of basic digital skills, the EU will need a true skills revolution to enable smooth transitions and to secure that no one is left behind. For this reason, it is very important to put the focus on skills needs and skills mismatch during 2023, the European Year of Skills.
The involvement of social partners and other civil society organisations is also necessary to get citizens on board with the transitions and to create ownership amongst the population of the reforms that are needed. Youth is part of this equation: 2022 is quickly coming to an end and with that the European Year of Youth. We must strive to keep up momentum and support stronger youth engagement at all stages of the EU decision-making process. That is why the EESC is calling for the introduction of an EU Youth Test, which would present an opportunity to complement existing participatory mechanisms and to tackle the lack of a youth perspective in many policy domains.
Not only young people strive to be involved more, but also citizens of every age: that's why the follow-up to the Conference on the Future of Europe will be of outmost importance. Citizens' panels are a fantastic instrument to make citizens closer to the EU, empower them and involve them in decision making. For this reason, we welcome the decision of the Commission to make Citizens' Panels a more regular feature of our democratic life. As house of the European organised civil society and only EU institution committed to including its views in the European law making, the EESC is and will be a natural ally in this process, as it was during the Conference, bringing the debate on the ground. I said it since the beginning: this Conference can be a great opportunity or the worst boomerang; it will all depend on the follow-up. For sure it will be a very good test, and a very timely one, on the ability of the EU to modernise itself.
As President von der Leyen underlined in her "State of the Union" speech, quoting words of President Sassoli, "Democracy has not gone out of fashion, but it must update itself in order to keep improving people's lives". There can be no other way forward for the EU than that and, as EESC, we are eager to play our role. This is our mission and our "raison d'être". Either Europe will remain faithful to our core values and socio-economic objectives, being close to its citizens, or it simply will not be!