I would like to thank you for your invitation. It is an honour for me to be with you today at your plenary session, even if this time it can only be virtually.
Let me begin by sharing with you my long-lasting and close relation to your country. Since 1995, I have been a member of the management board of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work based in Bilbao. Therefore, it is quite natural that I feel a strong attachment to your country and notably the Spanish working environment.
I am all the more pleased and thankful that there is also a very solid and long-standing cooperation between your Council and the EESC. We are working together on many different issues and at many occasions. Just to give some examples: you are an active player in the work and the meetings of the European Semester Group as well as in our common activities related to Euromed.
I would also like to thank you for your strong commitment in the network of the national ESCs of the EU and the EESC and its annual meetings. This year’s annual meeting could - due to the extraordinary circumstances - only be held in the form of a videoconference. Nevertheless, we have learnt from the Spanish delegate, Ms Martin Nieto, that the Spanish ESC had been very active in the context of the COVID-19 crisis measures and had issued a number of recommendations and opinions, e.g. the opinion on the new law on teleworking. Our Committee will also work on an opinion on "Teleworking and gender equality", at the request of the incoming Portuguese Presidency. This is a very important message: it confirms that both at European and at national level, there is a strong demand for a concrete involvement of ours structures!
Actually, you might remember that a strong joint message of the ESCs network had been forwarded to the Presidents of all EU Institutions. Commission President von der Leyen has already reacted by saying that she “…warmly welcomes the EESC and the national ESCs' willingness to contribute and that they should be key partners in the organisation of the Conference on the Future of Europe”.
Last but not least, I want to mention the signature of our joint "Schuman" declaration of 9 May 2020 which marked the 70th anniversary of the Robert Schuman Declaration.
The EESC, together with the network of national ESCs, is indeed the right place to share best practices, exchange of views and share the best solutions for recovery and reconstruction.
The social partners, the other civil society organisations and the ESCs will have to play a key role in the process of recovery and reconstruction, as they are rooted in the reality of our societies and economies and know the reality of Europe’s workplaces.
Speaking about the current situation and the need for recovery, please allow me to say a few words about our current context:
COVID-19 has caused the biggest global socio-economic crisis and the deepest recession in EU's history. According to the latest forecast, the EU's economic output will not return to pre-pandemic levels before 2022. Companies, and especially SMEs, close down or struggle to survive, and people lose their jobs and sources of revenue.
The crisis has deepened inequalities and worsened pre-existing vulnerabilities. At the same time, we still need to deal with pre-existing mega trends like digitalization and greening - we are facing a new industrial revolution and at the same time we need to build a sustainable economic system of the 21st century that is truly worthy of the name.
Added to this are the challenges of an ageing population and demographic trends in Europe, a changing geopolitical landscape that the EU has to cope with, migration, the reappearance of autocratic regimes, populism, etc.
In this multifaceted and overly complex context, I believe that the EESC can really bring substantial value added into the ongoing political debate when focusing its competences and resources on three core issues:
• Economic prosperity,
• Social inclusiveness,
• Environmental sustainability.
These are the three pillars of my Presidency priorities and of my vision of a post-COVID era. I also believe in an open, values-based society, which enables all civil society organisations to flourish.
In the current situation, we first need to quickly tackle the economic and social hardship caused by COVID-19. Europe's companies, workers and people need support to survive, recover and become more resilient.
The Next Generation EU Recovery Plan is the core instrument to implement the economic recovery. We must ensure that the funds reach those in need – be it the unemployed or businesses.
Furthermore, we need an effective post-COVID recovery plan to ensure public and private investment and solvency support for the survival of businesses and jobs and to facilitate transition towards a competitive, green and digital Europe.
There are many more elements that need to be implemented in order to relaunch the economy, from the completion of the Single Market and taxation to the important EU’s external dimension in terms of trade, partnerships and not least the relationship with the UK.
However, it is also for the EESC and the national ESCs to ensure that a classical economic and industrial policy does not seek to return to an old normality that already had no future since long time.
The future should not look the same. As said by Winston Churchill, "never waste a good crisis"!
When looking at the social dimension of the present situation, we must observe that the coronavirus pandemic has reinforced existing inequalities. The Vienna-based European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), in its Annual Report, considers the consequences of the health crisis as a threat to social cohesion, highlighting how existing inequalities are worsening and intolerance and violations of fundamental rights are on the rise.
We must emerge from this crisis by preserving our social model and our democracies, which requires a "living and critical civil society" that is not rigidly obedient or even conformist.
The 20 principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights will serve as a compass for social convergence and for a fair and sustainable recovery. As part of the transition towards more greening and digitalisation, we must ensure that nobody is left behind and that social policies properly respond to the impact of transition.
Employment and income for workers is a priority, while paying particular attention to and supporting vulnerable groups, such as atypical workers, children in poverty, persons with disabilities, people in marginalised areas and people with a migrant or ethnic minority background.
Adequate active labour market policies and well-equipped public employment services that are able to effectively match supply and demand on the labour market are essential.
Lifelong learning, and matching the world of education and training with the needs of the labour market is an ongoing challenge, particularly with a view of young people.
The health systems of practically every European country need to be strengthened through the creation of an “EU Health Union”.
As regards the environmental dimension the transition from a traditionally growth-based economic system towards a sustainable economic model will be the most challenging task in the years to come.
The ecological transition, launched by the Commission's “European Green Deal”, will help modernise industry and create new high-quality jobs and more job opportunities. However, ambitious climate-protection measures often represent significant challenges for businesses.
Therefore, in the current context of economic downturn, it is essential to provide the best possible support to achieve recovery, at the same time enabling innovation and investment in climate and environmental protection.
In the efforts to achieve a greener economy, business is definitely part of the solution and must be encouraged to play an active part in shaping the transition to a low-carbon and resource-efficient economy.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me say a few final words on one of the most ambitious projects that is presently on the agenda of the institutions of the EU, the Conference on the Future of Europe.
The Conference will be an opportunity to discuss the prerogatives and functioning of the EU in relation to the expectations of its citizens. It will also be the opportunity to engage in a more structured debate aimed at improving the functioning of the EU not only in terms of institutional dynamics, but also in terms of policies.
Not least, the Covid pandemic has highlighted severe shortcomings in the EU, which is not equipped, either in terms of its competences nor its budgets, to deal with certain emergencies, not least also health emergencies. At the Conference on the Future of Europe we will therefore have to discuss, or even clarify, the sharing of responsibilities between the Union and the Member States in order to be ready to face other future crises that may not be limited to the health sector.
The conclusions of this year’s annual meeting of the national ESCs and the EESC “reiterate their willingness to cooperate fully with governments and parliaments and participate in designing, formulating and implementing processes at all levels and all stages, and on all specific matters in order to protect the public's health, safety and well-being". According to ESCs, the envisaged measures should emerge through social dialogue and consensus building and the participation and agreement of the social partners and organised civil society.
I can only support such a participatory approach. The motto of my Presidency is "United for the Future of Europe", as I deeply believe that it is only TOGETHER, that we can achieve the recovery and the transformations that are needed. Together – organized civil society and decision-makers; EU level and Member States. Therefore, I fully support a strengthened cooperation between our two institutions. Thank you for your reliable partnership and support! I am looking forward to our discussion.