On 13 March 2017, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a high-level conference in Rome to mark the sixty-year anniversary of the founding treaties of Europe, signed in Rome itself on 25 March 1957. Rather than celebrating the occasion in pomp, the EESC preferred to focus on the important milestones achieved and, above all, explore three issues that are crucial if we are to overcome the current crisis and guarantee a better future for Europe: tackling growing social inequalities, getting back on track for economic growth and providing an effective response, consistent with its principles, to the challenge of migration.
The conference, entitled “Sixty years of European Community - Let’s shape the future!”, took place in the Chamber of Deputies at Montecitorio and was organised in cooperation with the Italian prime minister's office and under the auspices of the Parliament. The conference was opened by the Hon. Guglielmo Epifani, Georges Dassis, EESC President, Sandro Gozi, Italian deputy state secretary for European policy and affairs and Ian Borg, parliamentary secretary, representing the Maltese Presidency of the EU. In his opening address, Georges Dassis outlined Europe’s main achievements and the current difficulties, stressing that:
This sixtieth anniversary should be the occasion for a fresh start - that of a Europe which is much more united, which champions the cause of solidarity and which genuinely thinks of the well-being of the people of Europe. The future must be in the hands of the forces of social progress, of businesses, workers and all those who want to live in peace and dignity. I hope that by helping to shape the future of the EU, the European Economic and Social Committee will play its part in making this vision of Europe a reality.
There were three working sessions at which the following topics were addressed:
- Social Europe as a tool for tackling inequalities
- Completing the Economic and Monetary Union for a stronger Europe
- Integration policies and immigration
Following the proceedings, Mr Dassis paid special tribute on behalf of the European Economic and Social Committee to Dr Pietro Bartolo, in charge of the health services on Lampedusa and known for his award-winning film “Fuocammare”, for the great example of humanity shown in coming to the aid of refugees and migrants who embark on the dangerous Central Mediterranean route. The plaque on Dr Bartolo’s award read:
European civil society thanks Dr Pietro Bartolo for his courage and humanity in addressing the migration crisis, in which Lampedusa has been the first haven for those fleeing war and placing their hopes in Europe.
Thank you for thinking of a doctor from Lampedusa. Lampedusa acts as a life jacket in the Mediterranean, and has always lived up to this role, as have Malta and Greece. Lampedusa has taken in everyone who has arrived for the past 26 years. They call it the door to Europe, as it is the last stretch of European shore facing Africa. It is a door that is always open, and has not once been closed in 26 years. No one has ever been met with a wall or barbed wire here, said Dr Bartolo, visibly moved as he received the award.
The people of Lampedusa have never turned anyone away. As I see it, the people here are suffering from a strange and extraordinary ailment, one that goes by the name of “welcome” and “solidarity”. It is my hope that this ailment will be contagious, and spread to all people everywhere.
In his closing remarks, Mr Dassis summed up the main conclusions of the conference:
- the European Union must be preserved, and to do this we must put people's needs at the very heart of the European project;
- there can be no future for the European Union without a social dimension;
- we must avoid creating competition between the workers of the different countries because we all share the same destiny;
- one of the cornerstones of Europe is harmonising progress, which means that it is absolutely essential to avoid a race to the bottom;
- politicians and the mass media must focus on Europe’s major achievements and stop blaming the EU for all the ills of the world; they must remind people that decisions in Brussels are taken by the ministers of the 28 Member States, by a European Parliament elected by the people and by the Commission, which represents the general European interest;
- there is a blatant imbalance between Europe’s economic and social dimensions today; we must shore up the social dimension, as this will also create more opportunities for businesses; the social dimension is not a cost to be borne on the debit side, but a productive investment that will help the real economy;
- attention must be paid to the quality of work and of jobs for young people. It is important to give young people prospects. Young people who have lived in a state of ever worsening degradation find it harder to believe in building Europe, so it is important to adopt measures to support them;
- it is vital to equip ourselves at the earliest possible opportunity with a genuine European common immigration, asylum and integration policy – something that the EESC proposed decades ago. We can no longer continue to rely purely on the good will of individuals and of civil society;
- the EESC’s proposals apply to the whole of the EU, but this should not prevent Member States in the euro area from going further in their efforts to bring about Economic and Monetary Union. Countries that do not belong to the euro area should not see this as detrimental to their interests – on the contrary: a stronger euro area will hold greater appeal, something that will persuade governments of those countries that do not belong to propose to their people membership not just of a common currency, but of a fully-fledged economic and monetary union;
- economic policy can be modified by the Council and the Commission without having to resort to treaty change;
- it is unacceptable that taxation should continue to be a factor in dumping and competition between Member States;
- the Juncker Plan does not go far enough: massive public and private investment is needed in human capital, with policies in support of families to guarantee them a decent life even in the absence of work.
I believe that as representatives of civil society, we have today succeeded in laying the foundations for a fresh start. Now we have to channel our efforts into conveying our ideas and proposals to Europe’s political leaders, said Mr Dassis in conclusion. In the coming months, the conclusions of the conference will provide input to the EESC's work on the White Paper on the future of the EU.
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