The priorities of the Croatian Presidency of the EU, with Gordan Grlić Radman, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of the Republic of Croatia
Mr Radman presented the priorities of Croatia's EU presidency stating that Croatia chose "A strong Europe in the world of challenges" as the motto of its presidency to reflect the vision of an EU that acts in a united way for the benefit of all its Member States and citizens. Croatia’s policy towards the EU in the next six months consisted of four pillars: a Europe that develops, a Europe that protects, a Europe that connects and an influential Europe.
For the members of the Workers' Group, it was important that the Croatian presidency should show determination and unity to give answers to the enormous challenges ahead such as the climate crisis, burning inequalities, Brexit, attacks against fundamental rights and the rule of law in some countries, etc.
Oliver Röpke, President of the Workers' Group, stated that at this critical moment in its history, it was important for Europe to choose the right path. Citizens and workers needed 'A Europe that protects' above all in terms of their social and fundamental rights. Europe should ensure solidarity and guarantee the rule of law, it should protect its people against poverty, exclusion, discrimination. He called for a true action plan to implement the social pillar, to finally pave the way for a Social Europe.
Vilim Ribić spoke of the brain drain that plagued Croatia and other EU countries where economic depression had forced hundreds of thousands of high skilled workers to migrate to Western EU Member States. This caused inequalities to increase within the EU creating a fertile ground for populism and radicalisation which threatened its very foundations. He asked how Croatia was intending to raise awareness about these issues.
European Citizens' Initiative 'End the Cage Age'
Olga Kikou, who works for the organisation Compassion in World Farming, an international organisation working on animal welfare, presented the European Citizens' Initiative 'End the Cage Age'. This ECI calls on the European Commission to ban all cages for EU farm animals. Ms Kikou explained that 170 organisations and 1.5 million EU citizens from all Member States had supported the claim to ban cage rearing in the EU for a number of animals so far, which showed how concerned EU citizens were about animal suffering and sentience.
Workers' Group members Christophe Lefèvre and Piroska Kállay focused on the benefits of ECIs for democracy and the financial concerns with respect to free farming respectively.
As chair of the ad hoc ECI committee in the EESC, Christophe Lefèvre pointed out the importance of the European Citizens' Initiative as a tool that can help improve standards in EU legislation and as a means to promote democracy in consultation processes so that voices of citizens are better heard.
Piroska Kállay, expressed concern about the price consequences of rolling back factory farming and called for an in-depth analysis of current and alternative production methods.
From COP25 to the European Green Deal
What can the EU do for the climate after the disappointing results of the UN Climate Change Conference COP25? This was the focus of the plenary debate that gathered important personalities: Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Ovais Sarmad, from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Enrico Giovannini, representing the Italian Alliance for Sustainable Development (ASviS) and Semia Cherif, scientist from the network of Mediterranean Experts on Climate and Environmental Change (MedECC).
Commissioner Sinkevičius described the European Green Deal as the EU's commitment to stepping up efforts to reverse the negative trends in the environment, which was at a tipping point. The Green Deal was a new growth strategy with sustainability and social justice at its heart; it was setting the agenda for Europe to become a global leader in climate action, in line with the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
The general message that came out of all interventions was that it was essential to deal with the climate crisis very urgently and at an unprecedented level.
For the Workers' Group members, the social dimension in the Green Deal was crucial and had to balance out all other aspects.
Peter Schmidt, President of the EESC's Sustainable Development Observatory and rapporteur of the timely opinion on "The sustainable economy we want", insisted that tackling the social question was crucial to ensure that the transition to a sustainable and carbon neutral economy left nobody behind. It was therefore important to have an overarching strategy that took into account all aspects – social, environmental and economic – so that citizens, workers and the economy would be certain that the EU knew exactly where it was going with this Green Deal in order to support it. As the representative body of European civil society, the EESC should play an important role in this framework.
Lucie Studničná, President of the EESC's consultative commission dealing with industrial change, warned that the transition to a climate friendlier economy would affect regions differently: coal mining regions and regions that depended on heavy industry were particularly threatened. She called for a holistic approach that put people first to avoid the exacerbation of inequalities and a brain drain in those regions.
Dumitru Fornea stressed that to tackle the new environmental challenges the Green Deal should be the new Social Contract to help workers from the affected regions. The Just Transition had to be more than nice words; it needed enough funding for concrete measures.
Maria Nikolopoulou was concerned about whether global consumers and businesses were ready to change their attitudes to embrace sustainability. Were consumers ready to pay more for sustainable products? Were businesses ready to make less profit so that the environmental revolution was fair for all? These were important points that should also be taken into consideration.
Farewell ceremony for UK members and delegates
The Committee organised a farewell ceremony for the EESC's UK members, who were participating in their last plenary before Brexit, with the participation of several personalities, including Tom Jenkins, Former EESC president, and British activist Madeleine Kay.
Tom Jenkins pointed out that the UK trade unions were among the most pro-European organisations in Britain thanks to Jacques Delors who developed social dialogue and partnerships. Civil society dialogue should now be a stepping-stone for a structured relationship between the UK and the rest of Europe.
Oliver Röpke, President of the Workers' Group, thanked the UK members of the Committee and particularly the British members of the Workers' Group for their commitment to improving the working and living conditions of workers across the EU. He called for the protection of the economic, social and political ties that had been developed with the UK as member of the EU. The links between civil society in the UK and the rest of the EU civil society would remain strong.
Judith McKnight, who gave a statement on behalf of the UK members of the Workers' Group, expressed her gratitude for the support and solidarity the EESC showed towards the British people. She regretted that the concept of social partnership greatly varied in the UK and that currently there was no forum there bringing social partners together with representatives of UK civil society. However, the UK members of the EESC would never cease to care about EU civil society and would keep on playing their part in fighting any policy that threatened the well-being of UK and EU citizens and workers.