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Top EU leaders debating future of Europe agree civic space is and must remain key to European democracy
In his speech on the occasion of the European Economic and Social Committee's 60th anniversary on 24 May, EESC President Luca Jahier articulated the Committee's resolve not to rest on its laurels and charted a course for the EESC's future action based on seven priorities.
Speaking at the special commemorative plenary, President Luca Jahier highlighted the milestones in the EESC's history and recalled its major past achievements in successfully initiating some key EU legislation. From the Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers to its pioneering proposal for a financial transaction tax, the "EESC has much to be proud of", he said.
President Jahier proposed some solutions to the challenges facing Europe today and outlined the EESC's priority areas for actions in the years to come:
- reasserting the Union's values
- implementing the sustainable development agenda
- stepping up coordination of economic policy within the EU
- managing artificial intelligence for the good of mankind
- working towards an ambitious multiannual financial framework based on solidarity and fostering cohesion
- developing a sense of European identity though culture and education
- actively shaping relations with the EU's neighbourhood and beyond.
"Our actions must be decisive and visionary. Let us be inspired by the spirit of '58, and create a new narrative of hope. Let us drive a second European renaissance together, in which we once again trust that we are indeed the protagonists of our present and future", said President Jahier, and he concluded by saying: "We are ready for the next 60 years. This is not a threat. It is a promise."
In the ensuing debate, EC President Jean Claude-Juncker, EP Vice-President Ramón Valcarcel Siso and CoR President Karl-Heinz Lambertz discussed with Mr Jahier how best to tackle Europe's challenges in the run-up to the 2019 European elections.
Despite a new Eurobaromoter survey showing that more Europeans than ever since 1983 see EU membership as a positive thing for their country, citizens' fears persist and populist Euroscepticism is still strong. Organising citizen and civil society dialogues on the future of Europe, as EU institutions have been doing, is all very well, but they also need to work together to make the most of public input if they want to put the wind in Europe's sails, EU leaders agreed.
Jean-Claude Juncker insisted on the need to communicate the EU's successes: "Since the beginning of our term of office, we have initiated over 700 citizen dialogues", he said, but emphasised that more needs to be done to highlight the successes of which Europe can be proud, such as the creation of 10 million new jobs during the Commission's current term.
Asked how they see the EESC's role in the future of Europe, Ramón Valcarcel Siso said: "the EESC not only can but should and does complement our action. We shouldn't forget that the EESC defends and promotes structured dialogue and on that basis it is contributing a great deal to European democracy. The EESC is the per se scenario where one can help build bridges between the institutions and European civil society – the umbilical cord, the connection between civil society and the institutions – so what better way of ensuring that organised civil society is able to enrich and help strengthen and further build the EU?"
Karl-Heinz Lambertz stressed the key role of both the CoR and the EESC: "Europe urgently needs bridges towards citizens. Where are citizens living? In their villages, regions, businesses, associations. And those who represent them – social partners and civil society on the one hand and local and regional authorities on the other – are a forum where some really important work can be done. We need to be able to persuade citizens of one thing: Europe is not in Brussels, or Luxembourg, or Strasbourg, alone. Europe is at home and that message needs to enter citizens' hearts and minds."
In an inspirational speech, Herman Van Rompuy, former president of the European Council, expressed hope and confidence in Europe's future and stressed the EESC's role in it: "Our democracies will be more resilient if we involve social organisations and civil society as a whole. We shouldn’t leave the space between the individual and the state empty. Social media are not filling that gap. We need the filter and dialogue of these intermediate bodies. Conversation is a constitutive piece of our democracies. Social capital is key. And your committee is an emanation of that part of our political and social culture." He also reminded those present that "we can't change the past, but we can change the future"
Darja Isaksson, a member of the Swedish prime minister's National Innovation Council, put forward the views of Europe's younger generation calling on EU leaders to rise to the challenge of sustainable development and the digital revolution: "We are the generation of humanity who knows that what took us this far will not be enough to take us further", she said. "We understand that we must transform our societies into something sustainable. There is one generation of leaders with the window of opportunity to achieve this, and that is the generation in this room. The challenge is enormous. But the good news is that we are the first generation equipped with the tools and technology that make such change possible", she said, insisting on the need for citizen-centric processes that allow people to become involved in shaping policy more than ever before.
The debate was followed by contributions from the assembly and testimonies from the former presidents of the EESC who attended the ceremony. Two young people who had submitted some of the Your Europe Your Say 2018's winning proposals and one participant from the very first year of this event also took the floor to say that they were very proud to be European.
President Jahier closed the ceremony with a quote from Pope John Paul II, calling on participants not to be afraid of the present, but to dare to live it with courage.
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