EESC's Connecting EU seminar on health, social Europe and democracy a great success in Lisbon

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) hopes its seminar, which focused on some of the most pressing issues faced by Europeans today, will encourage people to share their ideas and concerns on  the Conference on the Future of Europe's online space, making it a true democratic exercise and helping to build a more positive narrative for Europe

On 18 and 19 November the EESC held its annual flagship communication event, the Connecting EU seminar, as part of the Conference on the future of Europe. Organised in partnership with the Portuguese Economic and Social Council, the seminar took place at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon.   

Entitled the What kind of Europe do you dream of? Civil Society and the Conference on the future of Europe, two-day Connecting EU seminar brought together academics, journalists and politicians to discuss whether there is a need to step up EU action in the areas of health, economy and social justice, and democracy.

The three topics were chosen from the nine proposed for citizens' CoFoE discussions. The conclusions of the seminar will be recorded on the CoFoE's interactive multilingual platform which allows people to share their views on the proposed topics.

Opening the seminar, EESC President Christa Schweng said: We believe that the Conference will only be a success if we manage to get the EU closer to its citizens and let them rediscover an emotional link with the EU. We have to make sure it does not remain an empty exercise. To ensure accountability and transparency I propose a dashboard that will clearly define the proposals of the Conference. Its result has to be in line with the opinions expressed by citizens and then followed by decision makers.

The European Union is delivering. We should be proud of it and we should dare to dream about even more. One of the main priorities of the EESC for this Conference and I believe one of the keys to its success is to define a new narrative for Europe, one that puts civil society back in the driving seat, Ms Schweng concluded.

EESC Vice President for Communication Cillian Lohan said: The 92 million citizens that our EESC members represent give us strength and give us our identity. I am proud to have organised this ConnectingEU to ensure we make the most of that powerful network.

The keynote speech was delivered by Miguel Poiares Maduro, professor at the Catholic University of Portugal and the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute in Florence, and president of the Scientific Committee of the Gulbenkian Foundation's Future Forum.

Prof. Maduro said: The EU will have to be politically reorganised to be capable of politically reconciling the contrasting views of its people on some pressing issues like migration. Politics is still very nationally framed. But countries no longer have any power over big transnational companies. The EU has regulatory powers to bring them to account and this could be the added value of the EU for its citizens.

However, Prof. Maduro noted that the format the EU chose for the Conference – deliberative assemblies of citizens discussing a very broad range of topics – is a high risk method, as it might backfire if citizens' expectations are not met at the end of the process. The scope of the results of the Conference will, in his view, be largely determined by whether or not the EU Treaties are amended.

Member of the Portuguese Parliament and former State Secretary for Equality, Elza Pais, gave a powerful speech about the devastating effects of the COVID-19 crisis on women and vulnerable groups including minorities and persons with disabilities.

Women were the first to lose their jobs, but were on the front line in the fight against the pandemic. We estimate more than 7 million women and girls have been pushed below poverty level in the world. 11 million young girls lost their general education level during the pandemic, and this is a whole generation lost. There can be no economic development without women.



The Panels were introduced by the three presidents of the EESC Groups.

Opening the panel on health, the president of the Employers' Group Stefano Mallia said: Citizens expect the EU to protect their health, therefore investment in innovation and research must be at the forefront. The current Treaties provide good scope for more cooperation and need not to be changed.

The debate focused on the health crisis and its impact on the future of Europe. The panellists discussed the recent European initiative on the European Health Union and the need for the EU to have more powers in the field of public health. Views diverged on whether there was a need for the EU Treaties to be amended increase the EU competence in health and on the strategic role health can have for the EU.  

The panel on A stronger economy, social justice and jobs was opened by the president of Workers' Group, Oliver Röpke: After the financial crisis of 2008, there were cuts in social protection and pension systems, from which some countries have not recovered until today. Luckily, we no longer discuss whether the EU should play a role in social policy, but what role it should play.

The panel discussed the prospect of the Resilience and Recovery Facility triggering social reforms in Member States. It also examined the proposal for EU action on minimum wages, amid dissenting views on whether there was a need for an EU Directive in the area, and discussed the problem of poverty and the need for the EU to coordinate action on minimum incomes and tax competition.

The panel on European democracy was introduced by the president of Diversity Europe Group, Séamus Boland: Journalism in Europe should come to be valued and supported for what it really is: a public good of inestimable benefit to the health and safety of our societies. We must have a mechanism to enforce this. Greater media protection and diversity should become a focus point both of the discussions and the recommendations of the Conference on the Future of Europe.

The panel featured speakers from Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists who said their organisations had high hopes for EU action on SLAPPs – abusive litigation targeting journalists and human rights defenders – as well as for the Media Act, stressing the need for the EU to propose binding legislation to ensure the press is a public good. They gave an overview of the dramatic situation faced by journalists globally, with 42 having been killed around the world in 2020 alone, and 235 currently imprisoned.

Matthew Caruana Galizia, anti-corruption activist and son of the murdered Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, gave a poignant testimony about his relentless fight for justice for his mother, who had more than 40 lawsuits filed against her at the time of her death.

Reporters from Hungary's independent news portal Telex, Slovakia's Denník SME and Poland's Onet gave personal accounts of the media situation in their respective countries.

Every year the Connecting EU seminar brings together communicators – communication officers and press officers of civil society organisations that are represented in or linked with the EESC – to discuss a topic that is at the centre of current political and media debates. 2021 is the 14th year that it has taken place.