Portugal's Prime Minister, António Costa, participated in the European Economic and Social Committee's plenary session on 27 January to present the priorities of the Portuguese presidency of the EU. Portugal has pushed the social agenda up to the top of its presidency's programme and asked the EESC to provide its expertise on seven key opinions for the EU's future.
Under the motto "Time to deliver: a fair, green and digital recovery", the presidency will focus on three major priorities: promoting a recovery leveraged by the climate and digital transitions; implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights; and strengthening Europe’s autonomy whilst remaining open to the world.
These priorities resonate perfectly with the priorities of our Committee: we are advocating an EU that prospers economically and is socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable. I was also glad to see that one of the priorities of the presidency is to reach an agreement on the Conference on the Future of Europe, to allow the process to move forward. This conference is now more important than ever. The COVID-19 crisis has placed the highlight on the EU's governance shortcomings. We need to build a better – and more efficient – Union for our citizens and the best way to achieve this is by listening to what they have to say, stated EESC President, Christa Schweng.
We live in exceptional times – times that we did not expect to live in. The fight against the COVID-19 pandemic is surely the greatest challenge in the collective life of the European Union. In less than a year, we have lost almost half a million lives, and more than one and a half million workers now face unemployment. However, this crisis has also proved the added value that our European Union represents. The start of the vaccination process, on the one hand, and the approval of the MFF and the Next Generation EU programme, on the other, have opened the door to hope. In a pandemic crisis marked by the need for physical distancing, we, as a Union, have been able to come closer together and to renew the meaning of the word ‘community’, Mr Costa emphasised.
Now it is urgent to set the economic and social European recovery in motion and overcome the climate crisis, the health crisis and the economic and societal crisis, ensuring that the resources from the recovery and resilience fund reach the European public and businesses swiftly, leaving no-one behind.
There is an opportunity now for the EU to be a world leader both in ambition and implementation in terms of climate action. This has to be an inclusive process, not only leaving no-one behind, but ensuring we bring everyone along with us as we design the solutions, underlined EESC Vice-President for Communication Cillian Lohan.
Gonçalo Lobo Xavier, EESC member of the Employers' Group, urged Mr Costa to accelerate the vaccination rollout in a coordinated way, turning Portugal into a leading example.
It is also crucial that the recovery funds reach businesses, institutions and citizens as fast as possible, to finance structural and lasting projects, while taking into account the European semester's recommendations – a very important tool that can provide valuable support.
Oliver Röpke, President of the Workers' Group, said the Portuguese government had always given a sign of hope that a different approach was possible, especially after the deep financial crisis that had also hit Portugal so hard.
It was your progressive government that called for a fundamental shift in course and for an alternative to austerity and to cuts in wages, pensions and social rights. It has been your country that has proven that a pro-European approach is the best way to fight the crisis. We need that again. Your presidency will show that economic and social recovery go hand in hand.
Also a matter of great concern for this presidency were the challenges democracy was facing in Europe: the rule of law was under attack in some countries and, in certain cases, the virus had provided a convenient excuse for limiting fundamental rights beyond that which was warranted.
There are growing concerns for rights and freedoms in the face of the lockdown and the radical shutdown of economic activities. We are seeing a series of demonstrations and protests all over Europe, and we need to address the public's frustration, disappointment and incomprehension. As for the digital transition, we cannot forget the digitalisation of justice, making it faster and closer to citizens, and thus creating a new framework for international judicial cooperation, pointed out João Nabais, EESC member from the Diversity Europe Group.
EU Social Summit in May
The central event of the Portuguese Presidency will be the Social Summit, scheduled to take place in Porto on 7 May, with the social partners, civil society and presidents of institutions and Member States.
The main objective of the Social Summit", said Prime Minister Costa, "is to give strong political impetus to the Action Plan which the Commission will be presenting in March and which makes the desire expressed by Europeans to put into practice the 20 key principles proclaimed in Gothenburg, in November 2017, a reality.
Mr Costa stressed,
the Social Pillar is the best vaccine against social inequality, populism and fear. We need to be brave enough to move together along the path that we have set for ourselves. We need to move together on the basis of solidarity, in a path focused on people
The Prime Minister also said that, to achieve this fundamental objective, the Portuguese Presidency was counting on the key contribution and active participation of the European Economic and Social Committee.
EESC and the Portuguese Presidency
The EESC will contribute to the work of the Portuguese presidency in order to ensure that the views of Europe's civil society are heard. In particular, based on the practical experience of its members, the EESC is committed to providing solid and timely input into the EU's Social Summit, which will take place in May, and to sharing civil society's views on the following topics, through seven opinions it is preparing at the presidency's request:
- The challenges of teleworking: organisation of working time, work-life balance and the right to disconnect
- Vocational training: the effectiveness of systems in anticipating and matching skills and labour market needs and the role of the social partners and different stakeholders
- The role of the social economy in job creation and in implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights
- Teleworking and gender equality – establish conditions ensuring that teleworking does not exacerbate the unequal distribution of unpaid care and domestic work between women and men and that it becomes an engine for promoting gender equality
- The Single European Railway Area
- How to promote the skills needed for Europe to establish a more just, cohesive, sustainable, digital and resilient society through lifelong learning and training
- How to implement harmonisation of market entry for food supplements in the EU: solutions and best practice