The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) adopted a Resolution on its contribution to the European Commission's 2021 work programme at its July plenary session. The document welcomes the proposals made by the European Commission to overcome the COVID-19 crisis and sees the next year as an opportunity to restructure and improve the EU’s economy and society.
The resolution adopted by the EESC welcomes and fully supports the Next Generation EU plan and the overall EU budget for 2021-2027 proposed by the European Commission and expresses the hope that this will be "fully and concretely extended" in the Commission's work programme for 2021.
For EESC members, the work programme should focus on "restructuring and improving our economy and society" and be based on the following principles: "protecting human and social rights, democratic values and the rule of law; unlocking the full potential of the Single Market; achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); creating a circular economy and achieving climate neutrality in the EU by 2050 at the latest; and ensuring good governance and democratic accountability."
Many of the proposals made by the EESC in this resolution emphasise points made in an earlier resolution adopted at its June plenary session – "EESC proposals for post-COVID 19 crisis reconstruction and recovery" – where members called for an ambitious programme of reforms that could lead to a new societal model.
Petr Zahradník, rapporteur for the resolution on the part of the Employers’ Group, highlighted the following:
Many of the priorities set by the European Commission are in line with the EESC's proposals adopted in June, but, in my opinion, the work programme should be more focused in investment activities. The document we are presenting today also sees added value in two other areas: strengthening the single market and consolidating the external dimension of EU activities.
His colleague Stefano Palmieri, rapporteur for the Workers’ Group, stressed the need for structural changes:
For the EU to come out of this crisis, the Commission has to build up a resilient and sustainable economic governance system, as the Stability and Growth Pact has been interrupted by the pandemic. We hope that the Conference on the Future of Europe will strengthen the governance of the EU to address the challenges we will have to face in the next few decades.
Jan Dirx, rapporteur representing the Diversity Europe Group, welcomed the fact that the European Commission had maintained the 6 key objectives set by Ursula von der Leyen at the beginning of her mandate:
We have drafted a balanced and firm resolution and members have given their strong endorsement of its main lines, which sends out a clear signal from civil society organisations to the European Commission and other stakeholders.
In the resolution, EESC members also express their firm belief that the process of recovery and reconstruction of the economy and society will only be possible "with the active participation of civil society organisations and social partners". In this regard, the EESC hopes that the forthcoming Conference on the future of Europe will lead to a "strengthening and deepening [of] the EU's institutional structure and to a real renewal of the EU project, [leaving it] able to face the challenges of the next decades".
The Committee has formulated its concrete proposals for the 2021 work programme along the lines of the Commission's six main priorities:
A European Green Deal – The EESC considers that, in the adjusted Commission work programme for 2020, the topic of the European Green Deal "is covered sufficiently and [is] rather evenly redistributed through its main parts".
The EESC supports this initiative, not only as a way of improving the environmental sustainability of the EU, but also "as an effective tool to sustainably restart the economy through massive investments supporting the necessary structural changes that Europe is facing" and, therefore, as an opportunity to support longer-term economic recovery. The EESC strongly advocates a transition to the circular economy and far-reaching reforms of tax policies, shifting the tax burden from labour to pollution, under-priced resources and other externalities.
The resolution also welcomes the European Climate Law, which sets a legally binding EU-wide common target of net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 and establishes a framework for achieving that objective, and calls for the participation of all Europeans, through civil society organisations, to make this possible.
According to the resolution, "public money invested in recovery plans should not only help restore the European economy and society, but also help reduce drastically the impacts of further shocks by investing in a resilient, inclusive and climate-friendly economy". This means that the new Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) must allocate enough resources to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations. The EESC therefore appreciates the Commission's proposal for a Recovery Plan, which includes the Next Generation EU and the adjusted 2021-2027 MFF.
A Europe fit for the digital age – As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, the digital revolution is an important part of increasing our societies' crisis resilience, and investing in the digitalisation of essential services has become paramount. The EESC underlines "the importance of digitalisation in all sectors of society, particularly through teleworking and digital services, including e-commerce and e-health", while preserving the European model of rights, standards and consumer policies and updating the legal framework accordingly.
An economy that works for people – The EESC welcomes the recent emphasis the Commission has placed on paying more attention to social matters and the European Green Deal, as well as implementation of the Recovery and Resilience Facility. The EESC sees more investment in public services at Member State level as being necessary, because, as the crisis has demonstrated, "public services play a crucial role in saving peoples' lives and in tackling the pandemic".
The resolution also proposes a permanent euro area fiscal stabilisation mechanism, as it would "greatly support the Union's counter-cyclical policies in case of future shocks", and further harmonisation and integration of the European financial markets, including completion of the Banking Union and a strengthening of the Capital Markets Union. The aim of these reforms would be to create "a new societal model which contribute[s] more to economic and social cohesion, productivity and a fairer distribution of wealth".
For EESC members, the Single Market is "the heart of the European building" and "one of the EU's greatest achievements". However, its smooth operation has been put under stress in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and it has become necessary to reinstate the cross-border flows that were in place before the crisis and put an end to the barriers that have arisen as a consequence of the protectionist measures adopted by some governments. The aim is "to restore, revitalise and reconstruct the Single Market as an instrument in recovery", with short-term measures such as immediately opening borders, addressing tensions and kick-starting the economy and productivity.
In the EESC’s view, EU industry needs structural reform. According to the resolution, "the substance of the new industrial strategy for Europe consists in finding a coexistence between a modern and strong European industry, and the challenges coming from the climate-environmental requirements. The EESC is convinced that this coexistence is feasible and, if successful, it can bring a global comparative advantage to Europe".
One of the main lessons of the coronavirus crisis is that health systems in almost all EU Member States need to be strengthened, first and foremost by focusing on prevention. As stated in the resolution, "while healthcare is a national responsibility, the spread of the virus is not bound by borders". The events of the last few months have shown the EU's dependence on imports of medical products from non-EU countries, which makes it necessary to increase funding in this area. For the EESC, "the EU institutions should have the necessary authority to coordinate supply, distribution and prices of essential medical and protective equipment within the Single Market".
A stronger Europe in the world – The EESC considers that the EU should strengthen its global position and play a more important strategic role both in the global economy and in politics. For this it would be necessary not only to make better use of its comparative advantages in the global trade and investment market, especially in advanced manufacturing and innovative services, but also to strengthen the EU's representation in key global organisations and allow it to speak with one voice. According to the EESC, the EU should further support a multilateral approach to trade and continue the enlargement process.
Promoting our European way of life – For the EESC, "beyond economic and environmental issues, the EU work programme in 2021 must be driven by the social dimension. This means that its commitment to a social and sustainable Europe shall be a priority. In this, civil society organisations play an important role as well". The resolution suggests a series of initiatives, including full implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights, integrating the SDGs into the EU's economic and social monitoring and budgeting processes and reframing work. The issue of migration must not be forgotten and "asylum seekers cannot be abandoned because of the current crisis", says the EESC.
A new push for European democracy – The EESC expresses its hope that the current crisis will not undermine the principles and values that underpin the EU project. In this respect, the Conference on the Future of Europe could be "an opportunity to strengthen and deepen the EU's institutional structure and for a real renewal of the EU project", and the direct involvement of civil society organisations "must remain a priority". The EESC strongly supports the European Commission's proposal to develop a "European Democracy Action Plan" with financial support and interinstitutional coordination. Finally, the EESC believes "civil society organisations' involvement in impact assessment and strategic foresight should be strengthened to ensure [that] their expertise and knowledge on the ground are taken into consideration when designing future legislation and policies in the new post-COVID-19 context".