The involvement of organised civil society is far from satisfactory in a majority of EU countries, warned the European Economic and Social Committee at the annual conference of its European Semester Group, which took place remotely on 31 May. This event was organised right before the publication of the European Semester Spring Package by the Commission, on the 2 June 2021.
The conference on "Building a resilient Europe – Civil society and the National Recovery and Resilience Plans" saw contributions from key speakers from EU institutions, National Economic and Social Councils, think tanks and EU civil society organisations. It focused on three topics: the involvement of organised civil society in the National Recovery and Resilience Plans (NRRPs), the just transition towards a green, digital and sustainable European economy and the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights.
The event took place right before the publication of the Commission's package on the European Semester, which announced a better outlook for economic recovery that what was initially predicted. For the EU taken as a whole, economic activity is due to return to its pre-crisis level this year. However, the Commission confirms that implementing the reforms as set out in the national plans remains the priority.
At EESC's conference, president Christa Schweng opened the debate by stressing the challenge of transforming this crisis into a set of new possibilities.
We need to come out of the crisis stronger and more resilient than we were before, she said. One particular challenge is linked to the successful unleashing of the potential of the Recovery and Resiliency Facility:
Most Member States did not engage in sufficient consultation with organised civil society, or did so too late, noted Ms Schweng.
The situation now is a series of National Recovery and Resilience Plans that vary substantially in quality and methodology and we can really wonder whether the plans are actually meeting the needs on the ground.
Starting to carry out projects financed by the Recovery and Resilience Facility is becoming very urgent, as people who suffered from the pandemic need to be supported, and businesses, above all SMEs, need help to get back on their feet.
Tiziano Treu, the president of the Italian National Economic and Social Committee (CNEL), said that the role of the Conference on the Future of Europe was to outline a new European governance, which needs to be simplified and made more effective, and must include proper rules to ensure the involvement of organised civil society. He added:
Civil society organisations, which have already made a fundamental contribution to dealing with the pandemic, must have a strategic role in the implementation of the NextGenerationEU plan.
European Semester Group vice-president Luca Jahier said:
As the situation we examined in all 27 Member States is still not satisfactory, a reinforced 'Citizens' Pillar', encompassing organised civil society and regional and local authorities, in an alliance with national parliaments, will be crucial to ensure that reform processes and investments are properly monitored and bring about the necessary involvement of legitimate stakeholders.
"Some progress has been made"
Johannes Luebking, Principal Adviser and European Semester Coordinator in the Recovery and Resilience Task Force (RECOVER) of the European Commission, highlighted some virtual examples of civil society involvement, namely in Italy, Belgium and Finland.
Some progress has been made due to our vigilance, because we reminded Member States how important it is to consult civil society. But it could have been better in a number of countries. However, as involvement is not included in the assessment criteria of the RRF, the Commission is formally not in a position to reject the national plans on the basis of lack of civil society involvement. He added:
Now that we are in the process of assessing the plans, the consultation process has to continue, and the implementation phase is coming up. We are therefore very much relying on the EESC to make its voice heard both with the Member States and with the European Commission, as the implementation very much depends on organised civil society and local stakeholders.
Othmar Karas, vice-president of the European Parliament, promised that MEPs and the EESC will continue
to work hard to better involve EU civil society and the social partners in the process of finalising the national plans, as we have stipulated in the text of the regulation.
Towards a green, digital and sustainable European economy
The second part of the conference was dedicated to the just transition towards a green, digital and sustainable European economy. Speakers included EESC vice-president for communication and member of the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform Cillian Lohan, , who emphasised the big opportunity for circular economy to contribute to the reindustrialisation of Europe, and Zsolt Darvas from Bruegel, who highlighted the importance of knowing whether the Member States' spending plans are actually in addition to existing pre-pandemic plans. Where the plans are substituting already planned investments, civil society might not have much impact on them.
Peter Schmidt, president of the EESC's NAT section, presented the draft findings of the study on Shifting priorities towards post-COVID sustainable reconstruction and recovery. He said that all of the reviewed NRRPs include measures related to the green transition and social inclusion, but that some of them have insufficient measures for biodiversity and education and skills development.
Just transitions and implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights
The third and last panel was about implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights, a topic on which the Committee has been active for several years, with its contribution being integrated at the Porto Social Summit in May 2021. The EESC believes that its implementation is necessary in order to strengthen social cohesion, which is one of the crucial objectives of the Next Generation EU plan. The topic was debated with – amongst others - Carlos Manuel Trindade and Cristian Pirvulescu, who are the EESC rapporteurs for draft opinion SOC/679 - Action plan on the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights.
Rebekah Smith, Deputy Director of Social Affairs at BusinessEurope, recalled that we need to combine a reduction of the gender employment gap, the digital and green transition and measures to support the more vulnerable with more flexibility of the labour market. Francesco Corti, Associate Researcher at CEPS called for an alert mechanism also for social development in the Member States and underlined that more indicators are needed in the social scoreboard, for instance as regards inequality and access to social services.
At the end of the event, the main objectives of the European Semester Group were summarised by its president Javier Doz Orrit: We will continue the work on how to boost participation during the implementation phase, and on how to create a legal framework to ensure that European civil society has an active role in the European Semester.
After the launch of the Recovery and Resilience Facility, 27 delegations of 3 EESC members collected data for a Resolution on the Involvement of Organised Civil Society in the National Recovery and Resilience Plans – What works and what does not?. By adopting this Resolution in February, the Committee sent a strong signal about the importance of involving organised civil society in the recovery and resilience work, and provided a common input to the Spring European Council.