Broad participation by civil society is key to a strong recovery in Europe

A hearing organised by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) discussed opportunities and challenges in the implementation of the National Recovery and Resilience Plans in the various Member States, revealing that civil society is still far from being effectively involved in the process. There were calls for improved consultations in the upcoming implementing phase, following the shortcomings at the drafting stage.

Europe can have a stronger post-pandemic recovery if civil society is fully involved in the implementation stage of the National Recovery and Resilience Plans (NRRPs) in the various Member States, thereby boosting the just transition towards a green, digital and sustainable European economy. This is the main message of the hearing held in Brussels and remotely by the European Semester Group (ESG) of the Section for Economic and Monetary Union and Economic and Social Cohesion (ECO) on 6 September 2021.

It is essential to overcome the serious shortcomings of the NRRP drafting phase, said Javier Doz Orrit, ESG president. He called for a strong recovery that strengthens social cohesion by truly involving the social partners and organised civil society, for a just, green and digital transition. Their involvement is particularly important as regards reforms of the labour market, public services and pension systems and in the implementation of investment plans.

Overall, organised civil society participation is still low in many Member States. Organisations have been informed and in many cases briefly consulted; however, this has brought about only limited results. In the majority of Member States, there have been no formal and effective consultations leading to significant modifications to the initial government proposals, with just a few exceptions. The Commission should therefore follow up on the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) Regulation and ensure that it is being properly implemented in the Member States, for example by setting up participatory structures with national, local and regional authorities, the social partners and civil society organisations.

Civil society participation in the implementation of the NRRPs is vital because plans will be more efficient and more easily owned by the people, but it is also an important manifestation of our common European values as established by Article 2 of the Treaty. Unfortunately, it is still far from sufficient in most Member States, added Krzysztof Balon, president of the study group for the ongoing EESC opinion on The Annual Sustainable Growth Strategy 2021.

State of play – implementation of the NRRPs

The event, which was entitled "Towards the European Semester 2022 – Implementing the National Recovery and Resilience Plans", gathered together the views of various civil society organisations, EU bodies and think-tanks.

Rob Jonkman, member of the EU Committee of the Regions (CoR) and rapporteur for its opinion on the RRF implementation, highlighted that the key to the successful implementation of the NRRPs was broad societal ownership in the Member States. The direct involvement of civil society as a whole, including local and regional authorities, social partners and NGOs, was therefore crucial.

Johannes Lübking from the European Commission's Recovery and Resilience Task Force (RECOVER) set the scene by presenting figures: 25 NRRPs have so far been submitted and 18 have already been approved. For the green transition, most of the funds have been allocated to sustainable mobility, while, for the digital transformation, most have been allocated to digital public services.

Zsolt Darvas, representing Bruegel, emphasised that the implementation of reforms and public investment projects supported by the RRF was extremely important in many Member States in the years to come. In this respect, he expressed concerns as regards the absorption capacity of certain Member States. Close monitoring was therefore called for.

Most participants agreed that a number of warning signs had started to appear in the NRRP implementation process: the country-specific recommendations made by the Commission had largely been ignored by certain Member States until now, so there was scepticism about a possible future change of attitude. In addition, the transformative effects of the RRF investments were questioned, as were their efficiency and effectiveness.

The way forward, towards the 2022 European Semester cycle

Looking ahead to the next European Semester cycle, Markus Ferber, Member of the European Parliament and rapporteur for the Annual Sustainable Growth Strategy 2021, said that so far there had not been much consultation with the regional and local authorities or with civil society, as originally planned within the NRRPs, and that this was a mistake as a more inclusive stance would only benefit the plans.

Along the same lines, James Watson from BusinessEurope pointed out that the NRRP implementation could not just be a tick-box exercise but should be in keeping with the real spirit of the instrument: the role of the social partners should be recognised and consultations should take place in public forums and not behind closed doors.

Marco Cilento, representing the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), raised the question of quality jobs, productivity, higher wages and better working conditions, stressing that only tangible results for people could really put them at the heart of the EU.

Finally, Hanna Surmatz, from the European Foundation Centre (EFC) and member of the EESC Liaison Group, also agreed on the importance of consultation with civil society partners, mentioning that this would be instrumental in restructuring the European Semester, making people feel like they were really involved and contributing to building an inclusive European future.

Civil society participation must clearly be increased in the implementation process to allow for better national ownership and implementation of the NRRPs. We will keep on monitoring the situation because we want to draw efficient conclusions and have a positive impact on the process. We want to make a difference and the time for action is now, concluded Gonçalo Lobo Xavier, rapporteur for the EESC opinion, which is due to be adopted at the October plenary session.