25th anniversary of the Economic and Social Council of Andalusia

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Dear President Juan Antonio Marín Lozano,
Dear Secretary-general Alicia de la Peña Aguilar,
Dear Counsellors,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you very much for your invitation to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Economic and Social Council of Andalusia. Unfortunately, I could not be in person with you, because of a mission, but I am nonetheless very pleased to take part remotely and to represent the European Economic and Social Committee.

The Committee was created more than 60 years ago to build a bridge between Brussels and the organisations of civil society in all the EU countries and even beyond. Our members represent employers' organisations, trade unions and the organised civil society at large, and their networks reach some 90 million citizens. The EESC is consulted on most of EU policies by the European institutions and issues some 160 – 190 opinions each year. We have regular contacts with Economic and social councils acting at national level, but I see an increasing interest from the councils at regional level and it is always a pleasure to exchange and enhance our relations.

As regards your Council, I understood that a quarter of century has passed since the adoption of the Law which set up your advisory body to the Government of the autonomous Community of Andalusia for social, economic and cultural matters. Allow me to express my congratulations for all the work your Assembly has carried out since 2001. Also, I was informed that in 2007, your consultative body was put on par with other governmental institutions, such as the Chamber of Accounts or the Ombudsman. That is certainly a success and at the same time a great responsibility towards Andalusian society.  

Responsibility is more than needed in the current challenging circumstances, as we all have to do everything that is our power, at our respective levels – local, regional, national, European, and at civil society level to tackle the major problems we are all facing. The most obvious one, after the COVID-19 pandemic, is the illegal and unprovoked war of Russia against Ukraine. A murderous war that is destroying lives and forces millions of innocent people to flee their homes. According to the United Nation Refugee Agency, nearly one-third of Ukrainians have been forced from their homes. More than 7.8 million refugees from Ukraine are present across Europe, and they are almost only women and children. Some 4.5 million refugees from Ukraine have registered for temporary protection, so they are entitled to a set of rights such as residence permits, housing, medical and social care, education, as well as basic means of subsistence. This very quick arrival of such a high number of refugees poses certain challenges to host countries, and the risk of a "solidarity fatigue" is real. Hence, a big focus nowadays is to facilitate the integration of these refugees into the EU labour markets, which would benefit both to Ukrainian people and to EU host countries, given the high number of job vacancies that exist at the moment.

Speaking about the refugees from Ukraine, I take the opportunity to praise the organised civil society across the EU, who reacted swiftly and efficiently, cooperating with public authorities, international organisations and citizens. Our EESC members and their organisations have also been active on the ground to offer shelter, information, care and support to Ukrainians in need. That was absolutely crucial, as the authorities were totally overwhelmed by the situation. Besides, since the very first day of the hostilities, our Committee condemned in very strong terms the Russian aggression against Ukraine and praised the bravery of Ukrainian people and civil society. We stand firmly in solidarity with Ukraine.

The EESC adopted two resolutions, one focusing on the economic, social and environmental impacts of the conflict and a second resolution on relief and reconstruction of Ukraine. I am also very pleased that the EESC is hosting on its premises the Ukrainian Civil Society Hub helping some 30 civil society organisations to deliver on their mission in these challenging times for their country.

Other consequences of the war, all too visible, unfortunately, are the high inflation, rapidly rising prices in energy and food, and the supply shortages. Increasing costs first hit the lower-income households but not only. It is also the middle-income people, and the businesses that are suffering, especially small and medium enterprises – many of them being forced to close. Business confidence for next year is even lower than during the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the height of the pandemic – this comes out of a very recent Economic Survey carried out by Eurochambres, and based on responses from over 42.000 businesses across 25 European countries. According to the autumn economic forecast of the European Commission, the EU economy is expected to grow by 3.3% in 2022, but for 2023, GDP growth is forecast to subdue to 0.3%.

In the energy sector, price volatility, supply shortages, and security issues contributed to what the International Energy Agency is calling "the first truly global energy crisis, with impacts, that will be felt for years to come". "Heat or eat" is now becoming a sad reality for many Europeans. In such a context, we need to stand united and take common measures, at EU level, like we did, successfully, for the vaccines during the pandemic. Already, some of EU short-term measures are working: in October 2022, EU Member States have filled on average their gas stocks above 90% and are providing direct support or subsidies to citizens and business most affected by the energy crisis. But a lot remains to be achieved and we need to think on the medium and long term. Beyond emergencies, we also need to tackle older challenges, like the demographic change, and the green and digital transitions.

The EU's priorities are clear, according to the EESC:

  • Securing affordable energy supplies for people and companies.
  • Accelerating EU's strategic autonomy in various fields, like energy and food.
  • Ensuring a sustainable recovery and supporting our economy, helping companies to innovate, to count on a highly-skilled workforce, to remain competitive in the world.
  • Making the best of the green and digital future.

The way forward for the EU is to combine economic prosperity, social inclusion as well as ecological sustainability – these are also the three pillars of my own mandate, as EESC President. We also need to show that nobody will be left behind and to ensure that our societies become more resilient to future crises. Therefore, social, economic and territorial cohesion must be at the forefront of EU shared efforts. When implementing the national Recovery and Resilience plans and using the funds, it will be important to focus on the right priorities.

One of them is greening: in a recent resolution, the EESC called on the EU institutions and governments to step up climate ambition and emphasized the role of organised civil society in this action. Europe has to be a leader on climate action, but it cannot fight climate change alone – the efforts of countries and partners worldwide are necessary as well. Here, I would like to commend Spain for its important role in accelerating renewables, investing in hydrogen and developing innovative thinking about the reform of the electricity market.

Another priority is digitalisation: more investments are needed for everyone to benefit from this trend. With less than half of Europeans in possession of basic digital skills, the EU will need a true skills revolution to make sure that no one is left behind. The green and digital revolutions also entail an unprecedented change in the world of work, with the skills required for many jobs changing. For this reason, it is very important to put the focus on skills needs and skills mismatch during 2023, the European Year of Skills.

Finally, speaking about priorities in implementing the recovery funds: civil society organisations should be much better involved in the implementation of the national reform plans. This will also enhance the accountability by the national authorities and improve the quality and ownership of the reforms. And this brings me to say a few more words on the Role of Organised civil society.

In times of crisis, civil society is the first port of call. We saw it when the war in Ukraine broke out, and civil society organisations immediately mobilised to provide support to the most vulnerable. Now, it is the social partners who are active to offer ad-hoc solutions and negotiate for a better integration of Ukrainians in employment. Civil society organisations are also best placed in reaching and supporting vulnerable households, young people and workers in need of reskilling or upskilling, making sure that no one is left behind. European civil society is a powerful tool to bridge EU and national policies with local needs and we should continue to play this role to address the new challenges facing us.

I could not close my intervention without mentioning the Conference on the Future of Europe, which concluded its work last May with the presentation of substantial recommendations, organised in 49 proposals. Some of the recommendations propose that the EESC be a facilitator and guarantor of participatory democracy activities. The EESC will be a natural ally in the process of bringing citizens closer to the EU – especially if the Citizens' panels will be a more regular feature of our democratic life. The EESC and the national ESCs have the mandate, expertise, political legitimacy and credibility to remain a cornerstone of civil dialogue.

The annual meeting of the EESC and national ESCs which we organised last November in Bucharest, and to which the Spanish ESC actively took part, confirmed the key role that together we must play in the current political and economic context. We were able to speak with one voice and endorse conclusions that are focusing exactly on the topics I developed: our solidarity towards Ukrainian refugees, our path to strategic autonomy and the follow up to the Conference on the Future of Europe. We are now sharing these conclusions with the highest level of the European institutions. The constant strengthening of the networks and cooperation between the EESC and the national and regional ESCs is crucial to bring the views of civil society to EU decision-makers.

United for the future of Europe!

Thank you very much for your attention.


25th anniversary of the Economic and Social Council of Andalusia