By promoting and facilitating participatory democracy, the European Economic and Social Committee is enabling civil society organisations from the EU Member States to express their views at European level. In an interview with Parliament Magazine, EESC President Christa Schweng looks back over last year’s achievements and ahead to the priorities and challenges to come.
“We are currently in a transitional phase", says Schweng, referring to three central themes underway: the digital and the green transitions, as well as the transition in the COVID-19 pandemic strategy. “Transition phases always trigger uncertainty, and this uncertainty can make people feel uneasy.” These three transitions are closely interlinked, and one cannot be targeted without influencing the others.
“Transition phases always triggers uncertainty, and this uncertainty makes people feel uneasy”
“We see a fatigue with COVID-19, and we are currently in a sort of limbo - in transition - as we are moving towards developing a different kind of model since we know what we had before can’t continue.” Following the EESC’s recent vaccination campaign, launched in December 2021, overcoming the pandemic, getting people vaccinated and onboard with the safety measures continue to be ongoing challenges for 2022.
The EESC is closely aligned with the French Presidency of the EU Council for the first six months of this year. Part of this will involve trying to ensure a balanced recovery from the crisis by watching closely what happens with the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) plan proposed by the European Commission. When drawing this up, the Commission specifically asked for civil society to be involved.
“Civil society is the bridge between the individual, the State and the EU”, explains Schweng. “They are important for carrying messages both ways, both up and down. What is important to us is that no one is left behind, and that can only work if you engage with civil societies.”
The RRF aims to mitigate the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic, and prepare European economies and societies better for the challenges and opportunities of the green and digital transitions. When it comes to the former, the EESC’s civil society initiatives are looking to tackle like the energy transition this year, in particular energy poverty and efforts on the industrial strategy.
With rising prices exacerbated by pandemic, increasing numbers of European citizens are struggling to be able to afford basic energy. We will monitor it and organise a conference on energy poverty on 21 April. “For the last half year, we have been staying current with this topic through activities, conferences and seminars on various aspects of the industrial strategy. There will be a final event on industrial strategy on 4 March to conclude the last few months.”
The EESC has also kept its finger on the pulse of the ongoing digital transition on several topics, in order to support citizens and businesses. In 2021, a joint Artificial Intelligence (AI) stakeholder summit took place, organised together with European Parliament, focusing on AI made in Europe to empower and protect the public and businesses.
In addition, the EESC Consumer Day in December focused on the digital and green transitions by looking at the contradictory and complementary viewpoint of the consumer. Conclusions as input for upcoming European Consumer Summit are being drawn on 10 February 2022. Additionally, the EESC monitors the implementation of the RRF in Member States and their achievement of the investment targets in green and digital to booster Europe’s future resilience.
“Civil society is the bridge between the individual, the state and the EU”
The Conference on the Future of Europe remains a priority for the EESC alongside the French Presidency. While Schweng recognises that the diversity of participation could have been wider, she also saw a “good sign for democracy”, namely that those who were engaged are asking for accountability. “If we want this whole exercise to be a success, we absolutely need accountability and transparency over what will happen with the results from the citizen panels,” says Schweng. “We not only need citizens who participate but everyone also has to have a chance to see what happens with the proposals. Will they be pursued, is there going to be a roadmap, and if not, why aren’t they being pursued?” We will organise a closing event on 24 February where we present our findings.
Finally, Schweng reminds us that fundamental rights and the values of democracy are at the core of the EECS. Last year saw many attacks on the rule of law. “We need to stand up, and we should never be silent about it,” says Schweng. For her, one of the EU’s proudest achievements was the rule of law mechanism, also known as the Conditionality Regulation, which was added to the RRF. This demands respect for rule of law and the EU’s fundamental values as a prerequisite to receive funding.
Gender-based violence is another priority of the EESC for 2022, linked to fundamental rights. “Women have suffered a lot in pandemic,” says Schweng, who is particularly horrified by the high incidence of feminicide in her home country of Austria. Women suffer from domestic violence and at the same time have to manage the double burden of working from home while having to do care work as well. While there are several initiatives to address this issue, there is certainly room for improvement, according to the President. The EESC is organising a campaign against violence against women, with an event on 8 March, International Women’s Day, focused on the inequalities women face in the labour market.