Time for 'Team Europe' to lead the way to a world that is inclusive, socially just, green and resilient, says Jutta Urpilainen

The price of change must be a fair one, with no one left behind, explains European Commissioner for International Partnerships
Jutta Urpilainen| Photo credit: European Commission Audiovisual

By Jutta Urpilainen

Jutta Urpilainen is the European Commissioner for International Partnerships

04 Oct 2021

In Europe, we are taking a long-term perspective to building the post-pandemic recovery, taking into consideration social, environmental and economic aspects. The economic rebound has been faster than expected, and GDP in the EU is now forecast to grow by 4.8 percent in 2021 and by 4.5 percent in 2022.

In August, we reached the milestone of full COVID-19 vaccination for 70 percent of the adult population of the EU.

This improving health situation, along with the easing of restrictions, are restoring EU economies to action. However, this situation will remain fragile while the global pandemic continues and vaccinations do not progress at the same rate internationally, with many EU partner countries still working on exit strategies.

Global recovery is uneven, and inequalities are deepening. To change this dynamic and address inequalities, we must build back the world in a way that is better, greener, fairer and safer. 

2030 Agenda is our guiding compass 

In the spirit of the European Consensus for Development, the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is the compass that guides our work in all sectors for both internal and external action. At home, we are mainstreaming the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into new legislative proposals.

The EU Green Deal provides a prime example, contributing to the achievement of most of these. As we programme our actions for the next seven years with the Global Europe instrument, the SDGs are integrated everywhere, and, with them the fight against inequalities. 

“Global recovery is uneven, and inequalities are deepening. To change this dynamic and address inequalities, we must build back the world in a way that is better, greener, fairer and safer”

Our approach is holistic and cross-cutting, focusing on three dimensions: promoting a fair economy, investing in people and the planet, and supporting participatory democracy. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on many, exacerbating existing inequalities both within and among societies in Europe as well as globally, and reversing decades of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

Inequalities hinder economic growth, endanger social cohesion and marginalise the vulnerable. For a sustainable global recovery, supporting our partner countries in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda is crucial and urgent. Yet before we can consider a recovery strategy, we need an exit strategy - which requires vaccinations. 

Race against the virus 

We need to speed up the global rate of COVID-19 vaccinations. The EU is committed to vaccine equity and solidarity, and has exported half the vaccines it has produced. It is also one of the lead contributors to COVAX, the facility helping secure doses for low- and lower-middle-income countries, committing to sharing at least 200 million doses by the end of 2021. 

At the same time, we must recognise the unprecedented scale of the challenge - and the fact that the entire international community must do more. We must make more dose donations to partner countries; meanwhile discussions about booster shots should not forget the global perspective.

The real bottleneck of vaccination campaigns is the lack of free production capacity and local production The European Commission advocates transparent supply forecasts and delivery timelines to enable better planning. Our sister continent Africa imports 99 percent of its vaccines and 94 percent of its medicines. 

As of September, only around 3 percent of Africa’s population was fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Eight out of ten African countries are set to miss the global end-of-month goal of vaccinating their most vulnerable ten percent. Our ‘Team Europe’ initiative for increasing local manufacturing and access to vaccines, medicines, and health technologies in Africa will be backed by €1bn from the EU budget and European development finance institutions. We will also increase other bilateral and regional support for health. 

Fighting for a fair economy 

In a fair economy, opportunities and freedoms are balanced against responsibilities. When everyone pays their fair share of tax, there are more opportunities for education, well-functioning public health systems and greater social protection.

Struggling as they are with limited domestic resources and debt, many of our partner countries have little fiscal headroom for fighting the pandemic, maintaining basic services, spurring on new growth or meeting the SDGs. Therefore it is crucial to link economic support for struggling countries to the SDGs. Sustainable recovery and growth must take a holistic perspective. 

“As we programme our actions for the next seven years with the Global Europe instrument, the SDGs are integrated everywhere, and, with them the fight against inequalities”

In positive developments over the summer, the G20 group agreed to impose a minimum tax of 15 percent on the profits of multinationals. It also agreed to extend - until the end of the year - the Debt Service Suspension Initiative, designed to free up cash in developing countries to fight COVID-19. The IMF announced its largest-ever allocation of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), around $650bn.

Team Europe had pushed for this move, and we propose to use this to help the IMF lend to low-income countries at zero - or at least lower - interest rates than are normally available. 

Investing in people and the planet 

Education will be a key accelerator of progress for all Sustainable Development Goals. It is the great equaliser, allowing safety and economic empowerment. However, during the pandemic, 1.6 billion children globally missed out on school, and millions may never return to learning.

I intend to use at least 10 percent of the external assistance budget under my portfolio to promote inclusive access to quality education, with a particular focus on girls, professional teachers and the employability of young people. 

We also have high ambitions for our climate actions. Climate change and environmental degradation increase inequalities, affecting poorer countries and communities first and hardest. With the EU Green Deal, we will work with our global partners to accelerate the green transition and reconcile the needs of the planet and the economy. 

Democracies do it better 

The final dimension of our fight against inequalities is special - participatory democracy. Democracy acts as a safety net for economies; democracies have fewer and less severe financial crises. They also achieve higher growth than autocracies.

Sustainable development and equal opportunities are built on democracy, which is why implementing the SDGs and fighting inequalities means investing in strong institutions, functioning states and resilient societies. It means empowering youth and women and ensuring their participation in the decision-making process. Without them, no recovery will be sustainable. 

I have appointed a Special Advisor on Youth to support my work and created a Youth Sounding Board of 25 talented young people. This will bring experience and insights to our discussions and help us prepare our first Youth Action Plan.

With the new Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, the Gender Action Plan, and the toolbox for the Human Rights-Based Approach, combined with fresh funding, we will continue to promote democratic values, healthy institutions and thriving civil society and media around the world. After all, Team Europe is the world’s leading donor of democracy support. 

We must leave no one behind 

We are living in times of momentous change. The green transition and the digital transformation will revolutionise our economies and our way of life. The price of the inevitable changes must be a fair one. We cannot afford to leave anyone behind. It is time for Team Europe to lead the way to a world of tomorrow that is inclusive, socially just, green and resilient. The world expects nothing less from us.

Read the most recent articles written by Jutta Urpilainen - Why the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda is more meaningful and powerful than ever