United for the Future of Europe

Civil society can play an essential role in shaping Europe’s post-COVID future, writes EESC President Christa Schweng.
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By Christa Schweng

Christa Schweng is President of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC)

30 Nov 2020

The 2020-25 term of office for the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) begins under challenging circumstances, and not only due to COVID-19. I took over the presidency of the EESC just a few days after the decision of the European Parliament not to grant the Committee’s budget discharge for 2018.

For that reason, my presidency will focus not only on European policies, but also on enhancing the EESC’s position and proving its added value. The motto for my presidency is “United for the Future of Europe”. Why have I chosen this motto? Because I believe that, against the backdrop of economic crisis caused by the pandemic, we need to join forces to tackle it and develop a vision for a post-COVID Europe.

The economic crisis that we face is the deepest since World War II, and it seems that it might become even worse as a result of the current second wave of the pandemic. We must therefore make every e­ ort to ensure that the substantial funds the EU has mobilised to combat the crisis reach all those in need as quickly as possible. With this in mind, I hope the Multiannual Financial Framework and Next Generation EU fund will become operational in the near future.

“Recovery efforts should not simply restore what we had in the past. We need to improve our policies and working methods”

In these exceptional times, we should remember our common European values. I believe that respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law are not negotiable under any circumstances. Even in times of crisis, when certain exceptional and time-limited measures are needed, these cannot go against the rule of law and cannot endanger democracy, the separation of powers or the fundamental rights of European citizens.

Recovery efforts should not simply restore what we had in the past. We need to improve our policies and working methods, while reaping the benefits of the ongoing digital and green transitions. This brings us to the long-term perspective and my vision of the future of the European Union: an EU that prospers economically, that is socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable, and that provides sound conditions for all of civil society to thrive and live in open, value-based democracies.

I firmly believe, despite recent criticism, that the EESC has an important role to play in making this happen. Our work di­ffers from that of lobbyists: whereas they push for particular interests, we seek out the common ground between employers, workers and other civil society actors. I think that taking this compromise more into account - particularly at earlier stages of the legislative process - could help us reach agreements between the Commission, the Parliament and the Council.

Our consensus-based opinions provide safe ground for politicians to come to decisions that take into account the first-hand experience and concerns of civil society. I believe that the Conference on the Future of Europe is a unique opportunity for civil society in the European Union. Businesses, workers, farmers, consumers and NGOs will be able to have their say in shaping future policies, which will give them a sense of ownership of their European Union.

“Our work differs from that of lobbyists: whereas they push for particular interests, we seek out the common ground between employers, workers and other civil society actors”

The EESC would like to play an active role in this conference. We want to help shape the future of Europe in a constructive and valuable manner. To do so, we intend first of all to address our own internal challenges. I take the European Parliament’s decision on the 2018 discharge seriously, and wish to make it clear that we will address every one of the shortcomings pointed out by MEPs related to alleged harassment on the part of one EESC member.

The case is now in the hands of the Belgian justice system. I have full confidence in the Belgian authorities and hope the proceedings can be resolved quickly. We are determined to make sure that no similar issues arise in the future, and I have already initiated work on reinforcing the Members’ Code of Conduct and revising the EESC’s Rules of Procedure.

I hope that the new code of conduct, containing strict sanctions, will enter into force in January 2021. This is our first step in restoring the EESC’s image and regaining trust and credibility on all sides. We are open to feedback on how to deepen interinstitutional cooperation. I would also like to encourage everyone to engage with us as much and as often as possible, so that we can develop closer cooperation for our mutual benefit and for the benefit of all Europeans.

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