Europe needs a new renaissance

Sustainable development, promotion of peace, strengthening the role of culture, and youth empowerment are the priorities of my presidency

Photo: Photo: EESC

Europe is unarguably going through five fundamental transformations: an economic transformation; an energy and ecological transformation; a deep social transformation; a democratic and participatory transformation; and lastly, a geopolitical transition in international relations. We have to become the shapers of those transformations.

Close-up: Luca Jahier has been elected President of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) on 18 April 2018 for a period of two and a half years, until October 2020. He has been a member of the Committee since 2002. Within the EESC, he has worked extensively on the European Union's social and cohesion policies, as well as on international matters. In October 2011, he was elected president of Group III (Diversity Europe Group) of the EESC, and was re-elected in January 2013 and in October 2015. In this capacity, he has been a member of the EESC's Bureau.

- Mr Jahier, you took the office as president of the EESC in times when Europe has to make crucial choice about its future. How can the 'rEUnaissance', for which you called on, bring a real change despite Brexit?

- Europe is unarguably going through five fundamental transformations: an economic transformation; an energy and ecological transformation; a deep social transformation; a democratic and participatory transformation; and lastly, a geopolitical transition in international relations. We have to become the shapers of those transformations. The European Economic and Social Committee, using the unique strength we have through our direct links with organised civil society throughout Europe, needs to engage in dialogue and re-build trust for a common sustainable European future.

I am increasingly convinced that Europe needs a new renaissance. The Renaissance was a powerful and vast humanistic revolution, which re-established the real dimension of culture in its concrete relation with science, the art of government and the organisation of economic and social life. By doing so, it has founded the modern transformation of Europe.

Today, I call for a 'rEUnaissance' for re-instilling hope, dynamism and unity. To support that, I have made sustainable development, promotion of peace, strengthening the role of culture, and youth empowerment the priorities of my presidency.

- On sustainable development, what according to you will be the role of the civil society for adjusting the economic models in a way that better protect the environment?

- I strongly believe that there are no other economic models than the one of sustainable development. That is why I have made sustainable development one of the four priorities of my presidency. The Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development must be placed at the heart of the European political agenda. The EESC recognises that the 2030 Agenda is a global, comprehensive and positive economic, social and environmental contract of shared responsibility to commit to a path towards sustainable human well-being.

I am utterly convinced that civil society must be involved in the definition, in the implementation, and in the monitoring of the 2030 Agenda at all policy levels.

Also, the European Semester should rise to its potential to propose sound public finances, structural reforms towards jobs and growth and investment. Only in a strong economic space can the foundations of social, environmental and cultural sustainability be laid.

At the moment, we are in the midst of debates on the Multiannual Financial Framework proposal put forward by the Commission. It is a framework for the future of our sustainable societies, for the 500m citizens of Europe. It has to capture the ambition and commitment of the European Union in the lead-up to the European elections in May 2019. We must work for a stronger vision of solidarity and cohesion and a more daring budget.

- In your view, is the plan for the EU long-term budget after 2020, proposed by the Commission, ambitious enough to drive ahead all major tasks the Union already set for the next decade?

- The proposal on the Multi-Annual Financial Framework contains many constructive elements for a Europe that protects, empowers and defends, yet, on one crucial point, I would have preferred a more daring and ambitious plan. The MFF, and this MFF more than ever, is all but a book-keeping exercise. It is about a political act; it is, rightly so, about providing, or not providing, the European Union with the means to deliver its agenda: a sustainable future for 500m citizens. This is what is at stake.

I remain convinced that the current ceiling for EU expenditure has to be increased to 1.3% of GNI to face the growing EU agenda. European cohesion, the European social model and the Common Agricultural Policy have worked well. They do not deserve such drastic cuts.

We have repeatedly said at the EESC that resources of the EU budget should be directed towards programmes that can: relaunch economic, social and environmental development, employment, innovation and competitiveness; respond to the migration and refugee crisis, to internal security issues, external emergencies and the crisis in the agricultural sector.

We see these goals reflected in the Commission's proposal, in the sense of an increased spending on research and innovation, digital transformation and networks, on young people and external border management, on migration and asylum, and on security.

On the other hand - the spending cuts in agriculture and in cohesion - when speaking of cohesion, I understand that the cuts will hit - so to speak - more the Cohesion Fund rather than the European Fund for Development, but in any case the European cohesion model will be affected.

Knowing that, in particular with Brexit, an overhaul in spending and revenue is necessary, the EESC is however of the view that Cohesion policy should continue to pursue its original objective, enshrined in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, of promoting social, economic and territorial cohesion, placing cooperation and solidarity at the service of harmonious development and creating prosperous communities. Sufficient resources are imperative for achieving this goal.

- In this respect, what do you think about the suggested new rule of law mechanism that will allow suspension or restriction of the access to EU funds in the next MFF?

- It is clear to me that the support provided through the European budget to Member States should itself be subject to greater conditionality; in particular, beneficiaries should respect Community rules and the rule of law. The Commission's interpretation of the 'rule of law' seems to be however in a rather narrow sense, in the meaning that 'the financial interests of the Union are protected'. In this context, I would like to remind that the EESC has in the past adopted a position in which it is of the view that the support provided through the European budget to Member States should be subject to greater conditionality; in particular, beneficiaries should respect Community rules and ECJ.

- Among your priorities you put special focus on young people. How can the Committee amplify their voice, and is the 'Citizens Panel' a step in this direction?

- We cannot build the sustainable Europe of tomorrow without our youth. They must become the very first agents of change. We need their help to overcome a certain ossification of thought. We need their support to rebel against the learned conformity of our behaviour, which makes us, despite all our efforts, repeatedly produce the same results. Europe cannot exist only via governments. Economic and social actors, civil society must be on board, allowing for the diversity of Europe to express itself. We were very proud to have hosted the first European Citizens' Panel in which a representative group of Europeans discussed about our common future. At the Committee, we absolutely know the fundamental value of active civil society dialogue and real consultation.

- In view of the increasing Euroscepticism, what should be done to gain the hearts and minds of the citizens for the EU project?

- We must have the ambition to put opportunities and goals before problems. We must have the creativity and determination to transform a vision into a positive European narrative. For our common future, we need to revive civic engagement, which cannot be replaced by a few clicks on social media.

I see a tremendous opportunity in strengthening the role of Culture within the European political discourse. Culture has an enormous untapped potential to become a unifying and mobilising force for Europe. Culture can help us overcome the current systemic, political and identity crisis in Europe and dare us to dream, to create new perspectives. It can play a crucial role in strengthening social and territorial cohesion, in creating growth and jobs, in engaging in dialogue and in re-building trust. Culture is the glue that binds a society together. Like gluing - one of the oldest techniques for holding things together, culture has changed and developed over the centuries, but its function has remained the same, namely to keep society together.

I am convinced that culture can offer many more keys to enabling people to come closer to our unique European construction, live in peaceful and tolerant co-existence, and it must therefore be placed higher on Europe's agenda.

- What was the main topic during celebrations of the EESC 60th anniversary?

- The 60th anniversary of the Committee was a moment to pause, to look back and take stock of achievements which will drive our future. The EESC has much to be proud of. The EESC was behind the Community Charter of Fundamental Social Rights of Workers. Our long-term work in the field of migration and refugees resulted in the establishment of the European Migration Forum. The EESC's ACP-EU dialogue has been a flagship for the long-term. We have also successfully accompanied the enlargement process. We were among those leading the successful call for integrating sustainability elements in trade agreements. We pioneered suggestions on the Financial Transaction Tax. We recently created the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform. The EESC's largest institutional achievement in the past 20 years has been the full recognition of the constitutional role of civil dialogue and participatory democracy - with Article 11 of the Treaty, something unique in the world. These are only a few remarkable examples of the EESC's work.

But we also must not rest on our laurels, we have more work to do in the years to come. We are ready and committed to our fundamental mission: to be a space where civil dialogue is a way of producing our future.

- How can the civil society contribute for deepening of the EU integration of the Western Balkans?

- Only if citizens are aware that the accession to EU will improve their quality of life, and that of their children, we will see a positive outcome. It is crucial that civil society organisations in the Western Balkans work closely together, both at national and local levels, to demand citizens' involvement. Citizens need to own the process, so that they can shape it in a sustainable way. The EESC will continue to develop its bilateral and regional relations with civil society organisations in the region in order to strengthen civil society networks and therefore contribute to the consolidation of democracy.

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