Giulia Barbucci: The pandemic shows that we need a more inclusive society

Many people have wages almost at the line of poverty and even below, and this is one of the main problems

Photo: EESC Giulia Barbucci.

I hope we will have the chance to build a new society which could be more inclusive. What we have already seen in the response to the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 was a push for austerity measures and fanatic financial restraint. These actions did not prove to be the right ones, says Giulia Barbucci, EESC Vice-President, in an interview to Europost.

Ms Barbucci, what is the main message of the Committee's new leadership, which takes over the office in a time of unprecedented hardship?

It is a very complicated time because of the pandemic, causing a big health and economic crisis not only in the EU but also all over the world. The new leadership of the Committee should work united at all levels, with the involvement of all the staff of the administration, because only together we can overcome this hard time. We are here for a mandate, for a temporary period of time, and we have to assure that the Committee can go on. And our main message as a presidency is: “United for the future of Europe.” The EESC is the voice of organised civil society and social partners in Europe. Every day we work hard to promote democracy and develop a more participatory EU. It is our responsibility to show European citizens that the EU and its unique social model can help find a way out of the crisis. In this delicate time, the EESC has a key role to play. In my function as a chair of the EESC Commission for Financial and Budgetary Affairs, I will do everything possible to ensure that we have a healthy budget that enables members to carry out their political work and ensures sound management of expenditure and proper distribution of existing resources, in order to achieve maximum efficiency.

During its first for the new term plenary session, the EESC debated on 'Recovery for the future of Europe'. What are the leading directions that you and your colleagues will work on in this respect?

With all the immediate response measures and investment plans, the EU is doing a lot for its member countries and also for the people, but a real recovery also means that no one should be left behind. The EU has yet to put jobs and people at the heart of its policies. I hope we will have the chance to build a new society which could be more inclusive. What we have already seen in the response to the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 was a push for austerity measures and fanatic financial restraint. These actions did not prove to be the right ones. Just before the pandemic, there was a debate at the different levels of the EU about the validity of these kinds of policies, and there were already some serious doubts that we can go on like that. So, I believe that the pandemic will bring us to a better society. We need to take the chance to change the economic governance and have a new model of a society. Such that does not give profits to a few and pose austerity to the majority of people.

In her message to the EESC plenary, EC President von der Leyen stressed the important role the EESC has to play in “supporting and delivering a green, digital and resilient recovery”. Does the Committee plan to intensify its contacts with the EC and EP as to fulfil this duty more effectively?

President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen underlined the role EESC has to play and that the European Commission needs our advice and experience, but she was not the only one. A lot of appreciation for our work came also from President of the European Parliament David Sassoli and from President of the European Council Charles Michel, among others. I think we have to intensify the contact with the Commission and the Parliament, but we already have very important exchanges with these institutions. For instance, I was very active in the section for transport, energy and information society in the Committee. We arranged a lot of discussions with the Commission and its services on how to achieve cleaner and better mobility. Also our proposal for setting up an EU Energy Poverty Observatory was accepted, and our suggestions for digitalisation were welcomed as well. Concerning services of general interest, this is a field which shows us that we need to focus our attention on sectors like health, protection for the most vulnerable. We also need to cooperate more with the Council. With the Committee of the Regions, which has the point of view of territorial and local authorities, we are already sharing a lot of things, we are in the same building, and I believe our collaboration must become stronger.

And in this context, how would you comment the fact that the idea of former EESC President Luca Jahier for the need of Health Union is already on the Commission's work programme for 2021?

The Health Union is crucial and this pandemic proved it. We are in the midst of the coronavirus second wave, with infections rising sharply. Even if we are well aware of the fact that health is not a competence of the EU, this pandemic taught us that it was of utmost importance to have collaboration between the Member States on health. I also think that this Health Union has to be provided with the right financing because we've seen some cuts concerning this area and we should discuss how to raise its funding.

Amplified by the crisis, poverty and inequality are constantly deepening. The Commission already tabled its proposal for a framework for minimum wages in the EU, but isn't it time to think for universal basic income as well?

The directive for adequate minimum wages for workers across Member States, proposed by the new Commission, is a good initiative because it addresses the situation of the “working poor”. However, I think there is a problem concerning not only the minimum wages, but wages in general. Over the last 10 years and more, there was a trend in Europe towards moderation of wages, and we have now unfortunately a situation where there are many people whose wages are almost at the line of poverty and sometimes even below that line. And I think this is one of the main problems we have to solve at European level. Of course, we have to support the idea of a universal basic income, which is something different from the proposal of minimum wages. EESC is trying to tackle the problem of the poverty that is really growing all over Europe. We have to find a solution to introduce this kind of proposal, of which the Committee already adopted its opinion. Europe must once again become a place where it is possible to improve the social situation for all. To create good quality jobs, open up the labour market to young people, the unemployed and people without job security. And particularly to women, as gender equality is one of the foundations of social sustainability, and in this area we must do more.

What will the EESC do for bringing the people at the centre, in tackling the crisis, as you accented during the plenary?

We must convince citizens that the EU is a positive project to contain the economic and social costs of this crisis. We must ensure that there is something concrete for the citizens, for the workers. The structures of the EESC are working in our home countries and have a strong contact with people on the ground. Now the situation is much more complicated when it comes to initiatives on the local level, as we cannot travel and keep contacts in person. We have learned to live and work “virtually”, but this should not distance us from the citizens. On the contrary, it should make the EU even more empathetic to people's needs in these challenging times.

We must convince Europeans that, even in the midst of this huge crisis, the EU is still a valuable political, social and cultural project, and that the European social model should be safeguarded.

The EU agreed on a huge recovery budget but there are concerns expressed by some observers that this is a debt that the future generations should pay back. Are these concerns justified?

This is an extraordinary situation so we have to use any kind of extraordinary measures. We have to think in a different way. It is a time to show solidarity between the EU Member States, and the answer is 'eurobonds'. This discussion was not possible until six months ago. It was a kind of taboo. Now we have a completely different context and we have the chance to share the debt for countering the pandemic crisis.

In your view, who will pay the higher price for the lockdowns imposed across Europe due to the pandemic?

We are not used to staying isolated, without human contacts. It is really a new kind of situation that has never happened in the past, and we are trying to adapt our lives to these new circumstances. So, the whole society will pay a high price for the lockdowns, but the disadvantaged people will pay more. The people that lose their jobs, but also the young people, who see their life suspended in terms of their studies, work experience, their social contacts practically restricted. I also think of the people with mental diseases, as what we see now is exacerbation of the illnesses, and the number of people with such problems is increasing. And also the women, as they are among the people who are paying very high price. They have to stay home and work remotely, but they have to also care for the children, for the parents. Unfortunately, during the lockdowns there is an increase in cases of domestic violence.

How do restrictive measures affect our fundamental rights and to what extent could our rights be ceded?

I am Italian, and when the first lockdown was imposed I know what happened in Italy, which was first and worst hit by the pandemic in March of this year. With the introduction of the restriction measures, it was something like limitation of our fundamental rights because we also couldn't travel from one region to another, and even between towns of the same region. It was shocking. At the same time, in Italy everybody thought that it should be justified by the health situation in the country. Now, I think it is a little bit different because people are not so ready to renounce their rights. And there is also a problem when it comes to the tracing, which concerns privacy. The debate about the imposed containment measures and the fundamental rights was in a sense interrupted because of the pandemic. But we have to be careful and always to involve citizens. They should know when there is a risk or a problem. Also it is not acceptable that governments decide unilaterally about the restrictive measures to curb Covid-19.

Close-up

Giulia Barbucci is the newly elected Vice-President of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), responsible for the budget. She became a member of the Committee (Workers' Group) in 2015. She was a member of the Governing Board of the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions of Dublin from 2003 to 2013. She has been also a member of the executive committee of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) since 2009 and a deputy member of its Women's committee since 2007. Prior to this, from 2001, she has been working as a full-time officer in the European and International Policy section at the Italian General Confederation of Labour, the largest trade union organisation in the country. Giulia Barbucci is rapporteur on many EESC opinions, among them Access to social protection, Digital gender gap, and Sustainable mobility for Europe.

 

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