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Speech on the 'European Commission work programme for 2023' by President Séamus BOLAND

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EESC plenary debate with European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič

Thursday 27 October 2022

Dear Vice-President,

It is a pleasure to welcome you to the EESC today. You have been a ‘loyal supporter’ of the Committee over the years and you are again very welcome! I listened with great interest to your presentation of the European Commission (EC) priorities for next year, to which I will respond by focussing on three issues: social sustainability, unity and ownership.

The EC finds itself in very challenging times, where a lot is being asked of it. The ‘to do’ list is very long, as is the time necessary to translate these ambitions into policy. And the inter-related nature of the current crises acts as both a stimulus and as a complicating factor to European policy making.

There is much to congratulate the EC in its work programme for next year. We strongly welcome the proposals for a social economy framework condition, a Statute for European Cross-border associations, the initiative on mental health and for a European disability card.

However, it strikes me that not once in the document is the word ‘poverty’ used. And this at a time when Europeans are becoming increasingly poor and vulnerable, with energy poverty, inflation and severe increases in the cost of living. And although reference is made to sustainable development and to the digital and green transitions in the work programme, I am missing the accompanying measures. I am missing the implementation of the first SDG, which is ending poverty. And I am missing new proposals on how to make these radical transitions just, fair and inclusive. To give a very specific example, yes, we welcome the decision to make 2023 the European Year of Skills. However, there are no concrete proposals on how to link this year of skills with  inclusive digitalisation. Nor are there initiatives on how to follow-up on the achievements of the European Year of Youth.

This brings me onto the second key area of my presentation, which will focus on ‘unity’. It is a fact that the ability of the EU to act, is limited by governance structures and the primacy of national responsibilities. Something that is made even more acute by the current weakened leadership in a number of EU countries. My concern, is that inflation, as well as the rising costs of living and energy, will increasingly put wedges between Member States. Particularly as the cost-of-living crisis will directly threaten individual governments. We have already seen some Member States taking individual actions which could have repercussions on other Member States and of course, on the coherence of European markets. So, the challenge for the Commission, will be how to link individual actions by Member States, with an overall EC approach. The EC will have to figure out how to maintain sufficient EU solidarity and unity in ambition. Not an easy task!

The third point that I would like to make relates to ownership and participation by CSOs and I would like to refer to what was said by your colleague here at the plenary last month. Mr Schinas stated that the EESC is a valuable partner because we know society better than governments.  Earlier this morning the revised Protocol of Cooperation between the EC and the EESC was signed. I consider this Protocol to be essential to our relations. But that does not prevent me from saying that there is a need for greater EC recognition of the contribution of all civil society organisations. This needs to be done in a more practical and coherent way than is currently the case. Put simply, we need an EU Strategy to promote Civil participation and Civil Dialogue. And yes, we welcome the inclusive approach of the EC towards citizens which will continue with the Citizens’ Panels. But let us not forget that it is CSOs that are best able to organise and to channel the energy and activities of citizens.

And I have to admit that during the State of the Union speech of the EC President, I was struck by the prominence given to the two Polish ladies who had worked to help Ukrainian volunteers. Not in any way to disrespect their assistance to the refugees. But simply, because it did neglect the very substantial contribution by civil society organisations who have been at the very centre of efforts to help refugees. And indeed, in most cases, without the network and organisational capacity that exists within CSOs, individuals such as these two Polish ladies, are often unable to carry out complex and sustained assistance to refugees.

With these few comments, I bring my statement to a close. Thank you for your attention.       

Source: EESC