We are entering a new phase of the European project. The central equation of this new phase can be presented in the following terms: if we want to renew the European economic and social model to address the ongoing ecological and digital transformations, and if we want to improve global governance to address the current global challenges, we must ask how our economic and financial instruments should be developed and how can we deepen European democracy in such a way as to be able to take the necessary far-reaching decisions. The European Union must assert itself as a full-fledged political entity with economic, social, cultural dimensions and take internal and external actions that are decided democratically by its own citizens. That is why a ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’ is so necessary at this particular historical juncture.
Our vision of how to live on this planet will doubtlessly be deeply transformed by our current collective experience of the Covid-19 pandemic and the looming climate disaster. Now is therefore the time to develop a common vision together.
The first step in this process is to change the relationship between humankind and nature. We are part of nature, and we therefore need to respect it by looking after its resources and biodiversity. This new aspiration comes at a time of technological developments that will enable a new way of producing, consuming, moving around and living. Now is the time to create and disseminate a new generation of products and services that are not only low carbon and zero waste, but also smarter because they are built on artificial intelligence. Our houses, schools, shops, hospitals, meeting places, cities and way of life can all be completely transformed.
New economic activities and jobs will emerge while others will decline. An immense transformation of the employment structure is already underway, and it has been accelerated by the Covid-related lockdowns. Although there are jobs where the main tasks can be replaced by automation and artificial intelligence, there are also new jobs dealing with climate action, environmental repair, human relationships and creativity of all sorts – these roles can be multiplied. We need to support this transformation with massive lifelong learning programmes, as well as by using social protection to mitigate the various social risks.
All this requires us to build a welfare system that is fit for the twenty-first century, based on the assumption that we will all end up combining a range of different activities – paid work, family care, community service, education and personal creativity – throughout our lifetimes. And, of course, we also need to find new ways of financing this welfare system, by tapping into new sources of added value and by updating our tax structures.
These new aspirations will be claimed by many citizens, from all generations and all countries, and this will create a push for deep policy shifts.
At the same time, the current gap between global challenges and global governance has become more and more evident and requires an ambitious renewal of the current multilateral system.
Initially, this renewal is needed to cope with the current Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting social and economic crises that are unfolding. Indeed, we need to have large-scale vaccination ensuring universal access and more powerful financial tools to counter the recession and to turn the stimulus package into a large transformation of our economies, in line with the green and digital transitions that are underway and with the need to tackle increasing social inequalities.
Our response to the Covid-19 crisis should not delay the urgent action on climate change, otherwise the damage caused to the environment will become largely irreversible with implications across the board.
Additionally, the digital transition is in a critical phase, where the diffusion of artificial intelligence to all sectors risks being controlled by a small set of big digital platforms. But there is an alternative: we can agree on a common set of global rules to ensure that we have different choices, and to ensure that we improve fundamental standards regarding the respect of privacy, decent labour conditions, and access to public services. These global rules would also ensure new tax resources to finance public goods.
It is crucial that we have a strong multilateral framework to underpin the green and digital transitions, so that we can better implement the sustainable development goals and reduce social inequalities within and between countries. Nevertheless, we need to identify with which actors the multilateral system can be renewed, and how we can therefore improve global governance. The way the global multipolar order is currently evolving means there is a real danger of fragmentation between different areas of influence and there is the additional problem of increasing strategic competition between the United States and China. The recent election of Joe Biden in the United States is very good news, and it creates a fresh basis to relaunch the transatlantic alliance. But the world has changed. There are other influential players now, so we need to build a larger coalition of actors – governments, parliamentarians, civil society organisations, and citizens themselves – to push for these objectives using a model of variable geometry.
The EU should take an active and leading role in building this coalition of forces necessary to renew the multilateral system. At the same time, it should develop its bilateral relations with countries and regional organisations so that we can cooperate and move in the same direction. The EU’s ‘external action’ must cover other relevant dimensions: from defence and cybersecurity to energy, science and technology, education, culture, and human rights. Promoting the sustainable development goals in all the EU’s relationships should also be a priority.
Alongside this, the EU needs to build on the recent historical leap forward that it made when it finally agreed on the launch of a common budget financed by the joint issuance of bonds to drive a post-Covid recovery, linked to a deep green and digital transformation. This is a unique opportunity that we cannot afford to miss. It requires all member states to implement national recovery plans to transform energy and transport infrastructures and to promote clusters of low-carbon and smart activities while creating new jobs. This needs to be combined with the development of new public services and new social funding for health, education, and care. These things should be at the centre of a new concept of prosperity that is driven by well-being. A welfare system for the twenty-first century should support all these transitions to new jobs, new skills, and new social needs, and it should be based on an advanced concept of European citizenship that includes not only economic and political rights, but also social, digital, and environmental rights.
This advanced concept of European citizenship, as proclaimed by the European Social Pillar, also needs to be underpinned by a stronger European budget, joint debt issuance, tax convergence and European taxation. This will be at the core of stronger European sovereignty – which is needed to cope with the current challenges we face – while strengthening internal regional and social cohesion.
Stronger European sovereignty must in turn be grounded on strengthened democracy at local, national, and European levels, and it should better combine representative and participatory mechanisms. The current Europe-wide situation caused by the Covid-19 crisis opens new avenues of hybrid democratic activity which offer interesting potential for exploration.
The Conference on the Future of Europe, which will be launched on 9 May, is a first step on the long road to make our vision for our European future a reality. Let us all embark on this journey, bringing our progressive ideas, our creativity, our ambition and most importantly, our spirit of solidarity.
This text is inspired by the introduction of the upcoming collective book Our European Future where 36 renowned European authors make their inspirational statements, to be launched on 27 May during the FEPS flagship event “Call to Europe”.