“Now is the TIME to make the MOST of this new NORMAL”
Christa Schweng is the newly elected president of the EESC for the 2020-2023 term of office. She has been an EESC member for 22 years, representing the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber (WKÖ). Her work has focused on employment and social affairs. She holds a Master’s Degree in Law from the University of Vienna.
You have been elected as the new president of the Economic and Social Committee. What are your priorities for the new term of office?
The motto of my presidency is “United for the future of Europe”. I believe that unity is what we need the most to overcome the pandemic and the economic crisis it has triggered, and to shape a vision for a post-COVID-19 Europe. For me, this means a Europe that prospers economically, that is socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable; a Europe that provides the right conditions for all of civil society to thrive and live in open, values-based democracies. Starting with the most urgent needs – surviving the crisis and treading the path to recovery –, I believe that the Multiannual Financial Framework and the Next Generation EU recovery fund have a crucial role to play here. There will be no return to the reality we lived in before the pandemic. We need to revamp our economies and societies. Finding the right balance between economic, social and environmental aspects is crucial to doing this. At this particular moment, safeguarding employment and income for all in the labour market – whether self-employed or employees – should be a priority. The rapid shifts in our labour markets have also reminded us how important it is to match the worlds of education and training with the needs of the market.
As Europe shifts towards a green and digital economy, we must ensure that nobody is left behind and that social policies respond properly to the impact of transition. Digitalisation needs a European, humancentred approach and needs to be just, sustainable and socially acceptable. On top of this, we have to combine recovery with enabling innovation and investment in climate and environmental protection. I would invite you to take a look at the full version of the priorities of my presidency for more details on this.
Not everyone is familiar with the role of the Committee. How exactly does it influence policymaking at EU level?
The Committee is the bridge between European civil society and the EU policymakers. We are the only voice of employers, workers and NGOs within the institutional framework. The EESC is an advisory body. The Commission is obliged by the treaties to ask for EESC opinions on its legislative proposals. Although these opinions are not binding, I believe they bring an added value to the legislative process. They provide an overview of the positions of various civil society stakeholders. Our work differs from what lobbyists do. They push for particular interests; we seek common ground between employers, workers and NGOs. In some cases that common ground is so difficult to achieve that a joint position is a watereddown one. But, especially on sectoral policies, our opinions provide insight, knowledge and a fresh, non-political view founded on real-life experience. Once agreed by our three groups, our consensus-based opinions provide safe ground on which politicians can come to decisions that take into account the first-hand experience and concerns of civil society.
Some Members of the European Parliament have been heard to say that they are unaware of the Committee’s opinions. What more can it do to make sure what it produces gets across loud and clear to the EU institutions?
I do believe that, despite recent criticism, the EESC has a role to play. Proving this is one of my goals for this presidency. We want to improve the way we produce the opinions and communicate them to the European institutions. Close cooperation with the European Commission even before the publication of new proposals, as well as drafting opinions more quickly, would enable us to make our views heard in a timely manner. We also want to intensify followup of the opinions through a pro-active and systematic outreach to the European Parliament’s rapporteurs and the Council. The EESC can also use its information reports to demonstrate how European legislation and programmes are being implemented on the ground and perceived by civil society organisations in the Member States. We can monitor the implementation of EU policies and show whether or not the EU is delivering on its promises and point out possibly unsuitable policies and procedures, while making recommendations for improvement.
What are the Committee’s recommendations regarding supporting and boosting the economy hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic?
The recovery from the coronavirus crisis will only be successful if it is accompanied by the restructuring of our society. In its resolution, adopted in June, the EESC called for a recovery based on six principles: solidarity, competitiveness, sustainability, safeguarding employment, safeguarding income and participation. We have identified a number of measures for recovery. These include unlocking the full potential of the single market, reshaping the EU’s industrial strategy, boosting investment and employment and reforming health systems. The EESC has stressed that the proposals included in the resolution would require a new economic governance system. The document therefore calls for a reform of the European Union’s economic governance and a revision of the Stability and Growth Pact “for the purpose of simultaneously ensuring stability and growth”.
Your work is addressed to the EU institutions, but are there any other institutions that can benefit from it?
We would like to bring grassroots perspectives to European policymaking because I believe they are too often marginalised in the legislative process. The EESC would like to serve as a forum for the exchanging of views and for knowledge gathering, a place where experts from local, national and European levels meet policymakers and help them look at policies from other angles. We already have some successful examples of such initiatives – such as the European Circular Economy Stakeholders Platform, which we created together with the European Commission. This is a network of networks that goes beyond sectoral activities and highlights cross-sector opportunities. It provides a meeting place for stakeholders to share and scale up effective solutions and address specific challenges. We are considering launching similar initiatives on other topics and policies.
The Committee’s composition is very diverse. How many organisations do you represent and how difficult it is to reach an agreement on any particular issue?
The committee is composed of three groups: employers, workers and Diversity Europe (gathering NGOs, farmers’ organisations, liberal professions, social economy actors, consumer organisations, environmental organisations and associations advocating for equality and minority rights). Almost all of the 329 members represent a different organisation. These people are mature practitioners, with years of experience in their field of expertise. This gives a variety of perspectives and a multidimensional expertise at the grassroots level. Our members often see consequences of EU legislation that are difficult to spot from Brussels. Admittedly, such diversity makes reaching an agreement on particular issues difficult. Difficult but not impossible. The working methods in the EESC are an example of compromise at European level. This is where employers, trade unions, environmentalists, consumers and many others state their differing cases, discuss their concerns and do their best to find the middle ground. Personally, I believe that this spirit of consensus is an important added value of the EESC. It is thanks to this that our opinions give the policymakers an understanding of which parts of legislation are – and are not – broadly accepted by civil society stakeholders. Listening to this voice at an early stage when legislative problems occur means possible difficulties can be avoided during transposition into national law and implementation.
The Committee will be taking part in the Conference on the Future of Europe. What kind of Europe do we need?
I think that my vision of a Europe that prospers economically, is socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable is an important goal. We need to address the dilemma of national sovereignty versus the need to find common European solutions, as well as national identity and cultural diversity. The EESC is willing to play an active role in the conference and we will put forward concrete proposals on behalf of European civil society. Like all other stakeholders, we are keen to see the details of how the conference will work and be organised. This conference is a chance to re-engage Europeans in the integration process. The closer involvement of civil society and “hands-on” actors in discussions at both national and EU levels makes policymaking more democratic, effective and in line with citizens’ needs.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your life?
One thing is for sure: thanks to COVID-19 I have saved hundreds of hours spent at airports and in planes (laugh). Being an EESC member means constant travelling between the home country and Brussels, as most of us remain active at both national and European level. These days, all meetings, including the plenary sessions, are taking place online and Ithinkwehaveadjustedquicklyandefficiently to this way of working. On the other hand, I personally miss direct contact and face-to-face discussions. Such discussions are far moreenrichingthanvideoconferences.Iam looking forward to again being able to travel and meet people in person. At the same time, I am aware it will be different from before. COVID-19 has irrevocably changed the way we work. Even when we overcome the pandemic and get immunity through vaccinations we will not simply go back to the old ways of working. We have all seen for ourselves the viability of teleworking. One could say that the pandemic has speeded up the digitalisation of the world of work. While we have managed so far to ensure business continuity in this new reality, now is the time to make the most of this new normal. This is today’s challenge for both employers and workers in numerous sectors.
Thank you for the interview!
By Alena Mastantuono
Photo: ©EU 2020 – SOURCE: EESC