The President of the European Commission made a much-awaited speech in the European Parliament today, the so-called State of the European Union address. This annual event is supposed to show the political direction for the European Union for the coming 12 months.
Those believing the European Union can and should be a successful collective project were expecting this speech with a hope that there would be important announcements regarding a change of direction for our collective journey. Why? Because the political establishment has alienated the people of Europe by focusing on economic statistics – the obsession with growth – that do not translate into improvements in our daily life. And because Brexit shows that many people believe that our governments’ policies are benefitting a few and leave behind the vast majority; a similar vote could have happened in many other member countries of the European Union. Euroskepticism will keep rising if there is no decisive shift.
Jacques Delors, a 91-year-old French politician who held Juncker’s position in the 1980s, published an opinion piece earlier this week calling for today’s leaders to base a vision of Europe on social and environmental issues rather than focusing on purely nominal economic growth. If President Juncker acknowledged that “Europe is not social enough” and that “the Commission will always stand by our farmers”, he did not propose anything that will represent a shift away from the current dead-end. He called for further trade liberalisation, without mentioning the much more urgent need to support short supply chains, local trade in Europe and a circular economy (the very good news though is that circular economy is part of the Commission's programme of work for the coming year). Global trade and global supply chains are contributing substantially to climate change, and there are no jobs on a dead planet.
The President of the European Commission wants to empower European citizens, but did not specify how to do that and nor did he mention the critical role civil society organisations and trade unions are playing in that regard. He announced the launch of an external investment plan to promote corporate investments in developing and neighbouring countries, but did not announce any move to address the appalling track record of the corporate sector – including European companies - on human rights abuses in the Global South. Supporting the business community to invest in developing countries while resisting any regulation of European companies operating abroad may well end up in human rights abuses rather than improving the life of people living in poverty.
We need a vision for the European Union, and 177 civil society organisations, including ActionAid, have called upon European leaders to shape a Europe that is inclusive, open, just, sustainable, and that works for people of all ages, social backgrounds and nations. This requires a new focus on equality and inclusion, a relaunch of the European social model to provide decent work, quality jobs and better living conditions, strong environmental protection, meaningful action on climate change, and an EU-wide effort to welcome and integrate migrants. Current economic policies of reducing deficits and boosting ‘competitiveness’ have promoted too narrow an interpretation of growth, and corporate profits have failed to make it into workers’ wages or trickle down to improve people’s lives.
President Juncker has rightly recognised that the coming 12 months are decisive to rebuild our common European project, which is a first step. Now, let’s hope that the EU institutions and our governments will focus on social issues and the environment rather than considering growth is the silver bullet because it creates (decent and dignified?) jobs. This also means that our way of life, which President Juncker commits to defend, should in fact urgently be changed: it is unsustainable, and will kill the planet. We need to shift towards more sustainable production and consumption models, as our governments committed under the UN Sustainable Development Goals last year, and to reduce Europe’s footprint and dependence on natural resources in the Global South – land, water, minerals. That would be an alternative roadmap for Europe!