By Dr. Martha Theodorou
In your opinion, what are the major challenges the European Union is facing today and which should be its immediate priorities?
After the Covid pandemic and the continued Russian aggression against Ukraine, Europe is faced with a number of socio-economic challenges that we – organised civil society, closely follow. Ensuring a swift recovery and supporting businesses and people confronted with high inflation and high energy prices are of key importance.
Europe needs a comprehensive change to the energy market, to diversify energy supply, reduce red tape and invest more in renewables. I believe the EU's energy market has the potential to be a global frontrunner.
Also, strengthening the EU's competitiveness and its open strategic autonomy remain high priority. The Single Market's 30th anniversary, should inspire us to further deepen and improve our home market. The digital and green transition remains a challenge but also provides the chance for businesses and sustainable jobs of the future. However, to take the opportunity offered by these transitions, and to fill in the many existing job vacancies, we need to make sure that people have the skills that are actually needed in our economies. In that perspective, the 2023 European year of skills allow us to put the focus on quality education, upskilling - reskilling and on lifelong learning in general.
Another priority is obviously Ukraine and its people that the EESC continuously supports. Our solidarity will continue, as strong as on day one. I can also say that my biggest wish for this year is that this unjustified Russian aggression on Ukraine finally ends.
In this new state of affairs, how do you envision the role of the EESC? How easy and how feasible is a dynamic and substantial intervention by organised civil society in view of the new developments?
I believe that in a complex future for the EU, important decisions should be taken in consultation with those affected. We face difficult issues, the responses to which will have a profound impact on our citizens, civil society, and the economy, and they should be part of the political debate. An open decision-making method, with wide involvement of representatives from all walks of life, limits the risk of resistance and ultimately leads to better policy results.
To ensure we can act decisively in the face of enormous challenges, we must improve the ways we decide on policies.
This is a challenge that will require political will and continuous feedback from those consulted. In this scenario, the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) was a first step in the right direction. It brought everyone together for an ambitious discussion on the most important topics in Europe and proved that such a model can be successful.
The EESC, as the house of civil society, further encouraged by the conclusions of the CoFoE, will continue working within its Treaty-mandated mission and it's ready to cooperate with the Commission in the new citizens' panels. Our institution is ready to act as a key hub for citizens and organised civil society participation and to systematically collect feedback from European organised civil society on all the major priorities and policies of the European political agenda and share them with policy makers.
The involvement of all levels ultimately brings long-term policy improvements, democratic legitimacy and strongly improves our governance methods.
Your term of office has been defined by COVID-19 and a period of social and economic instability. What are the specific initiatives that have been taken by the EESC for a stronger and more resilient post-COVID Europe?
Indeed, the EU has been facing many challenges: first the pandemic, then the start of the war in Ukraine. What the EESC has advocated for relentlessly is that we must not lose sight of our common goals and that we must build back better. In fact, this is the time to foster the necessary reforms to make Europe resilient and fit for the future.
In the vein of this forward-looking approach, we adopted an opinion already in 2021 on reshaping the EU fiscal framework for a sustainable recovery and a just transition. While we understood why the reform of the economic governance framework had been put on hold when the pandemic hit, it was important for us to carry the debate forward, taking into account the new reality. This is a key issue contributing to the creation of a more resilient and sustainable EU economy.
Similarly, we follow very closely the implementation of the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) to see that the national plans are implemented effectively, fairly, and make a tangible contribution to people's wellbeing. We stressed that the involvement of organised civil society was crucial for transparency, accountability and for increasing the probability of the success of this ambitious recovery plan. We will continue our efforts to ensure that organised civil society is involved both at the European and national levels.
The recession triggered by the pandemic and the economic effects of the war has also exacerbated existing disparities and inequalities; therefore, we stress that economic, social, and territorial cohesion must be at the forefront of the EU's shared efforts to create an inclusive, environmentally and socially sustainable European economy.
The pandemic has brought severe disruption and rapid shifts to the labour market. What measures did the EESC propose to ensure employment rights and a respectable income for the labour force during this period?
The EESC has produced key opinions on the matter, such as those on the Adequate Minimum Wages Directive and on the Implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan. It underlined the idea that Europe should lead the way from fragility towards a new vitality by creating opportunities and prosperity by promoting innovation, sustainable growth and fair competition. Regarding the Action Plan, the EESC proposed that it should include measures helping to address income inequality, given the well-defined priority of social cohesion as an essential part of the European social model.
More recently, the EESC has also dedicated an own-initiative opinion to the topic of enhancing labour mobility to support economic recovery. In the latter, it called on the European Commission to take measures that will both prevent brain drain and advance upward social and economic convergence.
The EESC's Labour Market Observatory has specifically examined the impact of the pandemic on the labour market: it has looked at the effect of remote work in light of the pandemic, and at how the pandemic has affected low-wage sectors. It has also examined the state of play of youth participation in the EU labour market and also the labour market in rural areas.
At the moment, we see that European Union labour markets have very well recovered after the hard blow of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are performing strongly, surpassing pre-pandemic employment levels. In less than 10 years more than 13 million jobs have been created, but many vacancies are left unfilled and many employers face difficulties finding the people with the skills they need or even workers as such. We need to stay vigilant, especially in the wake of the energy crisis and Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine, because all these elements – skills mismatches and lacks, economic slowdown, could have a major impact on the economy and therefore jobs.
There is a big debate taking place on fundamental rights and the rule of law in the European Union. Do you believe that the common European values are at risk today?
Questions of democracy, fundamental rights, and the rule of law have become more visible and debated at EU level in recent years because these pillars of our open societies are indeed increasingly challenged. We have seen clear trends in recent years characterised by a reduction of the space of liberty for civil society organisations, increased pressure on human rights defenders and journalists, the rise of hate speech, in particular targeting minorities, and a backsliding of the rule of law.
Of course, the situation varies from country to country, but acting at European level is relevant because violations of the rule of law or fundamental rights (like media freedom) in one Member State can have very concrete implications in another. The EU is a legitimate actor because what we often sum up as the "European founding values" actually refers to the commitments made by Member States upon entry into the Union to respect the rights and principles deriving from Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, as well as their own constitutional traditions and international legal commitments.
Our Committee plays its full role in that regard, notably through the work of its Fundamental Rights and Rule of Law Group, which visits all EU Members States to listen to and relay the voice of civil society. The Greek Economic and Social Council kindly hosted the visit to Greece in May 2022.
Very recently, end of March, the EESC held a plenary debate and adopted a resolution entitled "United for Democracy" with concrete proposals to strengthen democracies and democratic values across the European Union. Policymakers, experts, and organised civil society representatives agreed that civic education, better funding to social partners and a focus on the local dimension, are key to democracy in Europe.
It is axiomatic that the Member States should implement reforms to support the green transition and contribute towards achieving the goals of the European Green Deal, Europe's new growth strategy. What are the EESC's suggestions in this direction?
Beyond a general requirement to contribute to the green transition pillar, each Member State must dedicate at least 37 % of its recovery and resilience plan's total allocation to measures contributing to climate objectives.
The EESC is committed to and supports the European Green Deal. Both businesses and consumers play a crucial role in this transition and they need proper information and tools.
European businesses should be treated as part of the solution and need proper support in respecting climate commitments. Specific attention must be given to the sectors of micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs).
The EESC also calls on the Member States to include climate action and sustainable development as a core component in the educational curriculum. European consumers should be empowered, informed, and able to make choices that benefit not only themselves but also our planet.
One of the best examples of EESC active engagement in improving policies is the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform: the European one-stop shop for the circular economy community where good practices, knowledge and strategies are shared. Over last 2 ½ years, this platform nearly doubled its best practise cases from 400 to 760. This demonstrates the innovative power of European businesses, communities and people we can rely on.
Speaking about the Green Deal as such, the EESC also wants to ensure that climate policies address also the social impacts of the transition.
Overall, to achieve the European Green Deal I believe it is essential to recognize the complementarity between climate change, circular economy policies, corporate and our own responsibility.
ChatGPT, a chatbot that is the latest development in the world of generative AI, has gone viral. What are the views of the EESC on the Regulation of Artificial Intelligence?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been in the spotlight at the EESC since 2017, when the EESC adopted its first own-initiative opinion on AI and its impact on the digital single market and society in broader terms. In this report, the EESC introduced for the very first time the concept of a human-in-command approach to AI, where the development and application of AI must be responsible and safe, where machines remain machines and people must be able to retain control over them.
The proposed Regulation on AI, also known as the AI Act, is a first of its kind in the world and will have a massive impact on the development, deployment and use of AI. The EESC welcomes this proposal and is pleased that health, safety and fundamental rights are at its heart. Even though the AI Act raises the bar substantially as regards the quality, performance and trustworthiness of AI that the EU is willing to allow, there are areas for improvement regarding the scope, definition and clarity of the prohibited AI practices. The EESC is particularly preoccupied by the use of biometric and emotion recognition in publicly and privately accessible spaces and is calling for a ban of these practices, which are extremely invasive, lack any sound scientific basis and pose substantial risks of harm to a number of fundamental rights. Last but not least, the AI Act should provide for certain decisions to remain the prerogative of humans, particularly in domains where these decisions have a moral component and legal implications or a societal impact.
The Conference on the Future of Europe was a unique opportunity for society in the European Union, as citizens were able to have their voice heard in shaping future EU policies. The Conference succeeded in developing an ambitious and inspiring vision for the European Union. How will the EESC contribute to this?
The Conference on the Future of Europe was an important achievement. Policymakers, citizen representatives and civil society were all invited to join the conversation united by the common objective of making the EU better.
The Conference was able to convincingly demonstrate its genuine purpose. I have personally spoken with many citizens who were initially worried that their words would be misinterpreted or not conveyed in the final recommendations, but, ultimately, they were very happy with the process.
Unfortunately, almost one year later, many feel -to put it mildly- that at least some ambition has vanished. Especially with a view to the upcoming European elections, I think we need more courage, transparency and inclusiveness in the follow-up of the CoFoE.
Although the Conference had limited participation, we still need to wait to evaluate its impact in the long term. The updated versions of the citizens' panels, managed by the Commission, are still in their infancy, and the recommendations for the first new panels were presented on 12 February. We will only be able to draw some conclusions later.
In the current scenario, the EESC is working to follow the mandate it received from the CoFoE recommendation, namely, to be a "facilitator and guarantor of participatory democracy activities like structured dialogue with civil society organisations and citizens' panels." In order to do this, we have engaged with decision-makers and the Commission with our own proposals. We nevertheless remain open to every option as long as it maintains the clear objective of bringing the point of view of organised civil society into the future of citizens' consultations. I am convinced that, more than ever, Europe cannot go forward without an effective involvement of European civil society.
The EESC is a link between the EU institutions and organised civil society. How can the involvement of civil society be improved in order to deliver added value to EU policy-making?
The final COFOE recommendations mention the EESC and organised civil society among the tools to bring about more involvement and transparency into the European democracy. To complement representative democracy, Article 11 of the Treaty on the European Union provides the EU institutions with the possibility to develop structural participatory democracy. This would mean that civil society organisations (CSOs) would have a regular dialogue with the EU institutions. The Committee calls for the effective implementation of Article 11 of the TEU, including a European strategy for civil society and a European Statute of Associations. That was also reiterated in its EESC's resolution "United for Democracy" adopted in March this year. The setting up of a comprehensive European strategy for civil society would not only further strengthen participatory democracy but also uphold EU fundamental values and democratic resilience, in accordance with the "defence of democracy" package announced by the Commission for 2023.
The EESC also considers that the European Commission should put in place contact persons responsible for civil dialogue. It should also work with the Member States to promote the strengthening of civil dialogue structures and support their creation where they do not yet exist, by harnessing European funds.
We also support other instruments of participatory democracy, particularly the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI), through which citizens can directly influence EU law and policy-making. Effectively promoting the ECI as a facilitator and as an institutional mentor is another way for the EESC to bolster its role as the house of civil society.
What could be the role of the national ESCs in the new developments? How can the EESC's relations with the national councils be made more productive?
The European Union is experiencing a multidimensional – and persisting – crisis, with a wide range of challenges: geopolitical instability, complex migration flows, the adverse effects of the war in Ukraine on energy costs for households, enterprises and the overall economy, and inflation. As representatives of organised civil society in the Member States, national ESCs (NESCs) have a key role to play, especially when countries are putting in place reforms and policies to tackle the current challenges and make their countries future-proof. For example, NESCs can play an important role in the implementation of the national recovery and resilience plans, in relation to which we understand that national Councils will be given an increasingly central role.
One of the achievements of my mandate was to reinforce the relations between the EESC and the NESCs. Going beyond the mere annual meetings of the presidents and secretaries-general of the EESC and the NESCs, I wanted to enhance cooperation and enable a more regular exchange on working topics, methods, and good practices between the Committee and the NESCs.
We have encouraged bilateral exchanges between the NESCs and set a framework for for enhanced multilateral exchanges. Two particular topics for exchange have been selected by the NESCs: "the economic and social impact of the twin transitions (green and digital)" and "Strengthening participatory democracy in the decision-making process". Furthermore, we have also launched a mobility pilot project between the EESC and NESCs: members can go on mission for a few days to another NESC or to the Committee, to take part in meetings and exchange on topics of joint interest. I see that as an excellent mutual learning tool, especially that the EESC and NESCs often work on the same issues and are faced with similar challenges.
The EESC has issued an Opinion on gender equality. Being a female EESC President, what is your personal opinion on this issue? Did you face gender issues during your term of office?
I took office at a time when women had been particularly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and during my mandate, I dedicated a lot of energy to show EESC's strong commitment and action for a gender-equal Europe. At the Porto Social Summit, the EESC has succeeded in having a concrete impact on the Porto Declaration and include in it a gender equality dimension, including specifics on closing the gender pay gap and guaranteeing the right to equal pay for work of equal value.
In 2021, the EESC has renewed its Gender equality group, to establish a cross-cutting culture of gender equality in the Committee. In 2021 and 2022, the Committee has joined the Gender Equality week organized by the European Parliament, and looked at various aspects of gender-related matters.
I believe we need a great push for gender equality in all fields and to rethink women's role in the economy. We need to bring down the barriers to women's entrepreneurship and tackle the wide gender employment gap. This is not only unacceptable from an ethical point of view. It also represents billions of economic loss for the EU and a lost talent that could have contributed to make the EU more innovative, competitive and prosperous.
We must end stereotypes and empower girls and women, to be equal partners with men in all aspects of economic, political and social life. More girls and women should seize the good opportunities that exist in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Regarding my personal experience, I do not feel that I faced any gender-related issue during my presidency. Fortunately, I work among EESC members, EU institutions and stakeholders who believe in our common values and see gender equality at the heart of the European project. On the contrary, I felt a lot of support, and especially from other women leaders, like Parliament's President Roberta Metsola, Commission's President Ursula von der Leyen and Parliament's Vice-President Evelyn Regner.