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4 November 2016

Moving Europe forward by balancing the competing demands of the economy, the environment and social progress

Karl Falkenberg, Senior Adviser for Sustainable Development to the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, believes that the European project should be revitalised by striking the right balance between the economy, the environment and social progress. On 24 October 2016, at the first of a new strand of events initiated by the ETUI with a view to discussing the future challenges of our societies and our economies under the heading of ‘Foresight Debates’, he summed up his vision as ‘living well and sharing fairly within the limits of our blue planet’.

According to Falkenberg, ‘The social dimension of the market economy has been neglected, and the consequences of this neglect are now becoming apparent in the form of widespread disenchantment throughout Europe.’

The former Director-General for the Environment (2009-2015) takes the view that the renewed growth which is necessary to extricate the European Union from its current impasse must be reconcilable with social and environmental concerns.

‘If everyone in the world had the same standard of living as European citizens, we would need two and a half planets,’ Falkenberg explained, before going on to say that it is time ‘to think about how our needs can best be met with the limited resources at our disposal’. He also expressed his belief that growth should be ‘dematerialised’, for example by designing goods which are far less resource-greedy or by recycling them more than once. ‘I still fail to understand why we need 50 kg of metal to make a washing machine in this day and age,’ he added, half in jest.

Falkenberg called for a transition to a circular economy, referring in particular to the example of the ‘recycling economy’, which provides many poorly qualified individuals with a route into working life. He also stressed the need for growth to be inclusive as well as environmentally sustainable, citing alarming statistics from Eurostat which show that 24% of the EU population is at risk of poverty or social exclusion.

He proposed that political decision-makers should embrace a more inclusive model of governance based on genuine participation by civil society, businesses and NGOs, and that the concept of sustainability should be mainstreamed in all spheres of political action.

Luca Visentini, General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), echoed this point by commenting that, ‘What we really need is sustainable governance which places social and environmental objectives on an equal footing with economic targets.’ He believes that there has been little change in this respect: ‘Policy-makers are happy to bandy about slogans, but they have proven themselves incapable of responding to changes such as digitisation, workplace automation and the circular economy which affect not only the European Union, but the world as a whole.’ He expressed his disappointment at the Commission’s failure to take adequate account of the viewpoints of the social partners and civil society, ‘despite repeated calls by the ETUC’.

The trade union leader said that the Juncker Plan ‘could act as a boost to sustainable growth’, but lamented the very traditional nature of the projects set to benefit from the planned investments and the lack of innovation in this respect. Visentini also expressed his belief in the need for a ‘fair transition’, or in other words the development of a low‑carbon economy able to provide good jobs for everyone.

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