The 2021 edition of our Benchmarking Working Europe report, which we have jointly published with the ETUC since the year 2000, is being finalised as we speak and will be officially launched on Friday 3 December (if you have not registered yet, now is your chance).

I am sure that many of our followers will be eager to see the most recent numbers on numerous relevant indicators for social Europe, laid out in attractive graphs, and read our take on them. But Benchmarking is more than just data. The exceptional situation which we have been confronted with these past two years requires us to look more thoroughly into what we can learn from the past and consider what are the possible paths out of this crisis. The common thread in this year’s edition is inequality, which was an endemic problem before the pandemic (see the 2012 Benchmarking) but in the current crisis has become even more apparent – even to those who did not want to see it before.

Inequality is a structural problem and as such it needs structural solutions. Temporary measures such as the SURE instrument and the job retention and income support schemes that have proliferated across Europe since spring 2020, the temporary suspension of certain elements of the Stability and Growth  Pact, the unprecedented injection of liquidity into the real economy under the ECB’s Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP), and, of course, the Next Generation EU fund and the national recovery plans, together constitute a first step in the right direction. However, we need to face the inconvenient truth that inequality will act as a “powerful  handbrake” on these unprecedented efforts by national and European institutions to steer us out of this crisis. There is a clear link, for example, between vaccine hesitancy and socioeconomic disadvantage, but also between exposure to the virus and low wages and precarious and unsafe forms of work. And, as if this were not enough, the more existential threat of climate change creates an even more challenging context for all those efforts. By now, we all know that those least responsible for climate change (in Europe and beyond) are, and will continue to be, the most affected by it. What is more, as climate mitigation policies tend to increase energy and food prices, they are likely to hit the poorest the hardest, who will in turn be the most likely to oppose them.

This vicious circle can be interrupted, however, through the implementation of truly just transition policies – a key demand of European trade unions. The current expansionary and redistributive fiscal and economic framework should also be turned into structural instruments. Last but not least, as new data in this edition of Benchmarking show, greater equality can also be achieved by increasing industrial democracy.

This year, the Benchmarking report dares to look into the future. We are living through an unprecedented time, with climate change affecting many aspects of our daily life. Take, for example, the negative impact of heat and heatwaves on workers’ health, safety and wellbeing (you can read our report dedicated to this issue here). We need to find ways to make sure that society as a whole is willing to cooperate in order to dramatically reduce our CO2 emissions. Next to developing technological and infrastructure resilience, we will have to invest in “societal” resilience. Put simply, the general public will need to be equipped (in many ways) to handle the transition to a potentially more unstable world if we want to prevent complete chaos.

The topic of inequality is a very important one for the ETUI, which is why our next biennial, high-level conference (22-24 June 2022) will focus on how to transform inequalities in Europe and reflect on how equal a society needs to be in order to be fair. Save the dates now in your agenda; more information will follow soon.