Opening speech by Ursula von der Leyen,  President of the European Commission at the ETUI-ETUC Conference: 'Towards a new socio-ecological contract'

Thank you very much, cher Philippe Pochet,

Thank you, caro Luca Visentini,

And of course, a warm welcome to all trade union representatives,

Distinguished guests,

My thank you for this invitation, but also for the very close cooperation – Luca, you have mentioned it – between the European Trade Union Confederation and the European Commission. I strongly believe in the importance indeed of dialogue with social partners. It is an essential part of our democracy. Good policies, which will stand the test of time, can only be built through dialogue. And all parts of our society must have a say. And you – the trade unions – represent an essential part of our societies. It is through your engagement that the working people get a seat at the table of decision-makers. This is why we are here this afternoon. And this has been crucial, through the years, to build the European social market economy.

I experienced first-hand the importance of social dialogue during my time, of course, as a Minister in Germany. And in those days, I worked a lot with unions and employers, for example to improve the reconciliation of work and family, or to promote the participation of women in top positions, or to introduce minimum wages in some economic sectors, such as the care sector, for example. And I remember of course, it took long and sometimes difficult negotiations, but it made such a difference in the life of so many hard working people.

And back then, I started supporting the idea of a national minimum wage in Germany. And indeed, I am proud that last year the European Commission proposed a directive for adequate minimum wages across Europe, of course in full respect of national traditions and, important, the freedom of social partners. I proposed it because I am convinced of two things. The first one is: Work should always pay, and everyone who works full time should at least earn enough to make a living. And my second principle is: Collective bargaining is crucial because you need to tailor the minimum wage to the local and the sectoral conditions. Social dialogue is a pillar of our social market economy – in good times and, even more so, in difficult times like these.

It is for this reason that this year, more than any other, should be a year of social dialogue. The pandemic is putting our social fabric to the test – you mentioned it. Millions of Europeans are worried about the future of their families and their businesses. They worry about the virus, of course. But not only. They see that their jobs and their workplaces are changing rapidly. I know people in their twenties or thirties who have already changed more jobs than their parents in their entire life.

And workers of all ages have to learn new technologies, or new ways of doing old things. And yes, this can be exciting. But it can also be scary for many. And what Europeans expect is quite simple. They want to know that their hard work will be rewarded. They want to know that if they study, and innovate, and come up with good ideas, they will get a fair chance to succeed. And they want to know that if they fail, they will get another chance. And this is what Europe's social market economy has always been about. Fair opportunities, and social protection in times of need. And this is what Europeans are asking for.

But today, our economy is changing so fast that this cannot be taken for granted any longer. And the question we all face is indeed: How can we deliver on the expectations of Europeans in a world changing so fast? If you look at our current rules, they are based on old realities. And they do not entirely reflect anymore the speed and the scale of transformations we are embarking on. And for this, I think we need a new social rulebook.

We need a social rulebook that focuses on the quality jobs of the future and opens up new opportunities. A social rulebook that allows hard-working people to improve their standards of living. A rulebook that gives adequate protection to those in need. And one that ensures solidarity between generations. A rulebook that puts skills, and innovation and social protection on an equal footing. So it is basically about reconciling the social and the market in a changing economy.

But there is also more. We must also reconcile – and this is the title of your meeting today – and over the next weeks, we must reconcile our economy with the social and the planet. Europeans have felt the impact of climate change for years. We have all experienced torrid summers and torrential rains, which we have never seen before. But during the pandemic, something else has changed in our relationship with nature. Europeans are rediscovering the importance of some common goods in their daily life. Our public health, for instance, as well as the importance of nature. Plain and simple: nature. We have seen what our cities could look like with less cars. We have started to measure the distance that separates us from the nearest park or the nearest forest.

And at the same time, we must lay the foundations of a healthier economy. An economy that grows without poisoning the air we breathe. An economy that is more focused on the well-being of people. And this is not utopia. This is possible, and it is already happening. We know that investments in clean energy, for instance, create twice as many jobs as investment in the old fossil fuels. So they are good for the environment and they are good for the economy, and they are good for people, too.

And trade unions are leading the work to make this green transition a just transition. I think for instance of your Spanish affiliate's engagement for mine workers. You struck deals with coal mining businesses, so that when a coal mine closes, workers are being trained on a new job. That is the way it has to be. Trade unions are accompanying workers in the transition. And I want Europe to do just the same.

The transition towards a greener economy needs to be steered very carefully. And of course, green innovation must be rewarded and incentivised. At the same time though, we must also make sure that all workers can benefit from the green transition – that is what you are saying. Not just those who work in innovative green companies – that is good, but no, more. All workers, in all sectors and all European regions. And it is about our people and our planet. It is about opportunities and social protection. It is about an economy that cares not only for GDP, but also for the well-being of Europeans.

You mentioned it, since the start of our mandate, we have already taken the first steps. First, we brought the Sustainable Development Goals at the centre of the European Semester. Second, we expanded social protection during the pandemic. And third, indeed, we are working for a green, digital and fair recovery with NextGenerationEU.

So let me elaborate a little bit on this and let me begin with the European Semester and the Sustainable Development Goals. For over a decade, European countries have coordinated their economic policies through the European Semester. The Semester was created as a tool to coordinate public spending and reforms throughout our Union. Last year, for the first time, we put sustainability at the centre of the European Semester. And since then the Semester is structured around four dimensions: environmental sustainability, productivity, fairness, and macroeconomic stability.

We discuss with Member States whether their economic policies advance the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations. We focus on whether public investment will cut CO2 emissions. Will it reduce inequalities? Will it promote quality education and health care? It is a first but decisive step towards indeed a more sustainable European Union.

We started this work already in the early days of our mandate. And, as you have said, then came the pandemic, and the first lockdowns. All of Europe was hit, but we also must see that some countries and some sectors struggled more than others. Some specific industries immediately felt the blow – for example the tourism, or the culture sector, or constructions. And indeed, this was a crucial time, because then companies with no orders anymore all of a sudden were tempted to lay off their employees. And indeed, there was little they could do on their own, and they needed a lifeline out of the crisis.

And we should keep in mind that while some Member States had the strength to intervene – good so –  others simply did not have the financial reserves to do so. It is my deep conviction that Europe must step up in these circumstances. Because all Europeans should enjoy the same opportunities and the same protections in the face of a crisis like this.

And indeed, this is why I proposed, in March 2020, the European initiative to support national schemes of short-time work. Luca, as you said it, we call it ‘SURE'. It is the first initiative of this kind. And I am very grateful for the support we received from your Confederation in those eventful days. It would not have been possible without you. The European Commission is now raising money on financial markets through social bonds. This money is being used by Member States, to support their national programmes for short-time work. SURE is now providing EUR 90 billion in 18 countries, to help employees, to help employers, but also – and this is crucial – to help the self-employed.

Figures from your Confederation show that, at the height of the crisis last May, 42 million European workers benefited from income-support measures. So Europe took responsibility and delivered social protection to millions of Europeans. SURE was our immediate reaction to the emergency. Our Recovery Plan, NextGenerationEU, is even more ambitious. With EUR 750 billion in investment we can indeed begin to build the economy of tomorrow. And I am confident that with such firepower Europe will recover from this crisis.

But for me one question is even more important: What kind of recovery do we want for Europe? And my answer is that we must aim for a green, a digital and a fair recovery. The need for a greener economy predates the pandemic. But with NextGenerationEU we can speed up the transition and make it more inclusive.

Let me take just one example. You all know that the construction sector was badly hit by the crisis. NextGenerationEU can reopen building sites all across Europe thanks to its Renovation Wave. The main goal is here to make our buildings more energy-efficient. We have to keep in mind that buildings account for 40% of our emissions. Very often, they waste most of the energy that they consume. So by refurbishing and retrofitting them, we can improve the energy performance of the buildings while preserving our cultural heritage.

And NextGenerationEU is just doing that. And at the same time, it will contribute to restarting an important economic sector. NextGenerationEU will encourage house owners to renovate their properties, but also incentivise the use of innovative materials and new technologies for new buildings. As a consequence, construction workers will need to learn more about green technologies and materials. So NextGenerationEU will also invest in giving workers the skills they need to navigate the green and the digital transition.

This is why, as we worked on NextGenerationEU, we also presented a new Pact for Skills. The Pact is an offer for cooperation with you, the trade unions, but also with employers, chambers of commerce and employment agencies. Let us join forces so that as many workers as possible have the skills they need to succeed in an evolving labour market. If we get this right, the green and the digital transition will benefit not only young professionals in innovative businesses – that is fine – but workers of all ages, across all sectors in all European regions.

So you see the logic behind NextGenerationEU. With the right investment, we can restart the economy, we can make it greener and more digital, and make sure we leave no one behind. NextGenerationEU is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform our economy. And this transformation should be shaped by the people of Europe.

And again, I come back to what I said initially: This is why 2021 must be a year of social dialogue. And yes, it was mentioned: Right now, national governments are working on their national recovery and resilience plans – to bring our common European priorities into their local realities. And here, trade unions and social partners should be closely involved in this process. This is the moment to bring the social dimension into recovery. Pushing GDP back to pre-crisis level is important – yes – but it is only part of our job. Employment has to pick up just as quickly. The green and digital recovery must be a jobs recovery, too. A people's recovery.

And indeed, an important moment of dialogue will come in May when we will all gather in Porto for the Social Summit organised by the Portuguese Presidency. It will be the occasion for trade unions and employers, but also citizens and institutions, to send a united message on what kind of economy we want to build. The compass of our work will be the European Pillar of Social Rights – a set of 20 rights and principles, including the equality of treatment and opportunities for all people, the right to a fair wage, the right to life-long learning, the right to quality health care.

In March, we will present an action plan to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights. With this action plan, we will look at how to turn these principles into reality across Europe – how to implement them. And there is a number of practical measures that I would like to discuss with you. We should talk about the right to life-long learning for all Europeans.

One way to do so could be through Individual Learning Accounts. So perhaps every worker would accumulate, every year, a certain number of credits to invest in getting new skills. The Individual Learning Accounts already exist in some countries. But they have never really turned into Europe-wide practice. So let us work together so that all workers can get the training they need, at every stage of their career. Let us bring together your expertise, with the employers' unions too, just to find a balanced solution to this topic.

And indeed, we should also talk about child poverty, because all children are born equal, whatever their parents' background. We should talk about equal pay and equal opportunities for women. We should talk about youth employment, because years of progress risk being compromised.

And yes, we should talk about platform workers. I know that your Confederation has adopted a comprehensive resolution on this issue. Like you, I believe that platform workers must be entitled to fair working conditions and social protection – like any other worker. Let me put it in other words: New forms of work must not become synonyms of a precarious existence, or health and safety challenges, or inadequate access to social protection. New forms of work must come with equal rights.

And the path towards equal rights is still long. We know that. This year, we have all realised that some workers are invisible to our society. The delivery men. The cleaning ladies. The nurses in the hospitals and care homes. The clerks who have kept our local grocery shops open through the pandemic. All of a sudden, we have started calling them ‘essential workers'. And this is good. Because they are essential. Their work matters. Their rights matter. And today, we are all more aware about this. And this is also thanks to you, trade unionists all across Europe.

This terrible year has reminded me of an old truth about our Union. It says: ‘Europe is forged in crisis'. It is in the darkest moments that we find the courage to put our differences aside and join forces. Today, Europe is financing social protection for millions of our citizens. We have put together a recovery package of a size unseen since the Marshall Plan. And we have approved ambitious climate goals – goals that seemed out of reach until just one year ago.

This is what Europe does: We find strength in adversity. When everything seems to push us back, we pull through and come out stronger than before. This is what gives me confidence that the recovery is within reach and that from the pandemic – if we do it right – a stronger social Europe can emerge.

This is why the road to Porto must be paved through social dialogue. And you have my commitment to working with you, towards the Social Summit and towards a fair and just recovery.

Thank you very much for your attention. And in this sense: Long live Europe.