At the beginning of 2022, hopes were high that the Covid-19 pandemic was on the ebb and that the European Union (EU) would be able to focus again on the main challenge of this century: how to proactively tackle the green and digital transition in a socially fair and inclusive way. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine dashed these hopes. Realpolitik was back on the agenda, with the EU having to figure out how to deal with its Eastern neighbour. Overnight, EU dependence on Russian fossil fuels became a major headache. With energy and food prices soaring, double-digit inflation reared its ugly head throughout the world, resulting in a cost-of-living crisis which has pushed millions of people into poverty as well as stoking popular discontent and mobilising trade unions, with the prospect of further civil unrest, protests and strikes. Obviously, all this had a major influence on EU policymaking: while the Russian military aggression in early 2022 prompted the EU to respond with unprecedented steps forward in European integration, it also highlighted the weaknesses in the EU governance system. A health crisis, an economic and financial crisis and a climate crisis are unfolding in parallel, while full-scale war is back in Europe. The question is now whether ‘normal times’ will ever return or whether we will find ourselves living in a state of ‘permacrisis’.
Despite this stormy background, the EU social ship reached deeper waters. With the wind of the European Pillar of Social Rights in its sails, important progress has been made inter alia on minimum wages, occupational health and safety, the working conditions of people working through platforms, and gender equality. Furthermore, many new social initiatives have seen the light of day under the umbrella of the Recovery and Resilience Facility, promoting, at least to some extent, social investment, performance-based financing and (be it in a patchy way) a ‘just’ green transition. Last but not least, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have furthered European integration through highlighting the need to stand together in the face of a common foe. A European health space is now in the making, and new forms of economic governance – including the scope for an EU Social Imbalances Procedure – are being discussed, while the debate about a minimum income initiative is ongoing. Finally, this year’s Bilan social raises the question whether the EUs ‘open strategic autonomy’ paradigm could provide a window of opportunity to sustain the EU’s social ambitions in the longer run.