Christa Schweng has served as the President of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) since October. She has a vision, but first Europe must get through the coronavirus crisis, protecting both jobs and people.
For 22 years, Christa Schweng has worked in various roles at the EESC, including head of the Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship Department. She has been President of the institution since October. She is also the employers’ representative in the Austrian Chamber of Commerce, where she is responsible for EU and social policy.
Schweng spoke with Philipp Grüll of EURACTIV Germany.
Ms. Schweng, you have been with the EESC for 22 years. How has the institution changed during this time?
Its role was always the same: To provide input to proposals from other EU institutions. But over time, more emphasis has been placed on consulting civil society. That is our role; those are our issues.
The European Commission also changed its way of drafting laws. Public consultations now allow statements from business and civil society. However, the process is not perfect, because how the Commission derives decisions from it is a “black box,” one simply does not know. The debate is missing.
Here we have an advantage: we work by consensus with members of all three groups (employers, employees and civil society) and others from all 27 states. The debates take longer, but legislators can refer to the results afterwards.
You have been in office since the end of October. What new directions would you like to set?
The first thing we need to do now is to survive the pandemic, and we must see what kind of Europe we will have afterwards. Certain basic features, such as digitalisation or greening, will be given a boost by the pandemic.
So we are already thinking about: What should Europe look like after the pandemic? We need a health union, for example. We are already supporting the coordinated purchase and distribution of vaccines at EU level.
My vision: A Europe that is economically prosperous, socially inclusive and ecologically sustainable.
With the COVID crisis we are facing one of the biggest economic and social challenges of the recent past. What is the EESC’s concrete contribution?
A striking example: Brussels has presented a huge economic stimulus package with €1.8 trillion. It is up to the member states to ensure that this money gets to where it is supposed to go. The EESC has members from all member states and can therefore report first-hand on what has worked well or less well.
So far, we have supported the adoption of the programs in a consultative manner, and the rule of law mechanism.
Vulnerable groups suffer particularly from the COVID crisis. Where is the EU still doing too little?
First of all, these are clearly older people. I’m thinking of people in old people’s homes that are no longer allowed to be visited. But this is not a purely EU issue, nor is the fact that some groups are more severely affected because of their housing situation, especially when home-schooling and working from home come together – and then perhaps even weak Wi-Fi.
And those who previously had little income are now naturally suffering even more from the economic crisis.
But these are national issues. Here in Brussels, we can only address issues or promote the exchange of information, but we can’t regulate anything.
The crisis will pass, but by then many jobs will have been lost – despite short-time work schemes. How should we create new jobs?
By giving companies the opportunity to create jobs. Jobs do not fall from the sky; they are created by companies. They need a secure environment in order to build up companies – and with them jobs.
With all regulations, one must also consider what this means for companies. This can be seen in the example of greening: Those who are confronted with reduction targets should be involved in decisions, be a part of the solution.
The term “social union” has been haunting Brussels for years. What form of social union would you consider useful?
A focus on training would be very important. The core question must be: What do I need on the job market? What are the skills that students need to learn now so that they will be able to continue their own training in ten or twenty years’ time? There is a large area where the Commission can still do a lot.
What is your position on the European minimum wage?
This will only happen if all national social partners are involved. Often there is no need for a separate regulation, for example in my home country Austria, where 98% of employment relationships are regulated by collective agreements – including minimum wages.
The climate crisis will also bring social challenges. Is Europe prepared for them?
Without a crystal ball, it is hard to tell. Outside Europe, the climate crisis will lead to more people fleeing to Europe, and I understand that. Inside Europe there will be many issues, for example when people cannot sleep in their homes at 42 degrees – because if everyone can have air conditioning installed, that in turn harms the climate.
We must make the transition in such a way that we leave no one behind. This also means: Anyone who now works in areas that are harmful, such as the coal industry, must be helped to move on from there. The Just Transition Fund seems well suited for this.
So I don’t know whether we are already sufficiently equipped, but we have created the approaches to deal with it.