Europe needs a new Social Contract for Sustainability and Just Transition

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

It is time for the next European Commission to support a new Social Contract, writes Udo Bullmann. [Shutterstock]

What happens after the European elections will determine the future of Europe. The next European Commission must support a new European Social Contract, writes Udo Bullmann.

Udo Bullmann MEP is the leader of the Socialist and Democrat group in the European Parliament

This time, a lot is at stake. The next European elections will set the course for many years. Will the populists succeed in dividing us by turning European against European? Will the conservatives paralyze us by continuing with their business as usual? Or, will the progressives win the mandate to bring about the change the people of Europe so desperately need? For now, public attention rightly focuses on the question of where the bar will go up on the night of 26 May and which direction the people will choose for Europe. Yet, the battle will be far from over on election night. The coming weeks will be crucial for laying the foundations for the future.

I am not talking about the haggling over posts and backroom deals that usually follow in the wake of European elections. We Socialists and Democrats will not settle for a horse-trading when deciding posts, which ignores the content of the political programme. This time, we have the ambition to lead towards a new Europe. To answer the multiple, pressing and interlinked crises people are suffering from, we have put forward an ambitious plan with 110 concrete policy proposals for the next five years (https://www.progressivesociety.eu/). On the basis of this plan, we will negotiate to build new majorities. Everyone who honours our values and shares our ideas will be welcomed with open arms. We seek to forge a strong progressive alliance capable of carrying the radical change the people of Europe need: a just transformation.

We have no time to lose: our planet is facing an existential crisis and so are our societies. The way we produce and consume pollutes our air, destroys our soil, and poisons our water. We have less than ten years left before climate change will have irreparably damaged our earth. Inequalities have ballooned to breath-taking dimensions. The middle class is under attack. Digitisation and automatisation are turning our economies and labour markets upside down at a time when an ageing population is already putting our welfare system under pressure. In the midst of this upheaval, people feel disoriented, disempowered, and increasingly disenchanted with politics. In their anger and frustration, some are turning to populists and neo-fascists. History warns us: democracies fail when inequalities become unbearable.

Awareness is growing to the fact that we must urgently change the way we produce, live and work. Sustainability has become the new buzzword. Even a conservative like Michel Barnier recently proposed a “Sustainability Pact” for the next European Commission; his ideas entail a significant – and urgently needed – shift in EU policies towards carbon neutrality, circular economy and biodiversity. Yet, he is omitting what brought us to the brink: an economic model driven by greed and short-termism, based on the exploitation of people and the planet. Pope Francis rightly denounces that the current greedy model not only produces plastic waste but also human waste. For me, this image holds the key to understanding and solving this crisis: instead of simply painting the neo-liberal model green and only “minimising the social costs of a transition” as Barnier suggests, we must change the mechanics. Putting the economy on a sustainable basis will only ever work if the fight against inequality is placed at the heart of the endeavour.

Take climate change: we have already begun feeling its dire consequences – forest fires, floods, droughts and storms incur huge societal costs – and hit the poorest hardest. Policies curbing climate change come with long-term benefits, also in the form of new growth and jobs, but its short term costs are a heavy burden for poorer people and places. Better off people can afford to invest in solar panels and electric cars, thus benefiting from subventions and paying less for their energy consumption. While poorer people, who already spend a higher percentage of their salary to cover their energy costs, are burdened with additional fuel taxes. This simply won’t work. What works are smart measures, like Antonio Costa’s move to lower the costs for public transport in Portugal, that bring both environmental and social benefits.

Instead of a silo mentality producing one-dimensional policy proposals, we need a holistic approach based on the understanding that environmental and social progress must go hand in hand. The United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals offer us a compass to guide us through the profound economic and societal transformation needed to ensure a good future for all. Because, Europe will only ever be carbon-neutral if it becomes socially more just – with quality public services that lift people up; with a cohesion policy that allows places that have fallen behind to catch up; with tax justice to mend the social fabric made brittle by tax fraudsters and speculators; and with a new social contract to manage digitisation, automatisation and demographic change.

We progressives want to turn Europe into an engine of change for a just transition. For me it is crystal clear: we will only support a new Commission if its programme aims at a fundamental policy change: a New Social Contract for Sustainability and Just Transition.

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