Nilsson: Reforms have made Europe better than three years ago

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Europe is better now than three years ago as the crisis has forced EU leaders towards further integration, Staffan Nilsson told EURACTIV at the end of his mandate as president of the European Economic and Social Committee.

Staffan Nilsson is the outgoing president of the European Economic and Social Committee, a post he has held since October 20110. He spoke to EURACTIV's editor-in-chief Daniela Vincenti.

You have led the EESC for the past two and a half years. What would say has been accomplished in this time and what you think will be left as your legacy?

During my presidency, the EESC has been mainstreaming sustainability in all its policy work. This could probably be considered legacy as I hope the EESC will continue to build on this approach. If we continue to adopt short-term exit solutions for the crisis, partly provoked by unsustainable economic and social practices, this will only lead us into another, different crisis in the future. Some wonder why the EESC, along with many other and civil society stakeholders, is pushing for sustainability in times of crisis.

In fact, motivating all EU decision-makers and governments to take forward and practice sustainable development measures (economic, social and environmental) in Europe is all part of getting Europe out of the crisis. We are now contributing to the monitoring of economic and social reforms at national level with the help of our network of economic and social councils.

This is the result of a lot of advocacy work during the past two and a half years with EU leaders, backed up by the engagement of our members. I could also mention our relentless advocacy work for the partnership principle in the cohesion policy package and for a European Code of Conduct on partnership; our work on global food security and our input to G20 on these issues which was unprecedented in the Committee’s history; also our input into the UN Rio+20 summit which positioned us on the international scene as a European focal point for expertise and as stakeholders’ meeting point for sustainable development issues.

During my presidency, the Committee needed to stay “on guard” to advise on policies for anti-crisis/recovery measures. We came up with the 30 proposals for stepping up a stronger Europe, proposals from civil society with concrete measures for Europe’s recovery and citizens’ well-being, a lot in there to inspire our EU leaders to take decisions tailored to the Europeans' needs.

There is a dire need for civil society’s input, not only because of the expertise it provides but also because it may be the best way to create a sense of European identity.

The EESC has a role as a bridge-builder, but also as a reminder for EU decision-makers of the voice of civil society. We have opened up the EESC to civil society at large, for instance through the liaison group with European civil society networks and organisations and through massive stakeholders' consultations on several important topics in the Committee and in virtual public sphere. With each initiative we tried to reach out to local organisations and networks which lack the insider's knowledge of Brussels affairs and have now found the interface they needed –the EESC.

Would you say that Europe is better or worst of where it was three years ago?

Europe is better now than three years ago from the point of view of reforms. With the crisis, the EU leaders have been somehow forced to go towards more integration; at least some steps have been taken such as the banking union. It was high time for Europe to accelerate integration reforms.

The compact for growth and jobs, the youth employment initiative or the review of the Small Business Act are all reforms that should accelerate growth. Nevertheless Europeans are not better, unemployment is still very high and several Member States are still struggling with their sovereign debts.

We, as social partners and civil society, take the pulse and blood pressure of society on the ground. We can see that the crisis has come down to people's everyday lives now, so Europeans are living the consequences and they are not better. However, we all need to keep the faith in and commitment for the necessary reforms that could bring Europe back on a sustainable track and make it the desired place to live in for future generations.

Would you have done something different?

I could have done things differently, however, would have followed the same lines. I am still convinced that the three main priority areas of EESC's work – namely dialogue and participation, growth and sustainability, and solidarity and development – are the basis for rebuilding Europe from the inside (its economy, social welfare and citizens’ trust) and for meeting the challenge of the international competitive environment.

Some of the austerity measures were needed, but it's time to understand that this cannot continue; even bankers are concerned about a potential social collapse. So we could have probably voiced this concern even more loudly.

Engaging people for a sustainable Europe was your political message. What will it take to really engage people and bridge the perceived democratic gap?

Civil society is the domain of citizens. During my presidency of the EESC, we have been engaging civil society stakeholders in most of our work on EU policy areas for reforms meant to get Europe back on track. We can build a sustainable Europe by engaging people more in society, with political leaders creating the tools to support this, by listening to the needs of people and the environment.

These are the ways we have taken to engage people and to bridge the democratic gap. In the last two and a half years, as the only non-political EU body advising EU institutions in the process of formulating EU policies and decisions, the EESC continued to open up to the outside world becoming a platform for dialogue and participation in EU policy-making.

We believe this is one way to make the EU more legitimate and closer to the people's and civil society's needs, concerns and aspirations. We as EESC members need to be experts in different policy areas, communicators, spokespersons, advocates, leaders of our organisations, opinion leaders in our community at home – all at the same time, in an ever-changing environment, in a eurosceptical Europe. I hope we will continue to act as such with confidence and boldness.

What would be the advice you would want to give to your successor?

I trust that anyone who is entrusted by my colleague EESC members to become and act as president for two years and a half will do everything to his best knowledge and powers to render the Committee really meaningful and useful to the institutions and ultimately to the citizens and civil society we represent and serve.

What’s your vision for Europe 2030?

A truly integrated European Union, a European consciousness without "frontiers", a Europe of member states and of people. In 2030 Europeans will live together without xenophobia and in good relationship with its neighbours.

In a truly integrated European Union we will have, for example, a fully-fledged European Energy Community which would enable Europe to speak with one voice on the world stage and end-users to enjoy a wider choice and more stable and attractive terms and prices for energy supply. Energy is the backbone of European prosperity and a commodity that is essential to the well-being of every citizen alike.

In 2030, the EU will be governed by a genuine and functional transnational participatory democratic system allowing each and every citizen and association to have a say in EU's life.

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