Socialist think tank chief: pandemic global failure but EU good example

Maria João Rodrigues, president of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS). [EPA/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

This article is part of our special report Post-pandemic recovery, a chance for renewed multilateralism?.

The EU “should lead by example” for the recovery from COVID-19 but needs to face its own shortcomings to curb existing and new social inequalities, FEPS President Maria João Rodrigues told EURACTIV in an interview.

The president of the independent think tank of the Socialists and Democrats group (S&D) added that there is still no real global solution to tackle the pandemic.

“We have big failures on global governance, first of all, on the competencies of the World Health Organization,” she said, adding that the UN’s health agency “should be the body with the competencies and the means to adopt real global rules and binding rules.”

Rodrigues said the WHO “remains so far a very weak organisation,” and she called for urgent reforms to make sure that it has “the financial means to enlarge the access to the new versions of the vaccine,” required by the new variants.

She also deplored the postponement of the WTO ministerial meeting following travel bans introduced over the Omicron variant. The meeting was supposed to be held on Monday (November 29) to debate a proposal by India and South Africa to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines.

Access to vaccines varies deeply from one region to another, with a huge gap in the vaccination rate between low and high-income countries. For example, in Europe, 66% of the population is fully vaccinated, while the share of immunised people in Africa is only 7%.

“As long as this big divide remains, there is no real solution to tackle the pandemic,” Rodrigues said, calling for more international cooperation.

However, she added that the EU has proved to be “a good example” in handling the crisis at a regional level and that it could “give some ideas for a global solution.”

Rodrigues said the EU could develop “an exceptional budgetary capacity” to support member states hit by the crisis. 

For the first time last year, European leaders agreed to EU joint debt to finance the €750 billion recovery scheme, allowing the European Commission to borrow from the markets on behalf of all 27 member states.

In Rodrigues’ view, this showed strong solidarity to fight the pandemic within the bloc and address the recession.

“If we have other regional organisations such as the African Union, the ASEAN in Asia, or the Union for South America, playing the same role, this could help a lot,” she said.

However, Rodrigues also admitted that the EU is still lagging on the recovery and “needs to change a lot to improve its own solution.”

COVID-19 has deepened existing inequalities across the bloc and has been especially harsh on young Europeans. A Eurostat survey shows that young workers experienced income losses up to -15% in 2020 compared to the previous year.

“We have a shocking situation that we have the most skilled, qualified, creative generation, which is our young generation, being pushed for precarious living and working conditions, which reduce their capacity and their potential to contribute to our societies,” Rodrigues said.

To tackle the impact of the pandemic on the young, the European Commission proposed to make 2022 the Year of European Youth. The goal is to give young people more opportunities in education and employment.

“We cannot afford to have a new lost generation, after the one we lost during the financial crisis 10 years ago,” Rodrigues said.

In her view, the EU should tackle these inequalities while also moving to “a new development model,” based on the green transition and the digital revolution.

Asked whether the EU is at the forefront of these transformations, Rodrigues said Europe remains a leading example on the Green Deal commitments. Still, she is concerned it will not be able to live up to its goals on digitalisation.

An analysis of recovery plans by member states showed that they will fall radically short of the 2030 digital targets.

“On the digital revolution, we are late, and so we need to have a kind of wake up call,” Rodrigues told EURACTIV.

She said Europe must move urgently not to be left behind in the face of the strategic competition between the US and China.

“We need to have a European way to drive the digital revolution, which is in line with our values and the way we want to live.”

Both the digital and green transformations need to be based on strong social cohesion to have a fair EU recovery, Rodrigues said.

“We do need to have social cohesion; otherwise, I have no illusions, the green transition and digital revolution will create extremely worrying and high new social inequalities.”

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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