Sinkevicius: ‘There can be no return to business as usual’ after the pandemic

EU Commissioner for Environment and Oceans Virginijus Sinkevicius in Brussels, Belgium, 23 November 2020. [EPA-EFE/KENZO TRIBOUILLARD]

This article is part of our special report Global youth and post-pandemic futures.

There can be no return to business as usual after the pandemic and no amount of economic pressure should force us to compromise on people’s health and the health of our planet, Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius said in an interview about the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and young people’s demands for a greener future.

He spoke to EURACTIV ahead of ViacomCBS and EU40’s ‘BEYOND 2020 – Global Youth: voices and futures!’’ virtual summit.

How does the Commission want to make sure that young people don’t fall victim of the recession that might be looming post-COVID? 

Young people deserve all possible opportunities to develop their full potential to shape the future of the EU and to thrive in the green and digital transitions. However, we also know that young people often face a difficult start in the labour market, and this has been emphasised by the pandemic.

Our package on youth employment support, skills and vocational education and training that we presented in July 2020 is specifically designed to help the next generation of Europeans to get on the jobs ladder. Its initiatives build on the Commission’s ambitious recovery plan which provides significant EU financing opportunities for youth employment so that all Member States can invest in young people.

The Commission also proposed on 1 July 2020 to reinforce the Youth Guarantee. The new Youth Guarantee will reach out to young people, supporting them in developing skills and gaining work experience, in particular those relevant to the green and digital transitions. We are also urging Member States to step up youth employment support through NextGenerationEU and the future EU budget.

The overall ambition is that member states invest EU funding of at least €22 billion in youth employment. For example, the EU can help fund start-up grants and loans for young entrepreneurs, bonuses for SMEs hiring apprentices, training sessions to acquire new skills needed on the labour market, investments in digital learning infrastructure and technology.

Young people often face barriers to political engagement, now with the crisis, even more, do you acknowledge that a growing number feels ‘disconnected’ with the current political environment?

Young people are keen to participate in democratic life. A majority of them votes in elections, in addition to joining new forms of participation or online debates. For instance, young people significantly contributed to the increased voter turnout in the last European Elections in 2019.

According to our Eurobarometer surveys, three out of four young Europeans are engaged in organised activities, one in three has already been a volunteer, and among their top priorities for the EU we find, protecting the environment and fighting climate change, better education, and fighting poverty and inequalities.

Yet, many challenges prevent them from realising their aspirations and full potential. These challenges are primarily linked to an uncertain future, due to societal changes such as artificial intelligence, demographics, inequality, disinformation or populism.

These challenges require young people to be extremely resilient and to have the knowledge and skills that make them fit for their personal and professional development and for their role as citizens in society. This is especially challenging for young people with fewer opportunities.

Will this be a generation of lost opportunities? 

We know that the current COVID-19 crisis and its social and economic consequences are hitting young generations hard. They have already been facing unemployment and demographic challenges over the last decade in some EU countries. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic makes youth engagement especially challenging. Mental well-being has dropped disproportionally compared to other age groups.

Though heavily affected by this crisis, young people have displayed great resilience and came up with solidarity initiatives on an impressive scale. Whether doing grocery shopping, sewing masks or creating online educational materials for children, young people engaged in the European Solidarity Corps are determined to support those in need.

The EU had to find powerful tools to respond to the pandemic and at the same time fuel the twin green and digital transitions. This is how we came up with a historic new Multiannual Financial Framework, and with NextGenerationEU. These instruments will channel more funds than ever before into education, culture, research and innovation through different EU programmes over the next seven years.

One criticism has always been that the EU institutions need to change their communication approach towards younger generations. Do you feel they are currently doing a good job?

I’ve always believed in the power of honest, two-way communication. Europe should not only be the transmitter of news and information but should also be the receiver, the one that listens to what Europeans think. I know it is a hard task trying to reach the younger generations, but also older people and people living in Europe’s distant regions.

To answer your question, yes I think there is a synchronised effort from all EU bodies to organise more events involving the young, connect with them through social media platforms and generally interact with them much more intensely than in the past. Is it enough?

I think we can certainly learn and improve more. I am now hosting a series of dialogues with Europeans from many member states – mostly young people – are participating. I am astonished by the knowledge and sensitivity I have noticed, by their desire to make Europe a better place to live in.

This truly motivates me and I appreciate the fact that even without meeting them in person, I can still discuss with them and hear their concerns. I am looking very much forward to invest more in building trust by visiting people, taking the time to meet them. I think at the end of the day that’s what really counts if we want to build a relationship that lasts.

The young generation is demanding the transformation of our European societies, particularly in terms of sustainability (we saw this in the climate protest). How does the Commission want to make sure that it involves young people in those processes? 

We reach out to young people in a number of ways. I take this very seriously myself, and in fact, the first stakeholder group I met as a Commissioner was a delegation of young people from around the EU. Before COVD-19 struck, my services ran some very successful participatory workshops with groups of young people, with their suggestions filtering back to central services. And we reach out collectively as a Commission. In December last year for instance, the Commission launched the Climate Pact and invited everyone to participate in climate action and build a greener Europe.

But it’s clear that we need to do more. It would help, for instance, if we had a register with the interested youth groups to which public consultations can easily be sent and shared. We could do more to invite them to meetings as observers or proper participants, and we are looking into that.

And at the Commission level, we are committed to the two-year ‘Future of Europe Campaign’. It was due to start in May last year, but again, we had to delay because of Covid. We are still fine-tuning, but it should launch this summer. That will include an in-depth reflection on exactly this question, finding ways to ensure that there is greater representation of more diverse voices in our policy planning and delivery.

So the will is there. But we’re still working on the means.

In retrospect, younger people were enthusiastic to get behind the Commission’s European Green Deal, the public, politicians and industry promised to do its part. Are you concerned that it will be more difficult to turn the aspirations into actual action? 

It’s true that the real test for the European Green Deal will be how much we manage to translate its ambitious aspirations into real action on the ground, and how much it manages to trigger a profound and systemic change in the way we produce, consume and live our lives. This will depend on all actors in society.

We are realistic. It won’t always be easy. We know that some sectors still need to be convinced. There are hearts and minds to move, and large sums of money need to be redirected away from activities that harm the planet towards those that heal it.

But at the same time, I am optimistic that we can do this. We have the knowledge and technology. There are existing solutions that work and that need to be scaled up. We know it makes social and economic sense, and more and more businesses, industries, decision-makers and citizens of all generations are getting on board every day.

But do you think we will we see a return to old habits after the pandemic due to economic pressure?

The pandemic did see some unsustainable habits return – increased consumption of single-use plastic packaging, littering and use of personal cars for example. But at the same time, it brought a new understanding of how much we depend on our natural world – for our health and the resilience of our societies. Lots of people took up healthy habits such as cycling and started rethinking their consumption patterns and values.

And with countries and the EU unlocking unprecedented funds to rebuild our economies, there is clearly a momentum to build healthier, more resilient and sustainable societies.

There can be no return to business as usual, and no amount of economic pressure should force us to compromise on people’s health and the health of our planet.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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