European NGO chief: To fight fear and populism, start with social programmes

Conny Reuter [EESC]

Ambitious social programmes, which benefit everybody, undermine populism and combat fears, said Conny Reuter, the Secretary General of SOLIDAR in an interview with

Conny Reuter is the Secretary-General of SOLIDAR, a European network of NGOs working to advance social justice in Europe and worldwide

Conny Reuter spoke to’s editor-in-chief Daniela Vincenti

Brexit, growing populism… aren’t they symptoms of the failings of globalisation?

My understanding is that globalisation affects everything, but it’s not the cause. The most worrying aspect is the fear factor.

Globalisation goes beyond the regional and national level. We have to think globally. We used to say “think global, act local”, but now we can’t even do that.

The future of labour on virtual platforms brings us immediately into global competition. It’s not going to be a question of whether we have the right platform in Germany or France. Competition and uncertainty is only going to increase.

The second aspect is globalisation and the financial crisis. Up to now, there has been a complete neglect of social issues and social cohesion. We have social and territorial cohesion in the treaties. But in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, more effort was put into fiscal policies and financial consolidation. Former President of the Council Herman van Rompuy tried to justify it by saying that it was a time of emergency. We agreed with this statement, but argued that it was also a time of emergency for the social situation.

Europe 2020 was a nice programme, but it has never really been put in place. In the beginning, it was only really in place on the fiscal and financial side. Social consolidation was completely sidelined.

The fear factor stems from the 2005 constitution treaty in France. Wherever there is the question of the individual, there is a fear of the future, a fear of uncertainty. This has to do with competition, globalisation, terrorism, expectations in entering the labour market, pensions. That’s what we are seeing now.

People who are really lost don’t go and vote anymore. Those from the lower-middle classes, afraid of losing even more, vote for the populist options, with their so-called easy solutions.

Do you think then that the Brexit vote was a cold shower, an alarm bell for the current EU administration to pay more attention to the social ecosystem?

It would have been nice if it had been a cold shower, but maybe the water wasn’t cold enough! We have the pillar of social rights on the table, and President Juncker has called for something to be done on the social side.

But is there really investment in social policies? We keep having this debate back and forth, with the Commission saying there needs to be more done, and the national governments saying no.

The Nordic countries say that they have a good social system that works already, more or less, so they don’t want any interference because they are afraid of losing. The Germans don’t want a social Europe either. Looking at the south, then we already have this division.

It’s not just a question of where we can get more social convergence, but where can we get the political will to do this. There’s always the same story when it comes to this area, the wording is ok, but it lacks in implementation. It remains to be seen whether the pillar of social rights only functions as a placebo.

If Juncker asked you for a roadmap, how would you implement it?

The first thing is to convince people that there is an advantage and we stop thinking in a winners-and-losers mentality.  It should be a win for everybody. There needs to be a lot of work done on convincing people.

Then there is the question of convincing their own administrations. Not everyone in the European Commission is on board with this either.

Lastly, there is the challenge of going to the Council, where dealing with the member states is certainly not easy.

If the Commission could grasp Article 11 of the Treaty, we could have a genuine civil and social dialogue, at European level with social partners and civil society.

The difficulty, in my view, is that you have the administration, the Council, the social partners and a little bit of civil society. You don’t really have the Europeans working together.

The reluctance often comes from neglect, lack of knowledge and only feeling secure at a local, regional or national level. Everyone says Europe is complicated. It’s not. It’s no more complicated than other levels. It’s no good just thinking in the past. The question is: the words are nice, but where is the project?

So do you think that Juncker does not have the necessary backing from Merkel and Hollande?

Everyone remains convinced that the best solution is to be found at a national level. Many social partners think that this is the best level. Every time some progress is made, we remember the debate on Europe 2020.

The objectives were not met and we buried it. In terms of Merkel, Germany is a country where the trade unions still wield a lot of power and she has coalition partners. They have to work together.

Go further north as well. Who in Sweden is standing up and saying “We need more Europe on this”? The first step is to ensure we don’t take a step backwards and to make sure we have a more Europeanised debate. Here in Brussels, we know each other already, so the debate is just preaching to the converted.

We are going to have to go to the member states to help them have a debate on these issues. From a European perspective, not a national one. Most of the time, the European point of view is not forwarded.

Is the more centralised Commission part of the problem? Doesn’t the debate need to be decentralised too?

Yes, and you need political will that needs to be organised and focused.

Do you think civil society can show the way? Are there any examples that can be drawn from?

On a small scale, we have specific examples where this debate has started, particularly in the case of migration and integration.

Everyone was calling for a European solution to the refugee crisis, it is possible. Looking at my own organisation, we work in Syria, in Jordan, in Lebanon, all up the Balkan route. They do it together with the national parliaments. When it comes to other issues, the same tendencies are normally seen. The issue is debated and the same reluctances and fears are exposed.

There are positive examples though. If we go back four years to the previous Commission’s public procurement directive, which was really promoted by the Belgian presidency at the time, a lot of things were achieved, especially to do with competition.

It’s something that was brought together through a European compromise. Everyone saw it as a chance for Europe to make a breakthrough in social services provision. This shows that this kind of cooperation is feasible.  Commissioners worked well together to make it feasible. We need something real, that isn’t just shiny and good for the speechwriters.

Do you think Brexit will undermine the environment needed to build the social pillar?

Well, we already know that a lot of reluctance on making social progress and social Europe came from the other side of the channel.

So a provocative response would be to say that without the UK, we can make social progress at European level. But I’m not one of those people. The ones most scared of losing what they already have occupy the periphery. They voted to stay protected at a national level, not to dive into the unknown of Europe, which they don’t understand. It all comes back to fear factor again.

When it comes to social investment, it’s the cost of today that is always calculated, not the cost of tomorrow.

In terms of integrating migrants and refugees, from your experience, is there a common system that works and could be adopted?

We can create a common framework. The first stage would be to focus on urgency and emergency, where a minimum level of services can be provided immediately, cutting criminal organisations out of the loop.

There are, of course, the costs involved with language courses, providing housing and education, but once people are integrated and in the labour market, we have seen that everyone benefits then.

At the moment, people only look at it as competition, sometimes based on cultural differences. Unfortunately, integration can’t happen in a society that is disintegrating and when populism is nourishing itself. The only way to do it is to provide social investment for those already there and for those who arrive. There can’t be a trade-off between providing, for example, social housing, to one group without giving it to the other.

That just throws fuel on the fire of populism. Ambitious social programmes, which benefit everybody, undermine populism, and that’s what we need. The biggest hypocrisy for me is the anti-elite agenda of populist leaders, despite the fact that they normally come from that social background.

So where does the money come from?

There’s not a lot from the Juncker Plan yet. One of the first things to address is tax justice. In Europe, there is still a lot of competition between member states to offer tax advantages to big companies, like Microsoft, Google and others. I don’t know how many billions of euros are lost through this. Deficit calculation plays a part.

Not putting everything in the Stability and Growth Pact basket is also important. There are financial means available, it isn’t always the case of “there’s no money”. We just have to find them. It might indeed be a bit populist to say this, but how come we had enough money to save the banks, but we struggle to find anything for social programmes?

The labour market is undergoing a digital revolution, working environments are changing, what could the role of civil society organisation play?

Well, first of all, we are concerned. There are a lot of questions about how technical developments will affect services, in health, education etc. We know teachers are afraid of change, so we need to see how the classroom of the future will look. It comes back to the fear factor again. Let me give you an example: artificial intelligence.

Within a decade, maybe the European institutions wouldn’t need any more interpreters, it could be entirely possible. This would mean interpreters would lose their jobs. These are highly qualified people. What do we do with them then?

We can start getting into philosophical discussions about man vs machine then as well. There needs to be a debate on issues like this, in Europe, because it’s the next generation that is going to be affected.

We need to ensure two things: 1) We don’t go into this as blind prophets; 2) We don’t always defend to the hilt against this progress. It’s about anticipating change and knowing how to integrate people along the way. Transitions can be made without everybody losing.

So to break this fear, we need to improve the way we have social dialogue.

The message to the European institutions is to take Article 11 seriously. A civil dialogue is not just about communicating the good that the European institutions are doing, it’s about creating a dialogue between citizens, their representatives and their organisations.

The institutions sometimes look at us in the same way they look at lobbyists, when it comes to social Europe or CO2 emissions. But it’s not the same thing.

Coming back to Brexit, some of our British members did not want anyone to come campaign with them as they thought it would be counter-productive. I think that this was a big mistake. We can’t, on the one hand, say that we don’t have a European solution and then not use our European network, where we can practise European solutions.

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