An economy of, by and for the people

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

Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker want to reach a decision on the new location of the London-based agencies as soon as possible. [European Commission]

Europe’s economy has clearly seen better days. Facing great technological and societal change, it is marred by a sluggish recovery and a lack of investment, write Reinhard Bütikofer and Philippe Lamberts.

Reinhard Bütikofer MEP is co-chair of the European Green Party and Philippe Lamberts MEP is co-president of the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament.

We are a continent of youth unemployment. The implicit promise that each generation will be better off than their parents has been unravelling for years. The overall jobless rate remains high and half of those finding themselves out of work are long-term unemployed. Economic dynamism is as real as a unicorn.

There’s also a growing sense of economic disenfranchisement. Lux Leaks, Panama Leaks, TTIP Leaks and now Bahama Leaks mixed with Libor Scandal, Gold-fix scandal, Volkswagen scandal etc. It is a corporate cocktail leaving a bitter aftertaste that the economy isn’t about people, just about big business.

Economic marginalisation has spilled into discontent with Europe’s politics. The European political sphere is seen by an increasing number of citizens as in cahoots with big business or considered utterly unable to effectively rein in corporate creep.

Pope Francis, who sometimes sounds like a firebrand anti-capitalist, put it in a nutshell: “The first task is to put the economy at the service of peoples”. Anybody listening? President Juncker emphasised in his State of the Union speech that Europe is not the Wild West, but a social market economy that needs to preserve the European way of life.

President Tusk wrote in his letter to EU leaders prior to the Bratislava summit that the economic and social interests of citizens must be protected by the EU. But where’s the walk to match the talk?

Their word should be their bond. But it isn’t. President Juncker, no doubt, is a confessing disciple of old-fashioned Rhenish capitalism but he seems incapable of adopting the model of a social market economy to the globalising reality of today. And, unfortunately, he has never even tried understanding that there has to be a pervasive environmental dimension to the market economy also.

Yes, he intervened in the roaming proposal to ensure that indeed all roaming charges become history and he backed Commissioner Vestager in slapping Apple with a €13 billion bill in back taxes. That was positive action. And it has filled many citizens with pride that the EU can indeed take such measures, which the individual member states would be incapable of.

But two swallows do not a summer make. And certainly some action here and there does not amount to the necessary strategy of eco-social transformation of the EU’s economy that the public is so dearly in search of.

A paradigm shift is needed towards a people-oriented economy. An economy that empowers people and puts them in the centre. An economy that builds future competitiveness on the basis of sustainability. An economy that pursues inclusiveness and fairness instead of exclusion and social division.

When Juncker and Tusk promised to protect the social and economic interests of the European citizens then that must also apply when negotiating trade deals. It must apply in turning the EU into a champion of environmental policymaking again. It must apply also on a local level supporting citizens and businesses that are already championing social and environmental innovation.

A people-oriented economy means significantly upscaling the youth guarantee, creating an Erasmus for all, advancing vocational training Europe-wide and rethinking our education system for the digital age. We are facing the absurd situation of having a lost generation while simultaneously confronting a skills gap.

President Juncker spoke much about going digital in his State of the Union but the very word “education” was noticeably absent. Yes, digital technologies will permeate every aspect of life, but more is needed than just digital infrastructure. Digital technologies need to be taught in school from early on and digital learning courses need to be provided in re-training workers thus facilitating life-long-learning.

Free Wi-Fi alone won’t magically turn people into digital natives. Couldn’t the EU flank its roll-out of 5G and free Wi-Fi in major cities, with much-needed funds for free digital courses for the young and old, so that indeed connectivity benefits everyone?

A strategy for an economy of, by and for the people, would also advance European legal frameworks empowering individuals as economic actors, be it in start-ups or SMEs, in cooperatives, in the sharing economy, be it through a European crowdfunding framework, or through a European system for insolvency that would allow entrepreneurially spirited people to stand up again after failing with a business instead of being shackled by a risk-averse business culture.

Or be it by finding new ways for the economic integration of migrants. Such a strategy would also ensure that labour protection standards are up to the new social challenges of the 21st century.

If we look around Europe, we can see a lot of examples of people and organisations going in such new directions. Maybe Europe would be more successful in promoting necessary reforms if we all listened better where people are indeed moving forward. Clinton used to say, it’s the economy, stupid. Indeed, it’s about the people in the economy.

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