Europe's sustainable and inclusive future

Tuesday, 15 November, 2016


by Frans Timmermans

People increasingly fear for their future – their jobs, their status, whether their children will enjoy the same standard of living. Unemployment is still at unacceptable levels. After the irresponsibility and greed that led to the financial crisis, people have lost trust in the ability of the economy to deliver shared prosperity. Climate change and other environmental challenges appear daunting. And there is of course the uncomfortable truth: while a moderate recovery is under way, the prospects for long term growth are still too weak, and do not reach the required level for us to sustain our social model.

Our task in Europe is to demonstrate that we can build a better future for all, that prosperity can once again be achieved, sustained and fairly shared. To do that, we need to continue to take action to bridge the investment gap – one year into its existence, our Investment Plan for Europe is already delivering significant results and supporting efforts to boost jobs and growth. But beyond that, we need to bring about fundamental change in the way our economy works. Inclusive and sustainable growth is the way forward.

The EU has pushed hard for this to become the agenda at a global level, which is now reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); this is not the industrialised world telling developing countries what they have to do, but the whole world coming together and acting together. The Paris agreement is a historic opportunity for economic and societal transformation. Now the EU must lead by example whilst developing a competitive edge in the sustainable economy, where our future growth lies. This requires policy action through regulation, incentives, but also, and importantly, the mobilisation of society as a whole. In particular we need to engage young people to build this better, more sustainable future. For Europe it means, among other things, leading on renewable energy and building an Energy Union that provides the backdrop for the energy transition; setting the conditions for a low-carbon, resource-efficient economy. And importantly, this requires making a decisive shift to a circular economy, breaking away from the linear models of the past.

This is no small task: what we're talking about here is rethinking the way we design, source, produce, work and buy – nothing less. We need to acknowledge that the 'take, make, use and throw away' approach has had its day: instead, we need to retain precious resources and fully exploit all the economic value within them, returning them into the product cycle whenever possible. Boosting resource efficiency while reducing dependency on scarce raw materials is good for competitiveness. The circular economy, at all stages in the cycle, from the design of products to recycling, is also a source of new business opportunities and job creation. But in a deeper sense, it is about reshaping the way our economy works to devise the kind of social model we want, namely one oriented towards collective well-being and a better quality of life; it contributes to putting the economy back at the service of society, as opposed to the current situation where society suffers the damage created by a dysfunctional economy that wastes value instead of preserving it.

Making our economy sustainable also means making sure it is truly inclusive. The changes brought about by technological developments and digitisation have been described as a new industrial revolution. They have already profoundly transformed our lives, and their pace will likely accelerate in the coming years. Change on such a scale carries huge opportunities to be reaped, but also significant challenges for our economy and society, not least the risk that some are left behind. We need to embrace innovation and technological advances. We will not create a more prosperous future for our children if we fall into the trap of only defending the past – this is a recipe for slow decline. But harnessing the potential of these changes to make sure all members of society benefit and turning them into an opportunity to further social progress is up to us. This means acting forcefully to prevent and fight inequality and avoid the concentration of these benefits in the hands of just a few. To do that, it is vital to equip people with the right skills and invest in the potential of all members of society through lifelong education and learning.

Building a cohesive society based on solidarity starts at school. With the rise of pessimism and fear comes the temptation of scapegoating. Minorities are singled out and become a target. We must not let this happen. I passionately believe that the priority task for progressives today is to push for more investment in the education system, make sure schools are not organised along the line of ethnicity or social class but are places that reflect our societies and offer a chance to everybody to succeed, helping to rekindle the sense of tolerance, fraternity and togetherness that our communities so urgently need. This is also part of building a sustainable future.