Navigating uncertainty

The pandemic health crisis, coupled with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has cast a long shadow over European societies and economies. As the digital and green transitions reshape everything around us, it is imperative for the European Union to support its citizens in adapting to this changing reality.

This article emphasises the need for social and green policies that prioritise the wellbeing of individuals, address inequalities, and promote sustainable development. These recommendations align with the outcomes of the Conference on the Future of Europe, reflecting the collective voice of EU citizens, civil society, and social partners.

The EU is facing an uncertain economic outlook due to the side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the conflict in Ukraine, rising inflation, and a looming debt crisis. These crises have resulted in job losses, increased youth unemployment, and job insecurity. Despite positive productivity growth, real wages have stagnated or even declined in recent years.

To prevent this situation from leading to structural unemployment, it is crucial for the EU and national governments to provide short-term incentives that prevent long-lasting negative economic effects.

The EU must seize this opportunity to transition to a new model of growth that prioritises environmental sustainability and climate action. Redistributive measures, quality employment, robust social protection systems, and accessible quality services for all are vital components of this transition.

Replacing GDP as the sole indicator of prosperity with comprehensive metrics that encompass wellbeing, human rights, gender equality, and environmental protection is a crucial step in this direction.

The concept of the just transition should extend beyond specific regions and sectors, addressing the root causes of complex inequalities in Europe. Sectors most affected by the transition, such as mobility, transport, and construction, have predominantly male workforces, while sectors with predominantly female workforces are often overlooked.

The EU should conduct a detailed analysis to identify other sectors that can contribute to a just transition, such as health, care, and education, which are already low-carbon and beneficial to society and nature.

The economic downturn has coincided with a growing number of unfilled job vacancies, potentially hindering key EU strategic priorities such as the European Green Deal. Reskilling programs and further education initiatives are essential for equipping workers, particularly those from vulnerable groups, with the necessary skills to adapt to the evolving labour market.

It is imperative to broaden the definition of ‘frontline workers’ to include sectors beyond the traditional ones and ensure their inclusion in relevant employment protections.

Education plays a vital role in fighting inequalities, promoting social mobility, and unlocking human potential. The EU should ensure that education aligns with the needs of the economy, facilitating job matching through adequate training programs.

Continued vocational education and training (VET) are essential in responding to structural changes in the labour market. Strengthening multistakeholder platforms like the European Alliance for Apprenticeship (EAfA) and increasing investments in vocational education will contribute to upskilling the workforce and fostering inclusivity.

To adapt to emerging opportunities in an evolving landscape, individuals need technical and transversal skills and the ability to continue learning throughout their careers. Dedicated funding should prioritise disadvantaged young people and ensure ongoing skills relevance and upskilling throughout their lifecycles.

Access to digital education programs, the teaching of digital skills, and awareness campaigns on the consequences of digitalisation and social media for democracy should also be enhanced.

The European Union stands at a critical juncture, grappling with the aftermaths of the health crisis, geopolitical tensions, and economic uncertainties. Urgent action is required to navigate these challenges and ensure a just and sustainable future

The shift to remote work during the pandemic has been significant and is likely to persist in the future. Consequently, we should adapt existing working rules and safeguards to encompass remote work conditions. This includes transposing non-remote working regulations into remote working frameworks to ensure equal protection for workers.

It is essential to consider the potential consequences of increased digitalisation, such as the deepening of the digital divide, invasion of privacy, and the blurring of work-life boundaries. In that regard, social partners are very important in shaping and implementing key digital rights, such as the right to disconnect, through collective bargaining.

Platform work has also rapidly gained prominence in recent years, particularly among younger workers, but often lacks adequate protection and rights compared to traditional employment.

We need clear criteria to differentiate between self-employment and false self-employment because all platform workers should have access to social rights and protection, while minimum standards should be set for those who may not qualify as employees.

Transparent algorithms, fair working conditions, and accessible redress mechanisms are essential components to safeguard the rights of platform workers.

Ensuring robust social and civil dialogues at all levels of governance remains pivotal in shaping decisions related to employment, industrial relations, and social standards across industries and sectors within the European Union. The principle of non-discrimination and the universal right of association for workers, irrespective of their sector, must be upheld.

Key principles such as subsidiarity, proportionality, and the autonomy of social dialogue should be respected to protect EU social standards and workers’ rights. Employers and trade unions, being intimately acquainted with labour market needs, should be equipped with the necessary means and tools to proactively anticipate changes and ensure the EU’s central economic role while upholding the social acquis.

It is vital to safeguard fundamental rights and avoid any erosion of workplace standards or protections during emergency situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic and conflicts like the one in Ukraine.

While acknowledging the progress made in EU social and labour policies, it is crucial to extend support to vulnerable populations, including the long-term unemployed, Roma people, and migrants, who face multiple barriers to employment.

Civil dialogue, along with consistent consultation of civil society organisations representing marginalised groups, must be a core component of policy implementation. Efforts should focus on combatting discrimination in European labour markets, with labour and social legal instruments incorporating anti-discriminatory measures and affirmative actions.

Labour market policies should adopt a comprehensive, human rights-based, and person-centred approach. Commitment to the principle of co-determination in labour relations, facilitating collaboration between employers and employees in shaping working conditions, is essential.

The COVID-19 crisis has disproportionately affected young people, negatively impacting their employment prospects, income, educational outcomes, and mental health. Disturbingly, two-thirds of Europe’s youth may now experience depression or anxiety, with marginalised youth facing the harshest consequences.

Policymakers must prioritise developing recovery plans that address the long-term impacts on young people, ensuring an intersectional approach to tackle the specific challenges faced by various youth groups.

Meaningful participation of young people and youth organisations is critical in shaping these plans. Enhancing the successful transition from education to employment, particularly for those graduating in the upcoming years, is imperative.

In addition, access to mental health and wellbeing support for young people should be expanded, recognising the relationship between socio-economic factors and mental health outcomes.

The EU should strengthen job creation schemes that offer quality employment opportunities for young people and contribute to their overall wellbeing.

Implementing dedicated quality standards at the European level will be instrumental in ensuring the success of programs such as the EU Youth Guarantee, while advocating for a ban on unpaid internships should be pursued.

The European Union stands at a critical juncture, grappling with the aftermaths of the health crisis, geopolitical tensions, and economic uncertainties. Urgent action is required to navigate these challenges and ensure a just and sustainable future.

It is imperative for the EU to prioritise the wellbeing of its citizens and the planet through the implementation of social and green policies.

Moreover, the EU must recognise the crucial role of civil society, social partners, and youth organisations in shaping policies and decisions. Genuine dialogue and collaboration are essential to build consensus and ensure that recovery measures leave no one behind.

EU policymakers, senior executives, and policy players should heed these recommendations and make the necessary commitments to drive transformative change.

Together, let us forge a path towards a fair and inclusive Europe, where prosperity, sustainability, and social justice go hand in hand. Only by working together can we build a resilient future for all.

This article is based on a policy position of the European Movement International, published in May 2023.