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European Economic and Social Committee (EESC)

EESC supports an open, sustainable and assertive EU trade policy

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The new trade strategy launched by the Commission in February brings engaging principles to the table that will support the EU in achieving its domestic and external policy objectives. The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) welcomes this trade strategy as a way of improving market access and levelling the playing field. Alongside this, the modernisation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) will be the key to delivering for future generations.

Trade has been a driving force for growth and the economy. Its role has become even more important since the outbreak of the pandemic as a way of ensuring Europe's recovery. Still, the EU first needs to analyse and quantify trade changes, making a distinction between temporary and COVID-19 related changes, on the one hand, and permanent changes, on the other.

"We need to have a certain approach, to be open and assertive, to improve the stakeholders' engagement with trade policy because the narrative of international trade is changing," said Timo Vuori, rapporteur of the EESC opinion on the trade policy review.

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The opinion, adopted at July's plenary session, is a step forward for this strategy, which will create new opportunities to diminish risks relating to world trade and the EU economy.

It is time for Europe to put naivety aside and adopt a more assertive profile when defending EU values and trade commitments unilaterally. Where the WTO cannot act or fully deliver, the EU should be able to count on a wide range of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) that reflect European principles and the international standards shared with leading and emerging economies in international trade.

As Christophe Quarez, co-rapporteur of the opinion, put it: "All of the work needs to be put in the context of multilateralism and reforming the WTO."

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The EESC agrees that modernising the WTO is a top priority given its central role in delivering an effective multilateral matrix for a modern trade agenda. Therefore, the EU must lead ambitious WTO reforms by breaking taboos on social and climate aspects of trade and addressing current and upcoming challenges sustainably. To accomplish that, member states have to engage in strategic cooperation with key trade partners on priority multilateral issues.

Trade policy that delivers for people

The EESC welcomes the trade agenda which responds to some of the stakeholder concerns raised in the public consultation. However, it lacks reflections on how to improve involvement of civil society. The Committee underlines the need for continued cooperation with civil society at national and EU level, to ensure that trade policy adds value to our daily lives.

Civil society has to become an active partner in trade policy, from shaping to monitoring trade tools and agreements. To secure the role of civil society organisations in the process, the EESC calls for the reinstatement of the expert group on FTAs which provided an unequalled and much needed deep and regular engagement on specific trade issues. Meaningful engagement with the European Parliament notably via the EESC, with a view to addressing concerns more effectively, would help ensure smoother ratification.

Furthermore, Domestic Advisory Groups (DAGs) which are essential institutional monitoring pillars of modern FTAs, should be reinforced.

The pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities of the global trading system and those of workers in supply chains. Strengthening sustainability and resilience in global value chains (GVCs) is of paramount importance to level the playing field.

The EU needs instruments to tackle corruption and environmental, labour, social and human rights infringements, such as mandatory due diligence, a new UN treaty on business and human rights, and an ILO convention on decent work.

Having learnt the lessons of the COVID-19 crisis, the EU calls for a deeper understanding of global value chains' impact on people and businesses as well as their shortcomings. Diversification is a tool for greater resilience, with proper monitoring mechanisms and adequate public procurement processes.

The EESC strongly supports the EU's active role in shaping global rules for more sustainable and fairer trade that would bring prosperity and security not only to business partners but also to countries and their people.

Afghanistan

Statement on Afghanistan by Christa Schweng, president of the European Economic and Social Committee and Dimitris Dimitriadis, president of the EESC section for External Relations

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  1. We express deep concern for the events that followed the US and NATO retreat from Afghanistan, mourn the brutal loss of human lives and call for urgent action to avoid further humanitarian crisis and setbacks in the fields of rule of law, fundamental freedoms and human rights, especially the rights of women, children and ethnic minorities;
  2. We stress the need for the European Union to demonstrate more assertiveness on the international scene, to take a more active role in preserving the international order and to deepen its ties with the United States and other like-minded allies on developing a clear roadmap and a common strategy on the future of Afghanistan;
  3. We warn about the dangers of a complete disappearance of civil society in Afghanistan and urge the European Union and its member states to continue supporting the Afghan civil society in and outside Afghanistan;
  4. We call on the afghan authorities to ensure the safety of local and international civil society organizations (CSOs), NGOs and humanitarian organizations, including journalists and human rights defenders;
  5. We stress that cooperation with the neighbouring countries including Pakistan, Iran, China, India and Russia is crucial in order to achieve the stabilisation of Central Asia and to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches the vulnerable populations, in particular women and children, in Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries;
  6. We stress that it is a moral duty for Europe to help the Afghan people: based on our values, Europeans should provide humanitarian aid, protect those committed to human rights and democracy and show solidarity with civil society organisations and local activists.

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European Economic and Social Committee (EESC)

Broad participation by civil society is key to a strong recovery in Europe

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A hearing organized by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) discussed opportunities and challenges in the implementation of the National Recovery and Resilience Plans in the various member states, revealing that civil society is still far from being effectively involved in the process. There were calls for improved consultations in the upcoming implementing phase, following the shortcomings at the drafting stage.

Europe can have a stronger post-pandemic recovery if civil society is fully involved in the implementation stage of the National Recovery and Resilience Plans (NRRPs) in the various member states, thereby boosting the just transition towards a green, digital and sustainable European economy. This is the main message of the hearing held in Brussels and remotely by the European Semester Group (ESG) of the Section for Economic and Monetary Union and Economic and Social Cohesion (ECO) on 6 September 2021.

"It is essential to overcome the serious shortcomings of the NRRP drafting phase," said Javier Doz Orrit, ESG president. He called for "a strong recovery that strengthens social cohesion by truly involving the social partners and organised civil society, for a just, green and digital transition. Their involvement is particularly important as regards reforms of the labour market, public services and pension systems and in the implementation of investment plans."

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Overall, organised civil society participation is still low in many Member States. Organisations have been informed and in many cases briefly consulted; however, this has brought about only limited results. In the majority of Member States, there have been no formal and effective consultations leading to significant modifications to the initial government proposals, with just a few exceptions. The Commission should therefore follow up on the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) Regulation and ensure that it is being properly implemented in the Member States, for example by setting up participatory structures with national, local and regional authorities, the social partners and civil society organisations.

"Civil society participation in the implementation of the NRRPs is vital because plans will be more efficient and more easily owned by the people, but it is also an important manifestation of our common European values as established by Article 2 of the Treaty. Unfortunately, it is still far from sufficient in most member states," added Krzysztof Balon, president of the study group for the ongoing EESC opinion on The Annual Sustainable Growth Strategy 2021.

State of play – implementation of the NRRPs

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The event, which was entitled 'Towards the European Semester 2022 – Implementing the National Recovery and Resilience Plans', gathered together the views of various civil society organizations, EU bodies and think-tanks.

Rob Jonkman, member of the EU Committee of the Regions (CoR) and rapporteur for its opinion on the RRF implementation, highlighted that the key to the successful implementation of the NRRPs was broad societal ownership in the Member States. The direct involvement of civil society as a whole, including local and regional authorities, social partners and NGOs, was therefore crucial.

Johannes Lübking from the European Commission's Recovery and Resilience Task Force (RECOVER) set the scene by presenting figures: 25 NRRPs have so far been submitted and 18 have already been approved. For the green transition, most of the funds have been allocated to sustainable mobility, while, for the digital transformation, most have been allocated to digital public services.

Zsolt Darvas, representing Bruegel, emphasised that the implementation of reforms and public investment projects supported by the RRF was extremely important in many Member States in the years to come. In this respect, he expressed concerns as regards the absorption capacity of certain Member States. Close monitoring was therefore called for.

Most participants agreed that a number of warning signs had started to appear in the NRRP implementation process: the country-specific recommendations made by the Commission had largely been ignored by certain Member States until now, so there was scepticism about a possible future change of attitude. In addition, the transformative effects of the RRF investments were questioned, as were their efficiency and effectiveness.

The way forward, towards the 2022 European Semester cycle

Looking ahead to the next European Semester cycle, Markus Ferber, MEP and rapporteur for the Annual Sustainable Growth Strategy 2021, said that so far there had not been much consultation with the regional and local authorities or with civil society, as originally planned within the NRRPs, and that this was a mistake as a more inclusive stance would only benefit the plans.

Along the same lines, James Watson from BusinessEurope pointed out that the NRRP implementation could not just be a tick-box exercise but should be in keeping with the real spirit of the instrument: the role of the social partners should be recognised and consultations should take place in public forums and not behind closed doors.

Marco Cilento, representing the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), raised the question of quality jobs, productivity, higher wages and better working conditions, stressing that only tangible results for people could really put them at the heart of the EU.

Finally, Hanna Surmatz, from the European Foundation Centre (EFC) and member of the EESC Liaison Group, also agreed on the importance of consultation with civil society partners, mentioning that this would be instrumental in restructuring the European Semester, making people feel like they were really involved and contributing to building an inclusive European future.

"Civil society participation must clearly be increased in the implementation process to allow for better national ownership and implementation of the NRRPs. We will keep on monitoring the situation because we want to draw efficient conclusions and have a positive impact on the process. We want to make a difference and the time for action is now," concluded Gonçalo Lobo Xavier, rapporteur for the EESC opinion, which is due to be adopted at the October plenary session.

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Disabilities

EESC welcomes EU Disability Rights Strategy but identifies weaknesses that should be addressed

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The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) hails the new EU Disability Rights Strategy as a step forward in implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). The Strategy has taken on board many of the suggestions proposed by the EESC, the European disability movement and civil society. The proposals include full harmonisation of the new agenda and strengthened EU-level supervision of its application. The EESC is, however, concerned about the watering down of the binding measures and hard law implementing the Strategy.

At its plenary session held on 7 July, the EESC adopted the opinion Strategy on the rights of persons with disabilities, in which it gave its take on the European Commission's new strategy, set to improve the lives of some 100 million Europeans with disabilities over the next decade.

Despite describing the new strategy as laudable and more ambitious than its predecessor, the EESC was concerned about the prospects of its sound implementation. It also deplored the absence of any concrete and specific measures to end discrimination against women and girls with disabilities.

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"The Disability Rights Strategy can advance the rights of persons with disabilities in the EU and has potential to achieve real change, but this depends entirely on how well it is implemented and how ambitious the individual actions are. It has taken on board proposals from the EESC and the disability movement. However, it lacks ambition in binding legislation," said the rapporteur for the opinion, Ioannis Vardakastanis.

"We need to turn words into deeds. If the European Commission and the Member States are not ambitious in pushing for actions that challenge the status quo, the Strategy could well fall short of the expectations of around 100 million persons with disabilities in the EU," he warned.

The EU Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) should be strongly linked to the EU Disability Rights Strategy and help persons with disabilities to recover from the effects of the pandemic, as they were among the worst hit. The link with the implementation and monitoring of the Action Plan for the EU Pillar of Social Rights should also be ensured and maximised, the EESC said in the opinion.

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Sufficient human and financial resources should be provided for the current monitoring system for EU actions relating to the UNCRPD. The EESC strongly recommended that the European Commission look at how EU institutions and Member States can cooperate to better include people with disabilities by reviewing the existing Declaration of Competences and ratifying the Optional Protocol to the UNCRPD. These steps will give the EU a more decisive say in Member States' compliance with the UNCRPD provisions. The Commission must also be resolute in opposing plans for investments that go against the UNCRPD, such as investments in institutional care settings.

The EESC called for specific actions addressing the needs of women and girls with disabilities through a flagship initiative in the second half of the EU Disability Rights Strategy period in order to ensure that the gender dimension was included. The focus on women should include a dimension of gender violence and women as informal carers of relatives with disabilities.

The EESC was pleased to see the proposal for a resource centre called AccessibleEU, one of the flagship initiatives of the new strategy, although it fell short of the EESC's request for an EU Access Board with broader competences. The objective of AccessibleEU would be to bring together national authorities responsible for implementing and enforcing accessibility rules and accessibility experts and professionals, and monitor the implementation of EU laws providing for accessibility. The Commission needs to be clear and transparent about how it plans to fund and staff this agency, and how it will make sure that persons with disabilities are represented, the EESC stressed.

The EESC strongly endorses the flagship initiative on the EU Disability Card and believes it has the potential to foster great change. However, it regrets that there is as yet no commitment on how to ensure it is recognised by the Member States. The Committee stresses the need for the Disability Card to be implemented by means of a regulation, which would make it directly applicable and enforceable throughout the EU.

People with disabilities should be given the possibility to play a full role in the political life of their communities.The EESC supports the plan for a guide on good electoral practice addressing the participation of persons with disabilities in the electoral process in order to guarantee their political rights.

It is crucial to focus on good-quality jobs for persons with disabilities, especially in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The EESC stresses that the main goal is not just higher employment rates, but also quality employment that allows people with disabilities to improve their social circumstances through work. The EESC suggests including indicators on the quality of employment of persons with disabilities.

The EESC also calls on the disability movement to be proactive and to push for each and every action of this Strategy to deliver on what it promises. Social partners and civil society organisations should fully support the implementation of the new Strategy. It is not the Strategy itself that will deliver real change for persons with disabilities, but rather the strength of each of its components over the coming decade, the EESC concluded.

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