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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.

European Economic and Social Committee (EESC)

Sustainable finance taxonomy: Key to supporting green investment and preventing climate change

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The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) fully supports the Commission's recent measures aimed at setting standards for the definition of "sustainable economic activities", but points out that some elements may prove a complex and costly challenge, particularly for SMEs, and questions whether the current version of the Delegated Regulation is fit for purpose.

The EU needs efficient and urgent measures to reduce emissions and get to grips with climate change. To that end, the Sustainable Finance Package presented by the European Commission could establish a clear, coherent and comprehensive framework in which a greener economy can develop without lock-in effects.

In the opinion adopted at the September plenary session, drawn up by Stefan Back, the EESC says that it is important to clearly define technical criteria for the green investments that directly contribute to Europe's climate objectives and on which the practices of the business sectors concerned and the financial sector can be aligned. Setting standards that diverge from maximum requirements of EU legislation may create confusion, and the EESC therefore recommends strengthening those requirements.

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"The package of Commission measures is intended to enable investors to re-orient investments towards more sustainable technologies and businesses. We need efficient, easily applicable, innovative and productive tools that bring about rapid and readable results. The assessment of the Sustainable Finance Taxonomy Delegated Regulation should be carried out in this spirit", stressed Back.

What is the EU taxonomy?

The EU taxonomy is a classification system listing environmentally sustainable economic activities and providing an exact definition of what can be considered as such.

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It is meant to increase sustainable investment and help implement the European Green Deal, as it creates security for investors, protects private investors from "greenwashing", helps companies to work in a more climate-friendly way, reduces market fragmentation, and moves investment where needed.

The sustainable finance taxonomy will help define 'sustainable economic activities'

Overall, the EESC welcomes the objective of setting a uniform EU standard defining activities that qualify as contributing substantially to climate change mitigation or adaptation.

The Delegated Regulation could create a fair and transparent level playing-field for green finance in the EU, improving transparency through clear criteria for sustainable investment and assisting potential investors, both preventing "greenwashing" and attracting investment in sustainable projects.

In addition, the EESC believes that economic activities and projects defined as "sustainable" must be commercially attractive to investors in the real economy, given the fact that investors will expect a sustainable project to be realistic, achievable, reasonably profitable, and predictable for market operators.

Implementing the EU taxonomy may be cumbersome

According to the EESC, the technical criteria should afford wider possibilities for recognising transitory solutions as green, which would enable a smoother transition. It is of the utmost importance to prevent lock-in effects.

Measures with a high level of ambition in terms of climate change mitigation may also prove a complex and costly challenge, particularly for SMEs, except possibly for a small number of very big operators. For this reason, the Committee warns against the risk of too high costs in implementing the taxonomy criteria.

Taking into account the concerns of operators in the real economy about the negative effects of the Delegated Regulation on financing possibilities and costs, the EESC emphasises that it is important for surveillance authorities to closely monitor developments. This is key in preventing distorting effects on financial markets, particularly in view of the widening scope of taxonomy criteria to include, for instance, non-financial reporting and the proposed EU Green Bond Standard.

Background – the 'package'

The Sustainable Finance Package was published by the European Commission in April 2021 and consists of the Communication on an EU Taxonomy, Corporate Sustainability Reporting, Sustainability Preferences and Fiduciary Duties: Directing finance towards the European Green Deal; a Commission Delegated Regulation; a proposal for a new Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive; and amended delegated acts under the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (MiFiD II) and the Insurance Distribution Directive (IDD).

The objective of the measures is to facilitate investment in sustainable activities, which is essential to make Europe climate-neutral by 2050, so that the EU becomes a global leader in setting standards for sustainable finance.

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European Economic and Social Committee (EESC)

Cohesion must be at the heart of post-pandemic Europe, say European Commissioner Elisa Ferreira and EESC president Christa Schweng

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The September plenary of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) hosted a debate on EU cohesion policy, where all participants agreed that the recovery must address the socio-economic inequalities that the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated.

Cohesion policy is key to developing a new post-COVID-19 vision for the European Union, centred on prosperity, inclusion and environmental sustainability, a vision in which organised civil society is fully included. This was the message from Christa Schweng, EESC president, and echoed by Cohesion and Reforms Commissioner Elisa Ferreira (pictured) at the EESC September plenary session.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, cohesion policy has been instrumental in finding solutions during the emergency, and in the 2021-2027 programming period it should continue to be used to address the challenges and inequalities existing within and between Member States, regions, cities and people, with the situation worsening during the pandemic.

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"Cohesion policy plays a key role in ensuring a balanced recovery that leaves no one behind. The principle of partnership with civil society organisations is part of the policy's DNA, and we would like to see this principle extended to NextGenerationEU and implementation of the National Recovery and Resilience Plans. Cohesion policy should also become less bureaucratic, more digitalised and more effective", said Ms Schweng.

Ms Ferreira noted that the COVID-19 crisis had made existing inequalities worse and opened up new ones, affecting in particular workers on the front line, vulnerable people such as the elderly and people with disabilities, those with less access to services, and those who had suffered more from the impacts of lockdown, such as women and young people: "Our Union is as strong as its weakest link. To fight back and reduce inequalities is a sine qua non for a strong and thriving Union. Social fairness and inclusivity need to be at the centre of our recovery. We cannot solve social issues without solving spatial and regional inequalities. We must take account of the places where people live".

EU cohesion policy – e-Cohesion systems and combatting inequalities

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The plenary assembly adopted two key documents on cohesion policy. In the first one, an information report drawn up by Elena-Alexandra Calistru (ECO/547 – Evaluation of the implementation of e-Cohesion in Programmes financed by ERDF and Cohesion Fund 2014-2020), the EESC carries out an evaluation of the implementation and performance of e‑Cohesion systems for the operational programmes funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the Cohesion Fund during the programming period 2014-2020, stressing that e‑Cohesion systems are useful tools and have established a framework for more efficient implementation of cohesion policy.

Commenting on the opinion, Ms Calistru said: "Digital tools are an important mechanism to facilitate the implementation of EU-funded policies at all levels of Member States. As EU financial instruments become more sophisticated, such tools are needed in order to ensure transparency of funding, open data with regards to the funded projects, and constant communication that facilitates access for civil society to EU policies".

In the second document, an opinion prepared by Ioannis Vardakastanis and Judith Vorbach (ECO/550 – The role of cohesion policy in combatting inequalities - complementarities/overlaps with the RRF), the Committee focuses on the ways in which cohesion policy and NextGenerationEU (NGEU), primarily through the flagship Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF), aim to resolve deficiencies in the social, economic and environmental spheres and to implement a prosperity-focused economic and social approach where people's well-being is prioritised and no-one is left behind.

Mr Vardakastanis said: "While it is important to avoid overlaps and confusion in the implementation of programmes, it is also crucial to ensure that they do not contradict or undermine one another. The principles of cohesion policy, with its strict rules on stakeholder consultation, should be taken over by the RRF procedures in order to direct investments efficiently to measures for social inclusion".

Ms Vorbach added: "NGEU is a decisive step towards EU integration. Every effort has to be made for its success. For this reason, we urge that there be a focus on fair distribution of NGEU resources in order to tackle the gaps in society, which have deepened during the pandemic. To safeguard a balanced policy approach and to leave nobody behind, better involvement of social partners and civil society is necessary."

Taking into account civil society's views in future EU cohesion policy

During the debate, Gonçalo Lobo Xavier, on behalf of the EESC Employers' Group, referred to the important resources of the National Recovery and Resilience Plans (NRRPs), emphasising that now was the time to make sure that civil society got the chance to really take part in their implementation.

Oliver Röpke, president of the EESC Workers' Group, highlighted that it was vital to align the cohesion funds with the principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights in order to fight inequalities and foster quality employment in all regions in a sustainable manner that leads to social inclusion and fair mobility.

Finally, Séamus Boland, president of the EESC Diversity Europe Group, pointed out that future cohesion policy had to include four elements: defining the societies that we wanted, a holistic and complementary policy approach, determining our own red lines between European values and EU funding, and the opportunity to forge a European identity around cohesion and solidarity among Member States.

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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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