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European Economic and Social Committee (EESC)

EESC welcomes targeted measures helping Europeans to pay their energy bills

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With rising energy prices having an ever-increasing impact on businesses, workers and civil society at large, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) welcomes the European Commission's toolbox to mitigate the negative effect. EESC is also pleased that the document echoes a number of its proposals and calls for care to be taken to ensure that no one is left behind.

Energy poverty is a distressing problem to which many Europeans are exposed. The COVID-19 health and economic crisis, together with rising energy costs, have widened inequalities.

"While easing the burden on low-income households we cannot forget to maintain the competitiveness of European businesses", said EESC president Christa Schweng."Keeping energy affordable for citizens and businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, is an important factor that complements our efforts for recovery."

The EESC welcomes the European Commission's proposal on providing aid to businesses or industries to weather the crisis by helping them to adapt in a timely manner and fully participate in the energy transition. Such measures must not distort competition or lead to fragmentation on the EU's internal energy market.

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In order to mitigate the social impact of rising energy prices, EU Member States are also encouraged to actively engage consumers in the energy market. Consumers need to be protected and helped, but they also need to take an active role and make responsible choices.

"There can be no successful energy transition towards climate neutrality by 2050 without affordable energy", Ms Schweng concluded. "Europe should support its citizens in playing an active role in the green transition while ensuring access to essential energy and equal treatment for all and making sure energy poverty is not aggravated."

Over recent years, the EESC has contributed extensively to the discussion on energy poverty and will continue to take stock of the progress made in the fight against energy poverty. 

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European Economic and Social Committee (EESC)

Blended learning: Equal access, full-length education and social skills must not suffer

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The EESC supports the European Commission’s proposals to expand blended learning in schools and training, in particular their focus on ensuring inclusive high-quality education. However, concerns remain regarding social inequalities, early school leaving and children's socialisation, and on risks to young children's education, teachers' working conditions and public education.

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has expressed some reservations about the Commission's recent proposal on introducing blended learning - traditional teacher-led learning combined with online or other independent work – in primary and secondary education, putting into question its timeliness given how greatly the COVID-19 pandemic has affected education systems in Europe and elsewhere.

In the opinion on blended learning adopted at its October plenary session, the EESC also raised concerns about the suitability of this mode of learning for primary and early secondary school students, arguing that it should first be introduced in higher grades, as younger children, especially those in the early primary years, are generally not mature enough to learn independently.

"We are doubting that this is the right time to introduce or push to have blended learning in schools. COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on education systems and on children, and especially on small children who only just started their schooling experience. Blended learning is not the same as online learning or not even necessarily strictly a combination of in-person teaching and online learning. It refers to learning independently and it requires certain skills to be able to learn in this way," said the rapporteur of the opinion Tatjana Babrauskienė.

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The EESC said it acknowledged that blended learning can improve access to education, training and digital skills, as seen during the COVID-19 crisis.

However, the pandemic also showed that some students lack the resources – practical or personal – to learn in this way, which in the worst cases might lead them to abandon school. In addition, it showed that education done together with peers is essential for children's socialisation and mental health.

"Blended learning has great potential to improve educational attainment after the pandemic. But it must address educational disadvantage and early school leaving," the co-rapporteur of the opinion Michael McLoughlin said.

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"Also, we cannot underestimate the value of the social role of education. It is not just about science, physics or maths, it is about kids going to school together, mixing, meeting their peers, it's about physical education, mental health,” he maintained.

The EESC has made 21 recommendations on how to ensure that blended learning can have a positive role in education. One major point is that it should be implemented and funded to enhance education and training for all students, with special care for those from lower-income backgrounds, with disabilities and in rural areas.

"Quality and inclusive education, training and lifelong learning is a right for all in Europe. Blended learning should ensure this right," Ms Babrauskienė stressed.

Blended learning techniques should also be tailored to different age-groups, levels of ability and types of courses, and not be misused to limit face-to-face and group education.

Safeguard opportunities to learn

One risk of blended learning is that it could increase digital and social divides caused by social and economic inequalities, for example if children live in families that cannot afford a computer or are in a remote area with limited broadband. The education of these students will suffer if blended learning is rolled out without appropriate planning.

Another key group who will need support will be students with disabilities. National authorities should budget for special equipment, for example to overcome visual impairments, or to adapt materials to atypical learning, for example for children with autism.

Indeed, blended learning will involve expenses for all courses, whether in hosting or buying licenses for online platforms, or for data security, teaching resources and equipment such as tools for vocational students to practice practical skills safely at home. Public authorities must be realistic about the additional investment required.

It is the EESC's firm belief that the governance of public education systems should be accountable, transparent and protected from the influence of private and commercial interests and players. Blended learning should be implemented in education programmes in such a way as to guarantee this.

The EESC therefore calls on Member States to develop national regulations for blended learning and, with teaching experts and other stakeholders, to set up public teaching and learning platforms so that education remains a public good.

Teachers in focus

The pandemic experience has shown that student-teacher interaction remains essential to student motivation and learning.

During the COVID crisis it has become apparent that blended learning demands considerable time and creativity from already overstretched teachers and, if not properly regulated, could undermine the quality of education provided to students.

In addition, the EESC reminds the Commission that teachers are central to the successful design and supervision of independent learning. There are already not enough teachers in Europe, partly due to pay and difficult working conditions. It is therefore important to monitor blended-learning's impacts on conditions and workloads to avoid burnouts.

To mitigate pressures, the EESC calls on national authorities to support teachers in training for this new method of learning. The new self-assessment tool from the European Commission, SELFIEforTEACHERS, is one example of how teachers can get help to improve their digital skills.

Reliable data should be at the core of all work on blended learning. The committee urges EU and national authorities to collect information on how young people learn at different ages and levels of ability and to monitor unwelcome impacts, including early school leaving and bullying, with relevant partners. This will allow authorities to design educational plans and adjust these if needed so that blended learning fulfils its potential for all of society.

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European Economic and Social Committee (EESC)

Renewed EU commitment to the fight against human trafficking must bring tangible results

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The EESC broadly supports the new EU Strategy against trafficking in human beings 2021-2025, but also calls attention to the need of the social dimension to be incorporated into the policy.

The new EU strategy on the fight to uproot trafficking displays a gap in terms of victims’ rights and social dimension. Trafficked people suffer devastating psychological effects during and after their experience. The EESC feels that the situation of victims is not addressed in a consistently humane way throughout the strategy.

As Carlos Manuel Trindade, rapporteur of the EESC opinion, pointed out “Human trafficking leads to huge suffering among victims, it is an attack on dignity. That is why the social dimension should be taken on board in the fight towards trafficking”.

Trafficking in human beings should have no place in today's society. Yet it is a global phenomenon with the European Union having its share.

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According to the latest available data, between 2017 and 2018 more than 14 000 victims were registered in the EU with the majority of them being women and girls subjected to sexual exploitation. Traffickers, mostly European citizens, are fully aware of the profitability of this illegal activity, the profits of which were estimated at EUR 29.4 billion in 2015 alone.

With rising numbers in profits and victims, the EESC welcomes the Commission’s position that the Anti-Trafficking Directive must be implemented in all Member States and its review should be based on a thorough assessment of the limitations identified and on developments in human trafficking, in particular in the recruitment and exploitation of victims via the internet.

As a deep-rooted form of organised crime, human trafficking has not been easy to fight and in this respect, the role of Member States is of paramount importance as they must stay ahead of criminals, users and exploiters of the victims. The EESC calls on Member States to consider criminalizing the use of services exploited from trafficked persons.

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Furthermore, the EESC highlights the necessity to improve sanctions and agrees with the establishment of minimum standards at EU level that criminalise networks involved in the whole process of trafficking and exploiting human beings.

However, it notes that the strategy makes no mention of the significant support provided by community solidarity networks and social partners in protecting, welcoming and integrating victims. Therefore, the Committee firmly proposes that these interventions and work delivered by civil society organizations should be included and promoted in the new strategy as examples of good practice to be replicated.

Since 2002 the EU has been cracking down on human trafficking, and the proposal for a strategy in this area aims to consolidate and strengthen this approach. The 2011 "Anti-trafficking Directive" has been a major step forward in combating the phenomenon but trafficking continues to grow in Europe.

Count social dimension in the implementation of the strategy

The plan provides no measure at all for recognising and enforcing victims’ rights, which should be a core concern in affirming human dignity and human rights. The victims should be granted the right to be integrated into the host society, by means of an appropriate, fast-track integration process. The EESC highly recommends that the Commission incorporate this proposal into the new policy.

The need to create decent and adequate economic and social conditions for people in the countries of origin, which is the main way of hindering or preventing the recruitment of trafficking victims is also highlighted in the opinion. Special attention should be drawn to the people who combine multidimensional poverty with other specific characteristics, vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking.

The EESC believes that the protection of victims at all stages in particular women and children needs to be properly ensured. To this end, civil society organizations operating in this domain and the social partners must be involved at all stages of the process. There is a shared responsibility and the success of this endeavour depends largely on the active involvement of society as a whole and of the messages disseminated by the media and social networks.

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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.

"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.

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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.

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.

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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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