Sustainable Growth Opinion Press

European civil society asks for sustainable, inclusive and climate-friendly growth path in the EU

How to rethink the meaning of economic growth in the EU

Photo: Alex&Jacob | Thinking Lab on Sustainable Growth

Luís Teles Morais and Sabrina Schulz question the importance given to economic growth in the EU. They call for a change of perspective and for a new focus on sustainable well-being as a broad societal goal. In this article previously published by the Portugues newspaper Público, they also present the main results of the DIALOGUE ON EUROPE Thinking Lab on Sustainable Growth.

Memories of tensions across Europe over disparities in economic development and financial strength are slowly fading away. A new spirit of collaboration, in particular between Northern and Southern Europe, bears testimony to the fact that current leaders have learned from the fallout. Civil society should take part in this effort to concentrate on common challenges and on what all EU member states have to gain from closer collaboration.

We all are passionate about the future of the European Union.

An example of trans-European civil society-led collaboration is the ‘DIALOGUE ON EUROPE’ that the Berlin-based think tank Das Progressive Zentrum organized over the course of the last two years, in cooperation with partner organisations such as the Institute of Public Policy in Portugal. Within this framework, young professionals from six countries – Portugal, Greece, Italy, France, Spain, and Germany – met regularly to co-create fresh ideas and concrete policy recommendations on four common challenges: Migration & Integration, Populism, Social Cohesion, and Sustainable Growth.

Our Sustainable Growth ‘Thinking Lab’ was composed of young civil society activists and professionals who, although with very different backgrounds and interests, shared two key features: we all are passionate about the future of the European Union and about promoting a sustainable, inclusive and climate-friendly growth path for our societies.

It is much more appropriate to pursue sustainable well-being as a broad societal goal.

In order for Europe to live up to its vision of delivering peace and prosperity for all its citizens, we need to radically rethink our notion of economic growth. To our group, it is much more appropriate to pursue sustainable well-being as a broad societal goal. Thus, we should prioritise environmental and social objectives as well as good governance, while averting a short-sighted focus on simply raising GDP and improving competitiveness. Fairness across generations is a key issue, which includes the protection of our natural heritage for future generations. This implies, first and foremost, the responsible use of natural resources and the protection of a ‘safe’ climate for both the health of human beings and the preservation of biodiversity. The decarbonisation of the European economy by the year 2050 is also an important objective that should be pursued.

These themes were well chosen, as the concluding document of the European Council meeting on Thursday 22 March 2018 demonstrates: European leaders are asking the Commission (which is in charge of most legislative proposals in the EU) to re-think the EU’s climate policy. They are inviting the Commission “to present by the first quarter of 2019 a proposal for a Strategy for long-term EU greenhouse gas emissions reduction in accordance with the Paris Agreement”. This is a groundbreaking stance: up to recently, climate policy has been considered a source of contention rather than a uniting theme in the EU.

The recommendations of our Thinking Lab also echo Commission President Juncker’s call for a “Europe of equality” in his State of the Union speech in 2017, as well as French President Macron’s demand for Europe to lead in the quest to “make our planet great again”.

Hope and ambition (…) are not sufficient to ensure sustainable well-being for European societies.

However, as important as hope and ambition may be, they are not sufficient to ensure sustainable well-being for European societies. Our work thus focused on concrete recommendations: first, tackling inequality in Europe and unemployment especially in Southern Europe and, second, getting real about climate policy and the decarbonization of the European economy. After all, uncontrolled climate change could only impede Europe from delivering sustainable well-being for its citizens.

In our final report, we show which best practices already exist in Europe and which concrete policy recommendations for the local, national and European levels can take us further on the way to an inclusive, sustainable society and economy:

  • Making social investment a priority of the new EU budget for the time after 2020 represents an opportunity for the EU to ensure that all citizens benefit from economic policies. The EU should set up a ‘human capital fund’ to provide a more tailored approach to its long-term investment strategy in education and vocational training, thereby complementing the European Social Fund.
  • Strengthening the concept of ‘Smart Islands’: EU member states should better fund local energy communities in general and small islands with the potential to become ‘smart’ and autonomous in their energy production in particular. In order for this to happen, local island administrations need to be provided with tools and competencies for assessing the potential of renewable energy sources on their islands.
  • Southern Europe can contribute significantly to the EU’s climate goals. To exploit its potential improving interconnections of the European power grids is essential. Projects of Common Interest should be supported more strongly as this is the key step when enabling an integrated energy market possible. At the same time, fostering Local Energy Communities by increasing the transmission capacity between southern European countries and Central/Northern Europe will help achieving decarbonization in the EU: in a truly integrated EU power market energy supplies from renewable energy sources on the Iberian Peninsula can help with the transition to a decarbonized power system by balancing intermittent renewables across the continent.
  • Expanding the European Commission’s role as a Governance Hub for Climate Change Adaptation: This will help to spot risks from climate impacts for individual regions. A first step would be to complement the EU Solidarity Fund with an ‘EU Resilience Fund’ for long-term investments in climate-resilient infrastructure and disaster prevention. The uneven domestic prioritization of investments in peripheral rural areas, especially in the context of Climate Change, is an issue that Portugal, after the tragedies of 2017, is especially sensitive to.
  • e-Mobility is a key to European Energy Transition. To this end, battery performance needs to be further stimulated by more public investments and a comprehensive European industrial policy for electric vehicles. Moreover, the EU needs to roll out charging points all over its territory.

Our Thinking Lab wants to demonstrate that creative thinking and new policy strategies must be applied by the EU and its member states to tackle the EU’s pressing social and environmental challenges.

Portugal has played a leading role in promoting sustainable policies in the EU, especially in the area of climate policy. Policy strategies such as the ones developed by our Thinking Lab are good examples of the shape of future progressive proposals that Portugal might be able to develop for the European debate in the future. Civil society in Portugal and across Europe will keep up its work for an inclusive and climate-friendly growth path. Implementing such policies and ensuring them a wide political support requires courage from the governments of all EU member states – but the prize is worth it!

This article was also published in Portuguese on the website of Público.