Can the EU go beyond the economy?

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A group of students examines the critical points of the EU decision-making process in the post-Covid recovery and counts on a fairer and more sustainable future

Laboratory workers, wearing protective gear, work at the Thermo Fisher plant, former Novasep, producing Covid-19 vaccines for AstraZeneca in Seneffe, Belgium, February 10, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman

It is undeniable that 2020 has been a strenuous year. The ongoing pandemic may go down in history as the most significant trauma event in recent decades, having long-term effects in different aspects of our society.

Besides the tremendous situation, the crisis helped placing a magnifying glass on the relationship between planet and humankind. The pandemic clearly exposed the weaknesses of our economic system and revived the debate around the need for a fairer, more sustainable and resilient economy. According to many experts, the crisis might represent an opportunity to rearrange our priorities, break the old patterns and embrace a strategy of ‘greater resilience by design, not by disaster’. Behind this vision, there is the concept of ‘wellbeing economy’, the belief that there is something more important in the pursuit of economic prosperity than the solely GDP growth and that ‘public interest should determine economics, not the other way around’. As we work on post-Covid economic reconstruction, the EU is called to discuss these issues, making choices that ‘will make or break our future’.

Due to its origin and outcomes, the pandemic has inevitably re-invigorated the debate on environmental challenges. Thus, it is no surprise that this is one of the most critical deadlocks in the post-Covid EU negotiations. If, on the one hand, many governments affirm the urgent need to ‘build back better’ our economy and become resilient against future shocks, others, on the other hand, appear to be of a different opinion. Despite its noble purpose of soliciting a climate and social transition, the EU Just Transition Mechanism is likely to cause difficulties to several countries and geographical areas. This is, for instance, the case of many areas of Central and Eastern Europe that are believed to face important challenges deriving from this plan. Some countries feel the pressure of starting the green transition from a disadvantaged position, fearing of being left behind, while others push for more freedom, possibly resulting in the implementation of policies having direct or indirect negative implications for the environment.

If discussions could move beyond the impasse, the Just Transition Fund may be seen as the first step for Europe on the path towards a wellbeing economy.

Furthermore, in this respect, according to a recent Policy Brief issued by the OECD, the shift to a greener economy might as well help in addressing the problem of job creation. The IEA estimates, indeed, that a sustainable recovery might save or create roughly 9 million jobs a year, over the next three years.

Another important discussion for the post-Covid recovery phase inevitably involved healthcare. Since its outbreak, Covid-19 exacerbated the debate on the effectiveness, accessibility and resilience of our health system. On May 2020, the Commission presented the EU4Health programme (2021-2027), the largest health programme ever in monetary terms, involving investments for €9.4 billion and having three priorities: ‘tackling cross-border health threats, making medicine available and affordable, as well as strengthening health systems’. On June 2020, the proposal saw the first consultations and EU ministers broadly welcomed it. A new health programme is considered to be fundamental not only to address potential future threats, but also to embrace the principles of a wellbeing economy.

To conclude, the 2020 crisis represented a turning point in world history, which has not only changed our life, but also the way we conceive it. Action on climate change, jobs and quality of healthcare are some of the new indicators the EU is taking in consideration to determine whether the region is successfully recovering from Covid-19.

Europe is probably facing the biggest challenge of its history, but this might be the wake up call we all needed. In this perspective, the EU can play the leading role in building a fairer and more sustainable world, in creating a more resilient economic model, shaping a new future.

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