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30th Oct 2020

Interview

Civil society chief: social media can't replace engagement

  • Civil society has to be 'pro-active and try to transform the systemic challenges into opportunities,' says Luca Jahier (Photo: European Commission)

Amid alarm bells over the rise of illiberal democracy in Europe, the space for civil society is "shrinking" in Europe, the new head of the EU's Social and Economic Committee has warned.



But Luca Jahier, who was elected on 17 April, wants to believe in what he dubs a 'rEUnaissance', in which civil society could be a "force for change".

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  • Space for civil society organisations is "shrinking" in Europe, Jahier warned (Photo: Civil Society Europe)

"We are going through a serious, accelerating and cross-cutting transformation," he told EUobserver in an interview.

Next to the digital transformation of industry and the clean energy transition, Europeans are facing changes in the way they work and how their welfare state is organised, Jahier pointed out.


They also face a democratic transformation, in which there is "a larger demand for more participation but also shrinking space for civil society, authoritarian democracy, or blocked democracies," he said.

In this situation, Jahier said, Europe can go in two directions: "one is the direction of fear, division, and building walls ; the other is being pro-active and try to transform the systemic challenges into opportunities."

The European Social and Economic Committee (EESC), which was established in 1957 as an advisory body for EU institutions and member states, describes itself as "the voice of civil society".

Its members are divided in three groups: employers, workers, and the so-called various interests, dealing with issues such as equality, environment, minorities or consumers protection.

Social media is not 'direct engagent'

In recent years, its new head said, the EESC has played "an increasing role" in raising the problems faced by the representatives of the civil society.

"Intermediate bodies are a fundamental idea, a part of the history of Europe," he noted.

But today, he said "organisations are impacted by all the societal transformations."

Trade unions and other groups face a crisis of militancy, because younger people think they are "directly active" by using social media or voting online, "but they do not build direct engagement."

In the professional world, Jahier added, transformations are "questioning the capacity of social dialogue to remain one of the cornerstones of our social model."

But at EU level, he said, "NGOs, consumer organisations, trade unions, confederation of SMEs, bankers, they represent an enormous force that could be positive."

"This part of our society has to deal everyday with the question of inventing the future," he insisted 'Most of these organisations have demonstrated an enormous capacity to alert but also to suggest possible solutions."

While EU governments and institutions like the European Commission are looking at how to leave the crisis behind and strengthen Europe's economy, Jahier assured that the EESC "has an institutional place."

"It has been a place of putting together all these forces," he said.

Jahier, who chaired the various interests group until his election as EESC president, admitted that "sensitivities can be sometimes different" among members, with "some [who] are more concerned by some societal transformation than others."

But despite growing tensions in EU societies, he said that "the very vast majority of the members of the committee are all pro-European and people convinced that we have worked out is more important than what divides us."

Centres vs Peripheries

"Most of the people are coming from the concrete life. They are concrete actors that are dealing everyday with the desire to invent the future," he insisted.

As the new head of the advisory body, Jahier wants to "revive civic engagement for a sustainable European future."

He insisted that "all vital forces of Europe are convinced" that sustainable policies can address the transformations Europe is going through.

"The drivers are there," he said, mentioning "investment in new industrial policy, new energy policy, private and public investment in technology for change, new investment in education and skills, in social care and social protection, cohesion policies."

He pointed out that the main divisions in Europe are not between East and West or North and South, but "more between centres and peripheries".

"Areas with low skilled and poors people, post-industrial sites, rural areas, mountains are distancing themselves from the establishment," he said, referring to the Brexit vote or elections results France, Poland or Italy.

"That shows the importance of cohesion policy," he insisted, as member states have started to think about the future of this policy.

Macron's big idea

"We have not built enough instruments to accompany the transformations," he added.

Taking the example of Torino, his home city which renewed itself after the decline of industrial activities, he called for more interest in urban and social regeneration.

Among the galaxy of EU institutions, agencies and multiple decision-making bodies, the EESC is striving to have more visibility and influence.



For Jahier, the citizens consultations launched by French president Emmanuel Macron could be a good opportunity for the committee to be the voice of civil society.

"We encourage our members to participate," he said.

Mentioned that the EESC organised 27 national consultations on Europe's future last year, with over 1,000 representatives, he said that the committee was waiting for a signal from EU leaders.

"We are ready to be the kingpin [of citizens consultations]," he said. "We could organise a big closing conference."

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