“For us, what was bluntly absent from this speech were all the social dimensions of the current situation. There are millions of families suffering with inflation, with the cost of living, with the cost of housing,” Pedro Marques, Vice Chair of the Socialists and Democrats Group (S&D) in the European Parliament (EP), told Euronews at the end of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s annual State of the Union (SOTEU) address last month. In her last SOTEU before next June’s European elections, she highlighted the bloc’s past accomplishments and laid out her vision for the future to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
With a month of hindsight, The Journal sat down with Maltese Labour MEP Alex Agius Saliba, who agrees with his EP political group’s vice chair that the EU must address key social challenges as a top priority.
“The stakes are high for Europe. The high cost-of-living crisis, the war against Ukraine, increasing inflation, and skyrocketing food and energy prices have aggravated an already fragile socio-economic environment with devastating social consequences and impacts affecting everyone, especially vulnerable people,” he said.
Such a situation requires an unprecedented European response to smoothen the war’s economic and social impact on European citizens and to protect employment, workers, youth, children, older people, and other vulnerable groups, he adds, noting that, while President von der Leyen called for a social partners’ summit aimed at putting Jacques Delors’ vision of a social Europe back on track, there are no concrete solutions for people who are struggling to make ends meet. Instead, there is fear that Europe is going back to austerity measures which, he warned, will only lead to fewer jobs, lower pay, underfunded services, abandoned social programmes, and less investment in the green and digital transitions. In this light, Agius Saliba proposes the creation of a European Social Resilience Package and an EU fund for Social Emergencies. Furthermore, the Commission should build on the SURE instrument to support national schemes to protect employment and preserve workers’ incomes especially when a part of the EU experiences economic shocks.
The future is digital
Agius Saliba also stresses the importance that Europe stays its digital course, focusing on the social dimension of the digital transition, defending quality employment, avoiding a slide into precarity, tackling the digital divide and ensuring full respect for fundamental rights.
“Completing the work on the AI Act, Platform Workers, Media Freedom Act, and the Data Act is key,” he says. “However, we should also focus on future digital priorities such as the Right to disconnect and telework arrangements and we should look into addressing social and economic challenges raised by emerging technologies and virtual realities such as the Metaverse. We also need to increase digital literacy, ensure more participation of women and other vulnerable groups in digital education, and update e-Privacy rules to prohibiting unlawful surveillance or interception of communication.”
A balanced approach to enlargement
In her SOTEU speech, the Commission President also included an emphasis on enlargement (“thirty plus”) and the EU’s ability to welcome new Member States.
Alex Agius Saliba observes that, a decade after Croatia joined the EU in 2013, the enlargement process returned to the limelight last year, following Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. He sees enlargement as playing a very important role in the discussion on the future of the EU, as it is a way of promoting peace, stability, democracy, and human rights in Europe and beyond. Hence why it has been elevated in the political agenda of the Union, considering the geopolitical realities that we are facing in the neighbourhood and the need to ensure that candidate countries are not alienated.
However, he asserts that the enlargement process is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Rather, it is, and should remain, a merit-based and credible process that assesses the progress registered by each candidate country, be it in reforms on the rule of law, democracy, economic reforms, and integration. In order to be fully integrated, the candidate country needs to adapt to the EU’s acquis. Moreover, the candidate countries should continue to support the creation of long-term prosperity for all citizens by building strong and balanced country economies that support economic growth, quality jobs, social protection, and poverty reduction. This is important to ensure that European economies are flexible enough to work for everyone. “In this respect, moving ahead, the key for a successful enlargement process is surely a balanced approach between the level of ambition and the commitment to a merit-based process,” says Agius Saliba.
Drawing attention to the fact that any form of enlargement will have an impact on the Union, he advocates that, in parallel to the discussion on the progress of the candidate countries, the EU also conducts a thorough self-assessment and lead a mature discussion on its own absorption capacity as well as possible adaptations that would be needed to prepare for these changes. The main considerations would be the effect on the institutional set-up, on the budget of the Union, and on the decision-making capacities.
“Assessing the absorption capacity is a critical factor in determining the EU’s ability to effectively integrate new Member States, and thus, this discussion will be crucial in the next institutional cycle,” he says.