The beginning of 2020 brought to the attention of Europeans a process of reflection and change through a large-scale campaign designed to foster the involvement of European citizens in the European project – the Conference on the Future of Europe. With the commencement of a new legislative calendar in Brussels, a new European Commission and a new European Parliament, the focus was supposed to fall on political priorities, such as climate change and a transition to green energy, digitalization, the multi-annual Union budget, consolidating cohesion, the role of the European Union on the world’s stage; but also, in the context of the Conference, on the involvement of the broader European society in the attempt to outline a more democratic, more inclusive European Union that was closer to its citizens than ever before.
At the time this Conference entered its early stages of preparation, the perspective of a pandemic of global proportions was entirely remote. However, not only did the crisis generated by the novel coronavirus have a major economic and societal impact, but it also tested the European Union’s unitary operational model and set into motion a process to redefine the Union’s priorities going forward.
The process to define the Conference on the Future of Europe was, therefore, strongly influenced by the current pandemic context, especially in attempting to outline the expectations of European citizens and their perspectives on the future of the European project. For example, citizens’ health gained a different dimension at the European level, despite the fact that in this particular instance the authority to regulate belongs, overwhelmingly, to the individual nation-states. Solidarity, the need to adapt and to quickly find solutions, the need to react, resilience and other like considerations became key elements in the efforts and joint actions undertaken at the European level in the context of the COVID-19 crisis.
The pandemic thereby confirmed the need to do “more, together”. It has shown us that there is no other answer to challenges of such magnitude than the creation of an ever stronger Union both internally, and externally. The primary “lesson learned” during the pandemic is that only an authentic European solidarity can offer the concrete solutions and answers that EU citizens need.
The commitment of European leaders enshrined in the 2019 Declaration of Sibiu to remain “united, through times both good and bad”, to show solidarity in difficult times and to always stand alongside one another has gained an enhanced significance in the present context.
Faced with an unforeseen and unknown situation, the first pandemic of global proportions in the last hundred years, we have all learned many lessons along the way. In the context in which during the first months of 2020, having received at times uncertain or questionable scientific information and taking into consideration the evolution of the epidemiological situation, each state in turn took measures that it considered appropriate, such as the temporary closure of borders or limitations imposed on travel, we could all bear see significant difficulty with regard to the initial coordination of such measures at the European level. It was quickly realized, however, that this virus knows no borders, and that we therefore need better coordination and common solutions for all. It might not have been easy, but the joint efforts of the Union and its member states have allowed us to create green corridors to allow for unperturbed distribution and the continued operation of the Single Market, to invest in the production of vaccines, to launch immunization campaigns at a record pace and, not least, to guarantee all European citizens equal and concurrent access to a vaccine.
As such, this health crisis has unequivocally exemplified the interdependent nature of the EU’s member states, the benefits of the single market and the essential impact of free movement in our everyday lives – aspects whose importance was often neglected – but also what shared effort and joint solutions truly look like.
Given that we have reasons to be optimistic at present, since on the one hand we have safe and efficient vaccines and on the other the entire immunization process has recently been accelerated at the European level, it is now time to evaluate our actions in this crisis, both individually as member states and collectively as a Union, and to draw inspiration from the lessons learned. This process was launched in June of 2021, when European leaders, assembled in Brussels, exchanged initial opinions on several lessons learned in the fight against COVID-19 on the basis of a report initially compiled by the European Commission. On that occasion, they highlighted the need to collectively improve our level of preparedness, our response capacity, our resilience in the face of future crises and to protect the operation of the internal market.
We must, of course, recognize that this crisis has also highlighted a series of vulnerabilities of the European Union on which we must sharply focus in the short term. For example, the initial difficulties in procuring life-saving medication and essential medical supplies, the production of vaccines, the effects of nationally imposed quarantines on the principle of free movement etc. These have warranted the European Commission’s adoption of an ambitious healthcare package.
Moreover, the measures taken during the crisis have determined us to work more online and become “more digital”, with a significant impact on our day-to-day lives. This is why we need regulations that help us move faster, improve our digital competencies, but also protect us by consolidating cybersecurity.
Throughout this period, we have felt what climate changes truly mean, and have realized that if we do not take urgent action, the first to suffer will be our own children. And the recently proposed measures of the European Commission, the so-called “Fit for 55” with the stated objective of a 55% reduction in carbon emissions over 1990 levels by 2030 will allow for a radical transformation of the pollutant sectors of the economy and a dedicated promotion of clean technologies. Set at the European level, this ambitious objective to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 translates into a greener and healthier future, with higher-quality workplaces and an economic growth that also benefits natural regeneration.
Around us, the world is, likewise, in flux. We need a more vocal Union, one whose visibility on the world’s stage equals its involvement, one that acts in close coordination with its partners such as the United States, Canada or Japan. Given the significant impact of the pandemic on our daily lives, the topic of healthcare will certainly feature preeminently on the Conference’s agenda, in the broader context of member states’ own, and the broader EU’s resilience. The same can be said of the topics of climate change and digital evolution, but also of our relationship with our neighbours and our strategic partners.
What does resilience actually mean for Romania and for Europe, though? Resilience is a multidimensional concept, one that implies an intrinsic resistance not only to negative events and developments such as crises of various kinds – economic, health, environmental, natural disasters, climate change – but also to various threats, for example hybrid threats in the field of security; in cybersecurity, the threat of hacking attacks and disinformation campaigns; or, in society, threats to our freedom, health, human rights, or even to our value systems themselves.
Consolidating resilience means being prepared from all points of view – from adequately equipping emergency response services and healthcare systems to respond to epidemics (fields already seeing significant progress at the European level with the proposal of a European Health Emergency Response Authority) to the creation of strategic reserves (as in the rescEU project), to the consolidation of joint approaches to various essential fields, such as shared vaccine acquisition programmes, or similar initiatives regarding strategic and essential goods. In order to better prepare ourselves for the crises to come, which might emerge in various fields, we must conjoin our efforts and support one another, both in research, in combating climate change, in the pooling of accrued experience and the exchange of good practices in fields such as cybersecurity, and in consolidating our joint security and defense efforts – both in the EU and NATO.
In this global context, during this summer Romania inaugurated a Centre for Euro-Atlantic Expertise in the field of resilience, for the stated purpose of centralizing existing expertise and supporting member states in achieving the objective to consolidate European resilience, from all points of view.
Resilience also means safeguarding the democratic model of governance, and a more direct involvement of citizens in decision-making processes, beyond merely organizing regular free and fair elections. In the current context, deeply marked by the multidimensional crisis occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic, we all have the opportunity and the responsibility to involve ourselves further in “the life of the City” – in this regard, the Conference on the Future of Europe offers us the most direct possibility to get involved, and allows everyone the chance to make their opinion heard.
The Conference on the Future of Europe, officially launched on Europe Day, May 9th, in the European Parliament, is both open to and held for all European citizens. The European Union is not an abstract entity, and it neither need be a faraway one either. The decisions taken in Brussels that have an impact on all our lives are decisions taken by all member states, with Romania having its own voice and input in outlining all such decisions. Moreover, citizens, civil society and private enterprise can all get involved directly, concretely, in this decision-making process, by taking part in the public consultations organized by the European Commission in preparation of each legislative initiative in turn.
Moreover, citizens, institutions and civil society are likewise invited to contribute to the broader, more conceptual discussion and debate regarding the Future of Europe. Anyone can take part, either online, or in person at one of the events organized in Romania or in other member states, by accessing the portal futureu.europa.eu.
The Future of Europe is in our hands; it is time to shape it together!
photo credit: Caleaeuropeana.ro