Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the world, with the EU at risk of a second wave, four major uncertainties are hanging over Europe and the world to shapeour future and the place of public services and of services of general interest in this history-defining moment.
The first uncertainty is health: whilst the pandemic that hit Europe at the beginning of the year appears to be under control, health uncertainty remains crucial because there is no treatment or vaccine to date and no one knows how the virus will behave. We cannot take the risk of a second, more devastating health crisis, leading to new economic and social crises in addition to the first one. The first objective is therefore to rebuild and increase Europe’s short-term and long-term resilience. It is therefore all the organisations, businesses, associations and local authorities that have enabled Europe to overcome, sometimes in very difficult conditions, the first wave of the pandemic that must be helped to get back into a position to cope with a possible second wave. In concrete terms, this means investments to be realised, purchases to be made, stocks to be replenished and professionals to be recruited. The role of organisations in charge of services of general interest in the fight against the pandemic has been decisive: this is obvious for the carers, in the “first line” in the fight against the Covid-19; but the “second line” consisted in particular of those who ensure the continuity of energy supply, transport or telecommunication services, waste collection and treatment, water supply and sanitation, not forgetting funeral services, which are unfortunately overstretched. Services of general interest are one of the pillars of European resilience and must urgently be strengthened so that Europe does not collapse in the face of a second disaster, health or otherwise.
The second uncertainty is economic. Europe is facing a historic economic recession of which we are certainly only just beginning to feel the first effects: the recession is spreading to almost all sectors of the economy with the immediate consequence of a fall in employment and an impressive increase in unemployment and therefore insecurity, in a particularly difficult financial context and it will be difficult to avoid a major social crisis. Important supporting policies have already been put in place and strong recovery policies are being put in place. The sums involved are colossal, commensurate with the stakes. A major question remains: who will pay? This question is central; we can note a change in the opinions of experts and decision-makers who consider that part of this debt must be borne by central banks so as not to weigh excessively on the accounts of states and local authorities, businesses and individuals, the former being tempted to shift the burden to the latter via taxation. CEEP does not have the expertise to take part in the debate to determine which technical solution should be implemented, but it insists on the imperative need not to deteriorate the capacity to invest and consume of all economic actors for purely ideological reasons. The situation is exceptional, the solutions must be exceptional and the European Union and the Member States must show innovation and courage, far from ideology.
The third uncertainty is political. The scale of the crisis seems to have overshadowed major environmental issues such as climate change and the loss of biodiversity. It also seems to have relegated to the background the effort to modernise the European economy, spurred on by the development of digital technology. However, these two major challenges – the environment and the modernisation of the economy – did not disappear during the pandemic. A crucial issue then arises, which is also an uncertainty: will Europe be able to reconcile economic recovery with environmental and digital transition at an acceptable economic and social cost? There is a fine line between, on the one hand, a return to the world of the past through a generalised relaunch with the sole objective of restoring growth and employment and, on the other hand, a relaunch solely targeted at the sectors that are driving the ecological and digital transitions, some of which even see an opportunity to increase speed.. Yet the pandemic has not changed the inertia of our economies: everyone knows that accelerating transitions has a cost, whether in terms of stranded assets or destroyed jobs. And the dramatic rise in unemployment that has only just begun is the terrible realization of the price to be paid for accelerating transitions. Policy coherence is essential, not least in order to move towards the reindustrialisation that many are calling for. CEEP must support the idea of taking the difficult path which, whilst resolutely pursuing the transitions that have been initiated, will not pay the high price of the disappearance of entire sections of our economies with its unacceptable social consequences. At the heart of the environmental and digital transitions, CEEP can contribute to the reflection that must make it possible to reconcile the preservation of traditional economic sectors and the development of those that seem to respond to new societal and civic aspirations, through a coherent and reasoned approach, far from any ideology.
The fourth uncertainty is societal: in order to fight the virus, most citizens have fundamentally changed their behaviour; many have discovered teleworking, different lifestyles with regard to distribution channels or transport. A certain awareness seems to have formed around the idea that the development of the past was unsustainable. The crisis has provoked, especially in Europe, the return of citizens to values such as solidarity or social cohesion. Choices – such as, for example, overly accountable management of health systems – are clearly being called into question. Many citizens have discovered or confirmed their appetite for a more local organisation of their lives, in terms of work or trade. What will remain, once the crisis is over, of these new behaviours which have contrasting consequences on the objectives of the European Union: we should not underestimate the strength of the systems to return to their starting point. CEEP shall support and encourage this movement towards values that are moreover close to those of services of general interest. Through their proximity to citizens, CEEP members can play a decisive role in observing the behavioural changes that constitute one of the levers for a successful environmental and digital transition and in defining the responses to be provided.