In six months, millions of Europeans will go to the ballot box to choose the next European Parliament (EP). Nationalists and self-proclaimed progressives have already designated this election as a confrontation between democrats and autocrats, and between pro- and anti-Europeans. This is not what this election is about, and it is not by demonising those who may be tempted to cast their vote for nationalist and extremist parties that those parties and their shallow politics will be defeated.
What is at stake in the next European elections is whether or not our generations will be able to place the sustainable well-being of everyone at the very core of our common European project, of our policies and of our actions. This is the challenge all of our European countries signed up to three years ago at the United Nations headquarters in New York – by agreeing to place their future policies from that moment onwards into the framework of the UN Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030. However, this is not what has happened so far.
What is at stake, therefore, is whether those who will take their seat for five years in the next EP, whether those who will run the next European Commission, and whether our national governments, will live up to the common economic, social and ecological urgencies our societies are facing. Will their common decisions and policies be capable of radically reversing current trends towards authoritarian nationalism, greater inequalities and the continued destruction of our planet?
What is at stake is whether our societies will be able to commit themselves to making a different future than the one we are moving into right now. Without radical change, our societies will continue to leave entire territories and millions of people behind; ever more wealth created by everyone will be channelled into the hands of the few; working conditions will deteriorate; and climate change and other forms of environmental degradations will fuel ever more social injustice. Our democracies will not resist such inaction.
Vision for a different future
We need to build a different future through a profoundly fair and sustainable society. In this form of society, democracies are solid and people are empowered to make their voice heard, as citizens and through strong representations, in particular trade unions and non-governmental organisations. Companies are accountable for the economic, social and environmental impact of their activity, including banks and other financial actors. A large part of the economy is composed of firms with a profound commitment towards wider social and environmental goals. Tax systems are both fair and efficient, ensuring that everyone contributes duly to the financing of a well-functioning society. Public policies are there to ensure that technological change brings new progress to everyone, not only to a minority.
Nobody is in poverty, suffering from severe material deprivation or social exclusion. All children have a guaranteed right to live in dignity, and to quality education, supported by a European child guarantee. Nobody earns less than a living wage, ensuring a decent life for all working families. Quality housing is affordable and accessible to everyone. Decent working conditions and representation through a trade union are inalienable rights. Young and long-term unemployed benefit from strong public support to find a new job or to access quality training within a short amount of time. Income and wealth inequalities are lower, and they are within socially and economically acceptable limits. Women are guaranteed equal rights and equal pay for equal work, and can play their full part in all aspects of society. No territory is left behind, as more effective regional policies succeed in helping them to develop their full potential. Industrial changes needed to fight climate change and put an end to other environmental degradations take place within just transitions. Welfare systems are equipped to prevent environmental inequalities and to address climate change consequences in order to avoid new social inequality, and environmental policy becomes a source of new social progress.
In order to frame this radically new policy approach, European and national policies will target explicit, sustainable well-being goals, which contain key economic, social and environmental objectives and indicators. Today’s budgetary rules become part of a much wider Sustainable Development Pact, which will guide policy action in accordance with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
This form of society is not utopian. We can start to build it now. The Independent Commission for Sustainable Equality, which we co-chair, has formulated more than one hundred policy actions needed to change European society in a way that will achieve sustainable well-being for everyone. Progressive political forces now need to take the lead and unite around a radical agenda for change.
Louka Katseli is Co-chair of the Independent Commission for Sustainable Equality, Professor of Economics, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens; Former Minister of Labour and Social Security, and of the Economy and Competitiveness. Poul Nyrup Rasmussen is former Prime Minister of Denmark and former President of the Party of European Socialists. Udo Bullmann is a Member of the European Parliament, Leader of the German SPD Delegation and member of the SPD Party Board.