Environmental, social and economic challenges are closely interlinked and can no longer be discussed in isolation. On the initiative of 20 MEPs from five political groups, and with the support of more than 60 partner organisations, the Beyond Growth Conference took place from 15 to 17 May 2023 in the EU Parliament in Brussels. In 20 focus panels and 7 plenary discussions, the conventional understanding of growth and economic success was to be questioned and social goals were to be redefined together with approximately 4000 participants. One thing is clear: social well-being and sustainable economic development require respect for planetary boundaries.
With the participation of top representatives of the European institutions, the three-day conference discussed how prosperity in Europe can be made more sustainable through a transformational approach. At the opening plenary, the Presidents of the European Parliament and the European Commission, Roberta Metsola and Ursula von den Leyen, had their say. The latter made it clear that the “growth model based on fossil fuels is simply outdated“. The topics of the following focus panels ranged from future-proof industrial and energy policy to financial and tax policy issues to necessary changes in the food system or in trade policy. The conference succeeded in bringing together a broad spectrum of actors from science, politics, social partner organisations, companies and civil society. From the perspective of pressure group politics, the following discussions were particularly enriching.
Rethinking social models and work: Universal basic services and reducing working hours
Universal Basic Services (UBS) are services of general interest or public services, that are essential to the lives of all people. They can support social and environmental transition. For Anna Coote, Principal Fellow at the New Economics Foundation, UBS are a moral imperative: there is no justification for basic human needs not being met. Nevertheless, there are still enormous deficits throughout the Union and globally, the reason She is concerned about the increasing privatisation and liberalisation of UBS, which often goes hand in hand with declining quality and rising costs.
A focus panel was also dedicated to the reduction of working hours or the introduction of a 4-day week for ending the growth compulsion. The pandemic, which had only recently been overcome, had made demands for a new balance between gainful employment and other areas of life even louder. Today, there is a broad consensus that the potential of digital efficiency gains must reach people, also in terms of physical and mental health. According to Dominique Méda, Director of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research in the Social Sciences at the Paris Dauphine University PSL, the presence and strength of trade unions is crucial to improving working conditions.
Taxes and gender budgeting as an instrument of ecological and social justice
In the debate on an environmentally and socially just economic model, the decoupling of social systems from growth is a key challenge. In this context, the concentration of wealth, which has been further increased by the sharp decline in top tax rates in recent decades, is also a problem of the prevailing economic paradigm. At the same time, wealth taxation, which has been discussed in numerous contexts, is gaining more and more support. It is therefore time to take the eternal debate on the possibilities and limits of its introduction to the next level. The need for a wealth tax must be at the centre, and a progressive design is indispensable. It was also highlighted that wealth within the richest 1% is likewise extremely unequally distributed.
However, money is still often treated as a taboo subject, although - or precisely because - it is always also about power relations. Public budgets reflect political priorities and values of our societies: women's rights and issues are rarely considered a priority. The panellists criticised the lack of data, which is why gender budgeting is often left in the dark. Education, adequate representation of women in decision-making positions and effective, binding measures would be necessary to make gender equality a reality.
A credible framework for a just transition and better trade relations
The panel on Just Transition also discussed how to win a democratic majority for the necessary project. Just Transition would have to find answers to the numerous crises that have been building up since the great financial crisis and are now also reflected in precarious working conditions and stagnating wages as well as recently sharply rising housing costs and food prices. In view of this, concepts of a Green Deal would have to be comprehensive and address social justice at its core. Éloi Laurent, senior economist at OFCE (Sciences Po Centre for Economic Research, Paris), emphasised that Just Transition can only be achieved in the overlapping area between the welfare state and the Green Deal. For the welfare state is Europe's greatest competitive advantage, especially in a global context. Narrow concepts of a just transition, which are strongly based on North American ideas, would not lead to the desired results. Ludovic Voet (ETUC) too, called not only for concrete, fairly designed measures for affected employees and the democratisation of the world of work, but also for the systematic integration of Just Transition into the strategies of the next legislative period.
The panel on trade relations to promote sustainable development also revolved around the question of how to benchmark success. Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, warned that the politically desired increase in trade volumes often contributes to exacerbating inequalities within countries. The global division of labour too often results in winners and losers. No country should be forced to strengthen its competitiveness by suppressing trade unions and exploiting workers. Pedro Manuel Moreno, UNCTAD Deputy Secretary-General, also called for more inclusive trade relations that create quality jobs and respect the environment and the planet. However, it was also stressed in the discussion that membership in international organisations could not guarantee this. Instead, developing countries must be offered concrete help to build their capacities for participation.