It’s time for Europe to rethink our democratic and social models for a post-pandemic world

There are two forthcoming events that are worth paying attention to: the European Social Summit on 7 May and the G20 in November 2021 in Italy. Important decisions have to be adopted while the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on our societies and economies.

The advancement of the vaccination campaign suggests that the time has come for us to plan an exit strategy from the Covid-19 economic framework and to step into a new normal. In these turbulent times, it is difficult for many to imagine what this will look like.

Twenty million European workers don’t know if they will still have their jobs by the end of the year. Many families are delaying important decisions – like buying a house or sending their children to university – as they wait to see what will happen next. Governments across the EU are struggling to figure out how best to spend their allocation of the EU’s trillion-euro recovery plan.

Surely we have to protect the people that are most at risk, even if mapping risks is itself a challenging task? Surely our pre-pandemic development model was unsustainable? The social and ecological dimensions of development were often in direct contradiction. We may assume that ‘bouncing forward’ is more desirable than ‘building back better’. But bouncing forward to where?

We need a new compass to imagine our trajectories within this new reality.

That’s why the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has created eight videos to help us understand how the world is changing around us: what will happen to inequality? How will jobs change and how do we need to adapt our social protection systems? How do we live in a world with very high levels of debt? What will happen to public services? Will the finance community comply with sustainability boundaries?

These questions are not easy to answer. Rather, they announce a period of economic insecurity in which inequality is at risk of widening. During the course of the pandemic, the world’s richest people became even richer while the poorest members of society have been losing out. Market income inequalities are deepening and workers know it because they experience the consequences of stagnating wages in their daily life. The mobilisation of huge resources is required to reduce inequalities to an acceptable level, but social protection systems are often not fit for purpose. Climate change may also be a source of even greater inequality if it is not offset with measures that redesign our social protection systems. Current trends in the world of work have been impacted by a rise in teleworking and a possible change in the working culture of companies as we move out of the crisis.

The ETUC’s ‘Rethinking’ series

The ETUC has created a series of eight ‘Rethinking’ videos. They do not promise a new truth but offer tools to help shape our own convictions about the world and how it is changing. Professor Enrico Giovannini explains that the challenges relating to technological shocks, climate shocks and other transformative factors have exposed the flaws in a paradigm based on continuous growth. The Covid-19 pandemic has further exposed the cracks in the global economy and we need to regulate the future to avoid a breakdown of the labour market. Workers are constantly going through different transformations; wealth has not been adequately distributed and the assumption that younger generations would be better off than older ones no longer holds true.

The direction towards socio-economic recovery and resilience will have to be steered through specific measures that ensure more progressive tax systems, the creation of decent work, tackle climate change and foster new digital and green technologies.

As stressed by Sharan Burrow of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), this requires a new concept of work and a new concept of wealth – a new social contract, in other words. We can only relaunch this urgent call for a new social contract by demanding that redistribution policies are based on a genuine sense of solidarity within and among countries.

While the ‘Rethinking’ series has the merit of raising some proposals, a major challenge to their realisation will be ‘governance’, not only at a national level, but also at the supranational level. This is a task for transnational trade union structures.

We must strengthen multilateralism and global governance to provide global responses. We must create solidarity between member states and have a true welfare state at the supranational level, moving from a national social contract to a European and global social contract, for instance, building on the decent work agenda within the UN’s 2030 Agenda. The next G20 is an opportunity to forge the idea of a new social contract into concrete action.

A Universal Labour Guarantee will set the agenda on fundamental workers’ rights, an adequate minimum wage, maximum limits on working hours, and health and safety at work, including a full-fledged policy and a legislative framework for digital work. A Global Social Protection Fund, strongly tied to the transformative agenda for equality and just transitions for technology and the environment as well as for an intergenerational balance, is a priority.

In Europe, EU members convened in early March for a social summit that endorsed an action plan for the European Pillar of Social Rights. It is a plan for jobs and solidarity that will back the huge investment plan for economic recovery. Such a plan is needed to ensure widespread well-being among workers and their families; to protect more exposed groups such as the self-employed, people with non-standard contracts, people with low-paid jobs, young workers and women.

In the medium term, all relevant actors must coordinate a response which maps out social risks and rethinks social protection schemes, introduces dynamism in wage progressions, reinforces collective bargaining, invests in work-life balance and eradicates glass ceilings.

These are some of the proposals that emerge from the ‘Rethinking’ video series, accessible via in English, French and Italian. It is time to ‘bounce forward’ but it is also time to shape a progressive agenda that rewards workers. It will work only if we are all committed to its success, and that’s why it is crucial for people to gain the autonomous capacity to understand the present and prepare for the future.

This is just a start. The ETUC Rethinking platform will remain active. It will be an open space for collective and strategic thinking that will push the trade union agenda in the international arena, within our democratic institutions, and at the workplace.