Europe needs nothing short of a new Renaissance as it emerges from the trauma of COVID-19. It is essential to move ahead fast with the green-digital transition to build a sustainable, fair and resilient economy. Europe needs a stronger, more cohesive Union to address economic, environmental, social and technological challenges and forge global partnerships. It must construct a new social contract to redefine the role of governments, business and citizens, built on trust, transparency and inclusion.
These were among the conclusions of ‘State of Europe: a new Renaissance’, the 18th edition of Friends of Europe’s flagship annual event which gathers top-level representatives from government, civil society, business and academia to discuss the most pressing issues of the day.
The debate focused on the shape of the new Europe that will emerge from the pandemic as the European Union mobilises its €750bn NextGenerationEU fund in an effort to make the continent greener, more digitally competitive and more socially cohesive.
“This recovery is different from any other recovery we’ve been facing because it has to be green and sustainable,” said Philippe Donnet, Group Chief Executive Officer of Assicurazioni Generali S.p.A. “There will be no recovery if it’s not sustainable. To achieve that, all of us need to be united, there will be no sustainable recovery without cooperation at all levels.”
Laura Cozzi, Chief Energy Modeller at the International Energy Agency (IEA), had a message for world leaders gathering for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) starting 31 October in Glasgow. She said all currently scheduled efforts to fight global warming would still lead to an average increase in global temperatures of 2.1 degrees Celsius, instead of the 1.5 degrees Celsius that scientists estimate as the maximum allowable to maintain a liveable planet.
However, she still did see some positive signs. “For the first time in human history, we are expecting economic growth to go up and emissions to go down,” Cozzi said. “From now on, the story of the world is going to be growth and decarbonisation go hand in hand.”
The event saw the launch of ‘Connected Europe: A digital brand for a just transition’ a report showing how the continent can achieve a successful, green and resilient digital transformation. The report is the result of a year-long pan-European study led by Friends of Europe in partnership with Vodafone, which brought a cross-sectional assessment of today’s actions and investments in the drive for digitalisation.
It called on policymakers, industry and society to work together to build an effective European digital ecosystem, drive a digital-for-green transition, and bridge social and geographical divides to ensure nobody is left behind.
While the unprecedented European funding plans are an important step forward, the green digital transition needs to mobilise more public-private partnership and greater citizens’ engagement. It’s crucial the pandemic-driven momentum behind the switch to digital is maintained.
“Looking at both governments and the private sector, what we’ve seen in 10 months of COVID is worth almost 10 years of digitalisation efforts before,” said Solveigh Hieronimus, Senior Partner at McKinsey & Company and Co-leader of the McKinsey Center for Government (MCG). “How do you actually, structurally harness that? … What do we learn? What’s actually the muscle being built when it comes to digitisation?”
Looking at the opportunities of the new Renaissance, speakers highlighted the importance of radically recomposing the ecology of local, national and European governance; and of creating new employment and education opportunities. They called for a smart investment rethink and the adoption of a prevention-based approach to health policy.
Jean-Luc Lemercier, Corporate Vice-President at Edwards Lifesciences, highlighted the need for urgent political engagement beyond COVID-19. “When it comes to cardiovascular diseases, the number 1 killer in Europe, the most important element is detection – the earlier the better. We have the knowledge, but we need the money and the commitment. We need action.”
Space is as crucial to grasping the new economic opportunities. “If you are not a space superpower, you cannot be a world superpower” said Josef Aschbacher, Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA). EU policymakers were urged to invest more and better or risk being left behind by China, the United States and other competitors in the revived race to space.
Despite all the opportunities arising from the post-pandemic recovery, participants also looked to the risks. They range from inflation and overheating as economies accelerate, to a return to political complacency stemming from a sense of returning normality, or threats to European unity from politicians eager to grab EU money but unwilling to adhere to its core values.
Illustrating the diversity of perspectives brought into this year State of Europe brainstorm, discussants included astronaut Luca Parmitano, whose presentation highlighted the impact of environmental disasters viewed from space; Francesca Cavallo, bestselling author of ‘Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls’ and 2019 European Young Leader (EYL40), who stressed the need for new narratives to underpin sustainable change; and Zarifa Ghafari, Afghan activist and former mayor of Maidan Shahr, who spoke out on the importance of renewed international support for the Afghan people.
All of the discussants in attendance, coming from over 32 countries, highlighted that the key to Europe’s Renaissance is a different collaboration among stakeholders.
“If we understand that we are all in this together, then the only way we can get out of it is together,” cautioned Roberta Metsola, First Vice-President of the European Parliament and 2018 European Young Leader (EYL40). “This challenge is also making sure that our value system remains intact, a big challenge across the European Union.”
For the last 18 years, State of Europe has been gathering influential figures from more than 40 countries to brainstorm on the future of Europe and develop concrete recommendations on how to make our continent more fit for the 21st century, as well as deliver to its citizens.
This year edition was organised in partnership with Edwards, the European Investment Bank (EIB), the European Space Agency (ESA), Generali, the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) and Vodafone with the support of the Fondazione Cariplo, the John S. Latsis Public Benefit foundation and EUCOM.