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Speech by President von der Leyen at the European Economic and Social Committee Plenary debate

Met dank overgenomen van Europese Commissie (EC), gepubliceerd op donderdag 9 december 2021.

Dear President, Christa Schweng,

Distinguished Members

It is a great pleasure to finally participate, in person, in one of your meetings again. It has been now, for two years, I think, that we have been confronted with a crisis like no other, the pandemic. And through all these challenging months, you have been very supportive and very convinced in your mission: You make people's voice heard, you make the voices of civil society, of trade unions, of businesses heard. Voices of small entrepreneurs, of farmers, of consumers but also of professional associations, voices of our employees and of self-employed.

Through the years, the Committee and the Commission have indeed established an excellent cooperation. We are and we will remain close partners, both in annual policy planning and for the building of our long-term vision. As always, your recommendations provided a very important contribution, as you said, Madam President, to our 2022 Work Programme. We all want to speed up the green and the digital transitions. And we want to preserve the foundations of our social market economy. And I emphasise ‘social', because, around the world, we have a lot of market economies but we only have one unique European social market economy.

But let me first focus on the current situation. At the moment being, we are witnessing a rapid resurgence of COVID-19, unfortunately. And it has come along with increased illness, hospitalisation and a high death toll. All of which is unfortunately very much concentrated among those who are not yet vaccinated. On top of this, we are now faced with a new variant, Omicron. We know that it is spreading fast and we know that it is a variant of high concern. But what is different is that, compared to a year ago, we have achieved now some crucial breakthroughs in how we fight the virus. We know that we need to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Those who are vaccinated are the most protected from severe illness. It is not perfect but it is the best protection you can get today against the virus, whatever the variant is.

And thanks to our EU Vaccines Strategy, there is no shortage of effective vaccines. And thank you very much, Madam President, for having mentioned what we do for the rest of the world. But if I look at Europe, there is no shortage of vaccines, we have access to them. By the end of the year, we will have a manufacturing capacity, here in Europe, of over 300 million doses per month. We have contracts in place, as you might recall, to ensure that we can get access to adapted vaccines if this is necessary. So we are well prepared. But again, I have to say it, we have to step up the vaccination rates across the European Union and across all ages - including young people and children. And we need to accelerate the roll-out of boosters, it is the three shots that are necessary now. It is absolutely important to have as many people not only vaccinated but boostered - so three shots - to protect themselves and to protect others. And we all know what the best protection against this virus and its variants is. I really, really count on you to spread the message to all the companies you represent, to all the organisations you represent. You make those organisations heard. Please send back the message to your organisations and to the trade unions that we really join forces on this important matter.

At the same time, we also tackle other pressing issues. And Madam President, you have mentioned them. We have forcefully engaged in our green and digital transition. Let me concentrate on three issues here. The first is that we need affordable energy and the green transition that is crucial to have affordable energy. The second is supply chains and the digital transition. And the third topic I want to focus on is the future of work and social dialogue.

Now to the first point: Rising energy prices. Rising energy prices concern all of us. They tell us that we are way too dependent on gas. We have seen it in the last weeks. The rising energy prices is because of the rising gas prices. This is not sustainable. We just have to know that 90% of our gas is imported - 90%. So Europe's future energy security clearly depends on clean home-grown energy. Because while fossil fuels became more and more expensive over the last years, renewable energy did not. This is the trend that we have seen and this is an important trend. Thus, we are encouraging all Member States, if we look at the high energy prices, to, in the short run, support businesses and consumers, to bring relief for example through state aid, and to cut energy taxes and bills. Your extensive work is crucial there too to help us. We are also discussing a European strategy on gas reserve and the possibility of common procurement. These are all measures that can help now and in the medium term. And our position is not optimal because, as I said, 90% of the gas is being imported. But in the long run, the one and only way out of that is to invest in renewable energies, to be independent, to have home-grown renewable energies. It I better for the climate, it is better for the people, it is better for our resilience and our independence.

Now, we have the necessary funds to make that also possible, to make it a reality. Let us have a look at NextGenerationEU, our Recovery Plan, and the EU budget: If you look at that, we will invest round about EUR 500 billion in the green transition. We will, for example, speed up, of course, the development of renewable energy in Europe. At least EUR 36 billion in national recovery plans are precisely earmarked for investment in clean hydrogen, in wind energy, and in solar energy. Over EUR 50 billion is earmarked for building renovations and energy efficiency. And you know that we lose a lot of energy through buildings, heating and cooling. And I am sure that you agree with me that every Euro spent on renewables is not only good for the planet, but it is also an investment in affordable energy for households and businesses, and it is an investment in the resilience of our societies and economies.

We are striving for the same pioneering role in digitalisation. This is my second point. I have recently visited ASML, it is a major player in the global value chain for semiconductors. You all know the semiconductors, these tiny little things. Without semiconductors, without those chips, there is no digital. They are in almost everything. And as everything is connected, we need for almost everything the semiconductors, the microchips. They are for example in our computers, in our smartphones, in our cars, in our household appliances - you name it, in everything. And therefore, the shortage that we experience right now in semiconductors is really painful and hurting our economy and our society. We know that European factories are closing because they cannot get enough chips. Everything is there, they could produce, the demand is there, but they have to close down because they do not have the supply of chips that is necessary. This is certainly not sustainable. The present bottleneck in supply is a hangover and linked to the disruptions caused by the pandemic. Because of the pandemic, we had a disruption of supply chains, and then we started to realise how dependent we are on some critical supply chains. But these disruptions in the supply chains is only a symptom of a broader issue, if you look at the semiconductors and the microchips. We are overly dependent, concerning semiconductors, on only a handful, at most, of suppliers from Asia.

This is why the Commission is proposing a European Chips Acts. It is to scale up Europe's high-tech chip ecosystem. Again, worldwide the demand for microchips and semiconductors is exploding. And we want to keep up. So by 2030, the number of connected devices, just to give you an idea, globally could reach 200 billion devices being connected. That means over 20 devices necessary per person. 20 devices per person are connected and for that you need the semiconductors and the microchips. And this gives you an idea on how important they are for our economic survival.

Our goal is that we want to double the global market share of European-made chips, from 10% nowadays to 20% by 2030. We have to join forces to achieve this, we need to coordinate our research on chips. We need to invest in the build-up of manufacturing chips, we need workers with the right skills to be able to produce the chips, and we need to coordinate the support that Member States give to companies to step up their chips production. So a whole ecosystem that has to be built, raising demand, raising supply at the same time, including all the other crucial topics that I have been naming. If we look at the numbers, up to EUR 200 billion from NextGenerationEU will go to digitalisation, including research, infrastructure and skills. So my small example of the tiny chips is a big lesson to learn about Europe's competitiveness and about bolstering the resilience of our Single Market.

This brings me to the third point, to jobs and skills, and a fair economy and a fair recovery. As you know, the pandemic has accelerated changes to the labour market rapidly. Who should know it better than you? You have held public hearings on this issue, you have held public hearings with a focus on up-skilling and re-skilling. So you know the facts as well as I do: And I think we all have been speaking for many, many years about those topics, also what life-long learning is concerned.

The green and the digital transformation is coming along with a broad jobs transformation, too. And this is why we developed the Pact for Skills, together with trade unions and employers associations. And in just one year, close to 500 organisations have pledged to re-skill 1.5 million people working in key industrial areas, such as for example the automotive sector, micro-electronics - I was just talking about them - or for example offshore windfarms - I was also talking about the renewables. So these are all topics we very well know.

With NextGenerationEU, Europe is also investing massively in the green and digital skills, and the life-long learning. We see this everywhere in the Union. I give you some examples: Greece, for example, is using the recovery funds to address the skills mismatch. You know that problem that you have some skills on one side but the demand are for others. We need to reconcile that. Portugal is launching a programme to empower businesses to up-skill and re-skill its workers in the company itself. And Finland is using, for example, NextGenerationEU to create personalised and digital services for job-seekers just to be better in the match of the labour market. NextGenerationEU is thus providing the investment to train European workers for the next generation of jobs.

Let me demonstrate how we want to achieve this with three concrete examples. They are based on proposals that we have just presented either yesterday or are about to presented. There is, first of all, our proposal on individual learning accounts. And you know very well this idea, it is the core of life-ling learning. Our idea is that every adult should accumulate, every year, a certain number of credits, like an electronic wallet, to invest in getting new skills. And this - and this is important - regardless of whether you are employed, a worker; or you are looking for work; or you are self-employed. Every year, you can collect your credits, your potential. And then, when it is time, you can invest in pulling these credits to get up-skilling, re-skilling, learning, whatever is necessary for your individual situation. And we know that some countries already provide these opportunities, but we think - with this proposal that we have put on the table, yesterday, of the College - that life-long learning should be a right for all Europeans. So I am very proud that we made this step forward.

The Commission has also just put forward yesterday a proposal for platform workers. We all know that the world of the work is changing rapidly with the platforms. And I think it is very important that, yes, we are adapting to a changing world, but we will never adapt our values, the values are universal. So we have to make sure that the changing world also works for our values. Because there is a promise in Europe that is bound to the social market economy. And this promise must remain the same. The promise is: We all work together and we share the benefits; and for the great risks of life, we are collectively protected. This is basically the social market economy. So it is built on the question: To make us thrive in good times and in times of crisis. And it helps workers and businesses to better absorb shocks because of this collective protection against the big risks of life - be it age, be it sickness, be it unemployment, for example. And of course, the social market economy creates opportunities by promoting innovation, growth and fair competition. This is also part of the social market economy. Now, new forms of work must have equal rights. And this is the proposal of yesterday for the platform workers. First of all, to define and to make clear when they are self-employed or employed at the platform. And with the employment at the platform, with the platform, comes along of course the investment in the social security that is the hallmark of the European Union's Single Market.

This brings me to the role of social partners, my last most important point. If we want to get the recovery right, social dialogue must be at the centre. The Commission has insisted that social partners play a strong role in the Recovery and Resilience Plan. I know that in some regions, it was very satisfactory, in other regions, not as much. I heard the positive remarks and I heard the complaints, yes. But we will go further. Next year, the Commission is proposing a Council recommendation, calling for more social dialogue at national level. So we have to keep on going, to push hard for that topic. I am a deep believer and supporter of the social dialogue because I know by experience, through all those years, how beneficial it was and is, not only for our economy, but also for our society. Because this is where the tailored good results are formed that are a golden compromise to move forward our social market economy.

Liebe Christa Schweng,

Dear colleagues,

Distinguished Members,

The pandemic has taught us at least one thing, and that is: Even against the hardest challenges, we have the power to shape our own future. And this age calls for transformational politics. We are amidst of them right now already. A European Green Deal, a Digital Decade for Europe and a new social rulebook for workers and businesses. I would like to thank you for your contribution to the Conference on the Future of Europe. Madam President, you mentioned it. Thank you so much. You have the power to mobilise voices from across the continent, from all sectors of society. With your support, of course the Conference on the Future of Europe has a much, much broader reach. The Conference on the Future of Europe is, I think, the perfect platform - again, I take that word - for civil society to make their voices heard and, of course, to shape Europe's future. Because Europe is in the very end what we make out of it. So I am looking forward to your cooperation, which indeed traditionally has been an excellent one, is an excellent one and, I hope for the future, will stay an excellent one.

Thank you very much for your attention!


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