At the 2023 Summer Days, a two-day conference of the European Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (CESI) in Brussels, a common theme was supporting vulnerable groups and industries as the European Union moves towards a green economy.

It was clear in workshop discussions and main-stage presentations that the green transition was deemed essential but was not progressing fast enough. There was a consensus that, without clear ownership of the essential components – expansion of renewable energy, an adequate social safety net, and reskilling workers to name a few – the green transition is destined for friction and discontent.

Many participants at the conference—speaking for themselves, their organisation or businesses, or the unions they represent—expressed frustration that inflation was hamstringing their efforts to become more environmentally sustainable, and on a larger scale slowing progress towards a greener European Union.

These negative sentiments send a clear warning ahead of the coming European Elections next year: The EU and member states must find a way to tangibly move the green transition forward without passing major costs onto Europeans. If the costs of living rise without clear climate benefits, there could be a backlash against green transition policies.

Stick to our strengths: Europe is not the US nor China

Opening the conference, which was titled The Green Economy and New Forms of Work were a series of speeches to provide context for the discussions to follow. First was Bertelsmann Stiftung Sustainable Social-market Economies expert Birgit Wintermann, who presented as an example how the 4-day work week could cut greenhouse gas emissions, give workers more time for themselves and their communities, and at the same time increase their motivation and productivity without having to change the product or the production.

Jovana Karanovic (Founder and Managing Director, Reshaping Work) emphasized the importance of the digital transition alongside the green transition, where reskilling and upskilling will be a core component to keep Europeans fit for new jobs.

Francesco Corti (Advisor to the Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Social Affairs and Health) gave a preview of the Belgian presidency of the Council of the European Union at the start of 2024, for which Belgium plans to carry forward the torch of social justice from the recently launched Spanish presidency.

Finally, Joost Korte (Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion) spoke of the importance of the European Year of Skills and praised how much more attention reskilling was given at the highest levels in Europe.

In the panel discussion that followed, Birgit Wintermann praised the EU response to the pandemic when it came to reducing the social impact of COVID-19, pointing out that while China and the US were able to leverage digital strengths, Europe demonstrated a social strength that should not be undervalued.

CESI Summer Days 2023

Workshop: Concerns about the progress of the green transition

Birgit Wintermann and Nathan Crist, Cohesion Policy researcher in the Europe’s Future Programme at the Bertelsmann Stiftung, co-facilitated a workshop titled, From challenge to opportunity: Supporting European regions in the twin transition.

Nathan Crist presented the results from a recent study by the Europe’s Economy project, written by the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Thomas Schwab and additional regional development experts, called Technological capabilities and the twin transition in Europe: Opportunities for regional collaboration and economic cohesion.

Focus was placed on the heterogeneity of regions when it comes to current strengths in green and digital technologies that are key for the twin transition. For policymakers and workers, the results show that regions will undergo different transformations, with some regions potentially building on digital strengths to lean into high-tech companies and digital services, while others may instead focus on sustainable manufacturing and renewable energy, to name a few possible options.

Birgit Wintermann then presented—based on an interview series and a metastudy—how German firms see the twin transition and how well they think the transformations are already underway. She emphasised the importance of individuals getting involved, in their workplaces and in their regions, to bring about more sustainability.

Workshop participants expressed concerns that Europe has been backsliding over the past year on the path to a green economy. Many were concerned that positive sustainability changes like more remote work and less travel were being rolled back in the return to a “post-pandemic normal”.

Several participants also conveyed regret that in their personal lives their consumer habits had become less sustainable due to inflation, for example cutting out more expensive, organic options or scrapping plans for home renovations focused on sustainability.

When participants were asked if—contrary to their reflections on their own habits and progress towards sustainability in their communities and workplaces—the EU had made significant progress on the green transition since last year’s CESI Summer Days, the responses were mixed. The energy crisis had helped push the EU towards renewable energy, but it also brought more nuclear and coal into the mix.

Green, digital and fair.

Looking ahead, participants in the workshops and the conference called for social support to be adopted into the green transition with buy-in from the highest levels of the European Union. In the wrap-up presentations on the second day of the conference, Katleen Vangodtsenhoeven (Head of Talent, Belgium, Adecco Group) pointed to a mismatch between awareness of the measures needed for the green transition and preparedness in the world’s largest economies.

Vangodtsenhoeven said that the global economy could shed 71 million jobs without adequate skilling policies, while renewable energy could alone provide 18 million. And while 40% of G20 countries believed reskilling to be essential to their climate transition plans, just 15% have active labour market policies as a component of this. She argued that more measures are needed to help workers transition in a greener economy.

Lastly, Elizabeth Kuiper (Associate Director and Head of the Social Europe and Well-being Programme, European Policy Centre) presented a proposal to embed the social transformation in the top levels of the European Union through a new Commission Vice-President for the Well-Being Economy, which could link health, climate change and social transformation in one place to steer change from the top.

At the CESI Summer Days 2023 there was a sense of urgency and determination to advance the green transition in a socially fair way, and speakers presented several bold ideas. Heading into the summer break and with the European Elections not too far off, it will be important to use this energy to renew efforts to shape the twin transition in the near future.

About the author

Nathan Crist is Project Manager in the Europe’s Future Program at the Bertelsmann Stiftung working on the Europe’s Economy Project.