In the face of fear and suffering we need to have hope. With leaders starting to think beyond the crisis, it is time to decide what we value the most, and to share a vision for a better future.

The EEB’s EU Policy Director Patrick ten Brink shares his thoughts.

The global pandemic is spreading fast, with an exponential growth in the number of cases and no immediate end in sight, though with an increasingly robust government, scientific and citizen response, albeit in many cases coming after unjustifiable delay. We are experiencing a human catastrophe, of lives lost, widespread sickness, unprecedented social hardships, and job after job being lost. The impact on poorer countries with weak health systems and a high number of people working in the informal sector without any social protections cannot even be foreseen at this stage.

If this crisis is handled badly, we risk facing consequences as severe as the Great Depression of 1929. If handled well, we can get through this together, save lives and societal wellbeing, transform our socio-economic models to ones focused on people and the natural world and boost global partnership for sustainable development.

Some political leaders are having the courage to question and overturn economic orthodoxies – as exemplified by the German government ditching its balanced budget requirement and embracing a 10% debt to “use all we have” to reduce the impact of the Coronavirus. The EU has also waived its own financial rules, giving up on the 3% debt limit under the Growth and Stability Pact. Government responses to the crisis have shown that resources can be found when we face an emergency.

Stimulus funds at a scale unheard of since the Marshall Plan after the Second World War are already being launched. The European Central Bank has started a €750 billion Pandemic Emergency purchase programme, with an additional €120 billion for quantitative easing. Meanwhile, the US Congress has agreed a $2 trillion stimulus package in a rare moment of bipartisan agreement. The rules of the game are being challenged and in some cases overturned. In the short term at least, we see some encouraging examples of where concern for citizen wellbeing has been prioritised over strict financial rules. This is truly historic. Of course, economies need to be supported during a crisis, but there is a possibly unprecedented political momentum for this to be done for jobs and livelihoods, not only for profit margins or dividend pay-outs.

Daily lives and social interactions too are being challenged as never before. With solidarity on the balconies of Italy and Belgium, free online access to cultural events from concerts to libraries, spontaneous neighbourhood support networks, we are able to see the best in human cooperation. While social distancing separates us, there is a common need and common understanding to tackle the challenge we face that, paradoxically, brings us closer together. So far much of the response has been fragmented, focusing on national government action. The EU itself could do more to show solidarity with those of its Member States most afflicted by the pandemic. Yet we are increasingly witnessing mutual help between countries, as they realise that no individual state can win this battle alone. In an era of growing nationalism, it is more than apparent that global collaboration is the only strategy that can succeed.

Countries are now launching their stimulus packages and there are calls to bail out airlines, cruise ship companies, the fossil-fuel sector on the one hand, and calls to support SMEs, citizens who have lost their jobs or income sources, and the health sector on the other. What we spend today will define the future, so we should spend it wisely. Decision-makers face difficult choices, and it is fundamental that these are carefully considered, that it is transparent where money is going, and that conditionalities are set. We cannot afford to allow losses to be nationalised and profits to be privatised as has happened too often in the past.

Everywhere governments are looking for blueprints for the ideal recovery stimulus package. But, we already have a ‘greenprint’: the European Green Deal. While this is not perfect, through an ambitious roll-out, it has the potential to become a truly transformative agenda, driving the decarbonisation of our economies while creating millions of secure jobs and shifting from linear resource-intensive production models to more sustainable circular ones that seek zero waste. This will improve the resilience of our economies. If designed well, the European Green Deal can also help tackle biodiversity loss and resource over-extraction that have often gone hand-in-hand with poisonous pollution, growing human health risks and the destruction of communities. It could support the resilience of our ecosystems and strengthen our communities. The commitment to a zero-pollution future, giving confidence to citizens that the products we use are not dangerous to our children and that the air we breathe and water we drink are safe, will support the resilience of our governance systems and governments as citizens see that those they have elected have their backs.

The current crisis has underlined the importance of human health to us all, and the European Green Deal has the potential to put wellbeing at the heart of policies.

It is, however, far from clear whether the responses to the crisis will be such that they bounce us forward to a more sustainable future, or whether leaders have knee-jerk responses propping up polluting activities that risk creating more problems in the future. We have a choice.

One way forward is to focus on stronger communities, greater responsibility, a thriving natural world and genuine economic resilience, with human wellbeing at the heart of our policies. This is our hope, and our mission.

But we face a risk. Bailouts could be offered to carbon-intensive industries without conditions, state coffers could be used to prop up corporations rather than supporting hardworking people and the SMEs that drive much of our economy and create many of the jobs. There is a risk of panicked decision makers falling into the trap of regulatory rollback. We have already seen calls for the European Green Deal to be scrapped, the emission trading system to be dropped, for car emissions standards to be deferred. We do not have to choose this; none of this would help build a better future when we emerge from the current crisis.

The truth is it would be dangerous to return to business as usual after the Coronavirus because business as usual gave rise to many of the dangers we still face, not least climate breakdown, catastrophic loss of biodiversity and another pandemic – that of pollution, as harmful manmade substances have now found their way into almost every corner of the globe.

We now need to focus on the essentials for everyone: good living and working conditions, clean water and air, a thriving natural world, a safe climate for the next generation, and strong and functioning democracies that will continue to protect us in times of need.

To achieve this, we need to be ambitious and to make the right decisions at the right time. Here are five things the EEB will be calling for in the coming weeks:

  • Develop the European Green Deal as a ‘greenprint’ for a better future: The implementation of the Green Deal should continue with the minimum of delay and the maximum of ambition, and should form the basis of a stimulus package to relaunch the EU economy in line with sustainable development. This can support human wellbeing, secure jobs, and sustainable economic activity. It will need the ambition and tools to deliver.
  • Avoid throwing good money after bad: Bailouts are necessary, but they should be particularly targeted on the health sector, on wellbeing and on protecting the livelihoods of workers and small businesses. The transformative agenda of an ambitious European Green Deal should help determine which measures are appropriate. Money should be targeted on reducing inequalities rather than topping up profits or compensating losses in dividends. And there should be no bailouts without conditions; taxpayers’ money should never be used to issue blank cheques to business.
  • Ensure democratic accountability: Big decisions that will have impacts for decades to come are being made. We need to see good governance of funding that ensures full transparency about where the money is spent; full public access to information on health risks and environmental conditions; people being put at the heart of policy making through the Climate Pact; and a systematic engagement with young people to ensure that they have a say in shaping the future.
  • Cooperate across borders: Pandemics, like pollution, do not respect national boundaries. Combatting them calls for governments to cooperate and coordinate over their responses, rather than adopting fragmented national responses. The EU, the WHO and the UN each have important roles to support the fight against the Coronavirus.
  • Share a vision for a better future: Leaders need to be clear and offer hope. People are suffering and experiencing fear and uncertainty. We need to know it is possible to emerge from this crisis stronger, to rebuild our economy to protect us when we are vulnerable, improve our wellbeing, strengthen our communities and build a more resilient economy. We need to know that we will learn from this crisis so we are prepared for the next. We need to believe in a better future where people and nature thrive together.

We are all in this together and we have a choice. European leaders must now step up to the challenge, history will judge how they perform in the coming weeks.

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