Call us

Wanted: An Executive Vice President for the Well-being Economy

Well-being / COMMENTARY
Aileen McLeod , Laura Rayner , Elizabeth Kuiper , Danielle Brady

Date: 25/04/2023
With one year to go until the next European Parliament elections and the end of the current European Commission tenure, Brussels has reached the period usually allocated to tidying loose ends and strategising on the path ahead. However, as we approach the European Parliament’s Beyond Growth Conference, it is time to reflect on a more holistic institutional structure that moves us out of a cycle of permacrisis and builds on the foundations of the European Green Deal.

Policymaking in permacrisis

The IPCC’s Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report recently reiterated that increasing climate warming will lead to more frequent and hazardous weather events. Populist politicians remain on hand to offer seemingly simple solutions to complex challenges, and the Russian war in Ukraine has intensified geopolitical splintering and the breakdown of multilateral governance. Our demographic path in Europe is also clear.

Other “known unknowns” loom large on the horizon. The European Parliament elections in 2024, and the many national elections taking place over the coming years, may significantly reshape the EU political landscape. The 2024 US presidential election, the outcome of the Russian war in Ukraine, Europe’s relationship with China and the lasting impact of Chinese and Russian overseas influence will affect Europe’s place and power in the world. Moreover, even though we have a new Health Emergency Preparedness and Response (HERA) Department, and the EU has more power in pandemic readiness, it is wishful thinking to believe that we are now fully ready for future pandemics. The European Health Union is not a reality, despite Commission President Ursula von der Leyen's claim that she would deliver this before the end of her mandate. Finally, the rapid development of artificial intelligence has the potential to reshape our society in a way not seen since the start of the industrial revolution with as many, if not more, social and economic consequences.

Many of the crises we have faced recently – not least the COVID-19 pandemic – have clearly demonstrated the intersection between health, social, environmental and economic policies. They have underlined the urgent need for more holistic policymaking and effective leadership at the top of the European Commission. However, the Commission does not have a great track record when it comes to institutional reform. At the start of this mandate, the title of one of the Vice Presidents of the Commission was phrased as “Protecting our European way of life”, attracting much criticism. Ultimately, the portfolio was rebranded to “Promoting our European way of life". Similarly, back in 2014, the Juncker Commission made the mistake of almost dismantling the Commission's health department, clearly not taking into account the lessons learnt from the H1N1 pandemic. After fierce debate, the Commission once again pulled back and rethought its original decision.

Preventative, protective and positive agenda

Intelligent institutional reform is needed to move the EU into a more anticipatory, outward-looking, future-oriented organisation. However, to do this, we must start by setting a visionary well-being framework: a development plan for Europe, with its agenda set by citizens. The conclusions of the Conference on the Future of Europe can form the backbone of this agenda as they provide citizens’ views on the EU’s long-term direction, what people want from politicians, what they value most and what economic model they believe would help them thrive. The citizens’ panels introduced in the wake of the Conference can also be utilised for this purpose.

The countries of the Well-being Economy Governments partnership (WEGO) are already showing the way forward. New Zealand’s Living Standards Framework, Scotland’s National Performance Framework, and Wales’s Well-being of Future Generations Act offer examples of such visionary development plans built from the bottom up. These development plans do not restrict themselves to a singular focus on economic factors, such as GDP, income or economic growth, to promote psychosocial prosperity in the nation. Instead, they recognise that to progress towards human and planetary well-being, other important aspects of people’s daily lives, such as health, housing, employment quality, education, work-life balance, and air and water quality, must also be promoted.

A well-being economy is a more resilient one in which policies are developed, utilised and directed at maximising societal resilience and well-being at local, national and international levels. Building well-being and resilience into Europe’s economy is fundamental to addressing people’s needs and fears and protecting them against economic, social, environmental, and political threats. Reframing economic policy to deliver shared well-being for people and the environment shifts the emphasis of policy away from GDP growth as an overriding metric of societal welfare. It recognises that persisting with an approach that regards maximising GDP growth as the key aim of economic and social policies is gradually hollowing out societal resilience across a range of facets and will inevitably lead to further political challenges to European democracy.  

Creating the structure to deliver the vision

Delivering such a transformative agenda with its complexity, trade-offs and political challenges requires institutional innovation and a refreshed and more holistic Commission structure. Embedding a well-being framework and its complementary indicators into all stages of the EU policymaking process, ensuring policy coherence and alignment across silos, will demand the leadership of an Executive Vice President for the Well-being Economy. This individual should have the capacity to work across Commission silos and Directorates in a way that Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans has done - to some extent - during this Commission. It should be their role to drive this transformative policy agenda forward, both within and outside the European Commission, and provide the coordination and strategic political leadership that its delivery so urgently demands.

There has already been some work to bring this more holistic approach to policymaking. For example, consideration of health and the implications of health policy for other sectors, such as the environment and economy, are core to the “Health in All Policies” approach, initially adopted in 2006. Similarly, the Commission’s Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE) announced its new “One Health” Directorate last year, created to implement the European Green Deal and the European Health Union. The EU has also made good progress in broadening the view of the European Semester throughout the last legislative period to move away from a singular economic focus to one that better integrates the much broader perspective of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Nevertheless, the silos persist. An Executive Vice President in the next mandate should oversee a reformed European Semester as their primary policy objective. Building on the significant and valuable work already done around developing new benchmarks, indicators and scoreboards, such as the Transitions Performance Index, future Vice Presidents should be allocated overarching portfolios that cover four dimensions: economic, social, environmental and governance. The subsequent Commissioner roles should support each of these four Vice Presidents with more subject-specific responsibilities, e.g. trade, internal market, energy, equality, etc.

Sadly, the next mandate is unlikely to be any easier to manage than the current one. In many respects, it may be even harder. However, if we take a more systematic, long-term, intergenerational approach and make sure it is rooted in more holistic policymaking processes, we may at least start moving towards a brighter horizon and better weather the choppy waters that still lie ahead.

Elizabeth Kuiper is an Associate Director and Head of the Social Europe and Well-Being programme at the European Policy Centre.

Laura Rayner is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Social Europe and Well-Being programme at the European Policy Centre.

Danielle Brady is a Policy Analyst in the Social Europe and Well-Being programme at the European Policy Centre.

Aileen McLeod is a Senior Adviser on the well-being economy at the European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

Photo credits:

The latest from the EPC, right in your inbox
Sign up for our email newsletter
14-16 rue du Trône, 1000 Brussels, Belgium | Tel.: +32 (0)2 231 03 40
EU Transparency Register No. 
89632641000 47
Privacy PolicyUse of Cookies | Contact us | © 2019, European Policy Centre

edit afsluiten