COVID-19: Crisis transition

At the beginning of this year, prior to the war in Ukraine, the EU was just beginning to overcome its biggest ever test, the COVID-19 pandemic, and Europe was moving to stabilise itself after this most deadly and far-reaching threat. The latest Living and working in Europe yearbook highlights how the endless cycle of tightening and loosening restrictions that persisted for two years took its toll on people, with fatigue and anxiety infusing populations across Europe. It focuses on the findings of Eurofound’s Living, working and COVID-19 e-survey series, which recorded a new low in mental well-being among Europeans in April 2021, felt most acutely among young people and those who had lost their jobs. Hardship intensified among vulnerable groups during the pandemic, who found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

Lives on hold

It took unprecedented action by Member States, backed by EU SURE funding, to limit the most damaging economic impacts of the pandemic and steer the Union away from the brink. Businesses survived, mass unemployment was averted, and disadvantaged households were protected against deepening poverty and accommodation loss. Active EU involvement made a clear difference compared to the previous crisis of 2008–2012. However, while many lives were ended, others were put on hold as Europe focused on weathering the storm. Europe’s youth was held back, as they waited for normal life to resume so that they could make a better future. COVID-19 ended a six-year trend of declining youth unemployment, with young people more likely to find themselves unemployed and to report poor mental health than the rest of the population. Eurofound identified youth mental health as a crisis in its own regard, highlighting that the demand for mental health services for young people soared across Europe during the pandemic.

2022 therefore began with a tangible, if tentative, sigh of relief as restrictions were eased across several Member States, and people began to return to the workplace and education and to reconnect with their communities. The threat of expanding inequality still loomed as populations were affected differently by the pandemic, and Eurofound continued investigating the impacts of the pandemic on upward convergence across the EU.

This occurred concurrently with the Conference on the Future of Europe, which put European citizens in the driving seat on deciding where Europe’s priorities should be. The outcomes include important contributions on reducing inequalities, fighting social exclusion, tackling poverty, increasing citizens’ participation and youth involvement in democracy at European level. The Conference made 49 proposals, on 9 themes, and included more than 300 measures on how to achieve them.

Crisis transition

Europe’s prioritisation of citizens’ rights, aspirations and perspectives could not be more in contrast to the callous disregard for human life and dignity that is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war is having a devastating effect on the Ukrainian people, and an unprecedented refugee and humanitarian crisis is unfolding. Economic sanctions have led to an additional surge in the prices of energy and food and the disruption of many established supply chain links. At this stage, further deterioration of the refugee crisis that has already brought more than 5 million people to the EU from Ukraine, increased emigration from Russia, and deepened deficits in the markets for oil and gas as well as cereals and other commodities can be foreseen. For many years, it was believed that wars of invasion for domination of foreign territories were part of Europe’s past. Now citizens are witnessing the worst possible man-made disaster unfolding at the border of the EU. This war demonstrates that peace, democracy, freedom and progress are not a given. Action is needed to continuously grow and protect them.

The impact of the war is inevitably reaching beyond Ukraine. Inflation is likely to increase further throughout the year, driven by energy and food prices, as well as ruptures in supply chains. Such developments have the potential to deeply affect the living conditions of many European citizens. Food shortages might create additional humanitarian problems and additional migration pressure from Africa and other regions. The supply chain problems related to Russia and Ukraine are likely to persist, and the forecasts for economic growth in the world have already been reviewed downwards. These expected developments will most probably have a substantial effect on the world of work, quality of life and social cohesion in the EU in the years to come. In the immediate term, they are likely to hit vulnerable groups disproportionately, who are already reeling from the pandemic. Changing geopolitical relations may catalyse Europe’s sustainable energy transition, but in an abrupt and unplanned manner that could potentially exacerbate fuel poverty and create division around Europe’s green and digital objectives.

The EU must now simultaneously recover economically and socially from the pandemic, one of the greatest threats in living memory, while responding to a brutal conflict at its frontier and meet its responsibilities to the millions that flood across its borders to flee the conflict. Eurofound, for its part, is adapting. The Agency is expanding its current work programme to respond to issues emerging from the war in Ukraine and provide important and timely analysis to policymakers. The latest round of the Living, working and COVID-19 survey, conducted from March to May 2022, asked specific questions on Europe’s response to the conflict, as well as broader cost of living issues facing people throughout the EU. First results are expected in July.

Eurofound also continues to prioritise young people in its work, not only as part of the European Year of Youth but also in line with its research documenting how young people have been disproportionately impacted by consecutive crises in recent years.

Generations of European citizens were able to overcome narrow interests and divisions, to ditch conflicts and wars, and to build a democratic and free society. Now Europe has the responsibility to stand firm and face current challenges as it transitions from one crisis to the next.

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Image © European Union 2022

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