The European Conference for a Just Transition - a Belgian Presidency High-Level event

What is a Just Transition?

The Just Transition concept is not new. In essence, it hails from the Leave No One Behind (LNOB) idea which remains central to the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Simultaneously though, it has been featured prominently in the work of the International Labour Organisation. In 2015, the ILO adopted the “Guidelines for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies for all”, calling for a well-managed, environmentally sustainable economy that contributes to decent work for all, social inclusion, and lastly the eradication of poverty. In its 2023 “Resolution concerning a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies for all, the ILO repeated this commitment, even calling for an ILO strategy and action plan on Just Transition. A Just Transition is also an important priority of the current European Commission, primarily for the implementation of the European Green Deal, for example through the Just Transition Mechanism and Social Climate Fund. A Just Transition entails shaping environmental policies that are developed inclusively and take into account the specific circumstances of workers, businesses, sectors, regions, and the most vulnerable in society. It is therefore unsurprising that the term is often changed to a Just and Inclusive Transition. Such a transition is vital to safeguard the support of citizens for a green transformation. In Europe, but also in other regions, much work remains to be done in this regard.

Within Belgium, a Just Transition process has been started since the end of 2022. A General Estates for a Just Transition, comprised of a High Committee (experts), Forum (civil society representatives), Citizens’ Agora (randomly selected citizens and societal representatives), and the administrations on the federal level, worked until the end of 2023 to deliver four policy advice reports on a national Just Transition. All of these reports were presented on the 8th and 9th of November 2023 in Brussels during the Conference for a Just Transition in Belgium: a public event that brought together ministers and representatives of the different levels of government, social partners, civil society, academic experts, and citizens, that took stock of the different positions on this issue, and served to inspire future work by the different governments in Belgium.

Why was the European Conference for a Just Transition launched?

As President of the Council of the European Union, Belgium, following the Spanish efforts made on this issue, made Just Transition one of its priorities in the environment formation. The Presidency objective is to adopt council conclusions at the formal council meeting on the 17th of June. These council conclusions will be on the mid-term review of the 8th Environmental Action Program and the three priorities of the Belgian Presidency namely: circular economy, adaptation, and resilience and Just Transition.

An important step in this regard has been the Just Transition opinion of the EESC, requested by the Belgian Presidency and published on the 13th of December 2023 as Advancing the EU's just transition policy framework. This EESC opinion formulated, inter alia, the following advice: the creation of a Commissioner for Just Transition, the launch of a dedicated observatory, the adoption of a specialised EU directive, the development of a comprehensive EU development strategy for 2050, the design of a Green and Social Deal, the reform of the European Semester, the reform of current policies for competitive, resilient, and fair enterprises, and the reform of EU financing, especially the Stability and Growth Pact. These measures, grouped under six pillars, could create a European Just Transition Policy Framework (JTPF). This opinion was initially discussed at an informal Brussels meeting of the European Environment and Climate Ministers, on the 15th and 16th of January 2024.

Building on this opinion, the Belgian Minister of Climate, Environment, Sustainable Development, and Green Deal: Zakia Khattabi, kicked off the European Conference for a Just Transition in Brussels on the 4th and 5th of March 2024. The goal was to foster a collective European vision on the important subject. About 350 participants attended, with official representatives from 22 EU member countries and 8 Commission DGs. European employer organisations, worker organisations, core societal actors, academics, and experts were likewise present, thus creating a diverse crowd. The first day began with a high-level segment, featuring keynote speakers from the ILO, EEA, and EESC. Thereafter, a general round table discussion was launched, with Maros Šefčovič, Commission Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, Interinstitutional Relations, and Foresight, setting the scene.

The ESDN was also invited to speak at this important Conference, where ESDN President, László Borbély, also participated during this session, emphasizing in his message the experience of the ESDN to gather expertise from all levels of decision-making and deliver it for substantiation of policy for sustainable development. The role of ESDN is particularly important in this green transition at the European level, which needs a solid foundation and well-trained people. He also emphasized these aspects in the bilateral discussion with Minister Khattabi Zakia.

Day one concluded with two breakout sessions: one on combating poverty and the other on the reconversion of industries. The second day started with Bernard Mazijn, chief of staff at the cabinet of Minister Khattabi, who presented the process of Just Transition in Belgium. After, Sebastiano Sabato of the European Social Observatory (OSE) presented a study conducted by the OSE: “The European Green Deal and the ‘Leave No One Behind’ principle”. Day two then ended with discussions on a Green Deal 2.0 and the potential council conclusions on a Just Transition, thus adding a rare layer of inclusivity to the negotiations.

Some ideas and verdicts can, at this moment, already be deduced from the European Conference for a Just Transition. To start, support for a JTPF, including a new Commissioner, dedicated observatory, and potential EU directive, was high. Speakers and participants also emphasised the need of tailoring policies towards the most vulnerable. They likewise stressed the importance of taking societal actors, the weakest, and subnational governments maximally on board throughout the policy cycle. A strong industrial and social policy, necessary to escort industries, big companies, SMEs, and workers through the green transition, while protecting welfare and jobs, was also advocated for. This was coupled with a necessary industrial reconversion, in order to create a sustainable economy in Europe and protect competitiveness within the limits of the planetary boundaries. A financial Just Transition strategy was asked for too. Another main point was the need to take the global context fully into account. Finally, it was repeatedly argued that diverging national and regional circumstances need to be considered when developing a JTPF.

The Belgian Presidency aims to adopt the final Council conclusions at the Environment Council (ENV) on the 17th of June 2024. It already shortly presented the objectives and results of the Conference at the 25th of March ENV, where Minister Khattabi explained that investment, eradicating poverty, and reconverting industries should be key in the conclusions. The Presidency is now preparing drafts.