The conference event on the future of the concept of development, ‘Beyond Growth’, was held at the European Parliament in Brussels and organised by the main European political groups: Greens (Greens/EFA), Left (The Left), Socialists, Democrats, Progressives (S&D), Popular and Christian Democrats (EPP), Liberals (Renew), ended in the late afternoon of 17 May. The conference aimed to give a new centrality to the topic of development limits at the continental level, hopefully, given a future ‘European Green and Social Pact’. Italian Climate Network participated in the three-day conference.

It was a second edition after a first, experimental attempt dating back to September 2018 (among the 10 promoting MEPs at the time was the current national secretary of the PD, Elly Schlein), which had not, however, generated the same media, nor political appeal. The new conference event on the theme of how to get out of the conceptual trap of infinite fossil-based growth comes, in fact, after the years of the pandemic, which brought with its millions of deaths, caused an economic and social crisis, and put public policies and state interventionism back at the centre of public debate. It comes now, amid an invasion war in Europe, a major restructuring of national energy mixes and an impactful energy price crisis. It comes one year before the next European elections. Intertwined dynamics and unimaginable variables in 2018, harbingers of necessary reinterpretations of our business as usual at the national and EU level.

That the conference would be different from the first edition in 2018 was clear from the programme. If in 2018 only one European Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, had participated in the proceedings by bringing a brief opening greeting, the 2023 edition was opened by Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament and hostess, and Ursula Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission and prime mover in 2019 of the revolutionary European Green Deal. Other European Commissioners also brought their contributions and reflections during the three days, as well as representatives from the worlds of research, philosophy, politics, and activism.

It was precisely politics that was not only the nominal organiser of the event but also the protagonist of a three-day event that seems to want to leave to those who will come, in the next European legislature (they will vote for the new European Parliament on 9 June 2024) a new, ambitious vision, a common European starting point based on an unprecedented intellectual and political convergence on a transversal idea: we must overcome the current economic and development model, based on infinite growth in the face of limited resources, climate crisis and growing inequalities.

The Von der Leyen Commission will probably be remembered not only as the one behind the fight against Covid and the Next Generation EU, the largest economic recovery plan in Europe since the Marshall Plan but also as the initiator of the European Green Deal, the most important continental climate action plan in the world. This unexpected leadership, born out of a coalition of popular, social democrats and liberals that have been together for years, is now trying to leave – with the important contribution of the Greens – a common conceptual basis for the next European elections. Compared to the 2018 edition, the title changes from ‘After Growth’ to ‘Beyond Growth’, but what is important is to understand what the various parties think about this.

Von der Leyen herself clears up the doubt as early as the opening session, making it clear that in his vision Europe will not need degrowth, but sustainable growth: “The Club of Rome, 50 years ago with the release of ‘The Limits to Development’, could not imagine green hydrogen, electric cars as we have them today, recyclable lithium batteries, policies of this kind at EU level [. ] there could therefore be green, sustainable growth’, emphasised Von der Leyen, who closed his historic speech by quoting André Gide: ‘You cannot discover new land without being prepared to lose sight of the coast – during the oil crisis of the 1970s, in the years when the work of the Club of Rome was being published, those who could decide chose to stick to the known coastline, today we can do things differently’.

In the numerous and qualified speeches that followed, it was possible to discern, right from the first morning’s proceedings, a significant interpretative gap between the political parties – mainly in line with Von der Leyen’s vision except for the Greens and, partially, the Left – and the numerous experts called upon to make their contributions, including representatives of the Club of Rome itself, university professors and researchers. The crux of the matter was the need for growth as the basis of our economies. Indispensable, but now sustainable and green for most politicians, questionable for intellectuals. The most significant moment in this sense was seen in the early afternoon of 17 May when a video-recorded speech by the European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs Paolo Gentiloni was soundly booed (twice) by the audience present, on two passages: ‘sustainable growth cannot be based on an idea of degrowth’, ‘we will need a new growth model: growth is and remains a positive force’. Net of analysis, however necessary, on the composition and politicisation of the audience present at the event (including an important student component and coming from the bases of the organising parties), the episode is not usual and probably offers a sign of a new political atmosphere on these issues, relegated until a few years ago to narrow political and university circles.

The fight against climate change as an integral part of future political and economic trajectories featured strongly in all the presentations, an indication of a matured and transversal political awareness, at least at the level of the European parties that organised the three-day event. Particularly interesting, in the thematic afternoon devoted to growth and the economy, was the speech by Ann Pettifor, Director of the Prime Economic Studies Centre. Pettifor pointed out how our ‘unrestrained’ society, with economies structurally export-oriented to stimulate a necessarily infinite growth and thus naturally characterised by overproduction and inability to consume, is not only unsustainable from the point of view of energy generation from fossil fuels but is also based on a system of loans and guarantees that largely refers to assets that are themselves fossil fuels, and thus in rapid depreciation. In his vision, therefore, the fastest possible exit from fossil dependency would also be a way to prevent the billions (fossil) that today support our companies from imploding, as happened in 2006 with the subprime crisis.

The European political families are already in these weeks initiating the internal political processes that will lead to the drafting of the common election programmes for the next European elections in 2024. Notwithstanding obvious differences of interpretation between individual political forces and, as we have seen, between politics and academia on the conceptual question of growth, degrowth, sufficiency and necessity, it seems that the theme of the unsustainability of our development model will, at least at the level of a transversal intellectual framework, enter powerfully into the electoral programmes at the European level. A fact that would have been unthinkable, in these dimensions, even just a few years ago, and contemporary with a cycle of ‘great rethinking’ of economic and financial models, think of the Paris summit next June on the restructuring of global finance strongly desired by Macron. However, an additional effort is needed, on the part of politics and civil society, to bring these issues into national and – why not – local political debates, into the public debate and onto the radar of the less conventional political formations that did not participate in the event (conservatives, new right-wingers) given that the next European Commission will have to manage the five most important, crucial years of the European Green Deal and in our opinion there can be no going backwards, whatever the parliamentary majority will be.

Article by Jacopo Bencini, Policy Advisor and UNFCCC Contact Point Italian Climate Network

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