By Jussi Ahokas
Finland took over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union this autumn (from 1 July to 31 December). The timing of Finland’s third EU Presidency has been very interesting. The European Parliament election took place in May and during the autumn the construction of the new European Commission has been under way. The future choices of Europe and the next steps for policies of the European Union have been widely discussed. Hence, more room than usual has been opened for envisioning and reflection – what should be the desirable future path for the whole continent and the union of European nation states?
As the chair of the Council Finland has tried to seize the opportunity by bringing new initiatives to the European policy discussions. Most importantly, Finnish Ministry of Social affairs and Health introduced the Economy of Wellbeing policy approach that emphasises the fact that increasing the wellbeing of people creates positive outcomes for the economy. This in turn allows new investments to increase wellbeing, inclusion and participation. Thus, the Economy of Wellbeing presents the positive cumulative causation, or the virtuous circle, which will lead to the improving people’s capabilities to live good lives.
During the autumn many interesting events under the theme of Economy of Wellbeing have been organized. The high-level conference of Economy of Wellbeing in September in Helsinki brought together politicians, civil servants, researchers and civil society actors from different European countries. Economy of Wellbeing as a new policy approach was enthusiastically welcomed and almost all discussants seemed to be inspired by the concept. Later in October the EU council adopted conclusions on the Economy of Wellbeing which also portrayed the European wide interest on the new policy approach.
The civil society actors had important role in the high-level conference raising also somewhat critical voices on the current situation in Europe and the policy efforts of the EU. For example, the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN) and the Social Platform – European NGOs that organized their own events in Helsinki earlier in that week – reminded the participants that the guiding idea and policy goal of Economy of Wellbeing should be people’s wellbeing and that economy is only a tool for making this happen.
From the perspective of SOSTE Finnish Federation for Social Affairs and Health the message of EAPN and the Social Platform was of great importance. Indeed, in Finland SOSTE introduced the concept of Wellbeing Economy already in 2012 and slowly it has drawn more general attention in Finnish society. Before the EU presidency SOSTE was in close dialogue with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health and it can be argued that the initiative of Economy of Wellbeing in Europe has its roots in civil society. This is a very good example of the power that NGOs and civil society can have in developing new visions and approaches that could change policies in the EU in the long-term.
The critical stance of NGOs – that the wellbeing of the people should always be the primary policy goal – has much importance, because the Economy of Wellbeing approach presented by the Ministry is also concerned over the “wellbeing” of the economy. There is a risk of “business as usual” being legitimised by the argument that besides the wellbeing of the people, we also need economic growth and sustainable public finances to achieve our goals. Hence, in time of an economic crises even austerity measures could be legitimised with Economy of Wellbeing approach.
Another important critique is the lack of – or at least too small – role for ecological and environmental perspectives. It is impossible to deny that at the time of climate crisis (and other ecological crises) the wellbeing of our planet is the most important policy issue and by neglecting it, we are not able to secure the wellbeing of people in our societies.
Therefore, it is very important that civil society actors continue to battle over the concept of Economy of Wellbeing in Europe. In the best scenario the initiative will bring us more policy space to build an actual Wellbeing Economy. An economic and social model that puts the wellbeing of all people and our planet first.
Mr. Jussi Ahokas is Chief Economist for SOSTE Finnish Federation for Social Affairs and Health – SOSTE is a member of WEAll