On January 23, after a bilateral meeting at the with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, former Italian Prime Minister and former President of the European Commission Romano Prodi spoke about social infrastructure at the Brussels Press Club. During the briefing Prodi discussed needed changes to social infrastructure as well as giving his thoughts on the European Union’s cohesion and unity in light of Brexit and the tide of far-right nationalist movements in Europe. In response to questions on these issues, Prodi responded that having seen the difficulties faced by Britain during the Brexit process will likely encourage other European countries to be more forward-looking with their policy going forward. He noted that the far-right parties in other countries had declined to push for their own exits from the EU and that opinion polling showed a decrease in citizens’ desire to leave. Towards the end of the briefing, the speakers reemphasized their support for strengthening social infrastructure across Europe in order to strengthen Europe as a whole in the face of current challenges.
Prodi was joined at the panel discussion in the Brussels Press Club by Edoardo Reviglio, chief economist at Cassa Depositi e Prestiti and professor at LUISS Guido Carli, and Lieve Fransen, a senior policy adviser at the European Policy Centre on the subjects of health, migration and social policies, and a former Director for Social Policies and Europe 2020 at the European Commission. All three, as members of the High-Level Task Force on Financing Social Infrastructure in Europe, contributed to a discussion paper titled Boosting Investment in Social Infrastructure in Europe, with Prodi as the co-chair of the task force. The topic of the briefing was the three pillars of social infrastructure needs covered in the discussion paper: Education and life-long learning, health and long-term care, and affordable housing.
In the briefing, Prodi discussed the three urgent needs but focused primarily on affordable housing. He emphasized the ability of Europe to come closer to the citizen by organizing housing with help from the European Investment Bank’s low-interest loans and with implementation by local authorities. This would be done to help close the gap between investment and the need for funds that was found by the task force. As Reviglio and Fransen discussed, structural changes in Europe have created certain challenges that local authorities with limited budgets cannot resolve on their own. Among these are a large ageing population with healthcare needs and a younger demographic that struggles to find work, as well as other issues related to globalization. When asked about these issues in relation to the financial crisis in 2008, Fransen stated that investment around that time was low and focused on the short term. Instead, investment must be forward-looking and homes must be adapted and integrated to current needs, as “homes are where Europe’s future starts.”
The more specific needs found by the task force included more flexible education options, “including not only traditional teaching methods for pupils but also other training activities … as well as extra-curricular activities” that would enable schools to become a more inclusive space for broader sections of the community. There was also a need for further flexibility in health care. This would include health care services closer to where people live and an infrastructure to accommodate them. Additionally, the paper noted a need for further focus on preventative health care. Lastly, for affordable housing, changes in how housing and land are used were recommended, with urban areas being planned with social interaction and location to essential services in mind. Incentives for industries to move into more rural areas and telecommuting should be encouraged in order to lessen the shrinking of those regions.