The Oxford Dictionary’s Words of the Year 2013 – 2018 were as follows: ‘selfie’ ‘vape’ ‘:-)’ ‘Post -truth’ ‘Youthquake’* and ‘Toxic’.
The words tell us something about how the world has changed, and how our preoccupations have darkened. Just a few years ago we were talking about the fun things we could do with our smartphones and how cute emojis were. Then suddenly we are into post truth and toxic. The Oxford Word of Year for 2019 was ‘Climate Emergency’. Our concerns grow darker still.
The words of the year can also help us understand some of what is currently happening in the EU. The new European Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen, has hit the ground running with an ambitious set of new proposals. More cynical EU watchers will no doubt sigh ‘Well we’ve all seen that before, which new Commission says “Hey guys, the status quo is just fine”?’. But perhaps, this time, it’s different.
Why? In two areas where the Commission is setting its sights, green issues and digitalisation, the case for action is very strong. The idea that radical measures are needed to address a range of environmental issues - covering climate change of course but also for example circular economy and toxicity in the environment - is now, in Europe at least, a mainstream position. It is embraced across the political spectrum. The EU will need to act in this area if only to preserve the single market against member state level green activism. But, more than that, the EU knows this is an area which is consistent with its position not just as a regulatory superpower, but also as a global setter of standards which in many areas set an ethical example. The Commission’s wide-ranging Green Deal proposal** is its attempt to rise to the challenge.
Digitalisation is happening whether we like it or not. No one who cares about the future of the EU economy, citizens’ rights, illegitimate influence (remember ‘post -truth’ above?), innovation and much else, can afford to ignore it. The territory of our digital future is as yet unmapped (who really knows what impact artificial intelligence will have?), but that we must adapt, adopt, and try to thrive in the digital era is an inescapable fact. The Commission plans for our European Digital Future*** promises a host of measures including investment, digital education, AI and data rights.
Moreover, the Commission thinks, rightly, that green and digital change are linked. So to take one example, digitalisation of our economy ought to lead to smaller environmental footprints.
The Commission sums this all up in one word - ‘transformation’.
While the Commission’s ambition is admirable, some are still sceptical. A radical green agenda needs to limit any net negative economic impact to ensure public support, and here the Commission’s ‘green growth’ commitment and ‘do no harm’ principle remain to be better analysed and explained. Critics are already saying that in digital the Commission’s instinctive tendency to try to regulate risks killing off valuable digital innovation. The world leader in digital, the US, is famously light touch in its regulatory approach.
But businesses across Europe and the world, very much including our sector, are already transforming. The Commission commitments, at their best, will guide, incentivise and encourage evolution which is already underway.
And it can be honestly said if the EU achieves a fraction of its transformative ambitions, well, that will really be more than just words.
*This word is one which has less international resonance than the others - it refers to the mobilisation of young people’s votes which denied Theresa May a majority in the 2017 UK election. That also seems a long time ago.** The European Green Deal*** Shaping Europe’s digital future
John Chave, Director General, Cosmetics Europe