15 May 2024

Restoring trust and hope in Europe’s future

The post-war social contract that underpinned Europe’s prosperity for much of the 20th century is showing its age. The challenges of the 21st century —climate change, automation, and digital disruption—have left many citizens feeling increasingly distant from the institutions designed to serve them.  This isn’t just about stagnating growth or outdated regulations. It’s a crisis of trust in a system which is increasingly perceived by many to be deaf to their anxieties, blind to their needs, and ultimately, failing to deliver, breeding apathy and cynicism, fertile ground for populism and disengagement from the democratic processes underpinning European society.

Rebuilding trust and re-engaging citizens requires a fundamental shift – a renewal of the social contract that places citizens’ hopes, fears, and ideas at the heart of shaping a Europe that works for all.

The current model, forged in the aftermath of World War II, emphasised welfarism and social protection. While these concepts were ground-breaking for their time, they struggle to address the concerns of a rapidly changing world. Take, for instance, the green transition. This shift must go beyond mere policy pronouncements and embody fairness and inclusivity. It is essential that all citizens not only grasp the sheer magnitude of this transition but also engage as beneficiaries and contributors, rather than as casualties of change.

The impact of digitalisation, particularly through artificial intelligence, will most likely reshape every facet of our lives. AI is not just another technological advancement; it is a paradigm shift comparable to the industrial revolution. The European Union must therefore establish governance that not only checks potential abuses but also cultivates AI’s capacity to enhance societal good. Maintaining oversight and avoiding complacency in AI’s evolution will be crucial to safeguard and propel our social fabric forward ensuring advancements do not come at the expense of public trust or ethical standards.

But renewing the social contract is not solely about economic or technological adjustments. It must also address the shifting social and demographic realities of contemporary Europe. An aging population, declining birth rates, and the integration of migrants and refugees call for more inclusive and effective labour policies that promote participation across all segments of society—women, young people, older citizens, and newcomers alike – and opportunities for lifelong learning and enhancing financial literacy to prepare for longer, economically sustainable lives.

As Europe approaches crucial electoral milestones in 2024, the need for an overhauled social contract becomes even more pressing. The renewal of the European Parliament and the European Commission offers a prime opportunity to redefine the interaction among citizens, the private sector, civil society, and public institutions. For Europe to rebuild trust in its democratic processes, it must transform all stakeholders into active participants and equal decision-makers.

This envisioned social contract is not a static document but a dynamic, evolving process, one that will see policymakers engage with citizens regularly through consultations, focus groups, and assemblies with a clear, transparent sense of purpose and binding outcomes, demonstrating a true commitment to openness and accountability. A shift to a more participatory governance model will help transcend traditional barriers and foster a broader sense of community and shared responsibility.

The path toward this renewed social contract requires buy-in from all stakeholders—policymakers, civil society, and citizens themselves. By ensuring that all members of society are active, informed, and valued participants in the democratic process, s, one that is not only more inclusive and sustainable but also reflective of a less polarised society. 

Navigating this road will be challenging, fraught with disagreements and the need for compromises. Yet, the alternative—a continent fragmented by distrust and disconnection—is far worse. A citizen-centric social contract holds the promise of a more resilient, prosperous Europe, where individuals are not only heard but are active, empowered architects of their future.


Adam Nyman
Director, Citizen Outreach and Engagement, Debating Europe