The Wellbeing Economy in the EU: Genuine Progress or Empty Signifier?

Dr Charlotte Godziewski |

Back in 2019, the von der Leyen Commission published a communication on its new Growth Strategy, the European Green Deal. Among many other things, the deal was set to ‘put sustainability and the well-being of citizens at the centre of economic policy’ (p.3).

Over a year into the pandemic, these priorities are becoming even more urgent, and calls for more radical, structural changes to the economy (how and for whom it should work) are more and more mainstream. One example is the push for a so-called ‘Wellbeing Economy’. We know that economic governance and fiscal policies have an enormous impact on public health, because of how they shape income and wealth (re)distribution, which in turn affects socioeconomic inequalities.

So, what is a ‘wellbeing economy’? The European Council defines it as ‘a policy orientation which aims to put people and their wellbeing at the centre of policy and decision-making’ (p.1). It focuses on four main areas of investment: health care, education, gender equality, and social protection and redistribution. For institutions like the OECD and the EU, the Wellbeing Economy is predicated on the need to promote a kind of economic growth that is ‘green’ and ‘inclusive’. Green growth generally refers to decoupling GDP growth from environmental impact, both in terms of natural resource use and greenhouse gas emissions. And inclusive growth is about fairly redistributing economic growth and creating opportunities for all. But these are highly contestable concepts. A growing amount of research is making the case that growth in and of itself is intrinsically environmentally unsustainable, and that there is a lack of empirical evidence showing how it can be inclusive. 

As new economic recovery tools (NextGenerationEU) are being developed in response to the pandemic, it is worth asking: What power dynamics shape the definition of what constitutes a ‘wellbeing economy’ for the EU? How are ideas and evidence drawn upon in a struggle to craft a dominant version of the ‘wellbeing economy’, and how will that translate into policy practice?