Recap of Beyond Growth Conference at the European Parliament: Paving the way to a Wellbeing Economy

Tags: beyond growth, decolonisation, European Parliament
Published on May 24, 2023

Lisa Hough-Stewart and Margreet Frieling

Every movement has milestone moments, way-markers on the road to transformation. We think we’ve just been part of something that the Wellbeing Economy movement will forever mention when it tells its story.

Beyond growth conference

Lisa Hough-Stewart, Implementation Lead at WEAll, outside European Parliament, and Margreet Frieling, Knowledge Lead, heading out to Brussels for the event.

The Beyond Growth Conference saw 2,500 people take over the European Parliament for three days of talks, discussions and networking. On the first day, someone quipped that it felt like the “Woodstock of Beyond Growth” and the nickname stuck. Sure enough, many of the rock stars of our movement played their part (too many to list, check out the lineup), but that’s not the only reason it felt more like a festival than a conference. It was the energy, so incongruous with the gravitas of the Parliament setting. The chamber reverberated with excitement and possibility – and, occasionally, frustration. During the closing plenary, we collectively spent more time on our feet in rowdy standing ovations than sitting in the chairs usually occupied by politicians.

Beyond growth conference EU parliament

Beyond Growth Conference 2023 at the European Parliament 

This extraordinary event was made possible by the work of Belgian politician Phillipe Lamberts, Member of European Parliament (MEP), and his team. Lamberts’ passion and determination helped ensure that the conference was no echo chamber. He made sure it was co-organised by 20 cross-party MEPs from all five political groups within the European Parliament and sponsored by both the Parliamentary and Commission Presidents, who spoke at the opening plenary. 

In her speech, Ursula Von Der Leyen said: “A growth model centred on fossil fuels is simply obsolete”. This might seem like common sense to those of us embedded in the Wellbeing Economy movement or climate activism, but we must appreciate the significance of these words coming from the President of the European Commission. The Overton window of what “common sense” means might just be shifting.

Ursula Von Der Leyen, President of the European Commission giving her speech at the Beyond Growth conference

Ursula Von Der Leyen, President of the European Commission, giving her speech at the Beyond Growth Conference

Across 20 focus panels and 6 plenaries, the language of wellbeing was everywhere (possibly helped by the fact that so many WEAll Ambassadors took to the stage). The conference had a clear shared vision of economic systems designed to deliver wellbeing for people and planet. Alongside the conference, WEAll participated in one of the Policy Labs hosted by the ZOE Institute for Future Fit Economies, where policymakers from a wide variety of backgrounds worked together to identify barriers and – more importantly – opportunities for better incorporating wellbeing, sustainability and social justice into policy design.

We heard from trade unionists, climate scientists, youth leaders, feminists, decolonial activists: it felt like there were steps made towards becoming a true “movement of movements”. There was a deep recognition that all of these social and environmental struggles connect to the need for economic system change. Decolonisation was also a key theme throughout the conference, as Farhana Sultana said in speech “this [paradigm] is not gravity. It was made to happen through colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism of the last few centuries.”

So, now what? If every participant at the conference has a to-do list like ours from the sparks of conversations and connections we had this week, there’s plenty of progress to be made in the coming weeks and months. WEAll collaborated with our partners EEB, Friends of the Earth Europe and European Youth Forum to convene a civil society gathering ahead of the conference with the purpose of deepening and catalysing relationships. We’ll continue to play this convening role and bring people together again later in the year so we can work together in the run up to European elections. 

Open letter 400 academics sign

As part of the EU Wellbeing Economy Coalition, we published our vision for a European Wellbeing Economy ahead of the conference, and we’ll be following this up with more detailed recommendations and joint advocacy work.

There were also calls for specific changes within the institutions of the EU: a Vice President for Future Generations, a Sustainability and Wellbeing Pact, governance reform around wellbeing indicators, strengthening citizen participation in policy development, and creating the fiscal space for countries to invest in the required transition. Working with members and partners, we’ll campaign for these and more. 

Ahead of the conference, we worked with our partners to create The Precedented Times, a fictional newspaper from 15 May 2033. The idea was to look back as if the Beyond Growth Conference had made the changes needed to transition to a Wellbeing Economy, and imagine what news stories we’d be reading if that were true. We had fun writing the stories, but we were not sure we believed that any conference had the potential to really deliver change. Now that we’ve been part of it, we know it was not just any conference. Maybe our visions for 2033 do have a chance of becoming reality: we’re a lot more hopeful than we were two weeks ago.


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