Social Europe: work in progress

European Pillar of Social Rights: the acknowledgment of a European competence

, by Thomas Buttin, Translated by Emma Giraud

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Social Europe: work in progress
The European pillar of social rights was officially approved by the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council during Gothenburg Summit. CC - DG EMPL

The Presidents of the EU institutions, the Heads of State and government and social partners met for a social summit in Gothenburg, Sweden on 17 November. While current affairs regularly focus on thoughts about the political and economic integration of the Union, the social issues remain too often in the shadow, probably for historical reasons.

“A fair and more social Europe is essential to shape our Union’s future”: these are the terms that Jean-Claude Juncker chose to express his wish to reach a more social Europe, a wish that became reality on 17 November, after the adoption of the European Pillar of Social Rights.

A European Pillar of Social Rights, at last!

The European Pillar of Social Rights is a set of principles aimed at building a basis of common rights for each European citizen. Divided into three big chapters, the social pillar seeks to recognise all the rights necessary to equal opportunities, to the access to the labour market, to the obtaining of fair working conditions, and to the access to social protection and social insertion. These objectives are ambitious and deepen social rights, while standing out from a strict economic framework. This operation led by the Juncker Commission is aimed at sending a signal to the people who have been disappointed by a Europe that focused on the internal market, not without reason, but without being able to reduce inequalities, paving the way for populisms.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, incomplete in some social fields, is thus completed in this matter, as the common pillar furthers some issues which were neglected so far. The acknowledgment of the right to education and to professional orientation, equal opportunities and treatment, the right to unemployment benefits, access to accommodation and to essential goods are topics that deal with a current central issue: the one of a European minimum wage.

The issue of a European minimum wage is addressed such as “adequate minimum wages shall be ensured, in a way that provide for the satisfaction of the needs of the worker and his / her family in the light of national economic and social conditions, whilst safeguarding access to employment and incentives to seek work”. [1] But this article only explicitly establishes an obligation to integrate a legal minimum income for workers within the Member States’ national legislations, and they have not all adopted one. However, this reminds of a French proposal to make minimum wages converge, by setting them at 60% of the median income, following the French President’s will to strengthen Europe under the slogan “a Europe that protects”.

A flaw: a non-binding text

Some will esteem that the European Pillar of Social Rights is imperfect, not much concrete nor precise, that some rights are missing again and that its non-binding dimension makes it totally pointless. Some of these criticisms may be justified, but we should also remind that the text’s main objective is the adoption of general social principles in favour of European citizens, by inspiring legislative texts.

The absence of binding effect is obviously regrettable since it means that private individuals will not be allowed to directly invoke before judges the principles and rights recognized in the European Pillar. Today, the Pillar of Social Rights has only a political impact, which is already a success. But just like the Charter of Fundamental Rights was lacking in binding effect when adopted, the Court of Justice could confer a very different ambition to this text in the future, by extending its field of application and its impact.

The acknowledgment of a European competence

No, the European Pillar of Social Rights is not outdated, nor pointless. It is a pragmatic and effective progress in the European political and legal reasoning. The principles that are brought out over this text are an explicit and a clear acknowledgment of some social competences to the European Union.

In virtue of the subsidiarity principle, the European institutions can act only in the framework of the competences conferred by the Treaties. In addition, federal instances (or assimilated in the framework of the Union) have only rarely social competences in the manner of the American federal government, in accordance with this subsidiarity that considers that a local/national action is more appropriate.

The simple recognition of an increased social competence as set by the European Pillar of Social Rights is maybe only a small step for the protection of social rights strictly speaking, but a giant leap for the European construction, and full of promises for social Europe and its future. “This is a landmark moment for Europe. Our Union has always been a social project at heart. It is more than just a single market, more than money, more than the euro. It is about our values and the way we want to live.” (Jean-Claude Juncker) [2]

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