Letter to Europe: Towards a (more) social Europe

, by Gesine Weber

Letter to Europe: Towards a (more) social Europe
Marianne Thyssen, EU Commissioner for Employment

Dear Mrs Thyssen,

it is probably a frustrating job to be the EU commissioner for employment and social affairs: it means holding a top position in the EU, which commits itself to solidarity and social action in article three of its fundamental Lisbon treaty, and even to a social market economy in article nine of this article.

But at the same time, the treaty of the functioning of the EU limits all these obligations and aspirations in so far that EU policies in the field of social policies are only supposed to complement, but never to replace the social systems or rules of the EU member states. Besides foreign policy, there is probably no other policy area where aspirations and reality are so far apart from each other as this is the case for EU employment and social policy.

Indeed, the directive on the posting of workers in one of the reasons why the EU is always confronted with the claim of being unjust and everything but social. Since 1996, this directive allows European companies to post workers abroad in other EU member states without ensuring their full integration in the domestic labour market.

Despite several regulations regarding minimum standards, such as the obligation for the companies to pay the minimum wage of the country where its workers are posted, this implies that posted workers face distinctive disadvantages: according to EU surveys, the salary of posted workers amounts to only 50 percent of the salary of non-posted workers.

Of course, you are familiar with these numbers, which is due to the fact that the Directorate-General which you are leading ordered this research or conducted it itself. However, you also know the narrative of the EU and the interpretation of EU law provided by the Court of Justice of the European Union when it comes to social rights of workers: when in doubt, for the free market, for capitalism.

The basic freedoms of the common market are awesome, maybe the most important achievement of the EU, or at least the most evident one. Nevertheless, this does not imply that you are supposed to open the door for predatory capitalism. In fact, it’s the opposite: the basic freedoms mean that the EU and especially you, as the commissioner in charge, are responsible to make these freedoms compatible with the idea of a genuine social Europe.

Therefore, it is right that the ministers for employment agreed on a reform of the directive on the posting of workers. This reform does finally provide for equal pay for posted and non-posted workers, as it grants them surcharges instead of only the minimum wage - this is probably the most important achievement of the reform. But there are further important steps in the right direction, such as the limitation of the duration for the posting of workers to 12 months, renewable once for six months or the equal status with non-posted workers.

These steps are so important because they ensure that Europe can be experienced by the citizens - and it can be a positive experience as it shows that Europe is far more than economic disadvantages, but that Europe means opportunities. The new directive on the posting of workers is a policy that goes beyond the Erasmus generation as it enables workers to develop a European identity.

And here it comes to you: It is no secret that good policy requires good communication. Get involved in that process, and motivate trade unions, tariff consortiums, works councils, and even companies, to communicate this idea. Start a communication campaign, because this idea is far too good to be lost on working desks between files and folders.

Of course, the directive on the posting of workers is not going to be an easy issue in the future. The Council was only able to adopt the reform of this directive because only a qualified majority is required to do so, and especially countries from Eastern Europe have a very critical opinion towards this reform. Their major concern consists in the loss of attractivity of their domestic labour markets when it comes to company seats.

Eastern European countries, which were up until now attractive for companies as company seats in order to post workers in Western European countries and pay them by Eastern European standards, thus saving labour costs, could suffer from this directive as companies will barely decrease their labour costs when establishing a company seat in an Eastern European country. And this exactly is an issue that you and your colleagues at the Commission should tackle with your right to initiative.

Don’t you see the window of opportunity for the deepening of European integration, for the development of the cohesion policy or the creation of a real European pillar of social rights? The Eastern European states will demand concessions - you should be open-minded towards these demands by offering more integration instead of letting the burden of economic consequences fall to Eastern European states only.

Even though adopted a few days ago, the new directive already faces harsh criticism from companies, fearing bureaucracy and economic disadvantages. There will be probably even more lobbyists coming to you in the upcoming days, and they will probably try to convince you to initiate a more company-friendly legislation. Don’t get me wrong, lobbyism is important for the European political process - nevertheless, the directive on posted workers is a case where you have to stand strong against employers and big companies, unless you want to lose credibility and finally bury the idea of a social Europe.

There is going to be a lot to do for you in the upcoming years. However, you still have some time - up until now, the transposition period is three years. Three years of time also implies a flexibility and windows of opportunities for lobbyists and opponents of the directive, at least on the national level. During your speech last Monday, you clearly supported the idea of a European pillar of social rights. The French President made European policies the core of this agenda during his presidency.

Now or never: Take this chance and keep in mind the words of your boss Jean-Claude Juncker: The reform of the directive only allows to repair the roof. But you have to get this job done as long as the sun is still shining.


Gesine Weber

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