The relaunch of the EU’s social dimension

, by Evelyn Astuccia, Eyes on Europe

The relaunch of the EU's social dimension
Photo: Europe Direct.

The EU institutions have been trying to cope with the social challenges imposed by the economic crisis. Despite their efforts, concrete action is still needed for supporting the further development of the social agenda, especially before the 2019 European elections, in order to block the Eurosceptic surge.

The impact of the crisis on social policies

The financial and economic crisis, which started in the USA in 2008, has severely affected Europe on an overall scale, and in particular the Eurozone with the sovereign debt crisis. Since then the European countries have been struggling to guarantee the social policy standards that were achieved during the pre-crisis economic growth. The EU’s response to this troubled situation demanded member states to adopt austerity measures; the cuts in public expenditures have acutely afflicted the welfare state and consequently, European countries failed to provide adequate social protection to their citizens.

Although fiscal consolidation was considered necessary in most of the distressed countries, the austerity measures have turned out not to stimulate long-term economic growth and, at the same time, they have been condemned for undermining economic and social rights. In fact, national policies to slash public spending and to reduce wages and prices have not been combined with growth-enhancing reforms. During the last decade, we have witnessed high unemployment, increased economic inequality, poverty and social fragmentation in Europe alongside the overall weakening of states’ capacity to adopt effective redistributive national policies. For these reasons it was crucial to address the structural weaknesses in the European economic model and to implement urgently an ambitious strategy for a sustainable and inclusive growth in the aftermath of the crisis.

The European Pillar of Social Rights: is it really effective?

The need to address economic and social insecurity has been expressed by the current Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who has made Europe’s social dimension one of the priorities of his mandate. To reinforce social rights, in March 2016 the Commission presented a preliminary project for the Pillar of Social Rights and launched a public consultation; this initiative was welcomed by the European Parliament which had already called for more actions in the social field on various occasions.

The Pillar was presented in April 2017 and it has been jointly proclaimed by the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission on 17 November 2017, at the Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth in Gothenburg, Sweden. It reaffirms the EU’s pledge to promote not only economic but also social progress and, in order to promote social convergence, it presents 20 crucial principles, grouped in three categories: equal opportunities and access to the labour market; fair working conditions; social protection and inclusion.

Although the project has a great political and symbolic value for EU’s future sustainable growth, it is evaluated only as a starting point for building a social Europe. Regarding the content of the Pillar, firstly, it restates rights that are already part of the Union’s acquis, and the aim is to bring them together in a single document to give them more visibility. Secondly, it indicates new principles for addressing the difficulties originating from societal, technological and economic developments, like population ageing or economic globalisation. As to the scope of the project itself, it has been conceived for the euro area, since it aims at the better functioning of Economic and Monetary Union, but it is also addresses other member states, thus creating incentives to make them join the process.

Moreover, it’s important to pay attention to the nature of the programme, which has been subject to debate: in fact, even though the document represents a fundamental political commitment, the text can merely serve as a guide in order to achieve efficient employment and social outcomes. Furthermore, the text states that in order to be enforceable, the principles and rights need legislative measures to be adopted at the appropriate level, or otherwise it will remain dead letter.

The implementation of the Pillar should be carried out at Union and member state level respecting their competences, and it does not entail the Union extending its powers and tasks as conferred by the Treaties. This way, the EU continues only to set minimum requirements and to promote coordination in the social sphere. For the aforementioned reasons the actual validity of the Pillar has not been considered to live up to what was expected, as would be needed to guarantee an effective EU social policy.

Critiques and recent developments for a social Europe

This initiative has been adopted in order to promote the social dimensions of European integration and it has been approved at a critical moment for the EU which still has to face several crises simultaneously, both internally and externally. At the EU level, this renewed attention to social cohesion also comes from the worrying outcome of the elections held at national level in the last years, whose results have showcased public scepticism about the crisis management of national and European politicians. In this respect, even if the Pillar represents an important starting point to bring the social dimension at the centre of the EU debate, a number of challenges still lie ahead. The text lacks clarity and possible loopholes need to be addressed. Due to the existing differences among national social systems, the principles have been stated in a very broad formulation; for this reason, there is the need to nail down a roadmap in order to implement the Pillar.

Further critiques focus on the choice to adopt soft law, i.e. non-binding instruments, to ensure the fundamental task of relaunching Europe’s social model. In fact, the Pillar is not directly enforceable if it’s not followed by concrete measures of implementation, therefore there is a high risk of this program not producing tangible effects in the short term. For this purpose, it’s also essential for the EU and national institutions to establish adequate funding for carrying out the ambitious targets. Only in this way will it be possible to translate rights and principles into concrete social policies.

It’s central to promote democratic dialogue with the policy makers and to integrate the existing policy instruments into future legislative measures, considering that the merits of Juncker’s initiative will essentially depend on this. It must be pointed out that in the first months after the adoption of the document, some member states have exhibited a low level of ambition while adopting a general position on three files which are essential to the Pillar: work-life balance, transparent and predictable working conditions, and coordination of social security systems.

In order to turn the social objectives into reality, member states must stop dragging their feet and they must deliver on their commitments adopted last year. Finally, almost one year after the proclamation of EU’s main social initiative, in October 2018 the European Commission adopted the 2019 Work Programme. It has been argued that the programme mainly focuses on the link between social policy and labour market but overlooks the field of social protection. Again, not enough priority has been given to the promotion of social investment, which would actually represent a great opportunity for delivering concrete solutions to the EU’s dissatisfied citizens before the much-anticipated European elections in 2019.

Sources and further reading

Garben, S. (2018) ’The European Pillar of Social Rights: Effectively Addressing Displacement?’, European Constitutional Law Review Vol. 14(1), 210-230.

Patrik Vesan & Francesco Corti, secondowelfare.it: Il Pilastro Europeo dei Diritti Sociali: dalla proclamazione dall’alto alla sua costruzione dal basso. Quale ruolo per il secondo welfare?

Committee of the Regions: European Pillar of Social Rights must be supported by a strong cohesion policy

This article was originally published by our partners at Eyes on Europe on 12 December 2018.

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