Ireland’s Christian Democratic Presidency

We need a ‘Social Europe’, not just Stability, Jobs and Growth

– Niall Crowley 


Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, did for it last year, in the Wall Street Journal of all places. He declared that the European social model was “already gone”. He stated that austerity, coupled with structural change, was the only option for economic renewal.

Ireland has a proud record of contributing to the development of  ‘Social Europe’. Now that Ireland has assumed the presidency of the European Union there should have been some hope for its revival. Not so. Enda Kenny’s address last month to the European Parliament on the Irish presidency’s priorities made no mention of ‘Social Europe’. In his ubiquitous reassuring Christian Democrat mode, he told the Parliament that “Ireland’s Presidency will be about our European family”. But that family is getting ever more dysfunctional with the loss of Social Europe.

‘Social Europe’ has been an important balancing mechanism. Jacques Delors, European Commission President from 1985 to 1994, most notably championed the concept. He believed that Europeans, faced with intensified Europe-wide competition, had to be protected from the excesses of the market. This was as much about securing acceptance of this intensified competition as it was about social justice. Nonetheless it has been a unique and important dimension to the European project. His thinking found its most significant expression in the Social Chapter of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. This set out a broad range of workers’ rights.

The Lisbon Strategy, adopted in 2000, reflected this commitment to ‘Social Europe’ in according equal priority to the employment, economic and social goals of the EU. Environmental goals were added a year later. The Europe 2020 ‘Strategy for Smart, Sustainable and Inclusive Growth’, adopted in 2010, continued this commitment with its focus on inclusive growth and by establishing significant poverty-reduction targets.

The economic crisis has provided the opportunity to undermine ‘Social Europe’. Economic matters have come to dominate the policy agenda. Social objectives are absent from the often-improvised economic policies being pursued in response to the crisis. Austerity and competitiveness policies dominate.

Equality and social inclusion policies have become marginal. Democracy has been diminished with the European Commission and the European Parliament sidelined by the European Council. In effect this means that those dismantling ‘Social Europe’ are the national governments rather than the European institutions.

The Government, in assuming the Presidency of the EU, continues the traditional Irish political preoccupation with what the EU can do for us. The Irish Presidency is being dominated by our search for a formula that can be touted as a deal on the bank debt. It is unlikely to be concerned with the niceties of what sort of EU we want, applying the lessons of the current crisis.

The most we got from Enda Kenny’s speech to the European Parliament was that the Irish Presidency would be about “stability, jobs, and growth”. He identified “removing the barriers to business” and “improving competitiveness” as being among the critical developments required in creating an environment for jobs. Is this really a comprehensive agenda for a mature European Union?

Jobs are a necessary focus. However the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN Europe) usefully reminds us that jobs alone will not recreate ‘Social Europe’. They point out that the majority of poor families are already working and the number of working poor is rising.

The EAPN analysed the National Reform Programmes (NRPs) published by all Member States under the Europe 2020 strategy. They found that there was little focus on the quality of jobs in these NRPs and no analysis of how employment will contribute to poverty reduction. Although poverty is increasing, it was invisible as a policy issue in the NRP and, therefore, unlikely to be reduced in a jobs only approach.

The EAPN recommended the need to back ‘Social Europe’ and restore balance to the economic and social objectives in Europe 2020 and to economic governance more generally. In line with Treaty commitments they further recommended that all policies should integrate social objectives and contribute to reduction in poverty. EAPN would be foolish to pin their hopes on progress under this most conservative and unimaginative Irish Presidency.