A strengthening of the social dimension of the European Union was supposed to be central to Jean-Claude Juncker’s European Commission Presidency. The European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) is his key objective in trying to recalibrate the European Union as a social and caring union of equals. Once established, the EPSR is to become a framework defining the fundamental values and principles on social rights shared at European level, on which policies would be based.
The EPSR was formulated to provide a response to the social crisis which followed the financial crisis in Europe. The reform programmes and austerity which was foisted upon Member States, Ireland included, severely damaged economic development and led to huge increases in social inequality. This economic and social breakdown has become one of the biggest threats to the European project and has been further exacerbated by Britain’s decision to leave the union. As a result, there has been a renewed focus in Brussels on addressing, or appearing to address, these issues: reinforcing the social dimension of the EU.
The first gauge of what this social Europe will look like is to be found in a Commission EPSR communication document published earlier this year. Broken into three sections, the EPSR seeks to create equal opportunities and access to labour markets, fair working conditions, and adequate and sustainable social protection. These three sections seek to create what the European Commission calls a ‘social triple A’ for the EU.
They are noble aspirations but that is all. The EPSR will not be enshrined in law through any European Treaties. There will be no legal basis to achieve the aims set. It was the same with social elements of Europe 2020.
There are certain progressive elements to the communication. These include encouraging lifelong learning, addressing the gender pension gap, and disability rights. However, the core issue is this: charged with responsibility for and the opportunity to ameliorate the social cost of the crisis, the European Commission stops short of guaranteeing the social rights it says are needed.
The most damning aspect to the EPSR is the subordination of the social to the economic. At almost every stage in the proposal the social rights outlined are subordinated to the primacy of the economy. Examples of this are manifold in the Commission communication. Annex 12, for example, calls for healthcare systems to be cost effective ‘in order to improve… their financial sustainability”. Annex 14 calls for the duration of unemployment benefits to preserve “incentives for a quick return to employment”. Working conditions and workers’ rights are another area of concern where the communication calls for “flexible and secure labour contracts” and “flexibility in the conditions of employment…”.
The central issue with the European Commission’s approach to the EPSR is that they call for increased social rights on one hand, yet they ensure such a progression will either not happen, or be hindered, by trying to make it compatible to market demands. It is for these reasons that it is far from clear how the EPSR, as currently proposed, can deliver on its goal of creating a more social Europe.
It is time for policy makers in Brussels to stop considering the social rights of European citizens as a lower class of rights. There was no problem when powers of economic competence were assumed by the EU (opposed by me). The statutory nature of social rights must be similarly protected and enshrined.
Those involved in formulating policy at EU level, particularly those responsible in the Council, the European Commission, and the European Parliament must create a new vision of how we view the economic and the social. There has to be agreement and a move towards a situation where social policy is not considered a burden to economic growth, but rather the two are considered to be symbiotic.
If it is to be successful and deliver on its stated aims, the EPSR has to be radically rethought. Thankfully the opportunity is available to influence and shape the EPSR. Throughout 2016, the European Commission will discuss the content and role of the European Pillar of Social Rights with national authorities, social partners, civil society and citizens. The outcome of this debate should feed into a final text with teeth. It is my hope that, through this process, the EPSR can be realigned so as to guarantee social rights in the manner that citizens deserve, to address the serious social injustices throughout the EU.
by Lynn Boylan, MEP