Organisation and financing of national social insurance and health systems are the responsibility of the EU Member States. However, the influence of the European Union on reforms of social security is on the increase. AK EUROPA, the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB Europabüro) and the European Representation of Austrian Social Security Institutions took this subject as an opportunity to discuss within the scope of an event on 26.02.2019, how a balance between economical governance on the one hand and the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights on the other could be achieved.
In his opening speech, Günter Danner, Deputy Director of the European Representation of the German Social Insurance, explained the challenges for the social systems in Europe. Apart from the fear of the population to lose their own social standards, austerity measures by the governments and the increasing private and public debt also lead to dissatisfaction and uncertainty in society. A well working social network is essential for a democracy and apart from that prevents radicalisation. Danner emphasised the significance of the subsidiarity of European social systems, as not all countries in the EU would have the same standard in respect of their social system. Hence, millions of people inside and outside the EU would be glad if they could benefit from such a good social insurance system as Austria has. Therefore, an intensive cooperation at European level would be of great significance.
Bernd Achitz, ÖGB General Secretary and Vice Chairman of the Main Association of Austrian Social Security Institutions, talked about reforms of the Austrian social system, which many Austrians would perceive as negative. He regards it as a misfortunate mix of problematic requirements of the EU, for example within the scope of the country reports and the ideological orientation of conservative and neoliberal governments, which call upon alleged EU requirements. As an example he cites the proposal to raise the pensionable age in Austria. Achitz also pointed out that countries with a good social network coped better with the crisis and that the EU had to deliver concepts to improve people’s lives.
Isabel de la Mata from DG SANTE of the European Commission emphasised the European values, which would also be reflected in the social system. However, she considers the influence of the European Commission on national social systems as limited. The Commission would only provide countries with proposals; it would not give strict instructions on what has to be changed or improved. Rather, she describes the work of the Commission as assistance to the Member States.
Alexander Biach, Chairman of the Main Association of Austrian Social Security Institutions and Deputy Director of the Vienna Economic Chamber, emphasised the cooperation in the social area at European level. In order to master future challenges such as digitalisation, ageing or increasing mobility, mutual support and not competition among themselves should be at the focus. Europe needs unity through diversity. Apart from that, European coordination could promote innovative ideas and research to ensure that the EU can keep up in the international competition with China and the USA. Biach also explained the problems, social systems could encounter in case of a “hard Brexit”: Austrian pensioners living in the United Kingdom would receive their pensions, but they would not be insured.
Matthias Wismar, Senior Health Policy Analyst at the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies regards the health and social system as part of the European Single Market. He wants to get away from the idea of subsidiarity. Even if there is no common EU health system, common standards can still be established and cooperation promoted. He emphasised the importance of cross-border cooperation, which is particularly necessary in respect of education, personal and professional recognition. He also demands more solidarity - not only at national, but also at EU level. For him, cohesion policy in agriculture and in structurally weak regions could also serve as a model for social policy.