On 27th January, Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis, Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni as well as the Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicolas Schmit, answered questions of the Members of the European Parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee as well as of the European Parliament’s Employment Committee.
The reason for the dialogue was the Autumn Package, presented on 17.12.2019, which among other comprises the Annual Sustainable Growth Strategy 2020 and the proposal for the Joint Employment Report 2020. The Autumn Package marks the start of the cycle of the European Semester - the latter was, apart from the funding of the European Green Deal, at the centre of the dialogue. However, the larger lines of the economic orientation of the EU were addressed as well, for example the synergies between the Green transition, competitiveness and social justice.
Opening statements of the Commissioners
To begin with, the Executive Vice President Dombrovskis emphasised the continued record high of the employment figures within the EU; however, he conceded that not all Member States were benefiting from this. As also presented in the Annual Sustainable Growth Strategy 2020, the EU’s sustainable and inclusive growth model had to be based on four leitmotifs: environment, productivity, stability and fairness. Paolo Gentiloni, EU Commissioner for Economy, presented the reforms in the European Semester, for example the integration of the Sustainable Development Goals into the European Semester and thereby also the country-specific recommendations. Gentiloni criticised the budget surpluses of the Member States, which should be used for necessary investments. Referring to the not yet confirmed Joint Employment Report, Commissioner Schmit too pointed towards the positive balance of the employment figures. Concerning social policy issues, Schmit addressed both the resistant Gender Pay Gap and stagnating wages and gaps in social security systems. In view of the European Green Deal, he emphasised the importance of European skills policy, which he wanted to improve. The Commissioners underlined several times that environmental and social sustainability were going hand in hand and that the social policy agenda could not be separated from the efforts regarding the Green Deal.
Golden Investment Rule and budgetary scope
Public investments play an important role in the financial planning of the Green Deal. During the question and answer sessions, MEPs agreed that not enough investments were made. Restrictive and contractually stipulated budget rules curb these investments and significantly reduce the budgetary scope. Replying to the question when the “straitjacket of budgetary rules” could be stripped off, for example by applying the Golden Investment Rule, Dombrovskis referred to current efforts and conceded that simplified rules were needed.
“There will be no exchange deal”
A particular thorn in the side of many MEPs is the planned co-financing of the Just Transition Fund by using resources from the European Social Fund or the Cohesion Fund. Commissioner Schmit made it clear that there would be no exchange deal and that the Commission was aware of the importance of the European Social Fund. Apart from that, a social sustainable Green Change could only succeed when all available funds were interacting. With regard to a European minimum wage, Schmit referred to the new consultation and conceded that the minimum wage was not a universal remedy. Collective agreements had to remain the most important wage-setting instrument and the Commission had to increase its support for countries with weak tariff commitment. In the end, it is the European Pillar of Social Rights that continues to determine the roadmap for future social policy.
MEPs are setting topics
Several MEPs particularly emphasised the labour market integration of persons with disabilities, energy poverty and housing shortage. Valdis Dombrovskis referred to investment recommendations within the scope of the European Semester, which would time and again urge Member States to make a greater effort in making affordable housing available. All Commissioners underlined the fundamental consensus of the Commission, to consider and include all people in their policies. Nicolas Schmit referred to the upcoming version of the European Disability Strategy, which falls into Helena Dalli’s area of competence.
Agreement but also scepticism among MEPs
Even though the Commission’s plans look good on paper and were received positively by MEPs, there is still some scepticism as to how these positive targets can be reconciled, in particular without additional financial resources. MEPs of the Left GUE/NGL group found clear words for the “backflip” of the Commission in respect of collective agreements and social security. The MEPs criticised that in the course of the Euro crisis and the Troika, social security systems and well-functioning collective agreements had been destroyed by imposed austerity measures.