By proclaiming the European Pillar of Social Rights over eighteen months ago another attempt had been made to pave the way towards a more social structure of the European Union. Since then, several Directives have been adopted. However, to what extent the Pillar will lead to positive changes, does not least depend on the socio-political measures of the next Commission.
It was announced on 13th June 2019 that the headquarters of the European Labour Authority (ELA) will be in Bratislava. The ELA plays an important role in the fight against wage and social dumping and shall assist in implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR). Drawing up an interim statement, AK EUROPA has pointed out that even though the Pillar is not legally binding, it nevertheless has initiated legislative acts in European labour and social law, as well as for the Directives on Work-Life Balance and on transparent and predictable working conditions.
Socio-political measures in the European Semester
Within the framework of an event hosted by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) on 13th June 2019, discussions were now also held on the developments of the Pillar so far and on future challenges of European social policy. In his recently published book “À la recherche de l'Europe sociale”, Philippe Pochet, General Director of ETUI, illustrates the historical developments of the EU’s social policy. In his opening address, he referred to the fact that a debate on the EU’s socio-political structure would take place every 15 years at European level. This would open a “window of opportunity” in years to come. It remains to be seen how the new Commission will shape social policy in future.
Sebastiano Sabato, Senior Researcher at the European Social Observatory (OSE), cautiously regarded the implementation of the EPSR within the framework of the European Semester as positive. At least at a formal level, the EPSR had shown some effect: with regard to the “social country-specific recommendations” it had been possible to record an overall increase, whilst recommendations on measures referring to cuts in social services were in decline.
However, Caroline de la Porte, Professor at the Copenhagen Business School pointed out that so far the implementation of the 20 Principles of the Pillar has only been in part ambitious; this would in particular concern the 2nd Dimension der EPSR on fair working conditions: according to her assessment, in particular the new Directive on Work-Life Balance, which falls in this area, has the potential to drive forward positive changes. The two other chapters are so far lacking appropriate implementation steps and measures.
Zane Rasnača, ETUI researcher, emphasised that the EPSR is not a legally binding instrument; however, both the EU and the Member States are urged to implement the EPSR. However, new alliances have been forged among critics to strengthen the European social policy. The Nordic EU countries are often sceptical when it comes to increasing European minimum standards, as they are worried that these would put increased pressure on their well-functioning welfare states. But also poorer European economies, which not yet have a well-developed welfare state and which would have to budget for implementing the Pillar, are cautiously regarding the development of a social Europe. It was also the responsibility of trade unions and social partners to enter into discourse with individual governments.
Challenges for the next legislative period
Since proclaiming the EPSR at the end of 2017, the Juncker Commission has focussed on social policy and used the EPSR to put social issues at the centre. This path must be continued and a link to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has to be created, commented Beate Beller Social Affairs Officer at SOLIDAR during the event. She also emphasised that a combination of ecological and social targets is required to combat poverty and to advance social justice.
According to Krzysztof Nowaczek, Deputy Head of the EU Commission’s Coordination Unit at DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, apart from climate change, digital transformation and Artificial Intelligence also present future social policy with great challenges. Hence, investments in education and qualifications (e.g. lifelong learning), as well as a shaping the European Union (e.g. affordable housing) in a fair manner, are needed. This requires the cooperation with trade unions and civil society organisations as well as the integration of socio-political issues in all other political sectors (“mainstream social policy”).