An annual collective volume – published by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) and the European Social Observatory (OSE) – analyses the state of development of social policy in the European Union. This week (5.3.2018), the current volume, to be published on May 18, was presented in the European Parliament, whereby selected contributions in the book concerning Brexit, the European Semester as well as the work-life balance were discussed.
The collective volume is divided into two sections; a first on “High Level Politics” in the EU, which the authors locate between integration, disintegration and differentiated integration; as well as a second on current European topics. In his opening speech, Mario Thelo (Free University of Brussels) supports the path of differentiated integration and demands a Europe of different speeds. According to his diction, the focus would have to be placed on the one hand on democratising and consolidating the Eurozone and on intensifying integration within the scope of the second and third pillar of the Maastricht Treaty on the other.
The vote on Brexit and the current negotiations on the exist and the future Cooperation with Great Britain confront the EU with great challenges in respect of disintegration. In his very informative contribution on Brexit, Daniel Clegg (Edinburgh University) analyses this aspect against the developments on the British labour market and draws conclusions for a social Europe. Due to the socio-ecological background in the United Kingdom, the Brexit vote has been frequently interpreted as the “revolt of the left behind”. Here, Clegg calls for a closer look at the British labour market: the unemployment rate in Great Britain was one of the lowest in Europe; the employment rate was high. However, in particular some of the regions with particular high employment rates had voted “leave. Great Britain's labour market figures had often been used as a “successful example” of the European Union. However, one had placed too much emphasis on increasing the employment rate focussed too little on the quality of the jobs. A consequence of the British policy, which also a preferred option of the EU, were among other low unemployment benefits, social benefits in form of Tax relief (Tax Credits), in-work benefits and zero-hour contracts (on-call work). Hence, these are the sectors where Clegg sees a need for reform and a reorientation of the British and the European social model.
According to her contribution, Amandine Crespy (Free University of Brussels) in the European Semester process too, the focus was still on structural reforms, labour market deregulation and competitiveness. The approaches by the Juncker Commission to promote investments had been too cautious. Crespy also voiced Criticism at the European Semester process also from a democratic point of view: this had been shown to be a top-down project, in which above all national administrations are making an input. What was required here was a stronger decentralisation and involvement of the population, national parliaments and trade unions. However, against the background of the latest developments - the Commission’s Winter Package 2018 gives more consideration to social aspects - it is possible to slightly reduce Crespy’s criticism, as the foundations of the European Pillar of Social Rights can be found in the country reports to a larger degree.
Finally, Denis Bouget (ETUI and OSE) presented a contribution on the work-life balance in the sector of long-term care, which revealed great differences between Member State models. 70 % - 90 % of carers are women, whereby a large part of long-term care in Europe is still carried out informal and without pay; the result is a significant risk of poverty of the carers due to a long absence from the labour market. Also a Europe-wide trend would be the development of a grey area between unpaid and paid work (no wages, but social insurance, allowances). The contribution sees EU and national policy as divided, between the attempt to improve the work-life balance and the recruitment of the carers from a predominately family background.
Within the scope of the event, the invited MEP Philippe Lamberts (Greens) directed harsh criticism at the EU Commission: “It’s not just about doing good”, said the MEP with reference to the Pillar of Social Rights, “but stop doing evil”. He raised the question, why the Commission did not take any measures against the increasing imbalance and redistribution of employees’ income from salaries and the income of capital owners. The fact, that tax competition between Member States was taking place at all had to be attributed to the Commission, in the same way as it would weaken tariff negotiations.
Jeroen Jutte, head of unit for Employment and Social Aspects of the European Semester appeased that meanwhile the Commission would put greater emphasis on imbalance and that the weakening of tariff negotiations was rather more the result of digitalisation and technical progress. According to Jutte, the impetus for tackling tax competition had to come from the Member States and not from the Commission.
Against the background of the elections in Italy and the big gains of Europe-sceptic parties, Sebastiano Sabato (OSE) came to a pessimistic conclusion: people in Europe would no longer feel protected by traditional parties and institutions. Here therefore called for using EU social policy not only for adjustments, but as a genuine protective mechanism for the people. From his point of view, the social pillar was the EU’s last chance.
ETUI/OSE, Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017 (book available as free download)