Austria has been the holder of the Presidency since July 2018; in fact, more than half of her term has passed. During an event organised by the Brussels Offices of the Austrian Federal Chamber of Labour (AK EUROPA) and the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB Europabüro), as well as the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) on 22 October, the trade unionists called on the Aus-trian Presidency to prioritise social policy issues.
The motto of the Austrian Presidency is “A Europe that protects”, placing its emphasis on security and the fight against illegal immigration, securing wealth and competitiveness based on digitalisation and stability in the neighbourhood. However, to do the motto justice and given the growing social divide within the European Union, the social Europe must be strengthened to enable convergence between countries. It is for this reason that the AK has prepared a “Memorandum for a social Europe – Steps towards a successful Austrian EU Council Presidency in 2018 from worker's point of view”.
Wolfgang Katzian, President of the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB), stressed the urgent necessity of a European Labour Authority, which would also have the power to impose sanctions. In particular due to her vicinity to countries with a lower wage level, Austria was disproportionately affected by wage and social dumping. Even though the applicable legal situation in Austria would be very good, in many cases penalties against companies in other countries could not be imposed. Here, based on the cooperation of national authorities, a European Labour Authority could help to overcome this problem. Apart from that, Wolfgang Katzian criticised the amendment of the Austrian Working Time Act and pointed to the significance of high social standards at European level to avoid a race to the bottom between Member States.
Josef Stredula, President of the Czech Trade Union Confederation (CMKOS), also addressed the lack of wage convergence in European countries and urged the Austrian Presidency to create a basis for a Europe-wide social system to counter this problem. Based on the development so far, it would take Czechia 80 to 90 years to reach the same wage level as Germany or Austria. The fact that price levels in Europe were far more equal than wage levels would amplify the problem. Therefore, he too would demand the same wages, the same standards and the same rights throughout Europe, however, without lowering the rights of those countries with high standards.
Luca Visentini, General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), pointed to the fact that not only Central and East European countries would benefit from a European Labour Authority and a Directive on predictable and transparent working conditions, but also countries such as Spain and Portugal. Apart from that, he criticised the Austrian Presidency, which completely failed to mention the European Pillar of Social Rights in their programme. A country that at the same time introduces the 60-hour week for her own workers would send a disastrous signal to the outside world. It was therefore Visentini's hope that some progress would be made during the remaining weeks so that it would be possible to present results at the European Council in December.
Miranda Ulens, General Secretary of the Belgian Trade Union Confederation (FGTB-ABVV), emphasised the importance of communicating with European citizens. Social issues and social policy had to be driven forward to reach young people. Experiencing financial difficulties and concerns about their future would attract them to right-wing extremist parties. In order to counter this development, the Belgian Trade Union Confederation would organise a congress im May with the aim to develop a European Memorandum and concrete projects, which in particular involve young people and women.
Joost Korte, Director-General in DG EMPL, European Commission, pointed to the activities of the European Commission, which resulted in 13 dossiers, 4 of which will soon be finalised. However, he also mentioned the resource restrictions by the European Semester and the European Social Fond, which makes implementing social legislation in some Member States significantly more difficult. Korte too emphasised the importance of a European Labour Authority, the more so as the Commission did not have a mandate to directly influence the wage levels of Member States. However, the Commission would be in a position to create conditions for a good wage policy. Overall, he painted a positive picture of the employment rate in Europe and talked about a slow rapprochement of Member States with regard to their wage level.
Christa Kammerhofer-Schlegel, Federal Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Consumer Protection reported that already at the beginning of October agreement in trilogue had been reached for the 2nd Tranche of the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive. The trilogue between Parliament, Council and Commission had now started in respect of the Work Life Balance Dossier. However, common positions of the Member States with regard to the Dossiers on access to social protection for workers and the self-employed and the proposal of a European Labour Authority had yet to be found. She hopes that it will be possible to reach agreement in both cases before the Council meets on 6 December 2018 as time is of the essence if these legislative proposals are to be adopted before the European elections in May 2019.