Heaping a lot of self-praise on it, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz celebrated the only just ended Austrian Presidency in the European Parliament on 15th January 2019. However, as the targets and priorities, which were defined in advance, hardly made room for the rights of European workers, it needed strident acclamations from the outside to ensure that progress with regard to important dossiers would still be made in the last weeks of the Austrian Presidency.
The start of the Presidency saw more than 200 open legislative proposals. As obviously it is not possible to finalise all of them within six months, the Austrian government defined in advance its priorities and the policy fields to be focussed on. Under the motto “A Europe that protects“, it selected three focal points: migration, competitiveness and neighbourhood policy in the Western Balkans.
In a Memorandum for a social Europe, the Chamber of Labour had in advance defined key elements, which, from the point of view of workers, were essential for a 2018 EU Presidency. However, important legislative proposals, which had already been on the table in Brussels and which were essential to improve the social rights of all Europeans, had not been reflected in the priorities. This included in particular the proposal of a European Labour Authority, which was to support national authorities to prevent cross-border wage and social dumping, thereby fighting abuse and fraud. Others were the Work-Life-Balance Directive, which attempts to enable the compatibility of work and family, for the first time also in connection with the care of relatives, or the Directive on transparent and predictable working conditions, which, especially due to a broad definition of the term “worker”, would have overnight guaranteed thousands of people in Europe working in atypical employment more legal certainty and improvements of their rights at their workplace.
Given the fact that the Austrian Council Presidency did not prioritize these dossiers and that the announced EU Council of Ministers for Social Affairs was cancelled in October, the pressure on the Presidency continuously grew to at last put social issues on its agenda. At the beginning of October, even Commission President Jean Claude Juncker urged Chancellor Kurz to attend to the matters of the Labour Authority. The fact, that in spite of the delayed start the ELA agreement with Member States in the Council was reached after all, is thanks to the tireless work and the huge effort of the competent officials.
However, it remains to be seen whether the remaining time is sufficient to finalise the last step of European legislation, namely the trilogue negotiations between Council, Commission and Parliament before the EU elections. If the Austrian government had put more emphasis on social issues right from the start, one would have had more time for negotiating the dossiers and further finalisations would have been possible. In any case, the Austrian government has wasted the opportunity to help to create a Europe that protects people’s social rights.
Hence, the summary of Evelyn Regner (S&D) in the address by the Chancellor before the European on 15th January 2019: "A Europe that protects needs more than fences and border protection. People must be able to rely on the EU to also provide social protection.” Whilst the Green, Left and Social Democrat factions also criticised the lack of achievements in the social sector, the criticism of the conduct in respect of the Migration Package was shared by over almost all parties. The decision to initially co-negotiate and praise the UN Migration Pact, only to refuse to sign it later - highly symbolic - as the country holding the Council Presidency, was met by many MEPs with incomprehension and anger. Commission President Juncker said he would have liked it if the Presidency and Austria “had gone in the right directing rather than sending out negative signals”. As a result, Austria’s third Presidency will above all be remembered for what has not happened.