AK EUROPA: Will it be possible to bridge the divides between Member States?Due to the launch of the report “Benchmarking Working Europe 2017” by ETUI and ETUC, a high-level panel was organised by the Austrian Federation of Trade Unions (ÖGB) the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and AK Europa the Permanent Representation of Austria to the EU in Brussels.
In fact, one could be cautiously pleased agreed Oliver Röpke, Head of the ÖGB Brussels Office and Philippe Pochet, General Director ETUI in their opening addresses. The reason for this optimism: the economy seems to recover, growth rates are moderate and unemployment figures are falling – as has also recently been stated by the Commission in its Winter Forecast. However, taking a closer look, one could see this confidence waning: wages in seven Member States are still lower than they were eight years ago; divergences between countries are growing and Hungary has firmly opposed a binding European Pillar of Social Rights and social upward convergence.
In the following presentation on the key results of “Benchmarking Working Europe 2017”, Maria Jespen, Director of the ETUI Research Department, pointed out that developments, compared to the last decade, might seem positive; however, unemployment in the EU was still high. The risen employment rate was above all the result of a decrease in people of working age and the increase in part-time jobs and not happening due to an actual rise in full-time employment. In addition, austerity policy and deregulation have contributed to an aggravation of the social situation and lead to a lack in investments. These developments are by far not the same in all Member States. On the contrary, it was easy to detect diverging trends between countries: whilst for example, Member States (in particular the Nordic countries) with traditionally high levels in worker participation and collective agreement coverage also show changes for the worse, these are even more prominent in countries, that have less tradition in this area, which means in particular in East-Central Europe. 
The high-level panel, moderated by Aline Hoffmann, ETUI, Head of unit “Europeanisation of Industrial Relations”, discussed how one could deal with these diverging developments of the Member States at a European level.
Jeroen Jutte, European Commission, Head of the Unit "Employment and social aspects of European Semester" and responsible for the agendas of the European Semester emphasised that the recently intensified focus on employment and social aspects would broaden the coordination of national policies by an important element. In contrast to criticism growing even louder, there were sufficient examples for the fact that country-specific recommendations by the Commission were be accepted by the Member States.
Zsolt Darvas of the Think-tank Bruegel disagreed with this view. Even though the European Semester would be a step in the right direction, not enough was achieved: Member States were still reluctant to orientate themselves on the reform proposals. Overall, the Commission could do much more in respect of reducing income inequality and poverty.
Peter Scherrer, Deputy General Secretary of ETUC also demanded more commitment by the Commission with regard to the new version of the European Social Model: the employee representatives are prepared to meet their responsibilities concerning the social dialogue and to assume responsibility; however, employer representatives had to follow suit. Social and economic convergence within the EU were in urgent need of reinforcement: using more public investments, an increase in wages and implementing comprehensive social and labour standards – as it has been demanded for quite some time with the Golden Investment Rule and the “Social Rights First” campaign, which is supported by the Chamber of Labour. However, one had to take care that the Commission package on the European Pillar of Social Rights, which will be published shortly, does not turn into an “empty boxes of chocolates – beautiful packing without specific contents”. One has to wait until the 26th April to see whether the Commission will again only make recommendations or finally impose legally binding and adequate minimum standards.
 It has been shown for example that collective agreement coverage has been especially decreased in South and East-Central Europe, whereby in particular the latter countries traditionally have a weak collective bargaining and negotiation system. Whilst in countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Finland, collective agreement coverage lies at almost 90%, this is not the case in East-Central Europe (Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia). Here, coverage on average lies at just over 20%. (Figures for 2014, Source: Benchmarking Working Europe 2017, p. 43). At the same time, these countries often have no form of worker participation at an operational level.