In his inaugural speech before the European Parliament on 3rd July 2018, Federal Chancellor Kurz presented the programme for the Austrian Council Presidency. Under the motto “A Europe that protects”, the programme unites three focuses: Migration, Digitisation and Neighbourhood Policy in the Western Balkans. However, from the point of view of the Chamber of Labour, the protection of social standards with regard to European workers and employees is missing.
Displaying his usual sense of humour, Commission President Jean Claude Juncker used a metaphor in his opening address to remind the Austrian Federal Chancellor to maintain the European perspective: even if he, Juncker, would love Wiener Schnitzel, there had to be more than this single dish on the European table. An implicit reference to the issue of migration, which featured prominently in Kurz´ inaugural speech. Besides digitisation and neighbourhood policy in the Western Balkans, migration is one of the three focuses of the programme of the Austrian Presidency, which started on 1st July 2018 and which will last until the end of December. “A Europe that protects” is the motto of the Council Presidency.
Even though the motto of “Protection” may be referred back to a large number of currently open legislative initiatives, it is regrettable from the Chamber of Labour's point of view that in particular the protection of social standards – especially in view of initiatives in the interest of European workers and employees – has not been included in the focuses of the Council programme. The text of the Austrian programme does not once mention the European Pillar of Social Rights. One also looks in vain for the key Commission proposals on the European Labour Authority, on Work-Life-Balance or on transparent and predictable labour conditions. Even if the new Presidency cannot be expected to finalise all of the currently ca. 200 open legislative initiatives, it would be irresponsible towards European workers and employees if these important dossiers would be ignored or shelved in the months prior to the European Elections in May 2019 and before the stepping down of the Juncker Commission.
Hence, the remarkable aspect of Kurz´ speech before the Plenary Assembly of the European Parliament is not what he said, but rather what he left out. However, the fact that the Federal Chancellor emphasised fair taxation of digital companies – within the meaning of “protecting” the level playing field towards classic companies – as one of the priorities of the Presidency, must be regarded as positive. Not mentioned, on the other hand, were a number of other heavyweights in the current legislative process: for example the Commission proposal on the Common Consolidated Corporate Tax as immanently important initiative against tax avoidance or the so-called “New Deal for Consumers”, which could significantly improve consumer rights at European level.
Even though the European economy is currently enjoying a phase of recovery, not all people in Europe benefit from this upturn. Long-term unemployment, the threat of poverty and social exclusion, the increase of precarious employment as well as the rising inequality both between Member States and within individual countries present the Presidency with special challenges. Whether the Austrian government, which Federal Chancellor Kurz called a traditional “bridge builder”, will indeed take effective measures to bridge the growing inequality gaps in the EU, is difficult to detect in the programme of the Council Presidency. In a Memorandum for a Social Europe, the Chamber of Labour has hence presented key components, which, from the point of view of workers and employees, are essential for a successful EU Council Presidency 2018.