On 4 March 2021, the Commission presented its long awaited new European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan. Against the background of the Covid-19 crisis, with dramatic unemployment figures, rising poverty and precarious working conditions, an urgent need for action is required.
In November 2017, the European institutions had agreed on 20 politically binding principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR), which they solemnly proclaimed at the Social Summit Gothenburg. Thanks to the EPSR, it has been possible to approve and launch a few important social projects, such as the European Labour Authority, the introduction of the Social Scoreboard within the scope of the European Semester or the EU minimum wage negotiations. However, so far, the EPSR has not been successful in initiating a trend reversal, away from Europe’s neoliberal structure.
With the new Action Plan, the Commission wants “to translate the principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) into action”, underlined Nicolas Schmit, Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights. A Eurobarometer Survey , which was published prior to the Action Plan, also reflects the demand of the European population to create a more social Europe: 88 % of respondents regarded a social Europe to be an important personal issue. However, only 29 % of respondents knew what the EPSR stood for. Hence, most people do not yet seem to be aware of the EPSR.
(Some) new key targets not ambitious enough
Based on the Action Plan, the Commission has identified three key targets for the EU to be achieved by 2030: (1) at least 78 % of 20- to 64-year-olds should be in employment; (2) each year, at least 60 % off all adults should take part in advanced training courses and (3) the number of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion should be reduced by at least 15 million. The EU 2020 employment target had already envisaged an employment rate of 75 % – however, this target has not been attained. The key target “poverty reduction” in particular is lacking in ambition, and also falls behind the UN poverty target.
The European Semester’s Social Scoreboard shall be revised by adding further indicators. In doing so, the EPSR shall be better aligned with 10 of the 17 United Nations targets for sustainable development. The 673,5 billion euros within the framework of the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) and its importance for a social recovery have also been addressed. However, it does not go further than appealing to the Member States; the Action Plan does not provide for a closer bond of the RRF to EPSR targets.
Known legislative proposals, many Soft Law initiatives and some gaps
The Commission has also used the Action Plan to once again recap the most important (legislative) proposals for 2021 and beyond – mainly initiatives, which had been previously announced and were therefore already known. It is expected that the proposals on sustainable management “Supply Chain Act”), on working conditions of platform workers as well on fighting gender-based violence against women will be added in 2021. These are three very important initiatives and should therefore be welcomed. Also planned for 2021 is the presentation of a new Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work, a platform to fight homelessness and an initiative for affordable housing as well as an Action Plan for the social economy. A Children’s Rights Strategy and a recommendation for a European Child Guarantee were presented this week (24.03.2021). Apart from that, the Action Plan contains numerous Soft Law initiatives and encouragements by the Commission to the Member States – however, it remains doubtful whether encouragements and requests will be sufficient to implement the ambitious targets for a social Europe.
The Commission also announces a recommendation for a minimum income for 2022, thereby addressing an important issue. However, a Soft Law approach is both unwise and disappointing; Social Commissioner Schmit had already announced a relevant Directive proposal in the past. The list of projects is also lacking a Directive proposal for minimum standards for unemployment insurance systems, as has been requested for a long time by the Austrian Chamber of Labour, as well as the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) and the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB). It is to be regarded as positive that the Commission’s Action Plan also addresses access to healthcare services and working conditions in this sector. The Austrian Chamber of Labour has also already made concrete proposals for a European Legal Act regarding the Long-Term Care Initiative, which was announced for 2022. The announced high-level group of experts, which shall address the future of the welfare state and its funding, could also become an interesting project.
Pay transparency, people with disabilities and support to employment
Parallel to the new EPSR Action Plan, the Commission also presented three further concrete initiatives. Helena Dalli, Commissioner for Equality presented the – previously several times delayed and hence overdue – proposal for a Directive on pay transparency. The Commissioner also presented a new European Disability Strategy . Furthermore, by providing Effective Active Support to Employment (EASE) following the Covid-19 crisis, the Commission wants to urge Member States to launch labour market initiatives to protect jobs in the current situation and to prevent attempts to solve this crisis by introducing austerity measures again.
Social Summit in Porto and Europe’s future
The next important step for the EPSR Action Plan is the Porto Social Summit on 7 and 8 May 2021: what is required here, is an ambitious declaration on the basis of which the Action Plan will be adopted as well as a strong commitment by all institutions regarding the implementation of the Action Plan. It will subsequently be important to put great emphasis on the social targets also within the framework of the Conference on the Future of Europe, which is due to start on 9 May 2021.