The State of the Union Address by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker definitely indicated social initiatives. However, it remains to be seen whether these are sufficient to achieve the urgently needed social policy shift in the EU. At first glance, Juncker’s address hardly contained any new impulses for the European Pillar of Social Rights. However, greater efforts will be required to ensure that the proclamation of social rights will not be reduced to just lip service and that the justified expectations for social minimum standards in the EU will not be disappointed. Two days prior to Juncker’s address, the European Economic and Social Committee also debated how vital the social dimension is for the future of Europe.
A public hearing by of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) on the European Pillar of Social Rights debated the future of the Union. Rapporteur Gabriele Bischoff emphasised the connection between Europe's social dimension and the future of the EU: she does not see a future for the European Union without a stronger social foundation. In particular after Brexit and Trump it should become clear to everybody that the European Project realistically could fail if there was not at last a policy shift towards a social Europe associated with binding social minimum standards and a departure from neoliberal economic policies.
For all intents and purposes, the European Pillar of Social Rights was intended to become the social prestige project of the EU Commission under Jean-Claude Juncker. A long lead time and comprehensive public consultations saw tensions building up and high expectations being raised. However, from the point of view of the AK the proposal for the Social Pillar has been far from meeting these expectations. Both the proposal by the Commission and the proclamation of the European Council proposed by it shall not create any new binding and enforceable social rights. The proposal only confines itself to already existing rights and principles, which remain legally non-binding and which are in addition frequently very generally formulated.
These points of criticism were shared by many speakers in the EESC. The main speaker, Professor Vandenbroucke of University of Amsterdam, emphasised the link between Single Market and the European social model. He argued that Single Market and Monetary Union require a certain divergence of the social models. Hence, Professor Vandenbroucke regards “resilient welfare states”, which distinguish themselves by social protection and public investments, to be the key for Single Market and Monetary Union to work well – including the future of Europe.
Sotiria Theodoropoulou, the representative of the European Trade Union Institute ETUI also pointed out that the EU’s crisis of confidence and legitimacy could only be overcome by strengthening its social dimension. However, due to the neoliberal austerity policy of the past years, the autonomy of the Member States regarding social and labour market policy has been greatly reduced – but this room to manoeuvre has not nearly enough been compensated at EU level. This created a gap, which must be urgently closed in the interest of all European employees. A future scenario, where the EU exclusively restricts itself to the Single Market, would not be able to recapture this room to manoeuvre in the interest of employees, argued Theodoropoulou.
Esther Lynch, the Confederal Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, appealed for decisive action and the end of zero-hour contracts, improvements for atypical employees and data protection regulations as examples for concrete measures, which could be implemented at EU level with immediate effect. The time for fine words had come to an end; it was high time to implement concrete measures for improving the working and living conditions in the EU, said the Confederation representative.
The AK uses the discussion on the Social Pillar to support a general social policy shift in the EU. What is needed instead of non-binding principles is the expansion of ambitious and binding social minimum standards, as clearly expressed in the Position Paper of the AK. Apart from that, to achieve this policy shift, there is a need for realignment towards a balanced wealth-oriented economic policy. To achieve this, the restrictive fiscal rules and their impact on Europe’s social dimension had to be reviewed in a first step to give Member States more room to manoeuvre regarding future-oriented investments. Following Juncker’s address, putting pressure on seems to be more important than ever!