Is the Pillar of Social Rights the basis for a fairer Union?
Eight years after the onset of the global economic crisis, the consequences continue to be felt in Europe. High unemployment figures and growing social inequality both between and within the Member States have dampened particularly the enthusiasm of the low-income earners for the European project. Moreover, young EU citizens increasingly find themselves in new forms of work, such as zero-hours contracts, which offer flexibility but are practically not covered by any legal framework.
The European Commission recognises that, under these present conditions, social cohesion and long-term economic growth are at stake. In his State of the Union speech back in autumn 2015, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced the development of a European Pillar of Social Rights. This is intended to contribute to the plan for a deeper and fairer Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) and to provide a consolidated set of rules summarising social rights in Europe.
What is the European Pillar of Social Rights?
The consultation is the first step in this direction. Up until the end of the year, interested organisations and European citizens are asked for their opinions on the social situation in the Eurozone and the EU’s social acquis. Likewise, they are invited to comment on what possible form the Pillar of Social Rights should take. In spring 2017, all contributions will flow into the White Paper on the future of the Economic and Monetary Union.
When launching the consultation in March, the Commission already presented a first preliminary outline. For the moment, the initiative will only apply to the 19 Eurozone members, but it will eventually be open to the participation of the other EU Member States. The current proposal covers 20 policy areas, which extend far beyond the limited powers that the EU has in the field of social policy. Not only does the Pillar aim to guarantee fair working conditions, it also includes some rights designed to guarantee access to individual vocational guidance, long-term care and social housing.
The final document will not have any legal force with rights that are enforceable in court, but, according to the accompanying Communication, it “should become a reference framework to screen the employment and social performance of participating Member States.” The Pillar is thus intended to “drive reforms at national level and, more specifically, to serve as a compass for renewed convergence within the euro area.”
On which economic model should Europe base its future?
It remains to be seen how the Commission will adapt the first draft after the consultation round. But after years of restrictive austerity policies, which have encouraged nationalistic tendencies rather than stabilising the Eurozone, the initiative in itself sends an important signal to the citizens of the EU. It seems that, finally, the social dimension is again playing a stronger role in the European integration process.
Via the Lisbon Treaty, Europe’s Heads of State and Government have laid down the concept of a competitive social market economy as a main objective in the EU treaties. Up until now, the Union has failed to introduce instruments that help reaching the goal. Already in their statement in 2011, the Bishops of COMECE spoke in favour of a social market economy in Europe. In keeping with Catholic social teaching, this model is designed to not only promote competitiveness, but should also guarantee decent working conditions, solidarity with the most vulnerable, and also limit its negative impact on the ecology and the global economy.
How can the Pillar initiate effective improvements?
The Pillar of Social Rights is a good starting point, given its broad scope and applicability. The question remains, however, of how it would promote reforms at EU level and particularly within the Member States. In order to drive policy changes, it should become a reference document for the process of economic policy coordination, the European Semester. In this way, the EU could link social rights with the poverty and employment goals of the Europe 2020 Strategy and, at the same time, strengthen the social dimension of the European Semester. It also remains unclear how the EU would like to prevent the minimum standards from undermining higher targets in some Member States.
The consultation will hopefully provide answers to these questions, thereby making the Pillar of Social Rights an effective instrument for breathing new life into the founding idea of a Europe growing together.
Translated from the original text in German