Progressive Futures

The European pillar of social rights: a step-change for the EU?

28 November 2017

While the discussions in Gothenburg are promising, we should remain cautiously optimistic about a social Europe that risks promising much but being able to deliver little.

Paul Copeland

EU employment and social policy or ‘social Europe’ has had a tough decade. Against a backdrop of deadlock whereby policy negotiations stalled and EU leaders could not agree on how best to further integrate social Europe, the eurozone crisis hit. In responding to the crisis, EU-driven austerity severely undermined EU welfare states, particularly those that received bailouts and were required to make significant cuts to public spending.

The public backlash against austerity and the dwindling of support for the European project required the incoming Juncker commission to undertake a social Europe re-think – a promise that was key to its appointment in 2014. Such was the height of discontent with the EU, in the 2014 European parliamentary elections parties from the far left and far right received a combined 25 per cent share of the vote.  Therefore, the launching of the European pillar of social rights in April 2017 by the commission should be regarded as part of its strategy to stem the populist turn in EU politics. It is the commission’s attempt to rebalance the process of European integration away from pure market-driven integration and for the EU to be seen to do more visible things for its citizens.

In this regard, the Juncker commission is unafraid to tackle thorny issues head on and kudos should be given. Neither is it deterred by the political division within a European council of 28 members (soon to be 27). Indeed, reaching agreements between member states with very different welfare state traditions, levels of income and economic growth, makes concrete policy agreements in the field near impossible.

How, then, has the Juncker commission sought to square the circle of social Europe?

The European pillar of social rights contains 20 principles and rights that are grouped into three themes: (1) equal opportunities and access to the labour market; (2) fair working conditions; (3) social protection and inclusion. Notably, it does not impose any requirements on EU member states, rather it seeks to frame future policies and to safeguard the EU’s social welfare programmes.  The pillar represents an amalgamation of: (1) social rights already guaranteed in the charter of fundamental rights of the European Union, albeit updated to reflect changes in the labour market; (2) existing social and employment policy competences and activities of the EU, particularly those governed by legally non-binding modes of governance; and (3) a few policy issues that attempt to both define and steer the future of a social Europe.

The decision to advance social Europe via a social rights approach rather than introducing a swathe of new EU policy in the form of directives is a pragmatic, and somewhat clever, response to the decade-long deadlock in the field. The European pillar of social rights therefore serves to provide the impetus for a renewed momentum in social Europe, to galvanise support both within the EU institutions and across Europe to move integration forward. Indeed, since its launch, the European pillar of social rights has received significant media attention and EU-level interest. It also provided the impetus for the EU’s first social summit in two decades. The Gothenburg summit for fair jobs and growth, held on 17 November 2017, brought together the heads of state and government, social partners, and other key players to proclaim the European pillar of social rights and to discuss possible ways forward.

The commission has also been busy on the policy front since the launch, presenting several proposals to implement the pillar, including a recent proposal to improve the work-life balance of working parents and carers. It additionally opened two social partner consultations – one to modernise the rules on labour contracts and a second on access to social protection for all individuals.

The future for social Europe is therefore looking much brighter than at any time since the late 1990s. But there are a few good reasons to remain cautious about the future.

A first thing to note is that the European pillar of social rights contains very few rights or principles that are new and, as such, it should be regarded as a stocktaking exercise that attempts to nudge the integration process forward. This has similar echoes of the 1989 community charter of fundamental social rights, from which useful lessons may be drawn for the pillar. The objective of the community charter was to create a level playing field in social policy by harmonising the policies of the member states. The charter was instrumental in the launching of initiatives in employment and industrial relations policy which produced several directives in the early 1990s concerning: pregnancy and maternity leave; working time; and the posting of workers. However, consensus amongst the member states was difficult to achieve because disagreements persisted in the council over whether the levelling of EU social standards should be one of an increase or a decrease. There is a real danger that history will repeat itself with the European pillar of social rights.

This brings us to a second important point – whether persistent division within the council can be overcome to seize the moment and to deepen social Europe. The European commission can only give direction on the matter, while most of the tools to deliver on the European pillar of social rights are in the hands of the member states. Scandinavian members have made it clear that they do not want the pillar to create any new legal rights or obligations. They also argue that labour market policy and social policy should remain a competence of the member states and that the autonomy of the social partners should be fully respected. Meanwhile the central and eastern members are opposed to any social and employment policies that will increase the cost of labour and erode their low-cost competitive position within the EU. If anything, the EU is more divided on these issues than it was in the early 1990s.  The chances of developing social Europe in this context seem slim and it suggests that activity on the matter may eventually reach a political stalemate.

A final point to note is that the European pillar of social rights has a rather narrow focus. Despite the pillar covering issues such as housing and homelessness, access to essential services, and childcare and support for children, the broader set of social rights are obtained via an individual’s participation in the labour market. In this regard, such rights underpin a welfare regime in which individual personal responsibility is emphasised. Meanwhile the state has very little responsibility for an individual’s situation, regardless of how they got there, other than to support them to find work and to potentially reduce welfare benefits it they do not engage. In this regard, the pillar may do little to steer the EU away from its obsession with market solutions to social problems.

In short, the European pillar of social rights risks promising much be being able to deliver little. For this reason, we should remain cautiously optimistic about the future of social Europe.


Image credit: Belish / Shutterstock.com (Jean-Claude Juncker)