Europe has delivered considerable benefits to its citizens. Even so, rather than resting on our laurels, and at a time of insecurity and disillusion, we need to reboot the European idea: how better to do this than by strengthening the EU’s social dimension? One of the major tasks faced by the EU will be to systematically develop and adjust social targets (like full employment, fair working conditions, appropriate access to healthcare and a minimum of unemployment benefits) and fundamental rights. After all, the set of social values EU member states have committed to for decades are a unique selling point that Europe needs to defend – and, above all, expand.
The core idea cannot be to replace national systems with a European welfare state. The EU’s motto, ‘United in Diversity,’ applies also to welfare systems. At the same time, we must reconcile EU minimum standards with respect for Member States’ capacities in social policy (e.g. structure, administration and extent of social benefits).
Step By Step Towards A More Social Europe
Here are five bullet points illustrating how we could gradually make Europe more social by creating and/or improving uniform rules.
1. Harmonising taxation across the EU could help put a stop to the ruinous downward spiral towards the lowest taxes. Taxes should, what’s more, be levied where profits are earned. The introduction of a financial transaction tax would immediately deliver several positive effects. First of all, we would make high-frequency trading – a business model that is spreading like wildfire and serves the real economy in no discernible way, instead encouraging speculation and jeopardising the stability of financial markets – unattractive. Revenue generated by such a tax would add resources to local, regional and national governments to be spent on education and infrastructure, for the benefit of individuals and the community.
2.The economic crisis has led to a slump in investment across all of Europe. I welcome the fact that Member States have reached agreement with the European Parliament to launch an EU investment plan in order to back the urgently needed strategy for growth and jobs in crisis-hit countries in particular but also for the benefit of Europe as a whole. With the support of the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) set up to mobilise private investment, market failures can be overcome, new jobs created and cohesion strengthened throughout the Union.
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3. In a pressing future, the EU will have to address youth unemployment truly effectively: it remains staggeringly high in the south of the Eurozone and constitutes a social and political time bomb. The Commission assists Member States in their efforts to combat youth unemployment. The €6bn Youth Guarantee ensures that all young people under the age of 25 receive a high-quality, concrete offer (a job, apprenticeship/traineeship, work experience or continued education) within 4 months of leaving formal education or becoming unemployed. Still, some problems require more than money to be solved. The private sector, too, is called upon to provide apprenticeships and traineeships, so that this generation – the best-educated ever – can take its rightful place in career and community.
4. The most pressing problem in Europe is how to deal with the current refugee crisis. It is time for more solidarity and shared responsibility. We need to resolve this issue in a sustainable manner, so that those who risk their lives to find safe shelter can indeed be given the protection they are so desperately seeking.
Whilst the Commission’s Agenda on Migration is a useful step forward, the Dublin Regulation is still in force and continues to stipulate that the Member State where a refugee first sets foot on EU territory must accept responsibility for this person and process their application for asylum. Relief to those countries that currently receive the bulk of refugees has so far been provided on a more or less voluntary basis. It is now time to act systematically and consequentially rather than just pay lip service. This requires the introduction of a permanent quota system, and politicians must stop hiding behind the failed Dublin principle. We need a genuine European asylum and migration policy. One of the ways to address this would be a European agency in charge of all asylum procedures, maintaining a number of EU reception centres and supervising Member States’ compliance with minimum standards: ensuring thereby that the burden is fairly distributed throughout the EU. This may sound like a radical proposal but it would be a suitable instrument for getting rid of the uneven qualities among Member State standards as well as the bottlenecks caused by the massing of thousands of refugees in only a few member states.
More on the Refugee Crisis
5. To close, let me briefly refer to the introduction of a European unemployment insurance scheme. Owing to many unresolved issues, this is unlikely to be realised in the very near future, but it is still well worth discussing. As recent years have taught us, we need a mechanism of automatic stabilisers for the European economy as a whole. A European unemployment insurance system could help in buffering asymmetric shocks, it would alleviate the burden on the budgets of crisis nations and help them to speedily re-establish growth. Simultaneously, such a system would guarantee a minimum of social security for Europeans in general to rely on in times of crisis. We could demonstrate that the EU is indeed about shared values, focussing on solidarity rather than just on saving banks, and improving people’s lives through active and discernible measures.
These few examples highlight the fact that we can, step by step, get closer to a socially just Europe if we work together. Our aim must be to get rid of the ruinous downward spiral mentioned earlier and put the focus on improving life for Europeans. I see no contradiction between social justice and economic success. They are two sides of the same coin. Europe can and must strive to reach both.