As a high-level group on social protection and welfare reports today, Belgium’s social-affairs minister advances the next EU social agenda.
Covid-19 has taught us two lessons. First, it is easier to fight a pandemic with an inclusive welfare state that provides broad and well-organised access to sickness and unemployment benefits and to short-time working arrangements for all its citizens—regardless of their employment contract or status, the type of job they do or the sector in which they work. How can one tell people they should stay home when infected, if there is no universal system of sickness benefits? How can one curtail social and economic activities—painful but unavoidable given the initial absence of vaccines—without support for those whose jobs and businesses are affected?
Secondly, even well-organised national welfare states reach their limits in the face of such a transnational challenge. European solidarity was key to reinforce national response capacities, with the SURE programme to sustain employment, the Recovery and Resilience Facility and the joint procurement of vaccines. The pandemic also exposed structural weaknesses in existing welfare states—gaps in outdated social-protection arrangements which make them less inclusive than they should be. If Europe is to become a true ‘social union’—a supportive environment for its welfare states, well-prepared for the cross-border health threats and emergencies to come—there is still a long way to go.
This obliges us to think ahead to the next social agenda for the European Union, the next European Commission and the next European Parliament. This is not to dismiss the current commission’s important social agenda, which will require an open mind and hard work by national ministers of social affairs and employment to bring it to a good end by 2024. But that agenda must not stop there.
My government will have a special responsibility in delivering the current social agenda and preparing the next. Belgium holds the presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2024, a strategic moment taking in the last months of the current commission and the elections to the parliament.
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Two reports highlight the challenges to be addressed. That of the High-Level Group on the future of social protection and of the welfare state in the EU, requested by the commissioner for jobs and social rights, Nicolas Schmit, highlights longer-term demographic and labour-market trends and the green and digital transitions. This report, presented today by the former commissioner for employment and social affairs Anna Diamantopoulou, makes a strong and convincing case for a life-course perspective, combining social protection and social investment, if inclusiveness is our goal.
At the end of January, the commission published its report on the implementation of the council recommendation of 2019 on access to social protection. This shows a mixed picture: there is some progress, in part thanks to measures put in place during the pandemic, but many were temporary patches and most member states fail to address some of the gaps in social protection.
For the EU to be a social union, supporting national welfare states, it must be guided by shared aspirations. That is why the 2017 European Pillar of Social Rights was and still is such an important initiative. It should remain our unifying framework for the policies of social protection and social investment whose necessity is underscored by Diamantopoulou’s report. A thorough evaluation of the social pillar’s 20 principles is necessary, if ambitious.
Take principle 12, centre stage in our agenda—access to social protection. Social-security systems still rely too much on traditional schemes, designed for workers with a full-time contract of indefinite duration. They are ill-equipped to protect vulnerable groups. Low- or unskilled employees with standard employment contracts in poor sectors, the bogus (in reality economically dependent) self-employed, ‘flexible’ workers and casuals and platform workers often do not enjoy access to a vast number of social transfers or do so only partially.
Social-protection systems which no longer accommodate a significant part of the workforce have bad consequences—not only for those individuals but also for the functioning of labour markets, the stabilisation capacity of welfare systems and their funding. The 2019 council recommendation, which calls on member states to ensure formal and effective coverage through adequate and transparent social-protection systems—especially for non-standard workers and the self-employed—was an essential positive step.
The recommendation does not however carry the force of a directive, there are lacunae in its scope and monitoring of its implementation is problematic. Reinforcement is required.
While the recommendation covers social-security schemes for unemployment, sickness and healthcare, maternity or paternity, accidents at work and occupational diseases, disability and old age, it does not yet extend to short-time working arrangements and temporary unemployment, the significance of which is underscored in Diamantopoulou’s report. Relatedly, a successor to SURE, which has usefully supported national short-time-working and employment-insurance schemes, should be considered.
The recommendation is also silent on how to guarantee access to social protection, whether via universal (publicly funded) or complementary (occupational) schemes. Similarly, discretion is left to member states on whether to apply mandatory or voluntary schemes to the self-employed, which creates legal uncertainty and social-protection gaps. Both issues, however sensitive, need clarification.
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How member states ensure that workers and the self-employed preserve their rights if they switch contractual status remains unclear and should be addressed in a future instrument.The recommendation refers vaguely to preventing poverty and maintaining decent standards of living but a definition which can be operationalised is required.
Access to information and simplification are not monitored under the current recommendation. Discussion is needed on how to improve the transparency of social-security systems, notably for the most vulnerable citizens.
The indicators deployed to monitor effective access to social protection and its adequacy need critical assessment. How the recommendation’s overall implementation will continue to be monitored after the first commission report also urgently requires reconsideration.
Last but not least, the choice of a recommendation as the policy instrument has limited its effectiveness to date. In 2017 the commission legal service provided an opinion that a directive was legally possible and this should be further explored.
The road towards a fully-fledged European social union is still long and winding. A lot remains to do to implement the principles of the social pillar. The Belgian presidency is ready to take up the baton.
Looking to its EU presidency, Belgium has launched a task force, supported by academics and think-tank experts, to prepare a programme contributing to the next commission social agenda. Workshops will be organised to discuss the key priorities. Anyone interested in contributing ideas and proposals should write to Team Frank Vandenbroucke.
Frank Vandenbroucke is deputy prime minister and minister for social affairs and public health in Belgium.