The ‘European Pillar of Social Rights’: it could be a fine example of Euro-jargon masking very little substance, or it could be a chance for the European Union to turn a corner and demonstrate that its main priority is to promote social progress and a better life for European workers and citizens.
The proof of the pudding will largely be in the way the pillar is implemented, including at national level.
On 17 November, in Gothenburg, Sweden, EU leaders will ‘proclaim’ the much-debated social pillar. It will be the culmination of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s 2014 pledge to create a “Triple A” social Europe. Back then, addressing MEPs, Juncker admitted the Commission was facing a “last chance” to restore people’s trust in the EU. That is the message the European Trade Union Confederation has been pushing home in the run-up to the Gothenburg summit: time is running out for the EU to deliver for working people.
In our view, the European Pillar represents a floor – a base on which to build greater social justice through secure jobs and fair wages, social investment and a reasonable work-life balance, all enabling workers and their families to live in dignity without the constant threat of poverty and hardship. It must not become a ceiling that entrenches existing neoliberal EU policies. The ETUC believes the social pillar has the potential to deliver real benefits, but only if it is implemented as it should be.
That is why trade unions are demanding an Action Plan with a legislative programme to be launched rapidly. It must be backed up by EU-wide monitoring and evaluation to ensure progress towards greater cohesion between Member States, breaking down the damaging wage gap between eastern and western countries that fuels social dumping. Since many of the measures have to be applied at national level, there is a real danger that the right-wing governments and coalitions in power in some Member States will fail to implement what has been agreed. It is vital to stop this happening.
Buttressing the pillar
We have identified ten ‘building blocks’ that would ensure the social pillar achieves its objectives, and trade unions across the EU have been campaigning around them in the run-up to the summit. They focus on fast agreement among national governments on getting started – regardless of potential opposition from employers, an Action Plan and investment to turn principles into practice. To be effective, social pillar measures must be supported by EU funding. We are calling for a rise in social spending, increasing the European Social Fund’s share to 30% of the EU’s cohesion budget. For too long, the ESF has been the poor relation of EU expenditure.
The ETUC acknowledges that, within the social pillar package, the Commission has already proposed some welcome legislation, for example to improve work-life balance and revise the Posting of Workers Directive to combat fraud and exploitation. Now we are calling for these measures to be strengthened and for additional European legislation to be introduced to enforce social rights, including new directives to protect digital, self-employed and non-standard workers; stronger laws on equal pay and maternity rights; and protection for ‘whistle-blowers’.
The social pillar needs active support from all Member States, the social partners – trade unions and employers – and all EU bodies, including the European Central Bank and the European Court of Justice. And improvements in economic policy-making should mean the introduction of an economic and social semester with country-specific social policy recommendations and a scoreboard measuring Member States’ progress.
Nobody left behind
The ETUC has renewed its call for a Social Progress Protocol to be added to the EU Treaties, to counteract the effect of past ECJ rulings that prioritised economic freedoms above human and social rights. Citizens need to know that the EU exists to promote social justice and wellbeing. We demand more and better social dialogue, rebuilding and reinforcing trade union organisation and collective bargaining arrangements – the best way to guarantee better working conditions and workers’ rights. The EU should actively promote social dialogue in all Member States and support ‘capacity building’ to enable employers and trade unions to negotiate and implement agreements.
Finally, we propose a Just Transition Fund to support workers in adapting to green technologies and digitalisation. No-one should be left behind.
Our call for action is urgent, because in 2019 the mandate of the Commission will end, and the European Parliament will hold fresh elections. For new laws to have the time to complete legislative procedures, they must be introduced in spring 2018. Proclamation of the European Pillar of Social Rights is just the beginning of the process. Time is running out for the EU to deliver for working people.