On 17 November in Gothenburg, Sweden, EU leaders met for a “social summit”, presided over by Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, who had also attended the previous one 20 years before. According to the official press release, a central purpose of this gathering of heads of government and EU officials was to proclaim a European Pillar of Social Rights, that would build a “fairer and more inclusive European Union”.
Politico gave the gathering a less exalted and more cynical interpretation, suggesting that the purpose was “to work out how to convince sceptical citizens that the EU is more than a fiscal watchdog whose response to the financial crisis has made many of them worse off”. The putative purpose of the Social Pillar is to improve working conditions, reduce inequalities and improve social protection throughout the Union.
Among its innovative measures to achieve these laudable outcomes will be a “social scoreboard” (I am not making this up). This marking system will tally up each country’s progress in achieving specified social targets, including among others “work-life balance” (specified in a Social Pillar-linked pdf document).
Given the decidedly anti-social measures and attacks on “work-life balance” inflicted upon several member states, most obviously Greece, by many of the same EU and national leaders, the temptation to cynicism and mockery is hard to resist. But it should be resisted, because a comparison of the Gothenburg gathering and to forthcoming events in the European Parliament provides an important insight into the EU’s long-standing descent into neoliberalism.
The Commission will at some point propose legislation for the specified workplace and employment protections of the Social Pillar. This legislation is unlikely to come to a vote in the near future, delayed by formal consultations over contentious issues such as parental leave. Further delay is implied because national governments as well as the European Parliament must endorse the elements of the Social Pillar.
This laborious process contrasts with the intention of the European Commission to introduce to parliament on 6 December legislation to institutionalize austerity for all EU governments. The legislation will “integrate the substance of the TSCG into EU law”. TSCG refers to the Treaty on Stability, Cooperation and Governance, which includes draconian and non-democratic mechanisms to eliminate any flexibility in adherence to the infamous Maastricht Convergence Criteria.
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In previous articles for Social Europe I showed why the original version of the TSCG was dysfunctional and undemocratic, and explained that the legislation version offers no improvement. The contrast between the rapidity by which the EU governance system will without doubt solidify the austerity dogma, and the uncertainty of achieving enforceable social protection tells us much about the real State of the Union.
The New Year will arrive with austerity legally entrenched and further social protection for citizens under discussion and negotiation. It must be stressed that there is no compromise involved. Those who support further austerity and constraints on the ability of national governments to manage their fiscal systems in the interest of their citizens will have what they want. With a substantial working majority in the EP, the European Peoples Party and allies further to the right have victory assured. The Socialist Group, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, has little hope of legislative victory for an effective, enforceable Social Pillar.
For decades the EP has operated on the basis of compromise and consensus, to an extent mirroring the negotiation process among heads of government in the European Council. In part this may reflect that the EP, unlike national parliaments, does not form governments. It may be that the give and take of compromise and negotiation served the Union well in its early days. But, as shown in successive treaties, for the last three decades this mode of operation has resulted in an increasingly neoliberal and austerity-burdened EU.
The time has come – long past many of us would say – for the Socialists and Democrats to join with other left groups and form a Progressive Opposition. The loathsome and dysfunctional legislative version of the TSCG cannot be stopped. But it can be opposed, vigorously and in a principled manner.
But the symbolism to EU citizens will be powerful – that progressives have made their compromises and no more until there is definitive progress towards an effective and enforceable Social Pillar. The purpose of an opposition is to oppose legislation that contradicts its basic principles. The time has come to be that type of opposition in the European Parliament.
John Weeks is co-ordinator of the London-based Progressive Economy Forum and professor emeritus of the School of Oriental and African Studies. He is author of The Debt Delusion: Living within Our Means and Other Fallacies (2019) and Economics of the 1%: How Mainstream Economics Services the Rich, Obscures Reality and Distorts Policy.