Building a fairer Europe and strengthening its social dimension is a key priority for the current European Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker
On 26 April 2017, it delivered on its promise to adopt its proposal for the European Pillar of Social Rights. The Pillar sets out 20 key principles and rights to support fair and well-functioning labour markets and welfare systems. The Pillar is designed as a compass for a renewed process of upward convergence towards better working and living conditions in Europe. It is primarily conceived for the euro area but applicable to all EU Member States wishing to be part of it.
The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said: “As Commission President, I have been seeking to put social priorities at the heart of Europe’s work, where they belong. With the European Pillar of Social Rights and the first set of initiatives that accompany it, we are delivering on our promises and we are opening a new chapter. We want to write this chapter together: Member States, EU institutions, the social partners and civil society all have to take on their responsibility. I would like to see the Pillar endorsed at the highest political level before the end of this year.”
The Pillar was prepared by the Commission, under the leadership of Vice-President Dombrovskis and Commissioner Thyssen, in close consultation with stakeholders at all levels. It reaffirms rights that are already present in the EU and international legal acquis and complements them to take account of new realities. The principles and rights enshrined in the Pillar are structured around three categories: equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions and social protection and inclusion. They place the focus on how to tackle new developments in the world of work and society at large so as to deliver on the promise of the Treaties of a highly competitive social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress.
Delivering on the principles and rights defined in the European Pillar of Social Rights is a joint responsibility of Member States, EU institutions social partners and other stakeholders. The European institutions will help to set the framework and lead the way forward for the implementation of the Pillar, in full respect of Member States’ competences and social dialogue traditions. A number of principles and rights included in the Pillar will require further legislative initiatives to become effective. Where needed, existing EU law will be updated, complemented and better enforced.
Already today, the European Commission flanks the European Pillar of Social Rights with a number of further concrete legislative and non-legislative initiatives such as on the work-life balance of parents and carers, on the information of workers, and on access to social protection and on working time. These initiatives illustrate both the nature of the issues covered by the Pillar as well as the way in which its principles and rights can be implemented.
A social scoreboard is also established to track trends and performances across EU countries in 12 areas and to assess progress towards a social “triple A” for the EU as a whole. This analysis will feed into the European Semester of economic policy coordination.
Delivering on the Pillar’s principles and rights is a dynamic process. The Pillar will inspire the work done in the context of the European Semester and on the completion of the Economic and Monetary Union. In particular, the Pillar should serve to re-start the process of convergence within the EMU and some of the principles and rights could act as guidance towards more binding standards for the euro area. The European funds, in particularly the European Social Fund, will also provide financial support to implement many key aspects of the Pillar.
- Next Steps
The Pillar presented on the 26th April under two legal forms with identical content: as a Commission Recommendation, effective as of this day and as a proposal for a joint proclamation by the Parliament, the Council and the Commission. On this basis, the Commission will now enter into discussions with the European Parliament and the Council to work towards broad political support and high-level endorsement of the Pillar.
- The European Parliament calls for highest possible common standards
On 26th April, MEPs stressed in a debate that the “European Pillar of Social Rights” which includes common EU-wide social rights should be pegged at the highest level and not lead to a “race to the bottom”.
“The Pillar’s three key parts – equal opportunities in access to the labour market, fair working conditions and social protection – were presented by Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, who stressed the need to promote “upward convergence” among EU member states by reforming working and social conditions on the best available model. In the ensuing debate, MEPs mostly agreed with the proposals, although several speakers called for more ambitious legislation at EU level. They also felt that more needed to be done to fight poverty and youth unemployment. Others pointed out that social security systems, which are costly, are the responsibility of national governments, and therefore opposed shifting more powers to EU level. Commissioner Marianne Thyssen wrapped up the debate by reiterating that the pillar is the start of the process and provides guidance for better employment, while the details will have to be hammered out in consultations with social partners, and debates between the European Parliament, the EU Commission and the member states.”
- The European Anti-Poverty Network welcomed the good intentions behind the European Pillar of Social Rights but is asking: “is it enough to save Social Europe?”
The European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN) is the largest European network of national, regional and local networks, involving anti-poverty NGOs and grassroots groups as well as European Organisations, active in the fight against poverty and social exclusion. It was established in 1990.
EAPN welcomeed the adoption of the Communication and the Social Pillar package as an important demonstration of a will to deliver on President Juncker’s promise of the “Social Triple A”, at a time when Europe faces the consequences of long standing mistakes and a real threat of disintegration. However, we are concerned about the concrete impact on the lives of the 1 in 4 Europeans living in poverty. Will it help to guarantee or reinforce their social rights? Will it help to rebalance the EU priorities to ensure economy policies deliver for people, not just for business? These in the end will be the key tests if people are to renew their faith in Social Europe.
Initial key positive elements include a clear rights-based approach aiming at upward convergence on rights as well as improving take up of rights. Some important improvements are seen in the key principles – for example the recognition that children have a right to protection from poverty, the new provision of a right to social protection to apply to all types of workers; the recognition of the right to adequate unemployment benefits for reasonable duration, and very importantly for EAPN, the explicit stating of the right to a minimum income that ensures a life in dignity. The legislative proposals on work-life balance and access to social protection also appear a positive step forward, as do the extension of a social scoreboard and the mainstreaming of monitoring through the European Semester.
However, the pillar remains a framework of principles rather than binding obligations that can guarantee rights, particularly for the most vulnerable, and initially it is only focused on the Euro area, and this is one of the major concerns. The lack of focus on poverty and social exclusion (beyond children), or link to Europe 2020 targets raises high concerns. We would need to see more concrete benchmarks particularly in key areas of social protection and social inclusion, linked to active inclusion, and explore in detail how the package will be implemented on the ground with the involvement of Member States and stakeholders. The lack of concrete legal and non-legal initiatives and proposals for EU frameworks on minimum income, minimum wage and funding levels for social protection raises worries of how the package will benefit those people who are not working, or only in poor quality jobs. Finally, whilst civil society is identified as an actor to aid implementation, civil dialogue is not considered on a par with social dialogue, which is a very difficult to understand – and accept – missed opportunity.
“We had, understandably, great expectations about the pillar. As we have said so many times, we believed this could be the last chance for rebuilding a Social Europe. Therefore, and believing that this initiative will really make a difference to people’s lives, we actively involved our members and people experiencing poverty in consultations at local, national and EU levels. It is absolutely vital that this initiative leads to concrete and some immediate results for people living in poverty, otherwise it will be impossible to keep and gain support for defending Social Europe – or any Europe at all.” said Sérgio Aires, President of EAPN.
EAPN will be examining the package in detail with its members over the coming weeks.
- FEANTSA warmly welcomed the fact that Priority 19 is “housing and assistance for the homeless”
FEANTSA is the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless, the only European NGO focusing exclusively on the fight against homelessness. FEANTSA’s ultimate goal is an end to homelessness in Europe. Established in 1989, it brings together non-profit services that support homeless people in Europe with over 130 member organisations from 30 countries, including 28 Member States.
FEANTSA warmly welcomed the fact that Priority 19 is “housing and assistance for the homeless”, stating:
- Access to social housing or housing assistance of good quality shall be provided for those in need.
- Vulnerable people have the right to appropriate assistance and protection against forced eviction.
- Adequate shelter and services shall be provided to the homeless in order to promote their social inclusion.
This brings together various aspects of the right to housing in a new way at EU level. It establishes that everyone in the EU should have a decent home, with social housing or housing assistance provided to those who need it. People should be protected from eviction and no one should ever be left without shelter.
FEANTSA is hopeful that Priority 19 can become an actionable framework for real progress. It is campaigning for the EU to be fair, and stand up for homeless people. FEANTSA will be working in the next weeks and months to ensure that the Pillar delivers more than the proclamation of housing rights. It will work with the Commission, national governments, regions, cities and other stakeholders to turn Priority 19 into more political ambition and concrete measures to put an end to homelessness and secure the right to housing for all.
- The Background to the Pillar
The EU is home to the most advanced welfare systems in the world and to a wealth of best practices and social innovations, but it needs to confront and adapt to unprecedented societal challenges. Although economic and social conditions across Europe have improved and employment has never been as high, the aftermath of the crisis of the last decade is still far-reaching, from long-term and youth unemployment to risks of poverty in many parts of Europe. At the same time, the world of work and our societies are changing fast, with new opportunities and new challenges arising from globalisation, the digital revolution, changing work patterns and demographic developments. All levels of public authorities, social partners and civil society share a responsibility and an interest in working for a more prosperous and future-proof Europe, where economic and social developments go hand in hand.
The Juncker Commission made a social Europe one of its priorities from the very start, as reflected in its Political Guidelines of July 2014. In September 2015, on the occasion of President Juncker’s first State of the Union, he said: “We have to step up the work for a fair and truly pan-European labour market. (…) As part of these efforts, I will want to develop a European Pillar of Social Rights, which takes account of the changing realities of Europe’s societies and the world of work.”
Since this announcement, the Commission has engaged actively with Member States, EU institutions, social partners, civil society and citizens on the content and role of the Pillar. In March 2016, the Commission presented a preliminary outline of the European Pillar of Social Rights, and launched a broad public consultation to gather feedback, which concluded in January 2017 with a high-level conference.
Building on the input received during the consultation, the Commission now puts forward its proposal for a European Pillar of Social Rights, which is about delivering new and more effective rights for citizens. The Pillar takes direct inspiration from the richness of the practices across Europe, and builds on the strong body of law which exists at EU and international level.
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