On Monday 13 March, a debate organised by the ETUI in Brussels between representatives of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the European Commission and the European think tank Bruegel to mark the publication of a new ETUI report (Benchmarking Working Europe 2017, which analyses the state of working Europe) focused on the lag in economic recovery, social inequalities and the urgent need for a genuinely social Europe.
Exiting the crisis, employment and social inequalities
Jeroen Jutte (from the European Commission’s DG Employment) acknowledged that poverty was a concern, but expressed his belief that the work done in connection with the much-vaunted ‘European Semester’ (the annual cycle of economic policy coordination) was starting to bear fruit: ‘Employment figures are rising, and we have seen very positive results in terms of integrating women into the labour market.’ He also highlighted the progress made in the education sector.
Zsolt Darvas (Bruegel*) reiterated the point that the European Semester represents ‘a great improvement on the previous system’. He was, however, much more critical of the way in which the European Union had handled the first few years of the crisis: ‘Recovery policies were very badly designed.’ In particular, he bemoaned the fact that Europe had not followed in the footsteps of the United States by immediately cleaning up its banking and financial system. He also expressed his opinion that the fiscal consolidation measures imposed on Greece were excessive, and that the level of investment in the European economy was too low in view of the Greek crisis: ‘The cuts to budgets for education, schools and the family in Greece, Portugal and Eastern Europe have had major social impacts.’
Peter Scherrer (Deputy General Secretary of the ETUC) proposed that it was high time to abandon the rhetoric of austerity: ‘According to the Benchmarking report, wages in seven EU Member States are lower today than they were in 2008. What is needed now – and this is one of the ETUC’s core demands – is a pay rise across Europe.’ Scherrer believes that would be one way of combatting the worrying rise in social inequality.
Darvas countered this proposal with the view that reducing unemployment, even with badly paid jobs, was a more urgent task.
European platform for social rights
Scherrer underlined the need for Brussels to deliver results, and warned the Commission that the Member States would not be satisfied with empty words and promises: ‘No one likes receiving an empty box of chocolates.’
Jutte referred to the Juncker Commission’s undertaking to show strong support for European social dialogue, and Scherrer (the ETUC’s lead contact for this topic) touched on the recent signature by the European social partners of a voluntary agreement on active ageing. He admitted that problems had recently been encountered in this area, however: ‘Of course, we need to do more, but employers are hesitating when it comes to signing binding agreements.’
He expressed his belief that digitalisation of the economy will open up a whole new field for negotiation between the European social partners.
*Bruegel receives funding from a number of Member States and central banks, as well as from multinational companies (including several banking groups).