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17 December 2018

Social Europe: back in business?

December saw the launch of the 19th launch of the annual joint publication of the European Social Observatory (OSE) and the ETUI, “Social Policy in the European Union: state of play 2018”, at International Trade Union House in Brussels. Bart Vanhercke, the Director of OSE, who opened the event, presented this year’s edition of the stock taking publication as one characterised by “continuity in change”.

This edition, he said, started where the previous one had ended – the adoption of the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) – but the narrative of “differentiated integration” (i.e. only a small group of member states deepening their cooperation on a certain issue) has been abandoned, given the current lack of ambition among the EU member states to take the lead in the social field. Also new to the analysis is the inclusion of the topic of “sustainable welfare”, which integrates social inequality and environmental sustainability. ETUI General director Philippe Pochet said that, while this annual publication was focussed on analysing the crisis over the recent years, now, it could be said that there is a ‘retour to normal’ and it can continue doing what it was meant to do, namely analysing social policies.

Dalila Ghailani, senior researcher at OSE and one of the editors of this year’s edition, went on to present the key messages of the book. As usual, there are two main parts, the first addressing ‘high-level’ politics, while the second dealt with ‘day-to-day’ policies in a number of social policy areas during the past year. An important conclusion, according to her, is that the EPSR “has the potential to become a true game changer”, as it can be used as an authoritative tool for demanding more social rights for citizens, but more ambitious initiatives will be needed for it to be also able to steer member states’ policies.

The morning session discussed the first part of the book with presentations of the chapters on the “European social union” (ESU) by Maurizio Ferrera, professor at the University of Milan, and on “sustainable welfare” by Max Koch, professor at the University of Lund. “We should move towards a European Social Union”, Professor Ferrera explained, “which is a union of national welfare states co-existing together based on fundamental social values laid down in the preamble of the Lisbon Treaty.”  Max Koch argued that, in order to reconcile social and environmental sustainability, we need to develop and implement eco-social policies. Given the “double injustice” of ambitious climate targets - different societal groups have different responsibilities for climate change and experience different impacts – “you need countervailing social policies to make this acceptable”, he said.

The debate that followed was led by Sacha Garben, labour law professor at the College d’Europe, Marcel Haag, Director at DG Employment and Philippe Pochet. Professor Garben put forward the idea of an Environmental Pillar and highlighted the potential of promising recent rulings condemning “non-action” of f.ex. the Dutch government based on the “duty to care” and “right to life”. Mr Haag disputed that social policy at the European level is “back to normal” because the current European Commission has been much more ambitious than that, even forward-looking. He was also concerned that the proposed ESU could lead to “creating a silo”. It should instead be a “horizontal concept with interlinkages to other policies such as the EMU and the Single market”. “The social dimension is not something we can choose for or against”, he continued, “there is just no option other than to add or strengthen it.” He also stressed that the whole concept of the EU has been based on the notion of growth, so in order to be able to talk about “degrowth” in this context, we need much more research.

According to Philippe Pochet, if we do not change the economic system, we cannot carry out the social policies we desire. As to the issue of climate change, it represents a risk and, as such it needs to be covered by the social protection system. A classic instrument of the EU - the social and structural funds - could be adapted and used in this respect. Pochet also stressed that, although not enough, the “green growth” such as f.ex. coming from the production of electric cars and sustainable energy sources, taking place everywhere in the world has a potential that we should not ignore.

In the second part of the presentation event, focussed on specific policies, Slavina Spasova and Mathijn Wilkens, researchers respectively at OSE and Eurofound, argued that the self-employed cannot any longer be perceived as archetypal representatives of the well-off liberal professions, as there are also “concealed” self-employed people who struggle with precarious working conditions. There is growing political awareness of this problem, exemplified by the freshly adopted proposal for a Council Recommendation on access to social protection for workers and the self-employed. ETUC Confederal secretary Liina Carr said that “there are many ways in which the EU can improve the situation of non-voluntary self-employed who often are denied the right to be trade union member and have no social protection”. And, although she welcomed the adopted proposal, she regretted that in the final text social protection coverage of self-employed is not made mandatory but left at the discretion of the member states.

Maxime Cerutti, Social Affairs Director at BusinessEurope, said that the financing of social protection should be compatible with business competitiveness and, in this respect, “we need to make sure that improving coverage is adapted to the specific circumstances in the different countries”. Ana Carla Pareira, Head of Unit of DG Employment, said that the issue of self-employment is connected with deeply rooted perceptions in people’s minds and the discussions for the adoption of the proposal were very much influenced by these different perceptions. “The challenge has been”, she admitted, “to bring to the table a proposal that brings together all these concerns”. What we have is a non-binding text which “allows us to put the issue on the table and have a constructive dialogue”. Mrs Pareira informed the audience that there is political agreement for unanimity in the Council, with Hungary abstaining itself and four member-states issuing political declarations.

Sebastiano Sabato, one of the editors of the book, closed the event with the presentation of the conclusions of this year’s volume. An important takeaway is that, although the European semester has become more social since 2014, the implementation of the policies contained in the Pillar can only be done within the financial limits of “sound budgetary management”. Clearly, there is not enough room for manoeuvre for social policies and more investment is needed. He reminded the audience that a strong social Europe is not just a matter of social fairness but is urgently needed to counter Eurosceptic and populist parties by showing that the EU is committed to defending people’s (social) rights and not just protecting the interests of capital.

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