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27 June 2019

The European Pillar of Social Rights: where are we now and where are we going?

Almost one and a half years after the proclamation of the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR), a group of researchers, policymakers and civil society representatives came together at the ETUI to assess the status of the EPSR’s implementation and reflect on its future. Has the Pillar met expectations and what will its fate be during the next political term? Philippe Pochet, ETUI General Director, opened the well-attended conference by arguing that the Pillar came as the next logical step in social policy at the EU level.

This development fits in with the historical pattern (which he describes in his recently published book “ À la recherche de l'Europe sociale”) of a new debate on EU social policy happening every 15 years. However, it is not clear what the underlying vision is. “The building blocks are difficult to put together,” Pochet said.

Caroline de la Porte, Professor at the Copenhagen Business School who has been investigating European social policies for a long time, agreed that it is not clear what the Pillar is exactly. She compared it with “a homerun with all the instruments and players in the field,” but the question is: will it resonate with the public and have a real effect on people’s lives? In her view, the second heading of the Pillar (“Fair working conditions”) is the most ambitious one, already enabling the adopted revision of the Work‐Life Balance Directive and the ‘Written Statement’ Directive. And although some steps have been taken in the right direction (as the introduction of some minimal standards for new precarious workers), de la Porte emphasised that “tensions remain in social Europe and should not be forgotten”.

Sebastiano Sabato, Senior Researcher at the European Social Observatory (OSE) presented the results of his quantitative and qualitative analyses of whether there has been a ‘Pillar effect’ following the implementation of the EPSR in the 2018 European Semester. Both analyses point to a rather positive impression of the implementation process. However, in Sabato’s view, now is the moment for “the key test for measuring the strength of the Pillar”. It concerns three aspects: whether the budget dedicated to the Pillar will be big enough, whether there will be a coherent EU implementation approach, and whether climate change policies and their social consequences will be integrated within it.  

The final contribution came from Zane Rasnača, labour lawyer and researcher at the ETUI. In her legal analysis, she pointed out that appreciation of the Pillar depends very much on how it is interpreted. She belongs to the group of scholars who regard the EPSR as a “dynamic process, including the implementation measures”. The question, then, is whether it is delivering the promised rights and benefits. She presented her comparative study (together with Katerina Skiada) encompassing Greece, Ireland and Latvia, in which she analysed the developments in the social field at the EU and national levels. The results show that the effects of the Pillar are rather limited. Furthermore, while there is a lack of explicit connection with the Pillar in national-level policies, at the EU level everything is overly connected with it.

The second part of the conference was dedicated to the future of the EPSR: what is the way forward and where is the political momentum heading? Marco Cilento, Head of Institutional Policy at the ETUC, said that the composition of the new Parliament and Commission is very important in this respect. The ETUC wants a consolidation of social rights which can then provide a strong base for new legislation at the EU level. There is a clear need for new legislation, particularly in the fields of just transition and fair wages but also to establish a new democratic legitimacy of the EU institutions that is built on different grounds than that of national democracies. According to Cilento, there are “more things that make Europeans similar than different,” but there are nevertheless cultural differences and differences of interest, and it is the latter that need to be discussed and solved if we want to achieve progress for all citizens.

Beate Beller, Social Affairs Officer at Solidar, who represented the voice of civil society at the event, agreed that the Pillar still has a lot of untapped potential. In her view, it is crucial to have better political communication to reach those who need to know about the Pillar. There is also an opportunity to connect social justice issues with sustainability, which “is not about making a compromise” but has the potential to “bring on board the young people in the streets”. The underlying problem is the asymmetry between economic and social goals in the European Semester. According to Beller, there is an urgent need for issues such as migration and the climate to be included in the country-specific recommendations (CSRs).

The European Commission representative, Krzysztof Nowaczek, Deputy Head of the Coordination Unit at DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, expressed his appreciation of this conference, which he found to be very timely. He reported on the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs (EPSCO) Council meeting which was happening at the same time and which adopted the revisions to the directives on work-life balance and working conditions as well as the establishment of the European Labour Authority. The ELA’s seat will be in Bratislava and its first meeting is planned for October. He said that the Commission considers a greater number of CSRs as social, and so the results of their own evaluation are more positive. However, the effectiveness of the Semester can be improved by enforcing the social dimension of the surveillance procedure. According to the Commission, the four megatrends which need to be at the heart of the political priorities in the new political term are digitalisation, climate change, demography and globalisation. “Competitive Europe and fair Europe are two sides of the same coin,” Nowaczek declared – and it is crucial to invest in skills if we want to reduce inequalities.

To download the presentations from the event, clicke here

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