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16 January 2018

Social policy in the EU in 2017: high expectations but low concrete delivery

launch bilan social 2017

The 2017 edition of the book Social policy in the European Union: state of play shows that although some progress has been made, the EU’s socio-economic governance is still not addressing macroeconomic, fiscal and social challenges equally. At the launch of the 18th edition of the joint European Social Observatory (OSE) and ETUI publication on 12 December, Gabi Bischoff, President of the Workers’ Group at the European Economic and Social Committee and host of the event, expressed her desire that the 2017 edition should become a ‘demarcation’ book marking the beginning of a debate on whether the EU is currently moving towards disintegration, ‘differentiated integration’ or further integration.

In his opening remarks, Philippe Pochet, ETUI General Director, explained his theory that around every 15 years an ambitious proposal of socially rebalancing the European project gets adopted. This time, he said, we are witnessing the proclamation of the European Pillar of Social Rights, and the trade union world should seize this chance to impact the EU level now because otherwise it will have to wait another 15 years.

Mario Telo, Emeritus President of the Institut d’études européennes (IEE) of the ULB, kicked off the first part of the event on the future of the European Union. In his view, although “Europe is a continent of fear of the future,” there are now signs that this “apocalyptic narrative” is changing, not least because of the successes of the trade unions, for example in Germany where the DGB has been able to contain the extreme-right party AfD in the recent elections. The differentiated integration which, according to him, has always been the working mode of the EU, does not mean that the other Member States will be left behind, and it will improve efficiency and democratisation. Cosmin Dobran from the European Commission agreed that the economic and social situation of the EU today is indeed much improved and this proves that the European welfare states are functioning well and “contain the necessary flexibility to adapt to the situation.” However, he admitted that more social policies are necessary. This has been the aim of the Juncker Commission since the beginning and the Pillar is a symbol of this political commitment. Obviously, much has to be done to make the rights in the Pillar enforceable and the social partners have a key role to play in this process.

Maxime Cerutti (BusinessEurope) and Katja Lehto-Komulainen (ETUC), who represented the social partners at this event, both expressed their appreciation of the Pillar. Lehto-Komulainen, ETUC Deputy General Secretary, said that this is an opportunity that the trade unions are happy to take. She emphasised that in this respect it is crucial that the social partners are involved structurally not only in the European semester, but also in the social dialogue at national level. Although the overall economic improvement in Europe is a fact, there has also been a significant increase in in-work poverty that needs to be tackled. The Pillar contains many good principles, such as protection of working people, quality of work, social dialogue, etc., but the coherence between economic and social affairs is still a problem. She referred to the recently published EMU package which does not contain any reference to the Pillar. 

In the second part of the event Amandine Crespy, professor at the IEE, presented the key messages from her chapter co-written with Vivien Schmidt, ‘The EU’s economic governance in 2016: beyond austerity?’, in which they show that the EU political agenda has been redirected from fiscal discipline towards investments and growth, but that progress has been rather modest. Jeroen Jutte from the European Commission commented that the Pillar is seen as an important vehicle for tackling persistent issues such as the high rate of in-work poverty, and its implementation should be the result of a shared engagement that includes civil society and social partners. Kelig Puyet, Director of the Platform of European Social NGOs, argued for a more transparent implementation process that takes all of the three dimensions – legislative, political and financial – into account. Freek Spinnewijn, Director of the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA), added that we should not only concentrate on the European semester as there are other political processes that can be used to put the Pillar principles into concrete action. A missed opportunity in this respect was the recent EMU package. He also urged a greater focus on those principles on which not much work has been done yet.

Bart Vanhercke, Director of the OSE and editor of the book, concluded by saying: “There is a real window of opportunity for re-launching the process of European integration, including its social question. A majority of Europeans are optimistic about the future of the EU. Whether improving perceptions of the EU herald a ‘European Spring’, as the European Commission has optimistically claimed, remains to be seen. But there is a European demos waiting for answers: it is time to move from high hopes to high yields’.

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