On 8 March 2016, the European Commission launched its new key initiative in the social field: the European Pillar of Social Rights. Now that Europe2020 seems to be fading more and more into the background, the Pillar represents one of civil society’s best hopes of restoring the balance between social and economic goals on the EU agenda. However, at the same time, a lot remains unclear about the Pillar. What will be its legal nature? How many Member States will actually accept and implement it? What will its relation be to the European Semester? And what will it actually say?
The Commission has published a preliminary outline of the Pillar, outlining 20 key principles or ‘rights’ which should be promoted and upheld, including adequate minimum income, adequate access to essential services, and adequate long-term care. Citizens, civil society organisations and trade unions will have until the end of the year to respond to the outline and to share their perspective on what a Pillar of Social Rights should look like.
The European Pillar of Social Rights is intended as a key response to the aftermath of the financial crisis and as an update of the European social model in the light of a changing labour market. The Pillar is meant to stimulate the reduction of poverty and social exclusion through adequate social protection, and to support labour market access and well-functioning welfare systems, in an age of globalisation, digitalisation and decreasing job security. It is an integral part of President Juncker’s ambition for Europe to achieve not only an economic, but also a ‘social triple-A rating’.
The Social Pillar is not a stand-alone initiative. It is embedded in a broader strategy to achieve a ‘deeper and fairer Economic and Monetary Union’, which is focused on improving economic policy coordination, convergence and governance within the euro area. The key steps of the process are outlined in the so-called Five President’s Report, published in June 2015 and accessible here. As is outlined in the Five Presidents’ Report, the process of ‘deepening the EMU’ primarily targets the Eurozone countries in the light of their ‘’common challenges, interests and responsibilities’’. The overarching vision underlying the EMU convergence process and the Social Pillar treats social aims as conducive to economic goals, but it also treats economic aims as conducive to social goals. In principle, therefore, ‘’social and economic performances are two sides of the same coin’’.
The preliminary outline for the Social Pillar lists 20 principles which outline the minimum standards that Eurozone members should grant to their citizens in order to improve the labour market and social rights.
A previous proposal contained more than the double this amount, however the number was reduced to 20 in order to increase the chances of implementation. This way, the Pillar tries to strike a balance between comprehensive action and feasibility.
The 20 principles are grouped into three main axes or chapters:
- Equal opportunities and access to the Labour Market
- Fair working conditions
- Adequate and Sustainable Social Protection
Labour market: accession and working conditions
Concerning the first chapter on “equal opportunities and accession to the labour market”, the preliminary outline for the Pillar lists six main principles: skills, education and life-long learning; flexible and secure labour contracts; secure professional transition; active support for employment; gender equality and work – life balance; and equal opportunities.
Considering the fair working conditions axis, the key principles are: conditions of employment, wages, health and safety at work, social dialogue and involvement of workers.
All these principles are enounced as EU values in accordance with the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
Adequate and sustainable social protection
The third axis of the preliminary outline of the Social Pillar is the most comprehensive one, outlining 10 principles which touch on different aspects of social protection:
- The integration of social protection benefits and social services, since a disjointed panorama of social benefits and services risks to reduce their effectiveness;
- The ensuring of universal access to high quality healthcare, encouraging health promotion and disease prevention, addressing health inequalities and promoting universal paid sick leave during periods of illness;
- The ensuring of an adequate income in retirement through pensions which provide a decent standard of living for all persons;
- Adequate unemployment benefits, with a sufficient duration in order to allow time for job search;
- Adequate minimum income schemes for those who lack sufficient resources for a decent standard of living;
Enabling services and basic income security ensuring decent standards of living to people with disabilities through support services and basic income security, enabling integration into the labour market;
Access to quality and affordable long-term care services, to be strengthened and improved in a financially sustainable way;
Access to affordable and quality childcare services for all children, while at the same time measures should be taken to prevent child poverty especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds;
Access to social housing or housing assistance for all those in need, together with protection against eviction for vulnerable people and the provision of shelters to those who are homeless.
Access to essential services, such as electronic communications, transport, energy (such as electricity and heating), transport and financial services should be ensured for all.
For each one of these principles, the document places a dual emphasis on adequacy and financial sustainability, which can cause tensions in practice and undermine effective social protection measures particularly in those countries with less developed welfare systems. Especially in economic downtimes, there is a real risk that the financial sustainability of welfare systems will be prioritised over their coverage and effectiveness. In the preliminary outline, fiscal considerations are featured prominently with regards to health care systems and pensions.
It is worth noting that social protection is not consistently portrayed as a goal in itself, but - in some cases -rather as a productive factor stimulating economic performance and growth. The risk is that this implies a hierarchy where social goals are secondary to economic goals, justifying the prioritisation of measures like fiscal consolidation, and that it questions the necessity of social reform in itself. After all, economic growth can be achieved in different ways, not all of which are conducive to social cohesion.
Another alarming element is the lack of references to previous framework documents: In the last years, the Commission launched several initiatives devoted to address social issues, such as the Active Inclusion Recommendation (2008), the European Platform against Poverty and social exclusion (2010) or the Social Investment Package (2013). The lack of any mention of these actions, as well as of the Europe2020 goals, illustrates a potential lack of consistency between the Commission’s different strategies and approaches.
To provide more information about the Pillar (on the basis of what they have been able to gather so far) and about concrete ways to get involved, EPA's peer in the Social Platform, Eurodiaconia has prepared two briefings on the topic:
Find here the Pillar Briefing 1 (‘Why do we need a Pillar of Social Rights?’)
Find here the Pillar briefing 2 (‘What do we know about the contents of the Pillar?’)
Preliminary outline of the Pillar here
Communication on the consultation launch here
Link to the consultation here
Five Presidents’ Report here