human development, social justice and sustainable social systems

What next for the EPSR?

can good intentions be made real?

These are challenging times for Europe: strong cross winds are blowing and it remains to be seen in which direction they will carry us. Citizens are increasingly calling into question a European Union (EU), and Member States, that are unable to deliver on security, social and economic progress. One thing is clear – there can be no future for the EU without a strong and effective social dimension and, if the EU is to have a secure and sustainable future, it must regain the trust of its citizens. People need to see that the EU can still bring added value to their lives – that it is indeed an EU which “empowers, protects and defends” its citizens.

The European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR), proclaimed by the European institutions at the Gothenburg Social Summit on 17 November last year, provides an opportunity to set the EU back on track. The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has played an active role in shaping the Pillar. It adopted two opinions on the subject in 2017, which received strong support from the Committee’s three Groups which together reflect the collective viewpoint of a broad spectrum of European organised civil society: employers, workers and other various interest groups.

The opinions give some very clear messages. First and foremost is the need for a new political consensus about the type of Europe in which we wish to live. How do we balance economic and social policies to achieve a fairer society, offering equal opportunities for all, while ensuring that citizens can meet the challenges of the 21st century, not least globalisation and digitalisation and the impact on the way we live and work? While preparing our first opinion on the Pillar, the EESC organised debates in all 28 Member States involving almost 1800 civil society representatives. These debates revealed that despite some national specificities, people shared many of the same concerns and priorities.

Based on these national consultations, the EESC set out key areas where the EPSR needs to make a positive impact including, the need for social stabilisation and to address social exclusion, increasing inequality and poverty, and growing divergence within and between Member States. As President of the EESC’s Workers’ Group, the consensus achieved around making the future of work – including the need for fair working conditions for all, to support fair and smooth transitions, and to ensure social protection for all – a key priority, is particularly welcome. The Committee also emphasised the need to link the EPSR and its implementation with the objectives and implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The proclamation of the Pillar was just the first step. It is now our collective responsibility – the EU institutions, the national governments, the social partners and civil society in general – to ensure that it becomes a living instrument, rather than just good intentions on paper. The EESC has said that a clear roadmap for the implementation of the EPSR would help to foster convergence and achieve its objectives. We need clarity about who is doing what and where accountability lies. All too often, Member States hide behind “Brussels”, when it is their own lack of action that is at fault.

Social and economic policies cannot exist in separate vacuums. At the European level, the Pillar must impact on economic governance. The EESC has emphasised that the European Semester – the EU’s vehicle for economic policy coordination – must be an economic and a social semester. Improvements should be made to the Pillar’s Social Scoreboard, with more adequate and suitable indicators. The EESC has also called for more efforts to define common principles and standards on better convergence of wages, establishing or increasing minimum wages and to ensure that all citizens are covered by a minimum income. The current European Semester cycle will be the test case to see if the Pillar can make a positive impact.

Social policy is clearly a shared competence between the EU and the national level. The onus is now also on Member States to demonstrate their willingness and ability to advance on social issues. Concrete proposals and actions are also needed at national level for the implementation of the Pillar’s 20 principles, especially where the EU has no direct competence. It is encouraging that these issues are part of the coalition negotiations currently taking place in Germany. However, despite the fact that no Member States formally opposed the EPSR, there is clearly some resistance. Civil society has a crucial role to play in remaining vigilant and maintaining the pressure so that the Pillar’s principles become a reality in every EU country.

The very existence of the European Pillar of Social Rights is a positive step, which civil society can take much of the credit for. But, we are not naïve: we know that the Pillar is not the answer in itself to all the problems our communities face. However, if this demonstration of political commitment can be translated into concrete actions where citizens can see an improvement in their lives, this will send a positive signal that the triple ‘A’ social Europe that the European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker promised when he took office almost five year ago is a possibility. This is all the more pressing with the looming European elections in 2019. There are already too many Eurosceptics and nationalists in the European Parliament. The danger is that their numbers will increase if we cannot take the necessary action to show that the EU is taking a new path, putting the well-being of people at its heart.

About the author
Gabriele Bischoff is the President of the Workers’ Group in the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the rapporteur and co-rapporteur on the EESC opinions on the European Pillar of Social Rights. She has a wealth of experience of European politics and policies. She is also special advisor at the German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB), having joined the trade unions about 30 years ago, as well as member of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) Executive Committee and a member of the board of the European Movement in Germany.