The European Pillar of Social Rights: still a “triple B” Social Europe?

13 December 2017 /

The first social summit in twenty years. Such a long time has been taken by the European leaders to give more political emphasis on the EU’s social dimension. By proclaiming the “European Pillar for Social Rights” (EPSR) at the “Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth” of Gothenburg, the EU Heads of State and Government, the Presidents of the EU Institutions, the social partners and other key stakeholders, had the opportunity to discuss about the current and the future of Social Europe. Eyes on Europe have been to EU a high-level summit, to feel on the ground the disappointments and hopes around the initiative. In Sweden, the global social champion for social justice, inclusion and equality: maybe a sign of inspiration, maybe only a shop window.

Feet on the ground

Under the watchful sight of the government of Member States – always concerned about delegating social powers to Brussels – the EU institutional triangle representative have sign of a new “Pillar” of rights. The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, and the President in charge of the Council of the European Union, the Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, have been the only signatory of this “interinstitutional declaration”.

Not everybody was there. Despite the absolute rarity of summits dealing with social matters, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the great absent, not able to attend because of the talks on the difficult creation of a coalition for a new government in Germany. The French President Emanuel Macron, for its part, came late for the introductory discourse, deserving a recall from Juncker, but had much to say at the round table, talking more than twice the time available. Physically present but understandably absent on the core of discussions, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Teresa May have been a particularly silent spectator. The Social Europe has always been a point of friction between Brussels and London; less now, since the British are supposed to leave the EU.

The main impression among the observers and the international media is that the summit is not a big deal. Paradoxically, much of the attention has been put on other topics, parallel to the central discussions of the day. The talks about the phase two of Brexit between May and Tusk, the negotiation on the votes about the new sieges of the two EU agency that will leave the UK, and statements regarding recent economic improvements or other national perspective comments, have taken the scene. The meeting seemed in fact to have served more as forum for more sensitive discussions and a platform for political statements, since the Pillar and the other initiative are legally non-binding for Member States.

The measures on the showcase

Despite it takes three years to see the light, the EPSR has been considered as a priority in the agenda of the Commission, strongly supported by Juncker since its political manifesto. According to the “doing much more together” of the Five Scenarios, and in the context of a future possible deepening of the Economic Monetary Union (EMU), it is conceived to address and mitigate the economic imbalances and divergences among Eurozone countries, raised since the crisis hit. The overall proclaimed ambition is to push the EU towards a “triple A” social model.

Proposed for the first time the 26 April of this year, the final document signed in Gothenburg declares twenty principles. They are regrouped in three broad categories: equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions, and social protection and inclusion. A catalogue of commons objectives that should serve as minimum standards to promote social convergence in the EU. Thought the Pillar, the European Commission underlined its support to a better work-life balance for parents and carers, and for a more inclusive social protection to cover especially the young generations of workers from the escalation of gig-economy and related precariousness.

The EU executive body then also presented more legislative initiatives, targeting two directives for clarifications or changes. On the Working rights directive, the Commission has adopted an elucidation on its scope, providing guidance to avoid abuses on carry-over of untaken paid annual leave and on the infringement of the 48 hours per week limit. The old Written Statement of 1991 is on the table for an amendment, to address mostly atypical workers, such as casual or intermittent, like the on zero-hour contracts, on-demand, voucher-based and platform workers, and let them receive written validations of their working conditions. As already done for the Posting of worker’s directive, now at the stage of the negotiation between the Council and the Parliament, the Commission will present the legislative proposals before the end of the year and is also studying a proposition for a labour authority in 2018.

To promote the principles set by the Pillar, a more wide-ranging social Scoreboard will be implemented to the European Semester, raising the actual five social areas to twelve, using 35 social indicators. Especially relevant for the Eurozone area, it will serve as an instrument to benchmark the social performance and promote improvements among Member State. Starting from the next round of policy coordination, it will be a tool for the European Commission and the Council to analyse the specific situation of countries in the EU and integrate social recommendation. Nevertheless, the Member State will not have any strict obligation to perform better.

The break down critics of the Pillar

The legally non-binding nature, the natures of the principles and its lack in ambition are the main critics addressed to the EPSR. For many, it is not sufficient to promote a real social agenda, capable of delivering a decisive impact. Nor is it providing any major progress in the idea of Social Europe, being only a sort of catalogue reaffirming already stated principles.

For the more critical observers, the Pillar is far from amending the social acquis, but simply complementing the status quo. From an economic perspective, the EPSR is formulated in a way that subordinates its rights to the primacy of fiscal sustainability, international competitiveness and a supply side social policy paradigm, driving a return to the concept of “flexicurity”. For these tenants, the priority is given to macroeconomic objectives, with a tendency to use social policies as a mean for economic growth rather than a priority in its own right, to which economic policies must instead contribute. Furthermore, there are few points about tackling poverty and the issue of social exclusion, with no mention of the respective targets of Europe 2020 nor how it will ensure a significant impact.

Another critic moves from legal point of view. The Article 3 of the Treaty of European Union describe the EU as “a social market economy” targeting full employment and social progress, and defines that it “shall combat social exclusion and discrimination”, and “promote social justice and protection”. On the other hand, the Article 9 of the Treaty of Functioning of the European Union (known as the “social clause”), provides that “in defining and implementing its policies and activities”, the EU should promote “high level of employment, the guarantee of adequate social protection, the fight against social exclusion”. Linking the two, EU treaties affirm that all European policies should integrate social objectives horizontally, while the Pillar it’s instead constituting a separate non-binding parallel body.

Still a chance for the EPSR to improve Social Europe?

Despite all defects, European Pillar of Social Rights can still be a step forward for the future of Social Europe and at least a political input, made at the highest level. For more optimistic observers, there are still potentially the possibilities that the Pillar could have with time a more concrete legal effect, by indirectly interpreting and influencing the structure of primary and secondary EU law or find in the European Semester a governance vehicle for mainstreaming.

In fact, the Pillar could take a similar significance that the Charter did before its annexation in the Treaty of Lisbon. The Court of Justice of the European Union has used the EU Charter as a reference point for limiting institutional discretion after it was proclaimed and before it became legally binding. At least, the EPSR should serve as an interpretation and inspiration instrument for further social actions. The legislative initiatives included in the “Pillar box” refer to it in the explanatory part of the proposals by noting down the principles and rights fixed in the EPSR. In this way, the Pillar has already served for these initiatives as a sort of reference point.

The EPSR can also affect the EU’s economic governance mechanisms. The Commission has planned to utilise the Scoreboard attached to the Pillar as the key instrument to set out indicators to be mainstreamed in the governance processes. Nevertheless, only a “blaming and shaming” pressure could be an incentive for the implementation of the principles. Without a Golden Rule for social investment, Member States will have little incentive to increment expenditures. For sure, the Pillar can be an encouragement to act, but its meaning is strictly conditioned by future joint efforts for its implementation, in the EU, but especially at national level.

The impact remains to be seen

The last Social Summit was in 1997. As a response to the structural problems on the labour market and the macroeconomic difficulties of the 1990s, the European leaders agreed on a “European Employment Strategy” in the “Luxembourg process”. “We never applied our conclusions”, said President Juncker at his first statement at the inaugural discourse of the European summit, referring to the missed commitment of European leaders to meet at least every year to work on social issues. “The European Pillar of social rights is not a collection of poems”, Junker promised, “it is a programme for action”.

Many years have passed, but not much have changed. In two decades, social matters have not been properly at the centre of the European integration, as demonstrated by the modest social achievements made by the Lisbon Strategy in the first decennia of 2000 and by the current Europe 2020 program. The Rome Declaration, signed earlier this year on the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the founding treaties, contained the least a commitment to build a more Social Europe. Until now, the dichotomy between economic governance and social policy, and the imbalance between national social dimensions on one side and the pan-European internal market on the other, have had as a consequence the weakening of the national social systems and their European ambitions.

Several years of economic crisis and austerity have harmed the weaker people of Europe. As found out in Eurobarometer survey of 2017, about 70 per cent of Europeans would like to see the EU take more action in the areas of unemployment and social security. Europe cannot wait more to address these needs. A figure above all: one in four in the EU are at risk of poverty or social exclusion. Representing 122,3 million, these citizens are by far the biggest Member State in Europe. The Pillar and a deeper Social Europe need high political commitment and responsibility. Concrete actions are crucial to restore the trust among EU citizens, fight populism and avoid the risk of disintegration of the Union.

Marzio P. Rotondò is an Advanced Master student in Interdisciplinary Analysis of European Integration & Journalist on EU Affairs


The European Pillar of Social Rights: Building a Deeper, Fairer Union? Susana Muñoz, University of Luxembourg. “Uncertain Destinations: The European Union at 60”, EUSA Fifteenth Biennial Conference, Miami, May 4-6, 2017

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