European Pillar of Social Rights – Juncker seeks consensus on new direction for EU social policy
More than a year and a half have passed since the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, introduced the term European Pillar of Social Rights into EU vocabulary. In his State of the Union address before the European Parliament he promised to develop this initiative as a compass for renewed convergence within the euro area; it seeks to halt the social and economic divergence of Member States and serve as a guideline for improving living and working conditions. After several months of discussions on a first draft and the evaluation of more than 16,500 contributions to the consultation, the EU Commission presented last April its recommendations for translating Juncker's initial idea for a social compass into a new reference document for European social policy.
The Commission maintains a broad approach
The Pillar's basic structure has scarcely changed from its first draft presented by the Commission in March 2016 at the start of the public consultation. The document comprises the 20 principles and rights already set out in similar form in the first draft. Thus the broad-based approach remains unaffected. It encompasses three categories: (1) equal opportunities and access to the labour market, (2) fair working conditions, and (3) social protection and inclusion.
Furthermore, the Pillar is not restricted to the 19 euro countries but is also designed, according to its accompanying Communication, to be implemented by any other EU Member State wishing to join in. However, the principles are not intended to be legally enforceable before a court, but rather to act as a joint social agenda to drive reforms at national and European level.
Next goal: joint declaration with Council and Parliament
Given the limited legislative competences of the EU in social policy, it was until recently unclear how the Commission seeks to initiate these reforms at national level. Juncker therefore seeks to build the Pillar on a broad consensus, declaring "I would like to see the Pillar endorsed at the highest political level before the end of this year." Based on its recommendations, the Commission will thus negotiate a proclamation with the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament in the next few months. At the Social Summit in November in Sweden, the Heads of State and of Government shall then have the opportunity to endorse the document. The Commission has also published a reflection paper on the social dimensions of Europe, which discusses three options for the further development of EU social policy.
Building on these discussions, the Commission plans to implement the Pillar essentially in three ways. First, it shall become a reference document for the European Semester, the yearly cycle of economic policy coordination. The Commission has already devised a Social Scoreboard based on these principles, using indicators to monitor social trends in all EU countries in twelve areas. This should sharpen the European Semester's perception of social trends within Member States and allow the Commission to build up a comprehensive picture of country-specific situations when it works with national governments on recommendations for annual reforms. Second, the Commission would like to use the principles on working conditions, which do largely fall within the scope of EU competences, as a working plan for the necessary adaptation of European labour law to the digitalised world of work. Third, the Commission aims to align the European funds with the principles of the Pillar.
Deeper involvement of churches and their welfare organisations
Both the broad thematic approach and the proposal for the implementation of the Pillar show that Juncker is taking his promise of a "social triple A" rating seriously. The initiative is a first step towards the EU Treaty’s objective of a competitive social market economy. By implementing this, the Commission is fulfilling a recommendation formulated by the Bishops of COMECE in 2011 and reinforced again in their recent poverty statement.
By comparison with the first draft the Commission has strengthened vital principles, such as the right to a minimum wage, in the spirit of Catholic Social Teaching, and is thus following COMECE's contribution to the EU consultation. The draft document expressly states that such a provision should not only meet the needs of the workers but also the needs of their families.
In the upcoming weeks the Commission needs to achieve broad political consensus and involve all stakeholders in the process of implementation. This dialogue should also incorporate civil society organisations, including the Churches and their welfare organisations. Their experiences of everyday social work will prove vital to the success of the Pillar of Social Rights.
Translated from the original text in German
The views expressed in Europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.