Can the EU deliver on its Pillar of Social Rights?


The former President of the European Commission Jacques Delors famously told Britain’s Trade Union Congress in 1988 that social rights, social protection and social progress would lay at the heart of his vision of the European Union.

Over the next two decades, however, Delors’ social dream appeared to make way for the free market zeitgeist that defined the 1990s and early 2000s, followed by years of crippling austerity measures.

Which brings us to today. This week, the European Commission unveiled plans to push its social policy agenda once again in a bid to reconnect with disheartened citizens and coax voters not to place their faith in the populist fringes of the political spectrum.

The European Pillar of Social Rights, presented on Wednesday by Employment Commissioner Marianne Thyssen, put forward 20 social principals it wants to see member states adopt. The most prominent include strengthening workers’ rights, revamping employment law by bringing the gig economy into national social systems and introducing new rules on parental leave.

Thyssen described the Pillar as “a compass for a renewed process of convergence towards better living and working conditions” that would help the EU “avoid a race to the bottom and encourage a race to the top.” 

Well-timed, but overdue

Initial reactions from trade groups and workers’ unions have been less buoyant but nonetheless hopeful. Gabriele Bischoff, President of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) Workers’ Group told DW: The proposal has some good points, but is quite disappointing because it doesn’t really show real change. Rather than introducing complex new processes, the Commission would have been better off providing a more coherent, future-guided policy with concrete enforceable rights.”

Read: EU Commission unveils ‘pillar’ of social rights protection to fight populists

Meanwhile, Luca Visentini, General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) told DW in a statement that the Commission’s Pillar of Social Rights proposal was “a step in the right direction” and “includes proposals which are long overdue.”

Infografik Jugendliche Europa EU ENG

Though overdue, the timing is by no means coincidental, coming just after the first round of a French election that saw eursceptic candidates from the far-right and far-left leverage social rights to garner more than 40 percent of the total vote. Populist movements in Germany and Italy, who will both hold their own elections within the next year, have taken note. 

“With unemployment so high, the risk of social exclusion and poverty have never been so high,” Luca Jahier, who leads the EESC’s Various Interests Group, told DW. “That’s why it’s crucial that Europe starts investing in its democratic society. That is what these social pillars are about.”

Roadblocks ahead

That’s not to say that the proposal will quickly translate into legislature. Currently, the initiative takes two forms – that put forward by the Commission and another for proclamation by the European Parliament and Council, the institutions representing EU member states. Their vote, however, is only expected by the end of the year, after consultations with industry representatives, workers’ group and trade unions.

Plenty of potential roadblock remain before then. “We have a battle ahead of us to achieve a strong and ambitious Pillar of Social Rights,” Visentini said. “Some Governments and some employers are opposed.”

Opposition namely comes from the EU’s two problem children, Poland and Hungary, who feel that the proposal would undermine their economic competitiveness over higher wage countries, or cause a serious dent in their public coffers.

Read: Merkel warns against British ‘illusions’ as Brexit negotiations begin

However, Bischoff maintains that those reservations are namely the result of short-termism and questions over funding. She said she the proposal would have won more support and raised the scope for positive social change had the Commission outlined plans for more social investment, focused on tackling poverty and supporting transitions for new kinds of jobs.

After all, the very success of Europe’s social plan hinges on its longevity.

It was unveiled between the first and second rounds of the French election, and it will likely be proclaimed again ahead of Germany’s national vote in September and Italy’s early next year.

But Brussels cannot seek to regain the trust in citizens simply when the timing suits. The Social Pillars are a key part of what has effectively become Brussels’ own constant, long-term campaign.