Social state of the European Union on the move?

Next week Commission President Juncker will present his 2017 speech on the State of the European Union on which he is working with his inner circle and consulting selected interlocutors. We/the interested public are waiting with bated breath. This Commission was presented on its arrival as “the most political”. It aimed to do less, but more effectively. Indeed the famous “better regulation” agenda is only logical in this sense. Nevertheless the outcome in terms of the social dimension is still open to question. The President also announced his goal to reach a social triple A and has invested greatly in the process leading to the Pillar of Social Rights, which in general was welcomed as creating a new momentum for a social dimension. This was accompanied by the scenarios on the future of Europe and the reflection paper on the social dimension. Besides the hot topics like migration and the UK’s withdrawal from the Union, the focus will probably be on deepening the Economic and Monetary Union, and rightfully so. This is urgently needed to relaunch a convergence process, within and between the Member States, where the actual European Semester process is not delivering.

With the next European elections due in 2019, the window of opportunity will start closing. And although many initiatives have been taken, it is still not clear how history books will view this Commission. Where is the space for manoeuvre for accomplishing real social progress in times of continually rising inequalities? Macro-economic coordination is very much needed as well as putting the social and economic dimensions on an equal footing. France and Germany will probably return to the scene after the German elections with their joint proposals, although their interpretation of the role of a European Minister of Finance will reflect the cultural differences between the “rigueur allemande” of a “Sparkommissar” and a more political interpretation “à la française”.

Maybe it is also time to get rid of the perception that Europe has no competences in social policies.  They are more than just employment issues, and finally the EU has shown that there is a space which could be used more effectively to overcome the gaps and support an upward convergence process, thanks to many soft policy initiatives such as work-life-balance, or harder like the public procurement directive and more. Labour law issues like working time and posting are still on the table. Social partners have their role and responsibilities through social dialogue, although it appears that some business federations are more and more ideologically driven than looking for binding solutions. The ETUC is absolutely right to demand that ‘Europe needs a pay rise’ especially at a moment when the famous growth is coming back to Eurozone.

We expect a proposal for a directive on social protection for all kinds of work as requested by the European Parliament. It is so urgently needed given the new forms of work in the digital area and the growing precariousness of standard working contracts. Furthermore financial tools should support the priority of social investment and more flexibility in budget policies. In the end the future Multi-Financial Framework will be the moment of truth for the social triple A, taking into account the increasing demand for more expenditure on security, defence and migration which are in competition with the budget for social policies like the European Social Fund. At this stage we are looking forward to the speech on Wednesday morning and can only say “bon courage Monsieur le Président”. Now or never!


This editorial appeared in the Weekly Round up of 08 September 2017.