European pillar of social rights – opportunity or threat?

On 26 April 2017, the European Commission published its proposal for a "European Pillar of Social Rights" (EPSR).  SOLIDAR together with trade unions, other non-governmental organisations and non-profit social service providers have generally welcomed this attempt to improve the implementation of social rights, but the uncertain legal value of the proposal and its related principles is a cause for criticism.[1]

A much more fundamental criticism comes from Prof. Dr. Martin Höpner of the Max Planck Institute for Society Research (Cologne, Germany). In an article[2] published in the Journal of International Politics and Society on 25 May 2017, he critically assesses the European Commission's proposal, as individual social rights would not make the European Union more social. If social rights were included in the European Treaties, the scope of action of Member States in the field of social policy wouldn’t be enlarged but rather restricted.

In a discussion with Gabi Bischoff, the European Economic and Social Committee’s (EESC) rapporteur on the social pillar, on 19 October - organised by SOLIDAR, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Diakonie Deutschland, Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund - Prof. Dr. Höpner further illustrated his argumentation.

For Prof. Dr. Höpner it is not clear where the real added value of the EPSR lies because we already have other legal frameworks and instruments especially developed to provide and assure social rights. The professor also reflected on the lack of law enactments, given that the EPSR seems to be a mere political instrument without any legally binding power. Instead, he proposes reinforced cooperation among willing Member States while being cautious with sanctioning “non-willing” countries.

On a more optimistic note, Gabi Bischoff of the EESC considers the EPSR an instrument towards a more social dimension in Europe given that it is aware of the social situation in every Member State, especially after the economic crisis. Also, she stressed the potential role of the pillar as a "door opener" to force Member States to take action for more social convergence. Benchmarking might be a good way to incentivise action at Member State level. SOLIDAR supports her call for changes in the European Semester that would enable an improved balance of social and economic governance and restore trust in the Semester process.

For SOLIDAR, it needs political ambition - at Member State level and by the European Institutions - to adopt a strong Proclamation on the European Pillar of Social Rights, and for tangible progress on the concrete outline of the principles enshrined in the Pillar.


[1] Please read SOLIDAR’s briefing ‘The European Pillar of Social Rights – a basis for upward social convergence?‘ (2016)

[2] (in German)

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