This post is also available in: Français (French)
In his speech on the State of the Union delivered on 13 September 2017, the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker reaffirmed the will of the Commission and its services to impulse the creation of a social Europe. For this reason, he urges the EU Member States to find an agreement on “the European Pillar of Social Rights as soon as possible” even though he recognizes that “national social systems will still remain diverse and separate for a long time” (1).
Although the political will to set in place a social Europe just emerge, European citizens have expressed their desire for such a social Europe since 2006.
In 2006, the European Union established special Eurobarometer to know European citizens’ opinion on the future of Europe. Those Eurobarometers focus on EU citizens’ aspirations while standard Eurobarometers tend to reflect an opinion in reaction to special events. Looking at standard Eurobarometers during the migrant crisis, immigration is the main preoccupation of the European citizens. Following the attacks in Paris, Berlin or in the United-Kingdom, terrorism takes the lead in terms of the citizens’ concerns. But these are merely snapshots for a given moment.
Eurobarometers on the future of Europe offer new lenses to grasp the EU citizens’ wishes regarding the Union, a Union which they have increasing difficulties to identify themselves with and that they sanction in elections as demonstrated by the recent historically high results reaped by “critics” parties.
In 2006, a Eurobarometer on the future of Europe already mentioned that social policy was a sensitive issue on which the European Union was particularly awaited. Back then, prior to the 2008 economic crisis, EU citizens already call for an alignment consistent with the existing highest standards; ideas such as a European social security card and the harmonisation of labour law are evoked (2).
In 2010, in the framework of a study on exclusion and poverty, the respondents think that a social approach is best suited to face the challenges ahead (3).
In 2016, policies for reducing budget deficit and public debts continue to be at the heart of the European action. There are many examples of such deficit and public debts reduction policies. The European Stability Mechanism (ESM) is among those. In return of a financial compensation, the ESM imposes the respect of the balanced budget rule forcing the Member States to cut into social spending, for example in health or education sectors. The broad economic policy guideline (BEPG) setting out the roadmap to be followed by the Member States and that imposes the balanced budget principle is another example. Finally, we can name the memoranda which prompted the Member States facing serious difficulties to enforce austerity policies. And yet, 50% of the respondents affirm that, at the Union scale, economic and social policies are going in the wrong direction, against 25% believing the opposite. At the national level, the results do not improve with 51% against the economic and social policies and 31% in favour. Moreover, the 2016 Eurobarometer reveals a particular distrust regarding social policy. According to 64% of the respondents, social inequalities will be further widened in a 5-year time. In addition, the Eurobarometer underlined that equality and solidarity had to be considered as priorities for the European Union. Inequalities, the fight against unemployment, and education follow (4).
In 2017, the dynamic remains unchanged. 79% of the respondents assess that solidarity is positive for the future of Europe (5).
Non-EU opinions consolidate the thesis about the European citizens attached to the creation and implementation of a social Europe. In a survey on the future of Europe and how that future is perceived outside the European Union, the importance of the social aspects is confirmed. The Chinese, Brazilian, Russian, Swiss, Indian, Canadian, Turkish, American, Australian, Japanese and Norwegian respondents agree on the fact that market economy must be accompanied with a high level of social protection (6). The result is a bit higher for the “BRICS’ citizens” (this term is used in the source and we use it even if we disagree with such classification mainly applied by orthodox economist). Moreover, the respondents consider equality and solidarity as priorities for the European Union (7). Hence, the principle of a social Europe seems to be supported by both European citizens and citizens from other nations.
Let us go further
Juncker’s political will of creating a social Europe is justified. But such a desire still remains secondary in his speech compared to economic, monetary and security issues. However, as observed, social policy is essential for the European citizens. Therefore, AEDH states that before being a political project, social Europe is a citizen project. If the European construction is more than a mere economic project, after being embodied in the Schengen area, can’t the political project be based on the ambitious plan of a social Europe?
The European Union must realise that social Europe has been awaited for a long time now. The review of Eurobarometers on the issue in the long run is striking. The Union can also consider the latest elections’ polls to realise that social Europe is essential to sustain the European project. The performance of right-wing parties in France, Austria or the entrance of “Alternative für Deutschland” (Alternative for Germany) in the Bundestag, underline the rejection of the current economic Europe. The growing inequalities are also an aspect for the European institutions to consider. Ultimately, when analysed over a longer period and together with other studies, Eurobarometers highlight that a strong desire exists for the establishment of a social pillar. It is no longer acceptable for the decision-makers to stand behind supporting “short run data”. Security requests following each terrorist attack lead to debates on the increase of security at the expense of the citizens’ freedom. However, we had to wait 2016-2017 to initiate the building process of a European Social Pillar. Yet, since 2006, many elements came to confirm the will to build a social Europe.
But, let’s give the benefit of a methodological doubt, or perhaps even better, let’s take note of the “awareness” of the Europeans decision-makers. The 2017 State of the Union seems to go towards the development of a social Europe. The upcoming European summit in Göteborg will be a real revealer of the Member States’ will to engage and meet the citizens’ demand. Should the ambitions be reformulated, the European Union can count on associations ready to engage in analysis and a proposal work, that will allow the civil society to continue their involvement in a political project, but more importantly, a citizen project. AEDH always did so through its participation in the fundamental public debate on economic and social rights with the repeated desire that the social dimension does not remain a byproduct of the economic dimension. For this reason, AEDH reminds its support to the European Pillar of Social Rights but also its recommendation that the project must be ambitious. Economic principles shall not supplant social principles, in particular on concepts such as “flexicurity”. AEDH reiterates its position that the workers’ adaptability shall not prevail over their safety (8). More generally, AEDH reminds the humanist vision of the theeconomy that it defends: for this reason, the construction of a social Europe will be a project that AEDH will carefully scrutinise.