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A year ago, the European Commission (EC) launched a public consultation about the European social pillar project. A common social base for all Member States was Jean-Claude’s Juncker ambition as he called to make Europe more social in its speech on the state of the Union on September 2016.
In the EC’s preliminary version of the pillar, before the public consultation, its purposes were quite wide-ranging, if not vague. In the institution’s words, the pillar was aimed at setting out “a number of key principles and rights to support fair and well-functioning [Member states’] labour markets and welfare systems”.
On 26 April 2017, after a year of consultation, the EC submitted its project in the form of 20 fundamental principles delivered in a recommendation. It is the result of many proposals made by civil society organisations, including the AEDH.
In the wake of the white paper on the future of the Union, the EC’s directorate general for Employment and Social Affairs submitted a reflexion paper on the Social dimension of Europe, on 1 March 2016.
In order to embody the principles and to provide them with a more concrete application framework, the EC declared that is was currently working on four directives dealing with work-life balance, Working time, workers’ protection and access to social protection.
After months of work and waiting, here is the result. What can be said about it?
First of all, it is noteworthy that the pillar’s principles are well targeted. This opinion is shared by a majority of deputies from the committee on Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL) who acknowledged the quality of its content. Indeed, the social principles inscribed in the pillar are representative of the challenges that Social Europe – and Europe in general- is addressing. The pillar is divided into three parts aimed at providing the necessary rights for equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions and equal access to social protection and inclusion.
|The European Pillar of Social Rights is a set of principles aimed at providing with every citizen of each Member States a common basis of social rights. These rights are considered as essential to guarantee equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions and equal access to social protection and inclusion. The Pillar has been submitted by the EC on 26 April 2017, in the form of a recommendation which still has to be voted by the Council and the European Parliament to enter into force.|
The objectives are ambitious and they deepen the « acquis ». Furthermore, they go beyond the single economic framework in which they were defined in the EC’s first version. By including social rights dealing health, long-term care, housing assistance for homeless people and access to essential services, the new version is better addressing both the challenges of Social Europe and the citizens’ needs. The third principle about equal chances even states a higher level of protection than the one provided by Chapter III of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU by insisting on the particular attention due to minorities. The AEDH identified these needs in its contribution to the public consultation and therefore welcomes these new elements as a success.
However, despite these very positive aspects, the pillar leaves a sour taste on incompleteness. The AEDH asserts that the established principles are still lacking overarching aspects of social justice. From European EMPL deputies’ perspective or the one of civil society associations or workers’ representatives, the conclusion is the same: the pillar falls short of expectations.
The AEDH regrets the absence within the pillar of the issues of the new-comers, undocumented workers and migrants’ integration into the labour market. Whereas work remains the best way to boost migrants’ social integration, the refugees, whose asylum application has been cleared, still have to wait a minimum of nine months to access the labour market. In a press release on 24 April 2017, the European Parliament’s Committee on Justice and Internal Affairs (LIBE) asked for a reduction of the delay to two months in order to ease their integration. The AEDH considers that the social rights in effect within the EU, in the name of the principle of equal dignity of the human being inscribed at Article 1 of the Charter of the Fundamental Rights of the EU, should not be reserved only for European citizens. The EC should have been courageous enough to inscribe in the pillar the right for refugees to access the labour market.
Moreover, the AEDH warned against the pillar’s first version internal weaknesses in its contribution that did not change with the recommendation. The affirmation of the principle of job flexibility is the most obvious. The substitution of the term “adaptability”, used for the fifth principle, to “flexy-safety” does not change anything in reality.
Indeed, the EC pledges to guarantee “the necessary flexibility for employers to adapt swiftly to changes in the economic context shall be ensured”, to uphold self-employment and to ease workers mobility in order to offer “secure and adaptable employment”. Yet, reading the principle, it is clear that adaptability is prior to security. The statement of the vice-president of the EC, Valdis Dombrovskis, about professional skills and training, is emblematic of how issues are still handled by the liberal orthodoxy: “Our workers’ skills must answer the need of the economy”. In other words, the worker must adapt himself to the market. The reasons interpreted are fair: to ensure workers’ free movement, their employability and their ability to answer an employment offer everywhere in the Union. Nonetheless, no one asks whether the training is wanted by the worker or not. At exactly the contrary of a humanist perception of the economy, the latter must adapt to the market whereas the market should be a tool to serve him.
Although the EC is working on a directive to ease work-life balance, it is at the same time advocating extreme skills and geographical flexibility that are a threat to their social roots. Free movement of persons is a right at the service of the individual but it becomes a burden when it becomes a duty at the service of the market. While the words are changing, the idea remains.
In addition to the weakness inherent in the high flexibility principle, the lack of precision about both the necessary measures to implement for Social Europe and the framework to lead them have been criticised. As Maria João Rodrigues, member of the Socialists and Democrats group and rapporteur on the European Pillar of Social Rights puts it : the reflexion paper on the social dimension of Europe lacks sufficient precision to bring about social convergence. According to her, the EC still lacks a social roadmap to ensure cohesion. The AEDH shares this opinion, especially about the reflection paper. The EC’s position is not concrete enough on too many measures that still have to be implemented to give form to the established principles. At the moment, it is not possible to know whether the directives the EC is working on will meet the Pillar principles’ expectations. To address the emergency of Social Europe, the European Trade Union Confederation urges the EC “to bring forward proposals quickly”.
Furthermore, some discrepancies remain. It is particularly true about the incompatibility between the austerity imposed by the European Semester and the willing to make Europe more Social. While inequalities are growing in Europe since the adoption of the European semester, the social Pillar does not provide any solution to address the issue according to the deputy Enrique Calvet Chambon. The latter vehemently interrogated Marianne Thyssen on that matter during the hearing of the commissioners by the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs on 2 May 2017. He wanted to outline the obvious contradictions between the EC’s desire to deepen social rights although the institution fosters the growth of inequalities by ignoring the rights due to European citizens. This intervention came in the wake of a complaint submitted by Cypriot citizens and a depository organisation who claimed that the implementation of memorandums concluded between the Member States and the European Stability Mechanism disregarded the rights defended by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Court of Justice ruled in their favour and enjoined the EC to ensure the memorandums’ implementation in full respect of the principles established by the Charter.
Thus, the European deputy wanted to emphasise the discrepancy between the importance given to financial purposes and the one dedicated to social objectives. Although the Pillar is proposing a new balance, according to Sofia Ribeiro, member of the European Populist Party, it remains insufficient to grant real autonomy to social objectives. As it already did in the past, the AEDH re-asserts that the austerity imposed by the mechanism of the European Semester is incompatible with the respect of social rights in the EU. The AEDH urges the EC to act in line with Marianne Thyssen’s objective to “make the European semester more social” and to quickly submit a social scoreboard so that economic and social issues can be treated in parallel, and in the advantage of the latter, in order to better harmonize their respective goals.
The main disappointment about the Pillar comes above all from the non-legally binding nature of the recommendation. That means that as good as the existing principles may be, they cannot be directly invoked by the citizen before the judge of the EU. They have only a political scope that eventually threatens their justiciability. Many deputies are sceptical as the pragmatic question asked by Guillaume Balas, member of the Socialists and Democrats group, demonstrates: “what will the pillar concretely change?”. The EC wants to have it proclaimed at the highest institutional level. Therefore it hopes to send a political message strong enough to prompt Member States to translate these principles into their national legislation.
No political declaration often proves to be sufficient to guarantee rights. The root of the issue remains the one of states’ commitment. Indeed, despite its legally-binding nature, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, just as many other social measures, is not entirely implemented. According to the EC’s report on monitoring the application of EU law, the poor application of EU social measures is primarily due to their lack of clarity. Thus, this conclusion is evidence of the need for precision and transparency that the EC’s propositions about Social Europe are precisely lacking. The AEDH regrets the non-legally binding nature of the recommendation, as it already did during the public consultation. Whereas the EC wanted to grant new and more effective social rights to citizens the non-legally binding recommendation undermines their application.
Where is the global coherence in all these propositions? Where does the EC want to take Europe? These are the questions that European deputies, citizens and the AEDH ask the EC.
While the EC asserts the urgency of building Social Europe, it still does not respond to this urgency. Long-awaited, the Social Pillar falls short of expectations because it remains non-legally binding, relating to European citizens only and turns a blind eye to the roots of persistent social injustice.
The AEDH acknowledges the breakthrough that represents the affirmation of new and useful principles for Social Europe. However, it urges the EC to multiply efforts in order to clarify its measures and to concretize them through legally binding directives that meet the pillar’s expectations.
Many claims from civil society, like the reception of migrants with dignity or the promotion of Social Rights in general, are still missing from the Pillar. Therefore, the AEDH prompts Member States and the European Parliament to keep a close watch on these claims in order to go further with the Pillar so that it can attain its original goals which were to provide the minimum common ground for all and to become the Pillar Europe needs more than ever.
 AEDH, AEDH opinion on the European Pillar of Social Rights, 21 Décembre 2016.
 AEDH Conclusions about the exchange of views between the commissioners Valdis Dombrovskis and Marianne Thyssen in the frame of the structured dialogue, EMPL meeting on 2 May 2017. The conclusions are under the association’s responsibilities.
 Charter of the Fundamental Rights of the European Union,Chapter III : Equality.
 Committee on Justice and Internal Affairs, Press release : Ease asylum seeker access to labour market to boost their integration, 24 April 2017.
 Charter of the Fundamental Rights of the European Union, Chapter I : Dignity.
 Valdis Dombrovskis, EMPL meeting on 2 May 2017.
 Maria Joao Rodrigues, EMPL meeting on 2 May 2017.
 European Trade-Union Confederation, Press Release, No future without a more Social Europe, 26 April 2017.
 Enrique Calvet Chambon, EMPL meeting on 2 May 2017.
 AEDH, Austerity and the well-being of citizens : an impossible compatibility, 27 mars 2015.
 Guillaume BALAS, EMPL meeting on 2 May 2017.