Commission to unveil future for a more social Europe
The European Commission is expected to unveil its response this week as citizens across the EU demand more help from their governments to overcome the economic pain from pandemic restrictions.
Fighting poverty and inequality has become the top priority for citizens in the EU’s 27 countries as a result of the Covid-19 conditions, according to the latest Eurobarometer. Nearly half the respondents (48%) said more social support should be put at the top of the European Parliament’s agenda, compared to the 17% in the previous survey.
A previous Eurobarometer survey showed that up to 83% of citizens believed that a common free market should go hand-in-hand with a high level of social protection. Sixty per cent would like to see more EU-level action dealing with health and social security issues.
Their wish is the EU’s command, more or less.
While most of the competencies regarding social issues remain in the hands of member states, former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath in mind when he launched the so-called European Pillar of Social Right in 2017. The initiative was designed to boost the EU’s work in upholding social rights across the bloc, and it has delivered to some extent.
Directives have been passed - although watered down by member states - on improving transparency into working conditions or introducing minimum standards that ensure work-life balance, including on parental leave.
The former Luxembourg prime minister’s initiative also led to creating the European Labour Authority. Its mission is to help ensure labour and social security regulations are followed across the EU, although in practice its capacity is very limited.
Like many other issues, labour rights are very divisive among member states.
While Nordic countries with strong social protection systems refuse to settle for minimum European-level standards that they have surpassed, Eastern countries would rather not have to upgrade their lower standards. The EU’s post-Communist members believe their looser labour rules give them a competitive advantage that attracts jobs and business investment.
The persistence of lower labour conditions was criticized by a recent UN report that looked into why the EU failed to achieve its goal of lifting 20 million people out of poverty by 2020.
The Commission in October tabled a proposal for a European framework of statutory minimum wages. It aimed to increase transparency and push member states to ensure pay matches minimum living standards. The proposal showed Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen also is keen on pushing for a more socially fair Europe.
The action plan the Commission will unveil this week is expected to address more labour market issues – like the skills gap or access to social protection and health care – and set a new EU target for poverty reduction. On the same day, the Commission will table a proposal to tackle the gender pay gap with binding transparency measures - just ahead of World Women’s Day on 8 March.
The EU’s €750 billion pandemic recovery fund has “social cohesion” among its goals. But contrary to transition plans to move the EU toward a greener, more-digitised economy, there is no concrete objective of what social cohesion would mean in the national plans.
Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights Nicolas Schmit told the Eurocrat that the EU executive is looking at the social impact of the proposed reforms. The blueprints that countries have shared already include significant investments in health care or education among other social improvements, the commissioner from Luxembourg said.
Flaws in the Stability and Growth Pact, which dictates fiscal discipline to protect the EU’s fiscal and monetary union, were partly responsible for the bloc’s failure to fully tackle poverty, wrote the UN's Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Olivier De Schutter. He would be glad to hear that Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni said last week that the EU’s fiscal rules should be adapted to allow countries further spending to boost their economies through the recession following the pandemic, including by looking into the composition of a nation’s debt when assessing its sustainability.
What the Eurocrat will also be watching:
There will be no recovery without easing restrictions on movement and gatherings, and for that to happen vaccine rollouts need to speed up. EU health ministers were scheduled to meet on Monday. They are following up on last week's leaders' meeting on how to contain the spread of the coronavirus variants and improve vaccination strategies as more countries move into tightening restrictions.
Tourism ministers are meeting on Monday too. Southern countries, which are economically dependent on tourism, will be happy to know that von der Leyen announced a proposal on vaccination passports by the end of the month.