We heard many welcome words from Jean-Claude Juncker in his address to the European Parliament earlier today. Social dialogue. Public services. Free movement of workers. Minimum wages. Fundamental rights. Tax evasion. Investment. The President-elect nonetheless has his work cut out for him if he is to convince us of his convictions. There were many words which need concrete actions to back them up.
Firstly, it is important to note that I welcome the election of Jean-Claude Juncker, following a more open and democratic procedure of leading candidates than we have witnessed before. Martin Schulz, the Socialist’s horse in the race and newly re-elected President of the European Parliament, referred to it as a historic moment. There is no doubt that the democratic legitimacy of the Parliament has gained a new momentum.
Addressing MEPs, Mr Juncker made it clear that he wanted a broad consensus from the political groups, a point reiterated in his political guidelines “A New Start for Europe: My Agenda for Jobs, Growth, Fairness and Democratic Change”. This consensus must not stop at the door of the Parliament. Mr Juncker can and must also look for this broad consensus among trade unions and civil society. In this, I also urge the next Commission President to support trade unions in social dialogue, as well as trade union pluralism, allowing all voices to be heard and ensuring all workers count.
So what exactly is the broad consensus needed for? Mr Juncker underlined his desire that the EU be “big on big things and smaller on small things”. These “big things” need to be ambitious and they need to make a clean break with the outgoing Commission.
Social dialogue. Speaking to MEPs, Mr Juncker pointed out the fact that social dialogue has suffered throughout the crisis. Making a very bold claim, he then said that he wanted to be the “President of Social Dialogue”, being “inspired everyday” by former Commission President Jacque Delors. Yet, with no reference made to social dialogue in his political guidelines for the next Commission, there is cause for concern. For now, let’s take the President-in-waiting at his word.
Public services. Committing in his speech to preserving public services, there is only reference in the political guidelines to how we can digitalise the public sector by making it more modern. Fresh from organising a conference on exactly this issue, I urge Mr Juncker to work with trade unions to establish effective guidelines on how these can be best introduced into the workplace. Technology cannot replace workers. Public services have played a crucial role throughout the crisis. Mr Juncker will have to better recognise this as time goes on.
Free movement of workers. Social dumping cannot be the result of the free movement of workers and Mr Juncker’s commitment to this is highly valued. His reference in speaking to MEPs on wanting to see a minimum wage introduced throughout EU countries is equally welcome, but once again does not make the final cut for the political guidelines.
Fundamental Rights. Committing to the creation of a new Commissioner to enforce fundamental rights is a step forward. Guy Verhofstadt, the ALDE group leader, was right in saying that fundamental rights should not be up for discussion and that they must be respected.In the past, fundamental rights, especially fundamental social rights, have been breached, such as in the case of the Troika. Future measures may help to correct these past errors. With regards to the Troika, it is important that this body, if at all necessary, will become more directly accountable to the Parliament and that a social impact assessment take place prior to any reforms. These are actions which we have called for and supported for a long time.
TTIP. The trade agreement between the EU and the US will not happen at any cost, said the President-elect. If safety, social, health or data protection standards are not upheld, trade unions and civil society will be sure to hold Mr Juncker to his word on this one. We cannot sacrifice our core values, such as the rule of law or the principle of equality before the law, all for a quick buck. His commitment to transparency, within and beyond TTIP, is welcome news for all.
Investment. One third of his flagship Jobs, Growth and Investment Package, this was an important word in his address. Advocates of austerity are too frightened of this word. Mr Juncker understands that many countries are far from the levels of investment they need and is not afraid to say it. Do I believe the EU will turn its back on total austerity with Mr Juncker at the helm? At least according to his words, a more balanced approach may be around the corner.
These are welcome words indeed which might just see the EU focusing more on social cohesion, social rights, citizen’s rights and social dialogue. There is a hint of the shape of things to come from Mr Juncker’s speech today. There is no doubt the incoming President of the Commission will need to make some bold proposals, going further than just bold statements, not least to prove his critics wrong that he is simply the ‘business-as-usual’ candidate.