College orientation debate on employment challenges: Good words welcome, but what counts is action

Yesterday [June 9], the European Commission's college of commissioners held an orientation debate to establish how the EU can best address existing employment challenges in Europe. CESI's welcomes this orientation debate whole-heatedly, believing that a fundamental debate to kick-start major EU action on quality employment has been overdue in crisis-ridden Europe. At the same time, CESI highlights the importance of having this debate followed by concrete and substantial policy proposals that are worked out together with the social partners and boost quality employment as much as the EU competences in the field of employment and social affairs allow.

College orientation debate on employment challenges: Good words welcome, but what counts is action

According to the Commissioner for social dialogue Valdis Dombrovskis, the orientation debate was to review “the way economic policy [can be better] coordinated across the EU to better take into account social concerns”. His colleague, the Commissioner for employment Marianne Thyssen, added: “Creating jobs, restoring fairness, providing protection and reducing inequalities therefore remain our priorities […] Our aim is to achieve upward social convergence and to bring concrete results to the European citizens.”

CESI Secretary General Klaus Heeger: “Make sure that the debate does not remain a mere symbol.”

CESI welcomes such statements very much. It also values high the European Commission’s commitment to hold a college orientation debate on how to bring about more and better jobs. In fact, CESI believes that such a debate has been long overdue. After all, the crisis has left deep marks in Europe’s societies for years already, having put thousands of people out of work and having led austerity-inspired politicians across Europe to cut social and worker rights for the sake of what they have called “restoring the competitiveness of the EU’s economy”.

CESI Secretary General Klaus Heeger notes: “Time has come for a real social agenda that puts quality jobs and social equality back to the centre of the political debates in the EU and its Member States. In this context, the Commission’s orientation debate has certainly been a vital political sign. However, the Commissioners Thyssen and Dombrovskis must make sure that the debate does not remain a mere symbol.”

Big gap between the Commission’s stated objectives and the reality of social conditions

Indeed, an analysis of the orientation debate’s conclusions reveals just how far reality is (still) away from the Commission’s stated objectives in the field of employment and social affairs.

• In the orientation debate it was concluded that “EU economic governance has been strengthened since the crisis and improvements are still being made, including by taking better account of employment and social objectives [through] this year’s country-specific recommendations” (CSRs). Here, substantial progress still needs to be made. An analysis by the European Semester Alliance -a broad coalition of social stakeholders and trade unions, including CESI- strongly criticised the predominance in the 2015 CSRs on austerity and the lack of emphasis on the need to invest again in public services to achieve social objectives. Following the orientation debate, CESI eagerly awaits for more socially ambitious CSRs in 2016.

• The orientation debate also established that the involvement of the EU social partners in political deliberations should be enhanced. Again, CESI sees a lot of room to make this aim a reality. Despite repeated political statements to strengthen social dialogue, the Commission recently cut its support for EU sectoral social dialogue drastically. The recent past saw a weakening of social dialogue in Europe, not a strengthening of the involvement of social partners.

• Moreover, the orientation debate led to the conclusion that EU employment and social legislation should be “modernised” in order to adapt it to “technological change, a more diversified workforce and new business models”. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with this in principle. CESI would welcome any EU action with regards to, for instance, the adequate protection of workers engaging in what Eurofound identified in a recent report as unregulated and partially exploitative “new forms of employment” like “casual work”. However, “modernisation” must not remain an euphemism to continue cutting worker rights for the sake of business interests under the Commission’s Refit and “Better” Regulation agendas. It is important that a possible withdrawal of the Maternity leave proposal this summer will not set a precedent in this direction.