Maternity leave, youth policy & public sector support: CESI speaks to MEP Terry Reintke

A good year into her first mandate as MEP, Terry Reintke has established herself as an outspoken and well-noted promoter of gender equality and social justice in European politics. CESI met with her to speak about her views on EU social and employment policy. This interview continues the ‘CESI speaks to …’-series on insights into EU employment and social affairs hot topics.

Maternity leave, youth policy & public sector support: CESI speaks to MEP Terry Reintke

As a German member of the Greens/EFA group, Terry Reintke has been an MEP since the European elections in 2014, when she became member of three committees: The European Parliament committees on Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL), Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM), and Regional Development (REGI).

Ms Reintke, more than one year has passed since the European elections in spring 2014, more than one year since you became an MEP. How do you judge the European Commission’s employment and social policy?

It is especially in the field of employment and social affairs that the European Commission is setting the wrong priorities. Important policy fields such as occupational health and safety are being dismantled under the so-called Better regulation and Refit agendas. In terms of actual employment legislative policymaking, the Commission is almost completely inactive – and where proposals are on the table, files are even withdrawn, as happened with the maternity leave dossier this summer. Generally, a good year into the term, I am disillusioned with the work of the Juncker Commission, which in my view is not setting the right priorities and is not having the right ambitions.

As you referred to already, during the summer months the European Commission withdrew its maternity leave directive proposal and announced a new initiative on work-life balance soon after. Currently, the Commission is running both a social partner and a public consultation on the initiative. What is your view on it?

The circumstances of the Commission’s withdrawal of its maternity leave directive proposal will likely make work on the new work-life balance initiative with the Council difficult from the start. Confronted with opposition to its proposal from the Council, the Commission gave in to the Member States – despite the European Parliament as well as many organised civil society groups and international organisations such as the ILO insisting that the EU’s existing maternity leave directive needs to be revised. This withdrawal was a very problematic move from the perspective of cooperative interinstitutional relations and democratic decision-making in the EU. It will be hard to get any commitments from the Council in the future.

The Commission’s roadmap, which outlines possible components of a new initiative on work-life balance, reads a little like “We want everything” and “We want nothing” at the same time: There are in fact some considerations about hard legislative proposals contained in it but the Commission does not explain how it wants to achieve more fruitful negotiations than was the case with the last maternity leave file. And then there are a lot of non-legislative proposals suggested, such as awareness-raising campaigns. In sum, reading the roadmap makes you feel as though the Commission is trying to divert attention away from legislative to non-legislative initiatives in order to blur a likely failure of legislative proposals. I believe that this is the wrong way forward. Non-legislative initiatives can and should complement hard legislation but not try to substitute it. For workers and for families, the Commission’s new initiative may turn out to be a very unfortunate development.

As a trade union confederation, CESI is especially interested in your work in the European Parliament’s EMPL- and FEMM Committees. Which are the topics you are concentrating your work on?

Being a member of both the EMPL and FEMM committees allows me to work on topics that touch on both employment policy and gender equality. This includes subjects such as the gender pay gap and gender-based discrimination at work. Currently, I am also shadow rapporteur on the women-on-boards file. I am investing a lot of resources on this latter dossier because I feel that the responsible Commissioner, Věra Jourová, also has ambition in this field, and I am confident that this file will progress in the Council too. However, I want to make sure that it will not be completely watered down for the sake of having negotiations with the Council advance. For instance, I attach great importance to including clear legal provisions on strong sanctioning mechanisms for companies that do not comply with adopted rules.

Before your time as an MEP, you were spokesperson of the Federation of Young European Greens (FYEG), raising the voice of the young. CESI too recently founded its own dedicated youth organisation, the CESI Youth, in order to stimulate a greater involvement of young people in politics and trade unionism. In your view, is the EU doing enough for young people and for their involvement in political deliberations?

On the one hand, the Commission has repeatedly put youth participation in decision-making on the agenda during the past years. However, if you compare youth involvement possibilities at the EU-level with those at the Council of Europe, you clearly see that the European Commission is lagging behind. There are in fact concepts around which do not understand youth participation in political deliberations as a mere photoshoot with the European Commissioner for youth at the biannual Youth Conference but which consider it a tool for real and direct participation in decision-making. But the Commission must also use these concepts and do more than organise high-level youth events and have them featured heavily in the media. Youth organisations have to be involved in substantial decisions, for instance on how programmes like Erasmus+ can benefit the youth most, and they also need to be involved horizontally in decision-making in other policy fields where the youth has inherent interests.

Despite repeated pledges by the Juncker Commission for “a new start for social dialogue”, previous cuts in the Commission’s financial and organisational support for EU sectoral social dialogue have not been reversed yet. This also affects CESI and its members. To what extent can this be justified – especially against the backdrop of a crumbling national-level social dialogue in many EU Member States?

So far, I cannot see much of a new start for social dialogue. I have been working as a shadow rapporteur in relation to the file ‘European platform to enhance cooperation in the prevention and deterrence of undeclared work’, and I have found that sectoral social partners can play a crucial role also in the fight against undeclared work. After all, undeclared work is often a very sector-specific problem and the concerned sectoral social partners tend to have valuable insights that even the large cross-sector social partners may not have. In this context, I am very much in favour of strong sectoral social partners. Strong sectoral social partners and a smoothly functioning sectoral social dialogue are critical.

In Germany, a special tariff unity law (Tarifeinheitsgesetz) recently restricted the power of smaller trade unions vis-à-vis bigger ones considerably, ruling that within a firm there may only be one collective agreement (Tarifvertrag) for each group of employees – negotiated by the trade union bringing together the largest share of employees of that group. Members of CESI are also affected and see their right to collective bargaining compromised. What is your view on the new German law?

To a large extent the law is a useless restriction of the right to strike. It is even more useless if one considers that there are many EU Member States that have traditionally seen more strikes than Germany.

More importantly, however, the law is also likely to create a strong hierarchy among trade unions. It is probable that because of this law trade unions will in the future fight against each other more severely than is currently the case; there will be less harmony among them. In the end, this is beneficial neither for the trade unions nor for the society at large. In the long-term, the law will probably create more problems than it will solve.

CESI represents numerous trade unions from the public sector. Many of their members faced restructuring and staff and budget costs. At the same time, many of them are more than ever working beyond their actual capacities. This is not least because the needs of the incoming migrants need to be adequately met. What do you think about this development?

Mr Schäuble must bring his obsession of ‘a zero-deficit budget by all means’ to an end. His policies have imposed austerity not only on Germany but on southern European countries too. Cuts in public services coupled with the need to meet enormous future challenges – for instance the integration of migrants and the proper education of the future generations – will be detrimental. In fact, investing today often requires fewer expenditures than dealing with the consequences of non-investing later. Of course, there must be a certain budgetary discipline in the public finances, but achieving zero deficits is not always possible – especially if there remains scope to improve on the revenue side. A different approach to budgetary policy is needed.

CESI thanks Ms Reintke for the interview. For previous editions of the ‘CESI speaks to …’-series, please consult CESI’s website press section