“Social dialogue has been stripped away so much that employers don’t know who to talk to.” CESI speaks to Jean Lambert MEP

With the dust settling following the European elections, MEPs, new and returning, met in July for the start of the 8th legislature of the European Parliament. It was straight to business for MEPs: re-electing Martin Schulz as President, confirming the nomination of Commission president-designate Jean-Claude Juncker and negotiating on committee compositions among the political groups. For CESI, it is also straight back to business as we return with our "CESI speaks to" series. This week, CESI speaks to Jean Lambert MEP.

“Social dialogue has been stripped away so much that employers don’t know who to talk to.” CESI speaks to Jean Lambert MEP

The Parliament’s slogan for the elections was “This time it’s different”. How different did you find these European elections, both in terms of process and results?

In the UK it didn’t feel that different. There was a determination from the media and the UK political establishment that what was happing elsewhere in the EU was not going to happen in the UK. Other countries like Germany I think had more of a feel that something different was being tried. The aftermath does not feel very different at all. Juncker becoming the Commission President candidate is understandable, but then to look at what happened with the Parliament presidency just felt like the same old stuff: the two biggest groups telling the others what you’re getting.

One of the Parliament’s first acts was to confirm the President of the Commission. In Mr Juncker’s address to you, he spoke about being “President of social dialogue”, favouring minimum wages, wanting to preserve public services. Were you convinced by his social convictions?

In our group discussion, Juncker was very clear where he stands on public services. Interestingly, he was also very clear on TTIP. On the ISDS for example, while he didn’t criticise it in principle, he was very clear that he does not want to see the tribunal system working in it, he wants decisions in the courts. This is a step towards what we want to hear in the Greens – excluding social services would be another positive step.

Frankly, whatever he is saying on social issues I am not sure about how far he can push these ideas. In the current Commission we have seen how difficult it has been for Commissioner Andor to get through some proposals – you wouldn’t say this has created a social earthquake dealing with inequalities in any great way. It is not just a question of Juncker but who else is on the team. Alarm bells are ringing at the moment when you hear which countries are pushing for certain Commission posts.

On the other hand at least he was able to talk about some areas. We’ll be watching closely what he does in corporate taxation and tax havens. The social dimension is not just social dialogue, it is also about how it works with the economic dimension, as well as the environmental side. In his plenary speech, the word environment did not appear once!

In terms of social progress, after the elections the EU didn’t start well with one of Parliament’s first debates focused on withdrawing the Maternity Leave Directive. Where do you stand on this?

The Greens have done a lot of work on this and so we were very disappointed to see the Maternity Leave Directive withdrawal being discussed. We take that as a signal not to expect much on social Europe, even if it was an act of the outgoing Commission. It’s also disappointing for gender equality. I don’t hold out much hope for the Directive hearing the Italian Presidency discussing simplification of legislation and removal of red tape. These issues may just be in a state of coma and need to be revived, like we are seeing with anti-discrimination legislation.

As a returning member of the Employment and Social Affairs committee, what are your priorities in employment and social affairs for this term?

Fighting to keep what we have! Coming from the UK, I am more nervous about this and I think it is going to be a big issue. In the European Semester, we need to entrench addressing the social dimension, not treating it as a subset to the economic side but as a strong and integral part of the Semester. We need to see greater democratisation and engagement in the Semester, whether it is with civil society or trade unions, to get real political participation in the process.  If we are revising the EU2020 strategy we need to make sure that this dimension is not set aside. There are big fights ahead about securing the green economy (click here to read the Commission communication) and ensuring the social dimension is really valued at EU level.

Jean LAMBERT

Do you think we will see any progress on the Working Time Directive ?

I think it will be back and I think the Commission is looking for a sectoral approach, dealing with the health sector in particular. We have mixed feelings about putting it back into different sectors. For the Greens, this is fundamentally a health and safety directive and that needs to stay in people’s minds. This is not a lifestyle. Some governments see this as red tape getting in the way of people being able to work but if people are paid a decent living wage then you might see them wanting to work a different number of hours.

Youth unemployment has been one of the biggest issues the EU attempted to tackle in the last few years? How successful has it been in your opinion?

A lot of people say the EU has been more successful in removing jobs than it has been in creating jobs. When you see what the troika has done to public services, which are strong employers in a number of member states, and the general shift to austerity, the EU has not paid enough attention to the social dimension in the economic sphere, creating youth unemployment.. The Youth Guarantee is important, originally advocated in a Green report, but the funding for it is not enough .There needs to be more consistent spending, looking at how it is spent  with more skills matching, not simply more training schemes that don’t link to jobs

Can trade unions play a greater role in helping young people?

There is a role for trade unions in tough times. People need reminding that they do still have rights. To still provide a strong voice in terms of rights at work is important. With more and more people in casual work, basic training about expectations on health and safety for example is important. We need to look more about how we can support trade unions at the EU level. Trade unions are part of society’s democracy, providing the feeling of support and show that workers are not on their own – this is particularly important when you are starting your working life. When things start moving in the employment sector again, employers are now saying “who do we discuss changes in the workplace with?” or “how can we assess if these changes work for the worker?”. Employers don’t know who to talk to because social dialogue has been stripped away so much. Trade unions are part of constructive change.

What role do you see for trade unions in helping the European Parliament achieve a more social Europe or indeed how can the EP help trade unions?

Trade unions make sure workers still have a voice in what the European Parliament is doing. We need to use the expertise of unions to tell us what is going on and what is working . The expertise we have heard from unions in a lot of work the Parliament has done has been extremely important. Trade unions help MEPs stay in touch with a whole group of citizens. If we are serious about wanting to hear more from citizens then trade unions are one of the key mechanisms for doing that. The Greens are working hard to make the case for trade unions as an integral part of the economic and social fabric of the EU: they are also crucial as part of the “Just Transition” in shifting to a greener economy.

With uncertain times for the UK in the EU, do you think you will be able to stand in the 2019 elections?

Will I still be here in 2017 (being a potential year for UK in-out referendum on the EU) is a better question! If the UK votes to leave in 2017 then am I still entitled to representation? There is a lot of work to be done on making the case for the EU and this cannot be purely about economics, trade and what is good for business. We need to go bigger and explain why the EU is good for individuals – human rights, the environment and combatting global issues.

Jean Lambert is a British MEP for the Green Party. Jean is a returning member of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs and member of the Delegation for relations with the countries of South Asia. Jean is also a substitute member of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs. CESI would like to thank Jean Lambert for taking time to speak to us in what has been a very busy first few weeks for the new Parliament.