[email protected] on the European Pillar of Social Rights: No phrase-mongering but a way to go for social progress

Today, CESI and the Bertelsmann Stiftung jointly held the 16th edition of CESI’s lunchtime debate series ‘[email protected]’ on the topic of ‘European Pillar of Social Rights: Phrase-mongering of real social progress?’ Held with experts from the European Commission, think tanks, civil society and trade unions, the event made clear the Pillar can help make Europe more social, provided that there is a political will among the European and national-level institutions, policy makers, authorities and social partners to implement and enforce it.

In a keynote presentation on ‘Social justice and needs for reform in the EU Member States’, Thorsten Hellmann, Project Manager at the Bertelsmann Stiftung, presented the findings of the 2016 edition of the Social Justice Index and Reform Barometer of the Bertelsmann Stiftung. His presentation made clear that there are significant social divergences and inequalities between and within the different Member States of the EU, and that there is an important role to play for the EU to help move towards what is called  in EU jargon ‘upward social convergence’.

This set the stage for an expert discussion on the EU’s most recent initiative to achieve this – The European Pillar of Social Rights, delivered by the European Commission in April by means of 20 key principles (plus accompanying legislative and non-legislative measures) to support fair and well-functioning labour markets and welfare systems in Europe.

Ownership of the Pillar by all key to success

The panel -which was moderated by Pierre Baussand (Head of the Brussels office of Eurofound) and brought together Klaus Heeger (Secretary General of CESI) for the trade union side, Claire Dhéret (Senior Policy Analyst for Social Policy at the European Policy Centre/EPC) for the think tanks, Conny Reuter (Secretary General of Solidar) for the organised civil society, and Ragnar Horn from the European Commission’s Taskforce on the Pillar of Social Rights- quickly agreed that a key for a success of the European Pillar of Social Rights will be that European and national-level institutions, policy makers, authorities and social partners all take ownership of the European Commission’s 20 principles under the Pillar and show the political will to achieve their realisation.

The speakers expressed confidence that a joint interinstitutional proclamation by the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of Ministers (and thus the Member States) will be a first step in this regard. It was also noted that civil society organisations and social partners should take the European Commission’s background documents with detailed explanations of each of the 20 principles to push governments and authorities at the national level to tailor their policies and measures towards the objectives of the Pillar.

Klaus Heeger added that it would be “psychologically important” for the respect -and hence success- of the Pillar that the European Commission ensures that the objectives of the Pillar will be clearly reflected already in the next European Semester’s Annual Growth Survey (AGS), Country reports, and Country-specific recommendations (CSRs). “If the European Commission finds that a Member State is failing out on many of the Pillar’s principles, it should not shy away from issuing more than two or three CSRs”, he added. Hope was also expressed that, following a joint interinstitutional proclamantion on the Pillar and with new pressure from social partners and the civil society, Member States would find it harder than before to get away with ignoring CSRs.

Pillar is about principles, not rights – and financing remains an open issue

While political will was found to determine the overall success of the Pillar especially at the national level, it was positively noted that the European Commission has been looking into new EU legislation to put some individual principles into practice across the EU, namely in the fields of work-life balance, social protection and minimum labour rights for all. For areas outside the direct scope of competences of the EU, it was stressed that the Pillar is not about rights that are directly enforceable for individuals but rather about overarching principles that should, over time, lead to policies, practices and measures that will be to the benefit of disadvantages citizens and workers: The Pillar is “not a bible but a process”, it was said.

Concerns were raised about the financial resources to finance social progress inspired by the Pillar at the national, regional and local levels. Speakers regretted that the European Commission has found no tool to make additional money available and noted that this would be an issue that political debates might very likely return to.