Maria Joâo Rodrigues

Source: EurActiv

A year ago, an important milestone took place: all EU leaders and EU institutions proclaimed the European Pillar of Social Rights at the Social Summit in Gothenburg, Sweden.

This was the first time in 20 years that such a high-level summit, gathering the presidents of all EU institutions and the Heads of State and Government of the 28 member states took place around social issues; a gathering with similar scope only happened once: the summit to proclaim the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The final text of the proclamation was not as ambitious as my report in the European Parliament, but a powerful process to strengthen social Europe was launched at that occasion, involving new legislation, social policies and financial instruments.

The level of ambition of this Social Pillar is high: to reconnect with citizens and rebalance the process of European integration with stronger concern towards the social dimension.The goal is to update social standards to meet new challenges, notably global competition, ageing, energy transition, the digital revolution, migration management and last, but not least, overcoming the deep social and regional inequalities created by the recent financial and Eurozone crisis.

The path until the Proclamation of the Social Pillar was full of obstacles, mainly coming from conservative parties and nationalistic interests, but the efforts of a coalition of progressive political forces -led by the Socialists & Democrats-, as well as a large alliance of social partners and other stakeholders from the civil society, made it possible.

But where are we now when it comes to this high-level commitment?

We are negotiating different key legislative files and tools to implement it, we are still going through extremely difficult debates with conservative parties. The last example is the vote that took place last plenary session in Strasbourg.

In spite of opposition from the EPP and the ECR, we managed to approve the mandate for the beginning of the negotiations on the Directive on Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions, a very important piece of legislation aiming at improving working conditions and ensuring to all workers in the EU, a decent labour contract and access to social protection.

Other important legislative decisions are in the pipeline: the initiative on work-life balance for parents and carers, the reform of the rules on social security coordination and the creation of the European Labour Authority.

Nevertheless, the possibility to improve social standards also depend on redirecting social and economic policies, in the framework of the so-called European Semester. The Social Scoreboard to monitor member states’ performance in relation to the European Pillar of Social Rights was the first tool in this direction. Its use in the country reports by assessing employment and social problems was a driver pushing the member states to present concrete new measures in their annual National Reform Programmes.

But these measures should also be translated into the national budgets. And here, another problem is emerging: do national governments have the fiscal space to finance social investment? Even if the flexibility recently introduced in the Stability and Growth Pact creates a small room of manoeuvre, this is not enough.

That’s why the Social Pillar was designed to call for stronger European financial instruments, complementing the national resources. This has led to a re-design of the Social Fund under the next Multiannual Financial Framework 2021-2027. The scope of the new European Investment Plan was enlarged to include social investment, notably in education, training and social infrastructures.

Furthermore, the new Globalization Fund will also respond to competitive shocks and restructuring due to the digital revolution. Last, but not least, a specific budget for the eurozone is now being proposed to support upward economic and social convergence by financing reforms and investments, including in innovation and education.

How can all this be financed? The current discussion on introducing new sources of taxation is fundamental to answer this question. These new taxes should not penalize citizens but rather stem from pollution, financial transactions or digital added value which is paying extremely low taxes when operating in the European Single Market.

This is the new political dynamic created by the European Social Pillar. Yet, current progress is not sufficient.

We urge the European Commission and the Council to overcome the challenges and speed up negotiations in order to deliver on the promises made in Gothenburg: to build a fairer Europe and strengthen the social dimension of the EU -and therefore prove that the EU can protect its citizens – before the 2019 European elections.

We will keep reminding member states that they must respect their own commitments.