The launch of the European Pillar of Social Rights has unleashed a fruitful debate, which is closely linked to the future of EU integration. Dr. Tsarouhas looks back at the launch of the Pillar and assesses what should be done now for it to fulfil its potential.

 

The renewed focus on socio-economic convergence has highlighted the basic policy problem at the heart of the eurozone construction: a virtuous process of socio-economic convergence between the core and periphery of the eurozone has given way to rapid divergence, feeding into national egotisms, stereotyping and the near break-up of the single currency.

Launching the Pillar

In March 2016 the Commission published its policy paper on a European Pillar of Social Rights following earlier calls for a ‘Social Triple A’ by the five EU institutions. The Commission justified the launch of the Pillar based on the challenges posed by globalisation and highlighted the challenges faced by traditional welfare states. An annex to the policy paper highlighted the three main Pillar headings, namely a) equal opportunities in accessing the labour market b) fair working conditions and c) adequate social protection.

 

Moreover, the envisaged social scoreboard, which is to be incorporated in the European Semester, fails to overhaul some of the policies that have contributed to the crisis in the first place.

In December 2016 a report by the European Parliament’s Committee on Employment and Social Affairs welcomed the Commission’s initiative and asked for concrete action on it through enforceable, legally guaranteed rights. The report contained a host of concrete proposals, including the need for a new Framework Directive to ensure decent working conditions, adequate income provisions, a Child Guarantee enforceable across all member states and the portability of social rights within the EU. The Commission presented the Pillar in April 2017 by publishing a recommendation and a joint proclamation that were approved in Gothenburg last December. The Pillar, Commissioner Thyssen says, ought to become part of the European Semester, while the next Multiannual Financial Framework should make funding readily available for EU member states to reform along the lines of the Pillar’s stated objectives.

The recommendation has been accompanied by a parallel process of initiatives that also contain a social scoreboard.

The recommendation’s annex uses rights-based language to outline the Pillar’s 20 principles (Table 1). The recommendation has been accompanied by a parallel process of initiatives that also contain a social scoreboard. This uses 12 indicators to measure labour market access, poverty and social exclusion, inequality (including gender-based discrimination), living conditions, childcare, healthcare and digital access.

Assessing the Pillar

The launch of the Pillar on Social Rights is potentially an important step in European integration. It marks the return of the social dimension to the mainstream of the EU debate, but the steps taken from now on will be critical to its success.

Early on, the Commission suggested that the Pillar would help consolidate the existing social acquis and complement existing legislation. Yet is this degree of ambition adequate given the rise in inequality across and within most member states? The Parliament makes it clear that the goal should be more and better legislation on the social policy field, asserting the need for binding policies for all participating countries. Moreover, the envisaged social scoreboard, which is to be incorporated in the European Semester, fails to overhaul some of the policies that have contributed to the crisis in the first place. The best illustration is the country-specific recommendations, whose direction of reform runs counter to Pillar objectives regarding social cohesion and income protection. The scale of the challenge following the crisis is of an entirely different magnitude compared to the late 1990s.

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The launch of the European Pillar of Social Rights has unleashed a fruitful debate on social and employment policy, which goes way beyond that particular policy area. It is linked to the very future of EU integration given that socio-economic divergence undermines EU legitimacy from north to south. To fulfil its potential, the Pillar needs to be put into practice at European and national level, acquire a concrete implementation mechanism and be designed in a way that reinforces the virtues of existing welfare states.

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