One year from now, European politics will be on the home straight to the elections for the European Parliament. Much of the time between now and then will be spent building election programmes and strategies. For the Socialist family, it is obvious to build all these around social questions. In principle, this should be easy, but in reality, it is not. The reason is that many important issues, especially in the domain of social policy, do not fall into the competencies of the European Union.
Since its creation, the EU has had a social dimension, but always in a limited and restricted way. After the creation of the Single Market, concerns about social dumping were high on the agenda of the EU’s social policy. Sometimes this was narrowed down to small but intense battlefields, like the succession of legislative cycles on posted workers. This debate ended with resounding success for the Socialists. But what the new orientation exactly should be, was not as obvious.
The EU enlargement brought new challenges also to enlarge the social agenda. Dealing with Roma integration was not part of Brussels’ policymaking before but became necessary with the enlargement. More recently, the combined analysis of cohesion and mobility shifted the focus to the question of wage convergence. The story of minimum wage coordination is a very interesting case study. The idea popped up seriously in the 2014 European Parliament campaign already. However, very few would have thought before the 2019 European elections that this could become a relevant legislative initiative, even though trade unions had campaigned for an EU-wide pay rise in previous years. The adoption of the directive on adequate minimum wages which also helped to strengthen collective bargaining is a major success.
A widely shared view is that the progress of recent years was made possible by adopting the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR), which, in 2017, opened the door for fresh thinking and gave wings to activists of social policy and to the advocates of a Social Union. In the subsequent European Parliament elections (2019), the Spitzenkandidat of the Socialist family, Frans Timmermans, outlined great ambitions in the field of housing, which in previous years would not have been considered among the key concerns at EU level, but after its appearance in the 2013 Social Investment Package and its inclusion in the EPSR, it was waiting for someone to see not only the need but also the opportunity in it. Developing housing policy and combatting homelessness also deserve attention now, against the backdrop of a lack of mainstream solutions, that has even helped to resuscitate communist parties in certain cities of Europe.
The momentum created by the EPSR (and the subsequent Action Plan) helped close the gap between a rapidly deepening economic integration on the one hand and social integration on the other hand. The latter has always been lagging behind and was considered of secondary importance at EU level. More importantly, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU policy debate has shifted towards securitisation and militarisation, and the political landscape, by and large, has become less favourable for Social Democrats. Should this lead to a retreat, or a demonstration of the relevance of their core mission? Should Socialists focus on preserving what has been achieved, or should they set the agenda with bold and new initiatives?
To solve this dilemma, it helps to acknowledge that ordinary citizens, as well as policy experts, define the social dimension of the EU more widely than the way the social affairs portfolio is calibrated in EU institutions. At the end of the day, the social effects of EU governance in the short run depend mainly on decisions in the area of economics rather than on social policy. Interestingly, in current assessments of the developments of EU social policy, the NextGenerationEU is frequently mentioned as a major addition, even though it is not an instrument with an explicit social mandate.
Progressive reform at EU level requires a consistent plan to reshape the economic model of the integration and further develop social legislation. Those who agree with this appreciate the importance of the EU initiatives on the social economy. The relevant work at the EU level has been an undercurrent, but in times of frequent economic shocks (and of warfare), there may be a case for a more comprehensive and constant approach. For developing Europe’s social economy sector, the Commission adopted a dedicated action plan shortly after the first informal social summit in Porto (2021), and the second one will be followed by a package of new recommendations on the same question.
Two years ago, this informal social summit generated a new impetus amidst the Covid-19 emergency. Although enthusiasts of a Social Union pointed out some ambivalence, now we remember it as a major event which helped turn the promises of the EPSR into reality, by energising the Action Plan designed by the European Commission. Another social summit in Porto is now staged to remind us: the work has only started, and without rehearsing and enhancing the progressive agenda, the 2021 upturn may fade away.
Now we all focus on Ukraine and try to ensure that maximum support is provided for the country’s war of independence as long as it is needed. But we can only guess in which stage the war will be in spring 2024, and what exactly its legacy will be in the hearts and minds of European citizens. One thing however is certain: economically the war effort will remain demanding, and even if it comes to an end within a year or two, European help will still be needed for a long time. Today, Ukraine primarily needs weapons. But tomorrow, it will need a trillion-euro programme for the recovery and reconstruction.
Ukraine itself needs a social agenda as part of the reconstruction plan. It is not only infrastructure that needs to be rebuilt in a modernised form, but industrial relations and social safety nets should also emerge in a way that meets the ambition of the country to move closer to EU membership and converge on European standards. From this point of view, we must be concerned. Recent Ukrainian legislation has undermined employee rights and the power of trade unions – perhaps following advice from investment funds, old-fashioned IMF sources, or from seemingly benevolent Anglo-American advisers.
The worst leaders of the Eastern member states, like Viktor Orbán, believe that respect for social rights and investment in decent working conditions are detrimental to economic competitiveness. If Ukraine follows that recipe, it will not only lock itself into an inferior economic model, but also discourage the return of millions of refugees who have started to experience more generous forms of welfare states in Western Europe, and would not consider moving back if the country does not treat its workers well.
Today, the debates on the EU social agenda are on a low burner, but the political sentiment in Europe is changing month by month. It would be folly to assume that the ideas and feelings of 2022 or 2023 will entirely determine the agenda of the 2024 elections. Progressives in Europe must work to sustain the favourable momentum of recent years, driven by the understanding that most major developments of the time (climate change, digital revolution, the war in Ukraine etc) all test the resilience of our social models and highlight the need for further innovation. Europe may embrace a more securitised future but, even if that is how the next chapter of our history will be written, it must come with a new social contract, and with an expanded, rather than a reduced EU social agenda.
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