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The lights from Porto: a small step towards a Social Union?

Maurizio Ferrera
Professor of Political Science

Some social federalists are disappointed: the Social Summit in Porto was downgraded to little more than a series of workshops, Angela Merkel only appeared online, the final declaration was tepid and the full endorsement of the European Commission’s Action Plan has been delayed to the June session of the European Council. However, there are reasons for celebrating the achievements of this Summit: the European Pillar of Social Rights has been recognised as the ‘engine’ for more cohesion and solidarity, and some leaders have proposed to push forward the already advanced social frontier of the Next Generation EU recovery plan. Without being visionary, the debate has put on the table several ideas that could be used for turning Social Europe into a more ambitious and effective European Social Union.

Nevertheless, there are reasons for celebrating the achievements of this Summit. Now that the pandemic has been contained (or at least has become containable) a renewed pledge to unity and solidarity as key values which “lie at the heart of our common project and distinctive social model” could not be taken for granted. Nor could one expect to hear explicit proposals from some leaders for pushing forward the already advanced social frontier of the Next Generation EU recovery plan. In my view, at least, the informal European Council has more bright than dark sides. 

At the symbolic level, the event has relaunched Social Europe in the public debate which has involved not only institutional leaders, but also the social partners and various civil society organisations. Thanks to extensive media coverage, the EU’s explicit engagement with the ‘caring’ side of integration has reached millions of Europeans. Several opinion surveys since 2019 show that the pandemic has brought the people of Europe closer to each other, and that there is not only strong support, but also a demand for more EU-wide forms of solidarity. The Portuguese EU Presidency deserves praise for having responded to such popular feelings, as well as to the pressure and requests of a transnational network of civic associations which already build Social Europe in their daily practices (a recent LSE blog has dubbed them ‘insurgent Europeanists’). 

At the political level, the Summit has sealed the ‘social turn’ of integration after a decade of belated, if not programmatically un-social, responses to the financial crisis and economic recession. In the run-up to the German Presidency, Merkel had served as ‘paladin of European solidarity’. This time, she has limited herself to welcoming (remotely) the Commission’s Action Plan. We are used to German qualms during election years. However, the French president Emmanuel Macron has taken the relay, announcing that the French Presidency of 2022 has ambitious plans for pushing forward some key legislative measures included in the Action Plan, such as the directive on minimum wages. The Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez and especially his Italian counterpart Mario Draghi have in their turn widened the picture: the implementation of the Pillar’s social rights will require a favourable fiscal and budgetary framework. The Italian prime minister has made a reference to the need to reform the governance of the European Monetary Union (EMU) and has advanced a specific proposal: turning the EU instrument for temporary support to mitigate unemployment risks in an emergency (SURE) into a permanent scheme, as a first step towards a full-fledged European unemployment insurance.

As is always the case in the EU council arena, if the first move is done by the ‘brake men’ (in this case the eleven EU member states who presented a lukewarm non paper in the run-up to the summit), the ‘accelerators’ strike back with even more ambition (as demonstrated not only by Draghi’s speech, but also by the Belgian and especially Spanish non papers, not to speak of Portugal’s overall lead). One really wonders whether this ‘social turn’ could have been even politically considered if the UK had been still a member of the EU. 

What about the substantive and policy levels? The final declaration basically confirms the key points of the Action Plan, making clear that the implementation of the Pillar will have to comply with the division of competences as well as the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. Reading between the lines a certain vision emerges however about the overall profile of ‘Social Europe 2.0’. Social rights and policies will remain in the hands of national governments. But these hands will move within a new structure of opportunities, mainly anchored to the EU level – understood increasingly less as ‘technocratic Brussels’, than as a common centre with a more participatory policy making process. 

At the centre, there will obviously be a lot of politics, but within the new solidaristic normative frame which has inspired the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. The reference to the pandemic makes this normative pledge something more than cheap talk. And we know that the July 2020 ‘talk’ was far from cheap, as it cost 750 billion euros, funded by common debt. 

The 20 principles of the Pillar are the clear foundation of ‘Social Europe 2.0’ Some of them will certainly turn into binding provisions, extending, and deepening the acquis. Other principles will essentially orient (at least for the time being) the European Semester through headline targets, recommendations, possibly new forms of social conditionality. Between fully hard and fully soft provisions, ‘Social Europe 2.0’ will also experiment with novel, mixed forms of right-making and right-implementation.

An emblematic example of this is the ‘guarantee’ instrument – already used for the Youth Guarantee, launched in 2013, and soon to be complemented by a Child Guarantee – a recommendation envisaged by the Action Plan. These guarantees are not binding, but their implementation according to the EU template is necessary to receive European funds. And the template emphasises a component of social rights which is often neglected, and which often proves to be even more relevant for people than justiciability: ie access to the concrete outputs of rights (services, counselling, material support), according to the legal provisions (because guarantee schemes must be adopted by national legal authorities). Draghi has announced that the Italian Recovery and Resilience Plan includes a more ambitious ’employability’ guarantee, while Macron has illustrated the French scheme of ‘individual learning accounts’, a proto-form of the skills guarantee. Both should be seriously considered by the Commission.

The Pillar will be the central engine of the new Social Europe. It will run in parallel to the EMU engine. And just as the Porto Declaration commits the Pillar to contributing to Europe’s global competitiveness, EMU must be re-committed to the symmetric objective of contributing to ‘unity’ (keeping the EU polity together, especially during economic and financial shocks) and solidarity. Macron’s, Draghi’s and Sanchez’s speeches have made explicit reference to such need. In a recent online debate, a group of scholars and policy makers has outlined the contours of a European Social Union. The Porto summit has not even started to contemplate such vision. But a step forward has been made, and the Conference on the Future of Europe will provide opportunities and channels – for those who share the vision – to explicitly stand up for such a European Social Union.

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