The European Commission consultation on the “European Pillar of Social Rights

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The European Commission has launched a public consultation on what should be included in a ‘Pillar of Social Rights’ for the Eurozone, the 19 EU member states which use the Euro as their currency.

This is timely. It is clear that the ‘European Project’ is in crisis.  Poverty is increasing and more and more people are not able to afford the basics of a decent life.  Cutbacks in income supports and services as well as changes to protection for people on low incomes and in insecure work, introduced during the recession, are becoming more deeply embedded in most countries.

Since the economic crisis of 2008, people in Ireland have been particularly aware of the importance of the Eurozone for the policies which affect our lives. Politicians and journalists argue about whether successive Governments or the ‘ECB/EC/IMF Troika’ are to blame for decisions which have devastated services and supports for people on low incomes. For people effected the point is not so much to place the blame as to change the decisions and policies underlying them.

Now, decisions about tax and spend, spending priorities and new measures to promote ‘competitiveness’ take place largely within the structures of the Eurozone. Being part of the Eurozone brings with it increasingly strict rules about balancing budgets and reducing deficits.

This is a normal part of sharing a currency. However, there are as many ways to balance a budget, and as many ways to make an economy more competitive, as there are to skin a cat. The actual operation of the rules depends on the strength of pressure groups at work and the ideology of the people sitting around the various tables.

EAPN has argued for many years that the European Union as a whole needs stronger social policy. From the start, European law has always centred on market integration, and later fiscal and financial integration. This has been balanced, to a greater or lesser extent, by social policies which are mainly decided by national governments.

Without an agreed ‘social floor’ to protect income and rights, free trade and monetary union will push down conditions as countries scramble to attract investment in a ‘race to the bottom.

This is even more true of the Eurozone, whose decisions have such direct effects on policies but which not developed the same level of democratic accountability and openness as the wider European Union.

This is why the discussion launched by the Commission on a ‘Pillar of Social Rights’ for the Eurozone is so important.

 

The public consultation

The European Commission’s public consultation on the development of a European Pillar of Social Rights was launched in March and will run until the end of 2016 and result in the publication of a White Paper early in 2017.

The White Paper will include a number of principles which participating countries will use to screen the performance of their employment and social policies. It will not result in any new rights but try to ensure that existing ones are more effectively implemented.

While all EU countries are welcome to join in the focus is on the 18 Euro zone countries in the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) but other EU countries can join in if they wish.

In its consultation document the Commission recognises that during the crisis there was a failure to effectively implement existing EU social rights and that poverty and inequality grew.

They also note rapid demographic changes, advances in technology and changes in work practice which provide new challenges. This is why the Commission is setting out to review existing rights and to see how they can be more effectively implemented in the future.

 

What the consultation will cover

The consultation was launched along with a first attempt at a draft Pillar of Social Rights which covers the three areas of:

Equal opportunities and access to the labour market (skills, education and life-long learning, flexible and secure labour contracts, secure professional transitions, active support for employment, gender equality and work-life balance, equal opportunities).

  1. Fair working conditions (conditions of employment rights, wages, health and safety, social dialogue and involvement of workers).
  2. Adequate and sustainable social protection (integrated social benefits and services, health care and sickness benefits, pensions, unemployment benefits, minimum income, disability benefits, long-term care, childcare, housing and access to essential services).

 

EAPN Ireland response

EAPN has long being calling for a more balanced approach to social and economic policy in Europe and with poverty and inequality still at crisis levels across the EU and three quarters of a million people living below the poverty line in Ireland such a proposal to strengthen social rights is certainly well overdue. Poverty and inequality need to be prevented and tackled because of the damage they do to people and society in general and not because they are seen as blocking economic growth. This must be the driver for the consultation.

EAPN Ireland will respond to the consultation and try and ensure it is as effective as possible. We have to wait and see if the ambition of a ‘Pillar of social rights’ will result in any real change but it is important to take the opportunity on offer.

The focus of the consultation is on social and employment policy but as we have become very aware of in the past number of years, social progress is very much dependent on what approach is taken to economic policy and how the European Semester is implemented. If economic and social policy do not complement each other, then there will be little change.

It is also a concern that the consultation is focused on those countries in the Eurozone rather than the wider EU. While this is obviously a problem for those countries which are not participating, it could also limit the possibility for any real change that a Pillar of Social Rights can have even in the Eurozone countries.

EAPN Ireland has produced a briefing on the Consultation which is available here: Briefing on the European Pillar of Social Rights (003)

 

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