The European Commission has come forward with an initiative on social rights, announced several months ago. With this initiative, the Commission wants to set the social agenda focussing on rights in access to the labour market, working conditions and social protection. The initiative is therefore much focussed on the labour relationship, but proposes some new areas of action for the European institutions and additional benchmarks for guiding member state's social and economic policies.
The definition of the 'European pillar of social rights' is subject to a public consultation, open until the end of the year.
EU Reference framework
In his 'State of the Union' speech held in the European Parliament on 9 September 2015, President Juncker announced the establishment of a "European Pillar of Social Rights" ("socle européen des droits sociaux"), aimed to "take account of the changing realities of the world of work" and move ahead towards a "fair and truly pan-European labour market", while ensuring the sustainability of the European social model.
In the light of changing work patterns and societies and the EU priorities of boosting growth and employment by 2020, the European pillar of social rights seeks to introduce a reference framework setting out key principles and values shared across the European Union.
The 'package' consists of four documents: a general communication including consultation questions, an annex presenting the main principles and values underpinning the pillar and two working documents: one on the current social acquis and the other on the recent changes on the labour markets and in our societies.
Targeted on the Euro-area
The initiative on social rights has been presented as being primarily targeted towards the Euro area, in application of the 'Five presidents' report' presented in 2015 by Jean-Claude Juncker, Mario Draghi, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, Martin Schulz and Donald Tusk. The initiative is however also open to other member states. The main reasoning behind it is the growing divergence among countries of the Euro zone regarding social and economic conditions. The social pillar is aimed to re-enable 'upwards convergence' of the Euro zone.
What is meant by 'social rights'?
The concrete proposal on social rights does not introduce any new rights but refers to existing rights, quoting provisions in the EU Treaty and in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. It is said to be 'inspired' by common European values, such as the Council of Europe Charter of Social Rights and the UN human rights treaties, ILO conventions etc., but these are not mentioned in the legal basis. Similarly, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, the only human rights treaty to which the EU is presently a party, is not mentioned.
Two of the three chapters of the proposed pillar of social rights are centred on the employment relationship. The rights linked to the labour market contain rights focussed on life-long learning and skills, equal opportunities, secure transitions, active employment support, gender equality and work-life balance, employment conditions, fair remuneration, health and safety and social dialogue. Social protection rights comprise the integration of services, health, pensions, unemployment benefits, minimum income, disability, housing, long-term care and access to essential (non-public) services.
Ambiguous set of formulations
Some rights are innovative, such as the rights to life-long learning, a spelled-out right to long-term care and a EU-level commitment to minimum income. However, some rights are formulated in a manner rather stressing limitations of rights, for example the right to unemployment benefits starting with the obligation to 'active job search' or flexibility of the employment contract from the employer's viewpoints. Some inconsistencies in language are striking, for example pensions should provide 'a decent standard of living', minimum incomes should be 'adequate', but disability benefits should only provide 'basic income security'.
On 8 March, the Commission launched a public consultation to define the main guidelines of this social convergence instrument. It is open to the other European institutions, the national authorities, social partners, the civil society, experts from academia and citizens until 31 December 2016
The outcomes of the process will probably feed into a white paper on the future of the Economic and Monetary Union, announced for Spring 2017.
AGE Platform Europe will actively get engaged in the process and raise the voice of older people in this important discussion.
For more information, please contact Philippe Seidel, AGE Policy Officer: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Press release of the European Commission: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-16-544_en.htm
- First outline of a European Pillar of Social Rights: http://ec.europa.eu/social/BlobServlet?docId=15274&langId=en
- Communication explaining the upcoming consultation: http://ec.europa.eu/social/BlobServlet?docId=15141&langId=en
- Website dedicated to the social pillar: http://ec.europa.eu/priorities/deeper-and-fairer-economic-and-monetary-union/towards-european-pillar-social-rights_en