The European Pillar of Social Rights


By Martin Höpner

On 24 May 2016 the European Commission published its ideas on the establishment of a European pillar of social rights. These documents had a long gestation. On his entry into office in July 2014, President Juncker had already promised a strengthening of the social dimension of the EU, and he reaffirmed his plans in September 2015. A consultation process followed with the European institutions, the Member States and the social partners.

The expectations were correspondingly high. A triple-A-ranking in social terms would be earned by the EU after implementation of the proposals, it was said. Would the impetus of market integration be complemented by a social integration with the same drive? Would it be possible to reconcile the citizens with the European project by activating a European social policy? Would such an activation perhaps stop the rise of populist, Eurosceptic protest parties across the continent?

Measured against the run up and expectations raised, the documents now published are a bitter disappointment. The focus is on 20 principles which mainly come in the language of individual rights rather than in the language of European legislation. A possible proclamation of the 20 principles is to be discussed at a social summit to be held in Sweden on 17 November of this year. If they were passed and later even integrated into European primary law, they would mainly increase the opportunities for taking member states before the ECJ if the Commission or national courts assume wrong social policy decisions on the side of governments – a vision which the member states will surely dislike.

Would this bring about more social policies? This is less clear than one might think. Making the principles mandatory would, firstly, constrain the national legal room for manoeuvre even more, without changing anything about the context in which social policy takes place in the Eurozone today. It would, secondly, surely speed up the transnational opening of the member states’ social security systems, a scenario which many progressives tend to like – but which would nevertheless put the social systems under additional strain and which should not be confused with an emerging common social policy at the European level. Thirdly, making the principles mandatory may also increase the ECJ’s opportunities for testing social policy matters against the European fundamental freedoms.

Parts of the documents are also four policy initiatives, among which the most important is a plan to pass a new directive on parental leave. This is to be welcomed (and has long been expected), but it scarcely justifies its super elevation as a new “pillar” of European integration. Many, especially in the centre-left political spectrum, had hoped for more harmonisation initiatives. How is this lack of political initiatives to be interpreted politically? Is the Juncker Commission, after two and a half years of fog, now showing us its true, neoliberal face, by simply refusing to accept the possibility of major European harmonisation projects?

No, that is not what is going on. On the contrary, I believe that the Commission would actually love to give the European public a bunch of “broad outlines” of a common European social policy. In particular, I see no reason to accuse Commission President Juncker of disliking the idea of “Social Europe”. The problem is a different one: that the desired social harmonisation project, which would suit Bulgaria or Latvia as well as Austria or Finland, which would be useful in all these countries and would attract majority support, if not even a consensus, simply does not exist at the moment. This is due to the heterogeneity of economic and social systems in the EU and the deep north-south divide under which the EU has suffered since its entry into the euro crisis. The fact that a project, – for example – for the gradual harmonisation of unemployment insurance (which could be a precursor to the establishment of a European unemployment insurance, which could then also contribute to the mitigation of economic shocks), would have no chance of implementation under current conditions and therefore is not even broached in the context of the “pillar of social rights”, cannot be blamed on the Commission. The Commission, I believe, must be defended against such charges.

What should progressive Europeanists learn here? Firstly, if the prospect of social harmonisation at the European level is for the time being very small, the social dimension at Member State level must be better protected against destructive threats deriving from the fundamental freedoms, competition law and the new monitoring and correction procedures in the eurozone. In particular, the social security systems, collective agreements and co-determination must remain outside the ranges of application of the fundamental freedoms and European competition law as well as the sanction-backed correction procedures.

Secondly, in order to dissolve blockades in common social projects, possibilities for differentiated cooperation should be intensified. Some possibilities for differentiated integration already exist, others should be considered in the course of the current EU reform debate. And thirdly, the debate on the social dimension of European integration must be definitively de-ideologised, especially within the centre-left spectrum. Nothing can be achieved by coating any serious debate about the social status and the social future of the EU with a metre-thick layer of the balsam of the narrative of a supposedly emerging “Social Europe”. For the discrepancy between narrative and reality becomes, in turn, the gateway to the very disappointment that is feeding the new right-wing populism.