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A new start for social Europe

21st November 2017

At the heart of the first European Social Summit for 20 years was the formal proclamation of the European pillar of social rights. EU heads of state and government gathered in Gothenburg last week to debate fair jobs and growth, and to formally sign up to the pillar – 20 principles and rights centred on equality of opportunity within the labour market, fair working conditions, and social protection and inclusion.

The pillar is designed to serve as a “compass for a renewed process of convergence towards better working and living conditions among member states”, taking into account the changing realities within European societies and the world of work. There can be no doubt this brings a social focus back to the centre of European policy making – an approach that has always differentiated the Europe from the rest of the world, by explicitly trying to balance both economic and social needs.

From the European economic community through to the single market and the economic and monetary union, the economy has been the primary vector of the EU integration process. The treaty of Rome laid the foundation, using economic stabilisation to build closer relations between member states, viewing the community’s task as the promotion of “a harmonious development of economic activities, a continuous and balanced expansion, an increase in stability, an accelerated raising of the standard of living and closer relations between the states belonging to it”.

The story of European integration has involved the creation of pan-European markets. But markets require rules and, so far, much of the EU’s social and employment legislation relates to this process of market-building. These laws have contributed to significant upward convergence among member states in terms of social and employment standards – not least among new members. What is more, every member state’s economy has grown faster as part of the single market, with countries with the lowest average incomes growing faster and catching up with the others.

Market forces have had some impact on driving this progress – albeit mixed – but increasing focus on economic and social cohesion within the EU has also played a role. Cohesion as a priority acquired a treaty basis with the 1986 single European act, which also formally recognised the European social dialogue established by the Val Duchesse agreement in 1985. It has become the EU’s main investment policy via the various structural and investment funds, recently accounting for more than half of public investment in some countries.

But strong growth between the mid-90s and the onset of the recession in 2007 masked the fragility of aspects of employment and social protection in many member states – with severe consequences.

A crisis in which economic stabilisation took precedence has acted as a catalyst for the shift we are now seeing put the concept of social convergence at the centre of European policy discourse. The financial crash signaled the interruption of a long process of equalising real living standards among member states. It also challenged the stability of the euro, casting doubts on the existing system of financial and economic governance.

Through this emerged an understanding that the stability of the single currency required convergence of more than just the agreed monetary and fiscal indicators. Greece and other countries affected by fiscal consolidation battled to stay afloat against a backdrop of declining employment and deteriorating living and working conditions, while other member states perceived the increased movement of people and services as a growing threat to their own social protections. A political consensus grew that ‘ever closer’ integration – and the stability of the euro – required a strengthened social dimension, in line with the EU project as one of economic integration not for its own sake, but as a means to improve the lives of European citizens.

It was in this context that the European pillar of social rights was agreed unanimously by the council of ministers in October, following a wide consultation process. The pillar sets out agreed principles and rights to support fair and well-functioning labour markets and welfare systems, directly addressing the needs and aspirations of the peoples of Europe.

The 2008 recession has left scars on our societies that populist movements have exploited without providing any concrete improvements to living conditions on the ground. The social pillar makes it clear that economic and social progress are two sides of the same coin.

Sceptics may criticise this as merely a declaration of principles. But principles matter. As does political commitment to their implementation – as publicly pledged in Gothenburg.

The social summit and the proclamation of the pillar recognises the inextricable link between the political, economic and social integration of a continent. As all countries return to growth, this is surely the time to demonstrate that this integration can deliver what we need – a new start for social Europe.

Image credit: Ludovic Marin / Getty Images

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