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Social Europe: A strong message from Gothenburg

21st November 2017

17 November could be a date that goes down in history for the EU. After years of painful fiscal consolidation, dire splits on migration, a Greek tragedy and a Brexit break-up, European leaders met in early winter of this year in Gothenburg, Sweden, to commit to a more social Europe. Many Europeans might think that it was about time this happened, but for those who follow EU affairs closely, a summit like this was simply unconceivable when the discussions on the European pillar of social rights kicked off two years ago.

So what happened in Gothenburg? President Juncker of the European commission and Prime Minister Löfven of Sweden invited the 27 European heads of state and government to a Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth. Leaders exchanged views with representatives of social partners and civil society organisations on employment, fair working conditions and social protections. The day ended with a ceremony in which the presidents of the three main EU institutions signed the pillar of social rights – the culmination of a long process of debate, public consultation and compromise between the member states and EU institutions.

This high-level political endorsement is an important symbol. It reflects a degree of unity that we have not seen for some time in the EU, and also signifies that the future of Europe will have to be social, as stated by EU commissioner for employment Marianne Thyssen. Indeed, the 20 principles set out in the European pillar of social rights are designed to guide the member states in adapting their employment law and social agenda to a new world of work, a world driven by innovation and dominated by digitalisation. They offer a framework for competitive and inclusive societies, expected to be implemented through a diversity of instruments, including national and EU legislation, policy co-ordination, benchmarking, and collective agreements.

While the implementation of the pillar is still to be worked out, a paradigm-shift has nonetheless taken place. But why and how has this shift happened?

Firstly, the role of President Juncker’s leadership must be acknowledged. The pillar was an original idea of his that was received with, at best, moderate enthusiasm back in 2015. Two years later, 25 out of 28 EU heads of government have taken part in a social summit to celebrate its proclamation. It is perhaps no coincidence that when the last summit of this kind took place two decades ago, it was hosted by Luxembourg’s then prime minister, a certain Jean-Claude Junker!

Second, the need to repair the EU’s image – damaged by years of tough fiscal consolidation – has become a pressing issue, especially since the Brexit vote. To regain popular support for European integration, the EU must face the challenge to generate both economic and social progress, as it succeeded in doing before the crisis. A rebalancing of social and economic priorities is non-negotiable.

Third, the crisis highlighted some of the weaknesses of the economic and monetary union. A critical flaw was the lack of attention EU institutions were paying to member states’ social performance – despite the fact no monetary union can function properly when unemployment and poverty rates among member substantially diverge.

This combination of factors has moved the promotion of socioeconomic convergence to the top of the EU agenda – and addressing these issues is exactly what the pillar aspires to achieve.

Speaking at the Gothenburg summit’s high-level session on fair employment and working conditions, ILO director general, Guy Ryder, stressed that the pillar reinvigorates the European tradition of finding progressive solutions to societal changes. He also noted that this initiative is in line with the 2030 UN development agenda, which aims to encourage inclusive growth, reduced inequality and decent work for all.

Certainly, the principles of the European pillar of social rights resonate with the founding values of the ILO: the conviction that prosperity must be shared, that human and labour rights underpin human dignity and that social dialogue is an essential ingredient for social justice and fairness at work. But while the pillar offers a fresh opportunity to improve standards, the wider normative framework of rights should not be forgotten. EU member states have ratified a number of ILO legal instruments, including the fundamental conventions. All member states are also party to the European convention on human rights and the European social charter. In fact, these international instruments can support the implementation of the pillar.

The ILO will follow developments closely and stands ready to offer timely guidance to member states and the EU – with the view to strengthening ties between commitments made in Gothenburg and existing duties undertaken in the ratification of ILO instruments – making this cold Friday in Sweden one to remember!

Image credit: RPBaiao / Shutterstock.com

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