A new social pillar: Plans emerge to shore up rights across Europe
Last week the European Commission suddenly woke up to the needs of working people. After years of almost no initiatives in the social and employment fields, reinforcing the perception of the EU as just a business club, we got something to deal with the pay of workers temporarily sent to work in another country (on which I have already blogged) as well as a proposal for a far wider-ranging ‘European Pillar of Social Rights’.
The title is promising and so is the realisation from the Commission that the social dimension of the internal market has been neglected – a point often made by trade unions across Europe – with all the efforts in recent years focused on imposing self-defeating austerity and rebalancing the books in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
The Commission argues that the crisis has been managed and we are seeing recovery of a sort. So now it is time to look ahead and deal with the long-term trends that the crisis has accentuated. Changes in work patterns, new forms of work, increased inequalities, demographic as well as technological change – all factors that make today’s world of work different from that of the 20th century, for which most of the existing regulations were devised. We’ve been clamouring for such a change for far longer than the crisis has lasted, so no arguments there!
In a nutshell the idea is to make the “European social model future-proof” in the words of Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Marianne Thyssen. The social pillar will be the subject of a consultation running until December which aims to:
- assess the current body of EU regulation in the employment and social field (known as the ‘acquis’), determining the extent to which existing rights are practiced and remain relevant or whether and where new ways to deliver on these rights should be considered;
- reflect on new trends in work patterns and society due to the impact of new technologies, demographic trends or other factors of importance for working life and social conditions; and
- gather views on the role of the ‘European Pillar of Social Rights’ as part of a deeper and fairer euro area: to reflect on the particular needs of the euro area and to discuss the specificity of the principles proposed.
So far so good, and plenty to engage with if the UK remains in the European Union after the Referendum. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) of which we are a part will certainly be campaigning to turn the fine words into action (and for more and better proposals.)
However, mostly because the European Commission doesn’t want to start a row with David Cameron ahead of the Referendum, the social pillar initiative has been conceived to stop at the borders of the euro area (reforms to the posted workers directive will apply everywhere.) The Commission’s stated reasoning is that this area is the one most in need of further integration: economic and monetary union has to be accompanied by a number of essential principles to support well-functioning and fair labour markets and welfare systems.
That does not mean, however, that this isn’t important for British trade unions, nor that British workers won’t benefit. The initiative remains open to other countries on a voluntary basis, and the Swedish government has already indicated that it wishes to join in. While it is inconceivable that a right-wing British Government would do the same, our objective would be to extend it as soon as possible to British workers. And it wouldn’t just be us – the ETUC’s immediate reaction to the proposal said:
”The ETUC would find it very hard to accept rights applying only to people in the Eurozone and not to workers in the rest of the EU.”
Before the Commission announced its plans, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady told European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that, in the run up to the UK Referendum, it was important for the EU to offer something tangible and concrete to working people to dispel the image of the EU as a rich man’s club.
So, the agenda for reforming the European social model has been set. The ETUC and TUC will be campaigning for improvements on posted workers and on the social pillar as a whole, and for the latter to be extended to British workers. Any British political party that rejects that extension will be making their position on workers’ rights abundantly clear: “not wanted here”.