A social Europe exists

Social policies, employment and a common European welfare are essential objectives to revive a caring community as well as a trading one

The headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels. The European integration process initially revolved around economic issues and overlooked important aspects such as a common welfare policies. REUTERS/Yves Herman/Contrast
The headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels. The European integration process initially revolved around economic issues and overlooked important aspects such as a common welfare policies. REUTERS/Yves Herman/Contrast

The social dimension has seen a very gradual development in Europe, partly because, as is often pointed out, the European integration process was initially centred around strictly economic issues that did not foresee the prospect of shared welfare in any clearly outlined form.

However, after over sixty years of a shared existence, the positive growth of economic interdependence has luckily brought with it developments in national policies that tend towards forms of joint harmonisation. These have encouraged the European Union to promote laws, provide economic funds and develop community tools designed to coordinate and monitor national policies including those related to social issues, and, by the same token, a European Union capable (and fully prepared) to boost its own strategies in sectors such as social inclusion, poverty and pensions.

This two pronged movement – the internal harmonisation and coordination process within States and the similar actions undertaken by the European Commission to the same end – have reinforced those interdependencies that are now a very important aspect, even in social terms, of the Europe we are familiar with.

Of course, everyone is aware that the social development of Europe is below, and in many cases very much below, what many of us would expect, especially if one considers the cultural tradition upheld by Europe on this issue, which stands as an example for the entire world; an example one can be proud of,  all the more so seeing as the European Union's scope of action in a social context – and this is an important point that the Europe born out of the next vote in May will have to come to terms with – is limited. Employment and social policies are and have always been the preserves of national governments; they call the tune and are responsible for decisions on minimum wages, collective bargaining agreements, pensions and unemployment benefits.

Yet, although the European Union's scope in terms of social prerogatives may be to some extent cramped, a level of progress has still been achieved: the Rome Treaties of 1957 introduced the important principle of equal pay for men and women and the right of workers to move freely within the European Union, and then, in order to promote and boost the movement of workers within the European territories, it introduced new laws that guarantee subsidised medical treatment abroad for EU citizens and to ensure that all pension rights accrued at home were not lost in the new country of employment, while educational qualifications also became also mutually acknowledged across the continent (one need only consider Erasmus for students and the Leonardo programme for workers). Then again, Europe has also introduced  regulations that qualify and establish basic working conditions for workers in the various sectors as well as allowed working hours. It has also vowed to fight discrimination at the workplace and introduced legislation to protect worker's health and safety.

In other words, small steps have been taken, and all of them essentially in the right direction: with a view to enhancing as much as possible joint European actions to bolster the social aspect of the Union itself and, in so doing, promote more active policies regarding social issues which might provide more robust and more interconnected social values even in relation to European economic integration.

What decides the leeway afforded to the decisions that await both the next European Parliament we are about to elect as well as the new European Commission is the Social Rights Pillar, first presented jointly in 2017 by the European Parliament, Council and Commission: a tool based on 20 key principles construed through a number of different political and regulatory initiatives of a legal nature that is meant to enhance fairer and more functional labour markets and welfare systems centred around three main concepts: equal opportunities and access to the labour market; fair working conditions; and appropriate and sustainable social protection.

Clearly this is a European programme that will have to be carried forward and implemented on the basis of a clear and shared set of values that might help to reinforce mutual interdependence between states while avoiding closures and conflicts. This means that, as is already apparent, it will undoubtedly be very tricky to gain support for this programme from those countries (and political parties) that rely on their autarchic instincts, typical of false forms of sovereignty, to guide their regulatory inclinations.

One should be aware that ever since the early days of European integration the European Parliament has often called for more active engagement on the social front. However, the progress achieved is being increasingly reined in, as things stand, by those political forces that are set on exploiting the incomplete integration process by promoting inward looking policies. They paint a picture of Europe as a negative tool hoping that this will enable them to underline their own internal successes. This is a well-known refrain, which nevertheless has gained considerable traction in recent years, and has thus caused a number of problems to the progress and improvement of that social dimension that qualifies and establishes the huge difference between the European Union (and its member states) and even very advanced countries outside it, which, hardly surprisingly, look on in envy at the protections and guarantees provided by the European regulations in conjunction with national legislations. In his State of the Union address in 2016, The European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was very clear when he stressed that "The member States must build a protective Europe. And as European institutions, we must help them to keep this promise".

The path towards a new boost to citizen's social right therefore inevitably hinges on a European coordination of the levels of social security within the Union, which, thanks to the main European Union tool designed to promote employment and social inclusion, which is referred to as the European Social Fund, can help support those workers who lose their jobs due changes in global trading models; changes which, unavoidably, cannot be managed by the various piecemeal policies of the various individual nation states, however much these recalcitrant member states with their overblown propaganda would have you believe otherwise

Europe must therefore find a way of shifting gears so it can provide a more integrated and targeted support  for its community and face up to challenges that are coming thick and fast, including those connected to digitalisation and climate change (which entails the transition to a low carbon emission economy). These elements are having a serious impact on our lives and are responsible for entry-level youth unemployment which is a real hazard for a continent that looks to intergenerational solidarity as an established value that represents the very idea of our European community.

Inequality, social rifts and slowing economic development are all areas on which one should measure the validity of policy proposals as the European vote approaches, with the awareness that, if the conversation between social partners and European institutions is not given pride of place, the social aspect of the Union won't even manage to provide the kind of boost to economic development that it has historically secured for itself over time.

@ClementiF

This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

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