In 2015, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker launched a new initiative in response to criticisms about the neglect of the ‘social dimension’ in the context of the various crises facing the EU at the time. In November 2017, the European Pillar of Social Rights was officially proclaimed, providing a new roadmap for the development of European welfare systems and associated citizens’ rights.
Consisting of 20 principles under the three categories of equal opportunities/labour market access; fair working conditions; and social protection and inclusion, the aim is greater ‘upward convergence’ of social rights despite the limited or altogether absent EU powers regarding most social policy areas.
Keen to stress the respect for Member State diversity on key issues such as social security and wage setting, the European Commission will merely set the framework, provide direction and monitor progress through a social scoreboard. The implementation of the Social Pillar will be the competence of Member States. Its effectiveness therefore depends on the willingness of Member States to fully commit to the Social Pillar through legislating binding measures in the field of social and labour market policy.
Opinions have been divided between sceptics, who fear that the Social Pillar will remain a toothless tiger – especially in the light of previous unsuccessful attempts to balance economic with social aims – and optimists, who see it as a potential window of opportunity for a new ambitious social agenda. Does the UK’s withdrawal from the EU make this agenda more likely to succeed?
Britain’s historical relationship with EU social policy was never an enthusiastic one. Most notably, when the so-called Social Chapter was signed by 11 of the then 12 Member States in 1989, setting up broad social policy objectives and giving the European Commission clearer powers to impose social legislation, the UK government under Conservative Prime Minister John Major sought one of its many ‘opt outs’ from European integration. The UK only signed up to the chapter in 1997 under Tony Blair’s first Labour government. An analysis of the UK’s voting record in the EU Council and European Parliament has revealed a clear pro-free market position.
There was frequent British opposition to EU policies on budgetary measures (important for raising the necessary revenue for effective social initiatives), while support for reductions in regulation and the simplification of legislation (cutting ‘red tape’). Even British Labour MEPs belonging to the Socialist group in the European Parliament supported more flexible labour market positions and voted, for example, against the introduction of minimum wages across the EU.
With the UK gone as an obstructing force, the prospects for progress on the social dimension might therefore not look as bad as some sceptics predict. However, there are still other obstacles in the way. Welfare state diversity between Member States has further increased with enlargement since the 2000s, rendering attempts at harmonisation increasingly difficult. Social partnership, vital for any real social progress, has also been weak in many of the newer Member States.
Finally, the financial and sovereign debt crises have left their impact. Not only have these led to a reversal of social rights in many Member States worst affected by the crisis, more importantly the economy has prevailed over the social in the EU in general. In times of heightened market anxiety, balanced budgets became quasi dogmatic, as expressed in the revision of the Stability and Growth Pact since the crisis.
The Social Pillar reiterates this dogma, by emphasising that the establishment of the Social Pillar must not significantly affect the equilibrium of Member States’ public finances. Without a more flexible view on the potential investment and growth-inducing character of social policies that foster social rights and aim at diminishing social inequalities – within and between EU Member States – the Social Pillar might well amount to little more than symbolic politics.
University of Edinburgh
Dr Elke Heins is Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests include comparative welfare state policies, labour markets, unemployment policy and health policy. Her recent publications include Sovereign Debt Crisis, the EU and Welfare Reform (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
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