The EU on Friday took a step towards the harmonisation of social standards throughout the union with the signing of a “pillar” of social rights at its Social Summit in Gothenburg.
The summit's purpose, described by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as "really putting fire back into the engine of social cohesion in the European Union", is about rebranding and bringing the union closer to citizens' preoccupations after a period of growing popular disenchantment. More than one leader echoed the insistence that the union "is not a neoliberal club".
Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker welcomed the signing as a “landmark moment for Europe. “Our union has always been a social project at heart,” he said. “It is more than just a single market, more than money, more than the euro. It is about our values and the way we want to live.”
The pillar sets out 20 commitments of broad best practice, benchmarking standards on issues ranging from gender equality to fair workplace practices and wages, the right to continuing education and training, and ease of access to the labour market. It will also now form the basis of annual monitoring and recommendations to member states by the commission.
Until last year the “EU annual semester” process and reports were largely a framework for the co-ordination of economic policy – but since last year’s recommendations – focused on “more jobs and faster growth, while taking account of social fairness” – the union has begun to rediscover a social dimension.
The recommendations are not binding, and although most social legislation is a national competence, leaders believe peer pressure and public monitoring can help raise social standards through working together.
At the working session on “fair employment and working conditions”, Mr Varadkar described the transformation that technology is bringing to the workplace. For example, some 10-15 per cent of Irish workers drive for a living, he said. Yet in 15 years we could have driverless trucks and taxis, with those jobs disappearing.
He set out two key priorities for a social Europe: ensuring that all workers were covered by basic social insurance (to be transferable throughout the union); and a need to face up to a new reality that it “was not just down to the main employer” to provide pensions.
British prime minister Theresa May emphasised the need for flexibility in the workplace to help women participate and cited recent UK legislation allowing workers to seek flexible hours. She urged support for a UK initiative at the UN to end the practice of modern-day slavery.
French president Emmanuel Macron, who defied the organisers’ attempt to confine speeches to three minutes and was reproached for doing so, urged the EU to make money available to get young people into work. He said that social policy must play a central part in structural and cohesion funding policy and warned against tolerating “tax dumping”, an allusion that may have caused some embarrassment in the Irish ranks.
Greek union power
Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras emphasised the challenge of fighting unemployment , warning that the EU could not adopt a "one-size-fits-all strategy". Greece is also believed to have complained to the summit that while the new pillar embraces free collective bargaining by unions, the EU has enforced curbs on such rights during the ongoing bailout.
Greek unions will get their full right to bargain back only in January 2019.
Over lunch leaders debated education and culture, with a strong emphasis on the need to see language teaching extended to at least two languages in addition to mother tongues. And Mr Varadkar expressed enthusiasm for a Macron proposal for joint multinational universities.
The meeting, largely an exercise in brainstorming, will provide agenda items for decisions on how to take the social agenda forward at the December summit.