Social Pillar – back to reality (with a bump)

The cold, rainy weather of these days is no surprise. Whoever lives in Brussels is used to evanescent summers and the abrupt return to reality they bring, following any short summer escape to a random sunny, exotic destination.

The problem is that those dark clouds hovering above us risk becoming a good metaphor of what is happening to the hope of a genuine relaunch of a social Europe.

The European Pillar of Social Rights is the perfect example of that. Conceived as a high-level initiative, no less than by Commission President Juncker in his quest for a social triple-A Europe, and built on a year-long consultation that involved EU governments, social partners, civil society and other relevant stakeholders, it is now navigating uncertain waters.

Four and a half months after the release of the new version, “uncertain” is the best word to describe the fate of this initiative.

The Commission presented it together with a reflection paper on the social dimension of Europe that envisaged the possibility of further reducing its action in the social sphere – a clear contradiction to the proposed Pillar – and seemed to have taken a step back stating clearly that Member States have main responsibility for the implementation of the Pillar.

The Parliament, which earlier in January adopted an ambitious report including many of our recommendations, needed a few months to decide on its representatives – the negotiating team will finally be composed of a trio of Members of the European Parliament: the chair of the Employment and Social Affairs committee, Thomas Handel, the author of the Parliament report on the Pillar, Maria Joao Rodrigues, and the shadow author, Tom Vandenkendelaere – and there is still a lack of clarity on the mandate given to that negotiating team.

The Council remains divided, with political attention focusing on hot files such as the posting of workers and social security coordination, and some Member States are buying time by asking for reassurances that the Pillar will not transfer new competences to the EU level, won’t have financial implications for them, and won’t give EU citizens the right to bring governments before the Court of Justice.

The upcoming weeks and months will hopefully dissipate some of these clouds, starting with President Juncker’s State of the Union speech this week and the proclamation that may be signed in November by the EU institutions on the fringes of the Social Summit in Gothenburg.

In this climate of uncertainty, civil society has a clear role to play. We need to support the signing of this proclamation at the highest political level and with the highest possible visibility, and we need to build on this political momentum and on the window of opportunity that this opens to push for a rapid adoption of significant and positive initiatives already on the table, including the Work-Life Balance Directive. We must also ask for – and indeed propose – a clear roadmap for implementation of the Pillar to make the EU institutions accountable for making its aims a reality.

It’s a difficult road ahead, but it is the only one to take if we want to avoid the Pillar becoming that short summer escape from a tough reality.