Social Europe: A policy of “Small Steps”?

At the end of August, French Minister of Ecological Transition Nicolas Hulot announced his resignation. Hulot, impatient? This was the echo within the Elysée: if he left so early, it is because he didn’t recognise the time needed to implement the government’s long-term vision. It is true that in less than fifteen months, the “bilan” of the French Government in the field of environment is not bad. Many initiatives have been taken. So what is the problem?

You might wonder why, as leader of a Platform focused on social issues and on the week of President Juncker’s State of the Union speech, I focus on some weeks old news dealing with environment?

Global climate deal was reached in Paris two years ago. European Social deal was reached in Gothenburg last year.

While Europe suffocates, the Minister of ecological transition Nicolas Hulot highlighted our inconsistency in the face of global warming. He called on us to get our act together. While recognising that many initiatives had been taken by the French government, he denounced a policy of “Small Steps”. In fact, if we really want to reverse the situation, we need a complete change of direction.

It’s the same in the social field. We know the data show alarming levels of inequalities and poverty in Europe. Social Platform members report the daily challenges they face to meet the escalating demands of people on the ground – the unemployed, the destitute, those simply struggling to get their life back on track. We’ve welcomed the European Commission’s efforts to put new proposals and initiatives on the table, and we’ll support their adoption and implementation. We recognise this the first time we get a clear social ambition at the level of Commission President, who in his State of the Union speech expressed his wish to turn the good intentions proclaimed at the Gothenburg Social Summit into law.

But are these proposals enough? Unfortunately not if they are not also accompanied by strong political will to prioritise social issues across all areas of decision-making. As Hulot highlighted: the whole government should have supported and prioritised the ecologic transition. Similarly, we believe social progress must be the goal of decision-making in all EU institutions and it should be the glue that brings Members States together.

The European Pillar of Social Rights has the potential to move things forward. But it needs leadership from Member States to implement and adequately finance its implementation. The EU’s coordination efforts are crucial if we are to ensure that subsidiarity does not become the loose thread that unravels the social fabric.

Income and wealth inequality not only has a social impact. It also has economic and political consequences and undermines the trust towards governments (and the EU project). By prioritising social progress we can reverse these trends, healing the deep wounds that polarise our societies and rebuilding confidence in government and politics.

Is this not what the upcoming European elections are about? If recent local and national elections are anything to go by, the trend of rising populism shows no sign of abating. We risk destroying the fundamental values of the European Union and of our societies.

To European leaders – To citizens of the European Union: during the coming months you will have to choose. Either we can prioritise social justice and social investment and defend the values that bring us together or we can turn our back on that progress. I believe our democracies will then be at the mercy of people’s deepest fears.

President Juncker said the Commission will be working “to render our imperfect Union that little bit more perfect with each day passing”. It means considering the social and environmental impact of every decision made. As his introduction to the State of Union continued: “History can also show up, unannounced, in the life of nations and be slow to leave”.

On 29-30 November we’ll be organising our Flagship Conference “Building Social Europe”. We hope President Juncker will be with us to discuss how the good intentions of the Pillar of Social Rights will be taken up in macro-economic policies and in law. History will judge whether we managed or not.