On 19 January 2017, a majority in the European Parliament (EP) voted in support of a broad report on the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR), one of the top priority initiatives of the European Commission (EC). The EC had presented a preliminary outline of the Pillar on 8 March 2016. Along with this document, the Commission launched an open consultation, which ended in December 2016. It is expected that the Commission will come forward with a concrete EPSR proposal in the spring of 2017.

The Pillar is built around three main headings: 1) equal opportunities and access to the labour market; 2) fair working conditions; 3) adequate and sustainable social protection. The preliminary draft has taken the form of an inventory of social rights, divided into 20 issues. According to the Commission, the Pillar should address gaps in existing legislation and identify common principles directed, over time, toward an upward convergence of social standards within the euro area.

Given its ambitious goals, it is no surprise that this initiative has attracted attention from institutional actors and the civil society. Among the former, the European Parliament has played a special role in the debate, especially due to the actions of the Socialists & Democrats parliamentary group.

The debate in the European Parliament

While launching the consultation on the EPSR on 8 March 2016, the EC expressed its wish to bring the European Parliament into the discussion. The EP immediately welcomed the initiative. The committee in charge of writing the report on the Pillar was the Employment and Social Affairs Committee (EMPL), which appointed Ms. Maria Joao Rodrigues as rapporteur. Ms Rodrigues, the vice-president of the Socialists and DEmocrats (S&D) group, immediately highlighted the importance of this report, in the context of the ongoing EU crisis and in light of the presentation of the White Paper of the European Commission on the future of the EU in March 2017.

The rapporteur pushed for a tight schedule. The draft report was presented on 9 September 2016. The deadline for tabling amendments was scheduled on October 10, the vote in EMPL Committee on December 8 and that in Plenary on January 19. According to Ms. Rodrigues, only by respecting this schedule could the EP become a central actor in the European debate on the Pillar.

The content of the EP’s report is very rich. Among its policy propositions, it is worth noting the call for a proposal for a framework directive on decent working conditions in all forms of employment, extending existing minimum standards to the various non-standard forms of work. Such a framework directive should inter alia clarify the employment status and rights of online platform workers, ensure that open-market internships are paid, and ban zero-hour contracts. Moreover, the report recommends improving the portability of social rights acquired in different activities, by enabling all people in all employment forms to accumulate entitlements which should be easy to check via a personal activity account (following the example of the recently introduced compte personnel d’activité in France). The EP also highlighted the importance of an adequate income for maintaining human dignity as well as the role of social investment approach. In particular, it suggests adopting concrete steps towards a Child Guarantee in all Member States ensuring that every child now living at risk of poverty has access to free healthcare, free education, free childcare, decent housing and proper nutrition. Special attention is also paid to the need for legislation on carer’s leave to limit effects on remuneration and social protection entitlements when workers temporarily need to take care of relatives.

Most of the political groups expressed their appreciation for the work made by the rapporteur. Nevertheless 1,119 amendments were tabled, which underlines the importance of the issue.

The S&D, the Greens and the GUE/NGL immediately showed strong cooperation. The Greens shadow rapporteur, Tamás Meszerics, and the GUE/NGL chair and shadow rapporteur, Gabriele Zimmer, announced their support for the draft report. The former focused his attention on the importance of a social governance of the European Semester and the latter called, in the medium-term, for a “golden rule” aimed at exempting social investments from the calculation of net government deficits under the Eurozone’s fiscal rules.

While the left groups were mostly united, the European People’s Party broke off into two sub-groups. On the one hand, rapporteur Tom Vandenkendelaere and the majority of the group expressed their support for the initiative, despite strong reservations about the new financial instruments. On the other hand, a small group of MEPs, led by the German and Polish delegations, opposed the report. The liberals was equally split. Shadow rapporteur Enrique Calvet Chambon and the majority of ALDE MEPs supported the draft report, while a minority, led by easter European MEPs strongly opposed it.

Taking advantage of the division within the EPP and ALDE, the S&D managed to create a large consensus. The report passed with 34 votes in favour, 13 against and 4 abstentions in the EMPL Committee. In negotiations, some proposals, which were made in the draft report, were lost. Therefore, the S&D, together with GUE/NGL and Greens, tabled three new amendments concerning the importance of adequate minimum income schemes, the introduction of a social protocol in the Treaties, and the need for adequate financing at national and European level to effectively achieve Treaties objectives and implement agreed EU policies.

The new centre-right coalition and its consequences on the Rodrigues report

Nevertheless, the compromises reached within the EMPL Committee looked fragile in light of the new alliance between ALDE and EPP (with the support of the Eurosceptic ECR group), leading to the election of Antonio Tajani as the new EP President just the day before the plenary vote on Rodrigues’s report. In fact, the new EP centre-right coalition tabled 14 amendments ahead of the plenary vote. The EPP tried to delete the proposal for a directive, keeping only a non-binding framework, and sought to delete the proposed ban on exploitative zero-hour contracts. Moreover, the EPP refused legislative proposals on parental leave, carers’ leave for the purpose of improved work-life balance. Together with ALDE, the EPP tried to eliminate the proposal on a national minimum income scheme, rejected the concept of a “living wage”, and the objective for coordinated increases in national wage floors towards 60% of national median wage. Finally, ALDE and the EPP tried to disrupt ongoing discussions about the possible strengthening of European financial instruments by explicitly stressing that investments should be limited to already existing instruments and not new ones.

Faced with the sudden change of political alliances within the EP, the S&D-led majority followed two paths in order to rescue the report. On the one hand, it tried to exploit the internal divisions of ALDE and the EPP, attempting to persuade the less conservative MEPs to vote for the resolution and against the amendments tabled by the right wing of their party. On the other hand, the S&D group itself softenned its stance, by withdrawing the amendment in which they asked for ensuring adequate investments to achieve Treaty objectives.

As a result of this two-pronged strategy, the plenary vote mostly reflected the committe one: the report passed with 396 votes in favour, 180 against and 68 abstentions. Party discipline in voting within the S&D was respected, but the proposal of increases in national wage floors towards 60% of national median wage did not pass due to a negative split vote of liberals and popular MEPs.

The need for strong political will

The content of the EP’s report on the EPSR gained centre stage in the conference organized by the European Commission on January 23. As underlined by several participants, the ideas included in the report should constitute an important roadmap for the future EC initiative on the Pillar, as well as for national governments. One of the most important conditions behind the success of the EPSR is, indeed, political will but, as stated by Commissioner Pierre Moscovici, such political will does not exist per se, it has to be created at the national level and through inter-institutional debates at the European level. In recalling a 2006 speech held in Aix-la-Chappelle, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker closed the conference with a strong appeal: “we won’t be able to make a success of Europe if we can’t make a success of the Pillar. This is our last chance”.

This special briefing is by Francesco Corti, Michelangelo Vercesi and Patrik Vesan

Photo Credits CC astrid westvang

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