Social protection, inclusion and access to basic services, lifelong learning, gender equality. The relaunch of Europe that many advocate—and which appears more likely as a result of the recent French elections—should build also on these issues. At least this is the conviction of Jean-Claude Juncker, who has placed the theme of social Europe among Brussels’s priorities since his inauguration as President of the European Commission.

Strengthening the social side of integration is justified by three types of reasons. The first has to do with the equality, or at least similarity, of the social rights that each member state should guarantee in a Union that aspires to being a proper community. The second reason is the need for the EU to create a continental system of rights and protections able to match the single maket advancements, both in the area of mobility (think, for instance, of the problems posed by the portability of pension contributions), and vis-à-vis economic changes such as digitalisation, which render new training systems able to tackle the fluidity and unpredictability of the labour market necessary. The final reason is to be found in the macroeconomic stabilisation function that some pan-European social security systems could perform in the context of the monetary union.

Presiding over the social agenda of the Commision is Marianne Thyssen, a Christian Democratic politician from Belgium who spent two decades in the European Parliament before becoming the Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility in the Juncker Commission. Among other things, Thyssen is currently in charge of the “European Pillar of Social Rights”, a EU initiative for the harmonisation and upward convergence of the member states’ social systems, which was launched two years ago by Juncker, and which is lately acquiring clearer contours in each of its three chapters: 1) equal opportunities and access to the labour market; 2) equal working conditions; 3) social inclusion and protection.

EuVisions met with Commissioner Thyssen for a brief interview on the occasion of a recent public meeting that took place in Turin.

Pier Domenico Tortola:Let’s start from something that is not included in the Pillar, namely the idea of a European  unemployment insurance scheme.

Marianne Thyssen:The idea of a common insurance scheme has circulated for a few years now. In principle I support it, not only for its social function but also because it would send a clear message of closeness to citizens on the part of European institutions. That said, this is not a measure for the immediate or short term, but rather for a more distant future in which the Eurozone will have a budget worthy of the name to tackle, among other things, asymmetric shocks.

On these issues, however, it is essential to move step by step: only after the creation of common resources for the monetary union will it be possible to decide how to employ such resources specifically. To paraphrase Jacques Brel: “if you want to get to Hong Kong, you first have to leave Vilvorde”.

PDT:What concrete actions can we then expect from the Commission in the short term?

MT:The efforts that we are putting into the Pillar of social rights are by no means window dressing. To prove it, we are going to use all tools at our disposal: legislative, coordinating and financial. As to the legislative ones, for example, we are working on a number of initiatives in the area of life-work balance, which will tackle such issues as parental leave and flexible working hours, along with protection against the unfair dismissal of new mothers.

Another key point is the extension of rights and social protection to all workers, including those in unusual positions created by digitalisation. The latter has generated a grey area between traditional employment and self-employment, in which protection is mostly lacking. However, it must be clear that the Commission cannot and will not harmonise, by itself, the member states’ social systems. What we can do, instead, is create the conditions so that whomever works in Europe will be guaranteed a minimum level of protection regardless of her home country.

PDT:Speaking of states, you must have followed the debate and controversies over the Renzi Government’s “Jobs Act”. What is your opinion on the matter?

MT:I think that many of Renzi’s reforms in the area of employment are heading the right way. However they are still incomplete, and lacking when it comes to implementation—a clear example is given by Italy’s active labour market policies. This is, after all, also a recurring theme of the report on Italy that Commission released in February as part of the European Semester process.

But it must be said that in some cases the government’s freedom of action has been limited. Take, for instance, Renzi’s attempt to centralise employment services within the national Agency for active labour market policies (Agenzia nazionale politiche attive del lavoro, ANPAL), which failed as a result of the December 2016 constitutional referendum. In sum, although governments sometimes have clear ideas on what to do, it is not always possible to put these into practice.

Corriere_della_Sera.svgAn Italian version of this interview was published by the Corriere della Sera on 19 June 2017.

Photo Credits CC European Parliament

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