6 December 2017

A European Social Union: debates on what, why and how

On the occasion of the presentation of the book "A European Social Union after the Crisis", in Leuven, Frank Vandenbroucke emphasised that a European social Union is not a luxury, but a necessity to let the European Monetary Union and the Single Market function well.

On a sunny day, we gathered in Leuven for the launch of the book “A European Social Union after the Crisis“, edited by Frank Vandenbroucke, Catherine Barnard and Geert de Baere (Leuven, 28 September 2017). Outside, students were united in social activities, celebrating the start of the academic year with music and beer. Inside, researchers and policy-makers celebrated the continuation of the debate on social Europe with much food for thought.

A European social Union is not a luxury, but a necessity.

The book launch has not been the only recent occasion in which the EU’s social dimension was discussed and revived. Also at the Jean Monnet Biennial conference, titled “A turning point for Europe” (Brussels, 27-28 November 2017), the EU’s social dimension was subject of debate. The revival is linked to the recovery from the economic crisis as well as the past year’s activities to create a European Pillar of Social Rights. This Pillar has been proclaimed recently by the European Parliament, Council and Commission at the Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth (Gothenburg, 17 November 2017). The Pillar consists of principles and rights supporting fair and well-functioning labour markets and welfare systems. It has furthered expectations on social Europe, but also raises questions on how to turn ideas into realities. The book “A European Social Union after the crisis” provides ideas on what we should do, why we should do it and how we can make steps towards a social union. It gathers shared aspirations, legal constellations and functional arguments, based on research from various academic disciplines. For this reason, EU Commissioner Marianne Thyssen of DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, called it “a timely book” (Thyssen, 2017).

Frank Vandenbroucke opened the book launch, emphasising that a European social Union is not a luxury, but a necessity. It is a necessity to let the European Monetary Union and the Single Market function well. However, to know what it is that we need, the book calls for conceptual clarity. What are the reasons for having a European Social Union, what agenda should we set and what is the governance structure for a European Social Union? While the book offers various perspectives on ways to go forward, its guiding idea is clear: a European Social Union is not the same as a European Welfare State. Thus, the book does not set out to explore a supranational welfare state. It rather seeks for ways to have a fruitful and inspiring collection of different welfare states. In this perspective, the European Social Union has the function of creating an environment which allows the different welfare states to flourish. For instance, at EU-level general social standards and objectives could be developed, while leaving questions on its implementation to the national level. Thus, member states would cooperate in a union with an explicit social purpose, and in a union where each government and the social partners play a key role in developing their national welfare states.

A Social Union would thus support the members states and encourage, guide, or steer national level developments, depending on the issue at hand.

Among the arguments for a role of the EU, there are risk sharing among member states and improving the resilience of societies to deal with external shocks. These could be compulsory elements, e.g. setting minimum requirements, or be subsidized, e.g. being a form of re-insurance. One example is free movement. While the EU needs some degree of mobility, this mobility also needs to be fair. Principles supporting fairness could be set at the EU level. At the same time, migration is likely to create less pressure in labour markets that are regulated adequately. Here, the national level plays a key role, via collective bargaining or in guaranteeing access to social security for all workers. A Social Union would thus support the members states and encourage, guide, or steer national level developments, depending on the issue at hand. Ideas on how to do this are plenty, including a (European) social dialogue that includes the views of all main actors; efficient use of the flexibility in current EU coordination instruments, such as the European Semester; and benefitting from the EU’s investment agreements. In the key note and the round table that followed the introduction of Vandenbroucke, such ideas were further discussed, with input from Eleanor Sharpston (European Court of Justice), Catherine Barnard (Cambridge University), Steven Van Hecke (KULeuven), Valerio De Stefano (KULeuven), and Martin Sandbu (Financial Times). Many mentioned the EU’s task to nurture and support national systems, but they also highlighted that member states should take up responsibility. National government are important actors in policy-making processes, both with the EU in a multilevel governance system, and at home, making social policies and developing a welfare state that is fit to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

The role of Brexit played an unexpected role at the book launch. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the same role was attributed to Brexit in debates at the Jean Monnet Biennial conference. As a consequence of the choice to vote for Brexit, many people have started learning more about what the European Union is: its purpose, its reasons and its functioning. This learning includes getting to know more about the EU’s social dimension. For instance, social Europe was not really part of the debate running up to the British referendum. The debate focused mainly on migration. However, now that Brexit is forthcoming, the British debates have started addressing the floor of rights, and a search for ways to keep this floor of rights. Indeed, it is a sudden realisation of what it means not to have a social union. Likewise, the debates on the Pillar of Social Rights may be seen as a shift away from thinking predominantly in terms of austerity, and a move towards acknowledging the vital importance of an EU social dimension, including for political reasons. This latter message was also part of the key note of Commissioner Thyssen, which concluded the book launch. Thyssen firmly stated that we need a social Europe for economic, social, and political reasons. She set out the ideas of the Pillar of Social Rights and its nature: the mix of upcoming legislative proposals (e.g. a proposal for a directive on work-life balance introducing paternity leave) with much space for initiatives at the national level to develop a strong welfare state. Indeed, Thyssen presented the Pillar of Social Rights as a “framework” to create a dynamic and fair economy, to be used as a “compass” to guide social policy. The Pillar will serve as a guide when the Commission proposes legislation, but also when applying the European Semester of economic governance, when using the European Social Funds, and when setting the next multi-annual financial framework (Thyssen, 2017).

Although no-one can predict the future, the EU-level support for social Europe is larger than it has been for many years.

Will we succeed in moving from ideas to results? Time will tell. During the debate on the social dimension of Europe at the Jean Monnet Biennial conference, the Commission saw positive signs. For instance, the agreement on new rules on the posting of workers, as an indication that member states are able to bridge the gap between their different views. Moreover, the recent accomplishment to have all member states agree on the Pillar of Social Rights, indicates this ability to bridge divides. The Commission also said to have experimented new ways to include thoughts and ideas from (national) actors. It deliberately published a draft paper on the Pillar a year ago, taking time to discuss it, for instance, with the European Parliament and the wider public via an open consultation. Such activities are aligned with – what the Commission called – the most social European Semester since its inception in 2011. The 2018 recommendations to the Euro area even includes the message to “Implement reforms that promote quality job creation, equal opportunities and access to labour market, fair working conditions, and support social protection and inclusion”. Thus, although no-one can predict the future, the EU-level support for social Europe is larger than it has been for many years.

When we left the book launch in Leuven, students were still enjoying the sunshine, beer, and music. Probably coming from different parts of the world, they understood the joy of uniting for social purposes. Perhaps it shows that a step towards a European Social Union may be smaller than expected.


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