The European Commission is quietly preparing to unleash a flood of policy initiatives to boost workers’ rights across the EU, rebooting plans by Jean-Claude Juncker that were kept mostly out of sight during the Brexit debate.
With the U.K. preparing to leave, Juncker wants to give a new push to the “European pillar of social rights” — a proposal he first mentioned nearly a year ago. The measures, aimed primarily at the eurozone but with non-euro countries able to opt-in if they wish, include rules on the minimum wage and to protect gender equality — policies long considered out-of-bounds for Brussels.
As he fights for free trade deals and measures to boost economic growth and competitiveness, the Commission president also wants to add a “social” dimension to EU policy. Introducing the idea in his State of the Union address to the European Parliament last September, Juncker said he wanted to build a new EU social policy that “takes account of the changing realities of the world of work.”
Juncker backed Belgium’s Marianne Thyssen, the European commissioner in charge of employment, social affairs and labor mobility, to push the initiative, and she’s spent the past few months gauging support for the possible changes in EU countries with NGOs, business groups and trade unions.
One door closes, another opens
The idea of boosting social protections got a mention in a 2015 report from the “Five Presidents” of the EU institutions on the future of the eurozone, with the leaders calling for the Union to aim for a “social triple A” rating in parallel with efforts to boost economic growth. The largest center-left and center-right political groups in the European Parliament also back elements of the initiative.
But apart from that, little has been done on the plan since Juncker first raised it. During the months-long debate ahead of the U.K. referendum on June 23, the idea was kept under wraps for fear it would be seen as EU regulatory meddling in Britain. Meanwhile, European trade unions grew increasingly frustrated at the lack of action.
Oliver Roethig, regional secretary of the service workers’ union UNI Europa, said some have wondered “to what extent this is all just talk.” As for the idea that Europe could earn “a social triple A” rating, Roethig said that right now “it is probably junk status.”
The U.K. has long led opposition to attempts to introduce new social rights or employment legislation, such as on remuneration, parental leave, anti-discrimination and pension reform.
Peter Scherrer, deputy secretary-general of the European Trade Union Confederation, said that while Juncker is “personally committed to a social Europe,” the Commission has “so far … not delivered.”
While some may dismiss Juncker and Thyssen’s plans as a pipe dream, others say Brexit offers proponents of more EU action on social policy a unique political opening. The U.K. has long led opposition to attempts by the Commission to introduce new social rights or employment legislation, such as on remuneration, parental leave, anti-discrimination and pension reform. British Conservatives in particular have argued that the EU is not allowed to dictate to its member countries how they should run their social welfare systems.
Thyssen persevered anyway. In March, the Commission released a “preliminary outline” of the plan, proposing initiatives that include the introduction of eurozone rules on the minimum wage, new rights on “quality education and training” and measures to ensure gender quality and protection from discrimination.
The outline argued that much of the legislation would be justified not only by provisions in the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, but also in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. Although that charter has been anathema to British Conservatives, who say it would make U.K. judges subservient to a court in Strasbourg, other countries are less concerned.
With discussion of the topic taboo ahead of the referendum vote, the Commission did almost nothing to push it. But now Thyssen has seen her chance, telling a Cypriot newspaper in a July interview that she will put forward a “revision of the current rules on social security coordination in the coming months.”
There’s a risk the Commission could push too far. It is seeking a role for itself on sensitive policy areas such as wages, pensions and unemployment benefits. Although the EU’s governing treaty expressly limits the ability of the Commission to act in these areas, it can “assist” governments should they wish to align social policy. Whether governments will take the Commission up on this offer remains to be seen.
A Commission spokesperson suggested that a key aim of Thyssen’s consultation process, which will close at the end of the year, is to identify the appropriate legal form for any EU action. The official pointed out that rules on the minimum wage, for example, could be introduced via a so-called Council decision, whereby governments agree on a policy action without the Commission taking the central role that it does on most other legislation. In some ways, such an agreement is easier to reach, given that it keeps the European Parliament out of the equation, but on controversial areas such as social security, the likelihood of finding consensus is in doubt.
Proponents of the social pillar saw a positive sign that the political climate may be shifting in their favor after an agreement was signed in the days immediately following the U.K. referendum by business organizations, trade unions and, crucially, governments themselves. The statement called for “the promotion of dialogue between management and labor,” as well as “a strengthened involvement of social partners in EU policy and lawmaking.”
Scherrer from the ETUC described the agreement as a “historic moment,” given that never before had governments recognized the role of “social dialogue” so clearly.
More importantly, it was seen as a departure for the Commission and for many European governments, whose dominant narrative for years had focused on boosting growth and competitiveness of EU businesses — what Scherrer calls “dangerous austerity.”
Coupled with a Continent-wide decline in the fortunes of left-wing parties, the time for centralized wage bargaining, stronger protections for workers and guarantees for access to public services seemed to many to have passed.
But this fails to take into account broader political trends in Europe. Populist parties across the Continent (on the Left and Right) are adopting economic and social policies that seem more at home in mainstream social democratic parties.
Supporters say that with the U.K. no longer able to block it, the EU is about to start legislating far more extensively in social policy than ever before.
One example is wages. In July, Thyssen batted away criticism from East European parliaments that her reform of EU rules on cross-border workers interfered too much with national wage policy. Her proposals seek to limit “social dumping” — the shipping of temporary, cheap East European labor westwards — on the grounds that this undercuts wage levels in the host country.
But the same countries who reacted so angrily to the proposal, such as Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic, are simultaneously demanding that Germany change its new minimum wage law, which they argue is destroying their trucking businesses.
That’s why the Commission is optimistic about its broader social agenda, with a spokesperson confirming that governments both in and outside the eurozone have signaled their support for the initiative. Supporters say that with the U.K. no longer able to block it, and a renewed commitment to the “social dialogue” between employers and trade unions, the EU is about to start legislating far more extensively in social policy than ever before.
Saim Saeed contributed to this article.
This story was corrected to reflect that the EU is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights rather than the Charter of Fundamental Rights.