A more social Europe – no need to reinvent the wheel

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A demonstration in London against falling living standards. [Matt Gibson/Shutterstock]

This week is all about pushing forward by finally adding a “social pillar” to the EU-framework. Scandinavia has been leading the way on sustainable social models for decades – so there is no need to reinvent the wheel, writes Jeppe Kofod.

Jeppe Kofod is a Danish MEP and vice-pesident of the European Parliament’s Socialist & Democrats group.

The idea that our European Union must be about more than pure market integration and free competition is finally gaining traction also in the Council and the Commission. When Europe’s political leaders, at the end of this week, make their way to the Social Summit in Gothenburg, Sweden, they will finally address an issue that has been a core Social-Democratic policy priority for a very long time: ensuring a socially sustainable, progressive and fair European Union for all its citizens. For a Scandinavian social democrat like me, strong societies of empowered unions, and responsible employers confederations are the fundamental underpinning of that.

Since its inception, The European Union has been primarily concerned about creating and opening new markets. We now have single European markets for everything from wheat to beer to financial products and energy. You name the product or service, and I can almost guarantee you that the Commission has a specific strategy for delivering, achieving or strengthening it.

This specific focus on markets, products and services was highly important in the early days of the European Union, because we needed the economies of Europe to integrate. This integration has delivered peace, stability and tremendous economic growth.

However, in this quest for market building and integration, the European leaders of yesteryear lost sight of what the European idea(l) is truly about: its people. In order to prove this point, you might ask yourselves three simple questions, which highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of our current European Union:

1) European cooperation has created enormous wealth, but has it been fairly shared?

2) Market integration has created a wealth of new business opportunities, but are these opportunities available to all?

3) Free competition has made products and services cheaper for consumers, but do all employees profit?

Sadly, the answer to all three questions is no. And that is what we socialists and democrats want to see change. We want a more fair, sustainable and progressive Europe.

The social summit in Gothenburg this week marks an important change of direction for Europe in this regard. Finally, the EU will begin its work on social rights all across Europe.

We will do so not with the means or the approach of the past. We will not seek harmonised social or welfare systems in Europe. Markets, products and services may be harmonised. People can’t and neither should the welfare systems that protect them.

We should never forget that we are – as the motto of the European Union so rightfully states – United in Diversity. This diversity of culture and traditions is also reflected in our differing social and welfare systems. And so it should be.

But we can and must agree on a robust framework of social standards. The practical implementation of such standards will be up to member states according to their distinct national systems. That is why we are fighting for a European social floor. A set of minimum standards that can ensure living wages, decent working conditions and adequate help and assistance when unemployment or sickness strikes.

Different strokes for different folks

As progressives from Scandinavia we are happy to share our experiences, and I invite the leaders that gather in Gothenburg, to take a look around.

In Scandinavia, we have well-functioning traditions of collective bargaining. Here, strong unions can tackle employers’ confederations head on and deliver decent wages and acceptable working conditions without interference from politicians or through the use of legislation. This system works for us.

In other Member States, the situation is different. Here a tradition for legislative action is preferred. In other a higher emphasis is placed on insurance schemes.
For progressives from Scandinavia the key to the upcoming European Social Pillar is that all coming initiatives demarcate floors for the social standards that no member-state shall be able to undercut.

Coming from the north, for us that means that much of what the Union will now be implementing probably will be less than the standards we are fortunate to live under.

Throughout the 20th century, countries like Denmark and Sweden have aimed to build up societies with strong and social public institutions. Today, Denmark is one of the most equal societies in the world – largely because of a universal welfare state and a progressive taxation system, that redistributes wealth from those who have most to those who are least well off.

But welfare states like ours are about more than simple numbers. Through strong labour agreements, Danes can enjoy good lives, without a persistent fear of being laid off, or not being able to pay rent despite being full time employed.

Social protection should not be a luxury to countries, and in Scandinavia, you see that every day. While production and employment in general is expensive in Denmark compared to many other places in the world, it is worth it. Denmark, Sweden and Norway are some of the world’s most productive societies, displaying that the social security is not just a benefit, but also an accelerator of productivity and growth.

I am not saying that all member states of the EU should become more like Scandinavia. Quite the opposite; Europe’s diversity is its biggest strength. But what I am saying is, that many of the features of strong societies, with protected workers’ rights and good work-life balances already exists today across our continent. When we’re now embarking on building the European Union’s Social Pillar we should employ proven the recipes for success for the benefit of all Europeans.