Social policy indicators such as unemployment could soon form part of the European Commission’s regular monitoring of EU countries’ economic and budgetary imbalances under plans floated by Brussels today to deepen the social dimension of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU).


Commission presents initiatives to strengthen EU's social dimension

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Presenting the proposal on Wednesday (2 October), Commission President José Manuel Barroso said the EU had made “giant leaps forward” to strengthen scrutiny of national public deficits during the eurozone debt crisis but that these breakthroughs had yet to be matched on the social policy side.

Under the plans, a “social scoreboard” would be added to the list of indicators already being monitored by the Commission as part of its annual scrutiny of national budget deficits and economic imbalances.

New social indicators in the scoreboard would include:

  • The overall unemployment level and its evolution
  • The youth unemployment rate and the number of young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEET rate)
  • The real gross disposable income of households
  • The percentage of the working age population at risk of poverty
  • income inequalities as measured by comparing the richest 20% of the population with the poorest 20% (the S80/S20 ratio).

Youth unemployment rates have reached unprecedented levels across the EU in the aftermath of eurozone debt crisis, averaging 23% for the EU as a whole, and reaching up 63% in Greece, the Commission said.

More worryingly, the debt crisis has opened a gulf between the stronger countries in the single currency bloc – Germany in particular – and the weaker ones, with unemployment rates in the south and periphery of the euro area reaching an average of 17.3% in 2012, against 7.1% in the north and core of the euro area, it added.

Sanctions would require treaty change

But the Commission’s good intentions were put in doubt by the European Socialist Party, which described the proposal as a “belated and weakened attempt to redress neglect of social policy by the Barroso Commission”.

Indeed, “there are no sanctions foreseen” for EU countries that breach the indicators, the Commission indicated in an accompanying note, explaining that the scoreboard should be seen as “an analytical tool”. Introducing such sanctions – as is already the case for countries that breach budget deficit limits – would require transferring new powers to Brussels, and “a substantial treaty change,” it said.

The Commission plans came in response to calls by the EU’s heads of states and government, who agreed at their June meeting to strengthen “the social dimension of the EMU”, in an apparent breakthrough for France.

EU leaders vowed to take the first step at their upcoming October summit by introducing statistical indicators to better monitor social and labour market conditions, alongside budget deficit figures and other economic indicators. Discussions to reinforce the EMU would conclude at the December EU summit, the leaders agreed.

French President François Hollande said after the June summit that Paris was committed to deepening the eurozone’s integration, and responded favourably to German demands to strengthen the Commission’s hand in scrutinising national budgets.

“We want coordination, we even want harmonisation,” Hollande said. “But there must also be a social dimension” to the eurozone, he added, saying “France is very committed to harmonisation [on social policy], including minimum wages.”

Germany is “of course in favour of deepening the EMU and shifting the focus on social issues”, said an EU diplomat with knowledge of the discussions in Berlin. However, he said it was too soon to elaborate on the Commission’s proposal, saying a clearer position from Germany could be expected at the next meeting of EU social affairs ministers.