‘Yes’ to a Social Europe – ‘no’ to a Social Union

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The European Commission’s plan to implement the legally non-binding principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights leads us towards a Social Union rather than a Social Europe. This must be avoided, write a group of EU industry and employer groups.

This opinion is signed by Steffen Kampeter, CEO of Confederation of German Employers’ Associations (BDA); Jacob Holbraad, director general of the Confederation of Danish Employers (DA); Arto Aas, director general of the Estonian Employers’ Confederation (EE); Jyri Häkämies, director general of the Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK); Grzegorz Baczewski, director general of the Polish Confederation Lewiatan; Mattias Dahl, executive vice-president of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise (SN); Dagmar Kuchtová, director general of the Confederation of Industry of the Czech Republic (SPCR)

During the past years, the focus on social policies in the EU has increased. And with good reason. Both employers and employees continuously profit from being part of the Single Market. People and goods are able to freely move between member states, which generates jobs and prosperity.

But there is another side to that story. Citizens can feel insecure about the increased influx of labour from other EU countries. A future with technological changes at lightning speed can be experienced as frightening rather than promising and can lead to a fear of losing one’s job.

We as employers are wholeheartedly committed to the EU project. We understand the social challenges of the current situation and we want to take our responsibility. But our request to the EU is: Go back to the original plan! 

A social pillar that is not legally binding. An EU that plays a supportive role, enabling all member states to improve their long-term growth potential, job creation, labour market participation and social conditions.

The importance of economic stability to secure better social conditions throughout the EU has only become more apparent in the light of the COVID-19 crisis. There is a need for economic and structural reforms in the member states to secure economic and social stability through increased employment and more flexible labour markets.

At the same time, the green and the digital transitions call for action from the EU as it is essential for the EU to continue to be at the forefront of these transitions to make sure the EU stays competitive in the world.

We share the European Commission’s aim to ensure economic progress and upward convergence between EU member states. We believe economic progress is the basis for social progress.

No easy solutions exist to the very basic challenges facing Europe in terms of generating growth and jobs and combating unemployment. The EU should aim for a Social Europe where member states get the right support for securing decent social standards and economic growth. But it is important that we get the balance right between national and EU competencies.

The European Commission’s wish to implement the 20 legally non-binding principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights – some of them through EU directives – is tilting that balance.  It leads us towards a Social Union rather than a Social Europe and we need to ask ourselves: Is this the way we want our Union to go? This is not just a matter of political ideas and ideals.

There is a risk that in our eagerness to improve societies we risk breaking down well-functioning and established systems. The labour markets, social systems and societies in the member states vary greatly. Putting forwards legally binding legislation can make great damage to these systems. The European Commission risks doing more harm than good. 

On 7 and 8 May 2021 a major social summit is to be held in Portugal. Up for discussion is ‘strengthening the European social dimension in view of the digital and green transitions as well as the post-pandemic economic and social recovery.

It is an obvious occasion to look at the broader political perspective. Where is the EU headed? What is the limit for EU legislation on social policies? Is there a push for a Social Union among the member states? 

We have a wide range of proposals on how the EU can support member states when it comes to flexibility in the labour market, creating better links between education and the labour market and how to begin a social dialogue with social partners within the member state. In these important areas, we absolutely see a supporting role for the EU.

We say ‘yes’ to a Social Europe with support for member states to improve social and economic conditions – but ‘no’ to a Social Union with harmonised social policies which would endanger well-functioning systems in the member states.

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