Jean-Claude Juncker deserves credit for making social issues a priority for the European Commission, Socialist MEP Maria Joao Rodrigues told EURACTIV.com in an interview.
But Rodrigues said other politicians in the centre-right group tried to water down the EU pillar of social rights, which leaders are endorsing on Friday (17 November) at a summit in Gothenburg, Sweden. She slammed German Chancellor Angela Merkel for skipping the summit to attend coalition negotiations in Berlin, which shows the chancellor does “not understand what is happening to the European Union,” Rodrigues said.
Rodrigues, a former Portuguese labour minister, authored the European Parliament’s report on the pillar of social rights earlier.
This interview has been edited for length.
EU heads of state are about to agree on the pillar of social rights. It has been very difficult to get any agreement on different social issues in Europe. Is this proclamation in Gothenburg a turning point?
It’s a very long story. In 2014, to have a big initiative on social was one of the conditions requested by the social democratic group to support Juncker. Then Juncker came with this idea of the social pillar and opened a consultation. The Parliament decided to do an own initiative report and I was the rapporteur. The Commission came with a package and the package reflects the Parliament’s ambition when it comes to updated social standards. But now the big test is, we have a proclamation with 20 principles updating the standards but we need to make sure that these updated principles will be turned into reality. And that means this proclamation is certainly a first important step because it is a political commitment at the highest level involving Parliament, Commission, Council and European Council. This is a good starting point but then we need to have a proper plan to launch all the necessary measures to implement the principles.
Were the bigger difficulties on the social pillar about differences between member states’ positions or between political parties?
Both of them, that’s why it was so complex. We had some member states resisting, but in fact not because of their geographic position. Because mainly they are led by very conservative governments, almost kind of nationalistic governments that are arguing that we don’t need European social policies. So this is a new kind of position because they are conservative and sometimes almost xenophobic governments. Their way to protect people is to go back to national policies and national borders. They are against the European Union intervening in the social dimension. Ultimately, I would say the main problem lies in political families and not exactly in member states in the sense of European geography.
We have also difficulties in the EPP [centre-right political group, the largest group in the European Parliament]. When we deal with trade, international trade, with the single market or the digital revolution, in all these cases we need to have stronger European coordination. Otherwise, we will have a downward spiral. It is in the common interest of all member states to have these European social policies. But this was not understood by some conservative governments and some conservative members of the European Parliament. The other thing is Merkel, because Merkel is not coming to this summit, which I very much regret.
Do you think her absence sends a message about Germany’s interest in European social issues?
She is the leading figure and even if she has good arguments with the negotiations for the coalition, I think this is not reason enough to explain why she is not coming. I really regret this. It sends the wrong message to Europe.
About her priorities on social policy?
About her not understanding why we need to strengthen the social dimension. Because otherwise, it is very difficult to keep unity, it’s very difficult to avoid social fragmentation, economic fragmentation and, more than this, political fragmentation. The reason why we have national and populist movements saying, “We are the ones who can protect people” is because we don’t have a stronger social Europe. The best antidote against populism and nationalism is a stronger social Europe. If she doesn’t understand this, she doesn’t understand what is happening to the European Union. This is the message she is conveying by not coming to the summit. This is a bad thing when it comes to the upcoming German government, and it’s a bad message for the rest of Europeans.
Jean-Claude Juncker is one of the hosts of this social summit and he is also an EPP member. Juncker has made social Europe one of his priorities as European Commission president. Do you agree with his ideas on social Europe?
I know Jean-Claude Juncker quite well. I was collaborating with him in other moments of European history. The last social summit 20 years ago was organised by Juncker, who was at the time prime minister of Luxembourg, minister of finance but also labour minister of Luxembourg. I’m always trying to be fair with people and I know he is sincerely in favour of social Europe. The EPP is not homogenous. There are different kinds of people in the EPP and Juncker is someone who is for social. I also give him some credit. I recognise that he plays an important role in this.
This proclamation of 20 social principles is not binding. You said this is only a starting point. In your Parliament report, you called for new legislation and more funding for social measures.
I do see the proclamation as a positive initiative because it’s a start at the high level in institutional terms. But I’m also saying this is clearly just the beginning.
A second important thing is that the Commission launched the pillar saying this should be mainly for the eurozone. My position was different. I said certainly, we do need to develop the social dimensions of the eurozone. Nevertheless, when it comes to the pillar, I think it should be for all member states and all citizens because we cannot have citizens that are first class and second class. For the European Parliament, representing all citizens, this is just unacceptable. Of course, I know why the Commission proposed this: because the Commission was afraid of having the pillar blocked by some difficult governments. Particularly in Hungary and Poland. These governments were against it, I must tell you. I was myself in the EPSCO Council [employment and social ministers]. I saw this.
When negotiations started with the Council of ministers, it was very difficult because the Hungarian was against and came up with more than 20 amendments. And the Polish was also resisting and finally we had Ireland leading a group of countries saying, “We’d like to have a paragraph saying: ‘We endorse these principles to update our social systems for the 21st century, but the implementation of these principles would require new measures and legislation to be enforced.’”
We need to precisely define standards to be applied to people, to children, to women and men when defining working life role to update the European social model when it comes to the new challenges. Not only global competition, but also the digital revolution, which is now everywhere and will transform all sectors. A central example is when the social pillar says that whatever job you have, it can be kind of informal for online platforms, this job must have two conditions. One is a clear labour contract with acceptable conditions and the second is converged by social protection. Even if it is self-employment, even if it’s a small entrepreneur, a startup, they need to have access to social protection. The purpose was really to build up a social welfare system for the new century.
That’s one of the first outcomes we expect from the pillar. You asked the Commission to propose legislation on digital job contracts, and [the EU Employment] Commissioner Thyssen said she is reviewing an existing law on contracts until the end of this year.
From my viewpoint, the first step is already coming next week when the Commission will table the European Semester for next year. I would like to have this package for the European Semester to use it to implement the social pillar. To promote upward economic and social convergence and update social standards.
Then in December, the Commission already said clearly that when it comes to labour contracts and the so-called written statement directive, if social partners are not able to agree upon this directive, the Commission will table a revision on 20 December. I would like to have not just a revision to ensure transparency of labour contracts, I think we need more. We need to ensure transparency and also update the concrete working conditions when it comes to access to training, good physical working conditions, time management is also very important, and equal opportunities.