‘Citizens do not see Europe as an answer to social challenges’

Matthias Savignac is a Vice-President of the International Association of Mutual Benefit Societies (AIM), in charge of International Collaboration (Fédération nationale de la Mutualité Française).

This article is part of our special report The role of ‘social Europe’ during the European Elections.

In the run-up to the European elections, the social dimension of Europe remains a great unknown to European citizens. EURACTIV France has spoken to Matthias Savignac.

Matthias Savignac is a vice-president of the International Association of Mutual Benefit Societies (AIM), in charge of International Collaboration (Fédération Nationale de la Mutualité Française).

The European elections will be held on 26 May. How do you assess the last five-year European term on social matters?

Over the last decade, very little European legislation has focused on social matters, access to healthcare and environmental health. Europe has remained mainly focused on economic concerns.

The adoption of the European Pillar of Social Rights in 2017 represented a step. But it was more a reference grid for assessing member states’ social policies, on the basis of the lowest common denominator. It isn’t a coercive piece of legislation with the objective of upward convergence in social law.

This idea of upward convergence was supported by the International Labour Organization (ILO), which proposed a social protection floor. This floor could be taken up at the European level by proposing a real “social convergence treaty,” including the upward harmonisation of social rights.

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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.

Europe is often criticised for its inertia on social issues. Is this criticism legitimate?

Even though issues of access to care and public health are broadly covered by the member states, Europe also deals with social policy as this is one of its prerogatives. But do citizens notice and sense this work in their daily lives?

What’s happening in Italy, Austria and the United Kingdom, with Brexit, shows that Europe is now seen more as a hindrance and citizens don’t see the EU’s usefulness in their daily lives. There’s a European coexistence crisis.

Precisely, Brexit was more the expression of Europe being rejected in its more social dimension than its economic one.

The British have never criticised Europe’s economic benefits. But shared destiny and coexistence are not built on a simple economic union.

When it comes to social Europe, one state’s point of view only has meaning if it resonates with that of other countries. This is why we are launching a great debate to gather Europeans’ expectations for health, sustainable development, employment, data and social protection. Are the concerns of French people the same as elsewhere? Are social issues perceived as Europe’s responsibility? We’re asking these questions on the collaborative platform europeennes.placedelasante.fr.

Which issues would you particularly like to highlight?

Environmental health is a good example. It’s a unifying theme for Europeans. With environmental health, you can address several of the issues constituting European coexistence: mobility, access to healthcare, ecology, etc.

Today, Europe is going through a real crisis of meaning, in a context of collective loss of hope: liberal hopes (carried away with the 2008 crisis), collectivist hopes (swept away with the fall of the Berlin wall), political hopes (as demonstrated by the “yellow vest” crisis) and religious hopes (with the rise of obscurantism). The mutualist movement can contribute to providing answers to this despair with its non-profit, democratic and deeply secular business model.

There has been some progress, for example, the recent vote on parental and paternity leave. But for French people, these new rules will only make very small changes to existing parental and paternity leave. How can the progress made in Europe be appreciated when French law is as protective, if not more?

At the European level, most of the decisions in the social field are taken on the criteria of the lowest common denominator. As a result, many states, such as France and Belgium, already have legislation which is at least as protective. These countries therefore have to ensure they maintain a good level of coverage.

At the European level, in the context of economic crisis and weakened social systems, collective standards should be established, without moving towards standardisation from the bottom.

Ten-day minimum paternity leave to be rolled out across EU

In an effort to promote gender equality, the European institutions have approved establishing a ten-day minimum paternity leave for the whole of the EU, which represents a step forward for most countries. Although this leave already exists in France, it will be made more flexible. EURACTIV France reports.

According to a recent survey, the social protection of European citizens is of interest to French people (18%) in the context of the European elections. But this issue remains far behind terrorism, unemployment, immigration and the climate. How do you explain this?

Citizens don’t think Europe is legitimate on social issues because their point of contact for these issues is the state. And Europe is not yet seen as able to respond to social challenges. However, social Europe is already present on health, employment and environmental issues in a diffuse manner – matters at the heart of citizens’ concerns.

How do you intend to mobilise voters around the issue of social Europe?

We would like to listen to French and European citizens on the issues of social Europe with a view to the European elections. The Mutualité Française has launched a collaborative platform in all of the member states, which will gather EU citizens’ expectations for social Europe. Then, around 10 debates held regionally will bring out citizens’ proposals, which will then be put to the vote online. At the end of this consultation, the proposals with the most support will be submitted to the candidates heading the lists for the European elections at the great debate on 11 April.

The role of 'social Europe' during the European Elections

Social Europe still has to find its place in the future of the European project. If the social protection of European citizens interests 18% of the French population, it remains far from other priorities such as terrorism, unemployment, immigration or climate.

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