EU leaders launched the Social Pillar in Gothenburg in November 2017, as part of the Juncker Commission’s plan to show that the EU is more than just a watchdog over national fiscal policies.
So the decision by the Austrian EU Council presidency to cancel the planned meeting of the Employment, Social Policy Council (EPSCO) on 11 October was seen by many as a setback. The meeting was due to discuss progress on the European Pillar of Social Rights, and in particular the establishment of a European Labour Authority.
“Urgent implementation is not an ‘optional extra’ but a priority of fundamental importance,” said Luca Visentini, secretary general of ETUC, European Trade Union Confederation.
“The Social Pillar includes badly needed measures to improve the lives of workers in Europe: tackling precarious and insecure work, fostering a better work-life balance and guaranteeing stronger social protection,” he added.
Nicolas Schmit, Luxembourg’s employment minister, said “the Austrian presidency sends a very wrong message with this cancellation”.
The Austrian EU presidency has given no reason for the cancellation.
The differing levels of commitment to the Social Pillar among governments are reflected in a patchwork approach on work-life balance policies.
Germany, Finland and Slovenia are among EU countries to offer companies incentives for offering flexible working hours to employees. In Belgium, employees are entitled to a ‘career break’, reducing their working hours or a year’s full break from work.
Almost 40% of respondents to the 2016 European Quality of Life Survey stated that they found it difficult to fulfil their family responsibilities because of time spent at work, with countries in Southern and Eastern Europe reported to have the biggest problems.
Around 67% and 69% of Latvians and Cypriots, respectively, reported that work made it difficult for them to meet family obligations, while the EU’s three Scandinavian countries were at the other end of the poll.
The countries in which reconciliation between work and family life is deemed to be ‘very easy’ are those in which female labour force participation is highest – in Scandinavia and northern Europe.
Meanwhile, a 2017 legal gap analysis for the European Commission found that only five member states give parents with children up to the age of 12 the right to request flexibility at work.
A central part of the proposed EU Directive on work-life balance for parents and carers is the adoption of more family-friendly flexible working practices to address conflicts between individuals’ domestic and professional lives.
However, time is running out for the directive to become law before the current mandate ends in 2019. EU ministers agreed on a common position in late June, and trilogue negotiations with MEPs are still ongoing.
The impasse leaves the Commission stuck in a bind. It does not have the power to impose a social policy model on member states, and Juncker himself admitted in his 2017 State of the Union speech that “national social systems will still remain diverse and separate for a long time.”