Europe’s credibility hinges on national leaders agreeing social legislation that applies across the bloc, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Friday (17 November) at a summit with leaders from EU countries in Gothenburg, Sweden.
“If we want to be credible we have to deliver. This is the beginning, it’s not the end and we are not even in the middle. So let’s do our work,” Juncker said after discussing the controversial social legislation with heads of state.
Juncker hosted the so-called social summit with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, a socialist and former trade union leader. Leaders from 27 EU countries attended and only German Chancellor Angela Merkel missed out because the summit conflicted with crunch coalition talks in Berlin.
The Commission president said that member states and the European Parliament have so far only agreed on seven of the Commission’s 19 proposals relating to social issues since he took office in 2014, but 12 are still pending. Juncker has made it clear he would not seek another mandate after the current Commission’s term ends in 2019.
He lamented that some of those 12 proposals have hardly received any attention from MEPs and member states.
The Commission president has been outspoken about social issues and has upset some eastern member states including Poland and Hungary, which do not want more EU legislation regulating the employment market or social insurance, for example.
He has recently amped up his criticism of member states for working through the Commission’s legislative proposals slowly. At the last EU leaders’ summit, which Estonia hosted in September, Juncker scolded the heads of state for scrapping over the EU executive’s digital single market proposals at a sluggish pace.
Juncker said in Gothenburg that he had “a wish to express”.
“I am attending meetings of that kind for 35 years. Some things are new. But most of the things which have been said were in fact repetitions of things I have heard during that long period,” he said, speaking in front of heads of state, who remained in the room after their discussions wrapped up.
“There is nothing wrong with that. Now we have to deliver,” he added.
Juncker served as Luxembourg’s prime minister, labour minister and finance minister before he became Commission president in 2014.
Since then, the Commission has pointed to unemployment rates that have fallen since the economic crisis – the EU rate was 7.5% in September – but still remain stubbornly high in some countries. Greece’s unemployment rate is 21%.
Staggering differences remain between member states on issues ranging from healthcare coverage, parental leave and income inequality.
Juncker managed to bridge the leaders’ differences on one Commission initiative at Friday’s summit. The heads of state endorsed the pillar of social rights, a list of 20 principles on work conditions, access to the labour market and unemployment benefits, which the Commission proposed in April. The principles are not binding. But it sets out standards that are touchy for some countries.
The social pillar calls for member states to ensure they introduce “adequate minimum wages”. Twenty-two EU countries, all except for Denmark, Italy, Cyprus, Austria, Finland and Sweden, have minimum wages.
It also says that “women and men have the right to equal pay for work of equal value”. Differences between women and men’s earnings differ sharply across the bloc: on average, women earn 16.3 % less than men per hour, according to 2015 Eurostat figures. Estonia has the EU’s biggest gender pay gap—women there earn 26.9% less than men. In Luxembourg, women earn 5.5 % less than men, the EU’s lowest rate.
But the European Parliament has pushed the Commission to propose new binding legislation to follow up on the pillar of social rights.
Maria Joao Rodrigues, the Portuguese Socialist MEP who authored the Parliament’s version of the pillar of social rights, told EURACTIV.com in an interview that the leader’s endorsement of the principles is “clearly just the beginning”.
She said the Commission must propose more labour legislation, including an update of how job contract rules apply to digital app economy workers. The Commission is expected to announce measures relating to that next month.
But while Juncker and Löfven did secure other EU leaders’ approval of the social pillar in Gothenburg, divisions still remain on social policy. Some heads of state do not want the Commission to intervene in labour law, for example.
Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said on Friday, “With the promotion of protectionism in Europe, there will be no social development.”
Poland has been the fiercest opponent of the Commission’s proposal to overhaul rules regarding posted workers, who work temporarily in other member states but continue to pay social contributions in their home countries.
France and some other western EU countries have pushed vigorously for the legislation because they argue it will clamp down on lower-wage labourers who undercut the local workforce. After painstaking negotiations, member states came to an agreement on the bill last month—and are now entering discussions with MEPs and the Commission before a final deal can go into effect.