Reappointed European Commission President José Manuel Barroso’s pledge to reinvigorate the EU’s social agenda has received a mixed reception among stakeholders, with some tentatively hopeful and others fearing “business as usual”.
Barroso, who this week made a number of statements further outlining the social priorities of his second term, claimed that his ambition is to balance sustainable growth and social cohesion, “because in a social economy like ours, growth and social protection must go hand-in-hand”.
The president’s commitments to bolster ‘Social Europe’ during his September reappointment campaign were generally welcomed by experts, though many considered them too vague to instill genuine confidence.
Speaking on Monday (28 September) at a meeting of the Spring Alliance, the EU’s largest civil society coalition, Barroso began to outline a more detailed strategy for his second-term social priorities.
To begin with, he rebutted claims that his Commission only paid lip service to the social agenda, arguing that “very important mechanisms of solidarity” currently exist.
However, he acknowledged that “in the current set of circumstances, more should be done,” but in order for that to happen, “I need the support of the member states”.
Barroso to take on EU capitals?
The question of the Commission’s social ambitions being limited by member-state vetoes was a recurring theme, and a moot point as Barroso set about promising social NGOs that he would do more second time around.
Barroso effectively blamed national vetoes for blocking his social ambitions. “I think now with this crisis we should consider the question: should we not now have something at the EU level for the poorest? My position is ‘yes’. So far, the position of the Council has been ‘no’ – that is the reality,” he said.
He also touched on the thorny subject of social targets, claiming that his Commission had recognised the need for these in its 2008 communication on reinforcing the open method of coordination. The trouble, said Barroso, is that member states disagree on how to implement such methods of social benchmarking at EU level. As a result, “unified targets on social policy” have never emerged.
But Barroso claimed he would push with renewed vigour to bring this debate to the fore in European capitals. “Let’s try again and see if they are ready to accept,” he said.
Opinions were divided as to whether these claims reflected a genuine conviction or mere lip service. Party of European Socialists (PES) President Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, speaking to EURACTIV, scathingly dismissed Barroso’s arguments as “yet again blaming others for his own chronic lack of leadership. He has been passive during the crisis and now again refuses to table proposals to advance Social Europe in the interest of European people,” he said.
The Spring Alliance, a strong advocate of “using progress measurement tools that go beyond GDP,” was prepared to give Barroso the benefit of the doubt. Roshan di Puppo, director of the Social Platform, which co-authored the Spring Alliance’s manifesto, told EURACTIV that if Barroso strengthens and gives greater public prominence to the open method of communication as the primary vehicle for cross-border co-ordination of EU social benchmarks, an EU scorecard for social measurements is a realistic option in the coming years.
However, she called for a step-by-step approach, arguing that while the time may be ripe for such a scorecard, member states would draw the line at the creation of quantifiable targets based on these measurements.
“What I took from Barroso’s statement is that we first need to push for the scoreboard, and then we can start to push the capitals. I think that’s the right approach,” she concluded, adding that should Barroso fail to act on his claims and revert to his belief in a strictly “trickle-down” approach to the social question, then the Spring Alliance is prepared to publish statistics proving that this method has failed.