European executive promises convergence on social rights

Jean-Claude Juncker: "A normal work contract is a permanent contract." [European People's Party/Flickr]

The European Commission wants to establish minimum social rights as part of a package due to be unveiled in Spring 2016. Paris and Berlin are exploring plans for a “social Eurogroup”, the French President said. EURACTIV France reports

Jean-Claude Juncker announced on Tuesday (29 September) a new legislative package for Spring 2016, designed to “offer a foundation of minimum social rights, a safety net to protect the labour market”.

“A foundation of minimum social rights will not be a minimum base,” Juncker explained in a speech released in French. “It will be a basis that determines the social limits that cannot be corrected downwards,” he said, adding this should “bring more convergence” to the European labour market.

The venue for this announcement, the Maison de la Mutualité in Paris, was a highly symbolic choice. It is at the centre of France’s union movement, and is this week hosting the 13th congress of the European Trade Union Confederation. While trade union membership is at a historic low in Europe, the international organisation has gone to extraordinary political efforts to boost its credibility.

The presidents of the European Commission and Parliament, as well as France, and the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, opened the debates by calling on Europe to prioritise social issues and encouraging trade unions to tame the digital revolution, “just as the workers’ movement managed to tame the industrial revolution in the 19th century”, Martin Schulz said.

Decline of the unions

Jean-Claude Juncker joined the calls to strengthen trade unions, whose situation continues to decline. According to statistics from the OECD, only 7.7% of French employees are members of a union, down from 9% fifteen years ago.

This downward trend is visible in most European countries. In Germany, trade union membership fell from 25% to 17% over the same period, and in the United Kingdom from 30% to 25%. The OECD average shows a more moderate decline, from 20% to 17% between 2000 and 2013.

The politicians’ take on the trade unions’ existential crisis appeared to impress the ageing crowd of union representatives. François Hollande insisted that the unions would regain their strength by focusing on their core value of “human dignity, which is a European value”.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz highlighted the counter-example of the United States, where one third of jobs are now performed by freelancers.

Social dumping is cool

Schulz also criticised the “Uberisation” of the economy and its consequences for workers. “We are told that this new form of social dumping is cool and good because we share everything, but do we want to live in a society where some people collect the profits while the commercial risk is externalised?,” Schulz said.

The leader of the European Parliament then asked the trade union leaders to address these problems, stressing the point that five million youths remain unemployed in the EU.

But European leaders do not see eye to eye on the problem, even if they agree on the need for investment and economic convergence, a view also supported by Jean-Claude Juncker.

While he revealed little of the spring legislative programme, the Commission president did guarantee that it “would contain a platform that would bring more convergence”. He said that “those who think that social dialogue cannot evolve in the Economic and Monetary Union are very wrong. One cannot function without the other,” and added that the trade unions should “once again become major players in social dialogue”.

“A permanent contract or nothing”

Jean-Claude Juncker went on to outline his vision of Europe’s labour market. “Call me old fashioned, but for me a normal work contract is a permanent contract,” the European Commission chief said.

The Luxembourgish steel worker’s son then explained that he would never have gone to university had it not been for the stability offered by his father’s job. “I would never have seen the inside of the law faculty,” he commented. “Precariousness is not acceptable; it does not fit with the European model.”

Juncker then repeated a slogan from his State of the Union speech: “The same pay for the same job at the same place.”

Social Eurogroup

French President François Hollande took the idea one step further and called for the establishment of a “social Eurogroup”, along the lines of the existing meetings of euro zone economic and finance ministers.

“This is what we have started discussing with Germany, we want a social Eurogroup,” he said, arguing that if there was convergence on competitiveness and public deficits, there also needed to be convergence on social rights.

Hollande asked, “If the greatest threat we face is nationalism and extremism, is it not time to change the rules to reach our objectives, to protect the European spirit?”

He also called for reforms to the Economic and Monetary Union. “I have made proposals to harmonise, rather than to separate European countries, through the development of a budget and parliament for the eurozone”.

The French leader is due to develop this idea further in an address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 7 October. 

  • Spring 2016: Commission expected to publish social legislation package, with minimum rights for workers.

European Commission

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