Juncker and a Revival of the ‘European Social Model’?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Jean-Claude Juncker arrives in the European Parliament for political group hearings, Brussels, 8 July 2014 ["© European Union 2014 - European Parliament]

Jean-Claude Juncker arrives in the European Parliament for political group hearings. Brussels, 8 July. [European Parliament]

Juncker’s plans to relax austerity and assess the social impact of structural reforms suggests that a revival of the ‘European social model’ is in the making. But what does that mean, asks Leticia Díez Sánchez.

Leticia Díez Sánchez is a PhD student in European Law at the European University Institute, Florence.

The election of Jean-Claude Juncker has with no doubt been part of a package-deal between (mostly) pro-European parties. A deal that secures institutional stability and defies the Eurosceptic rise experienced in the last European Parliament elections. Most accounts on whether Juncker is a good fit for the job tend to focus precisely on ‘the European dimension’: the Commission leader would honour the office if strong enough to push the EU policy agenda forward. On the contrary, it would be a disappointment if the Commission remains secondary in dealing with today’s political and economic challenges.

While the pro/anti-integration axis sadly remains a strong proxy for judging EU politics, much of the Juncker’s self-declared priorities are a hint that someone has been left behind in the European business. EU policies have not always been to everyone’s benefit. In fact they have sometimes meant a coup de grace to working classes and the most vulnerable strata of society. Juncker’s proclaimed plan to relax austerity demands and assess the social impact of structural reforms suggests that a revival of the ‘European social model’ is foreseen. Nevertheless what would this really imply?

Using the Community method

The Eurozone crisis has been dealt with primarily by means of intergovernmental agreements. When the Commission has acted, it has only done so after clear requests from the Council. These measures have followed the tastes of some well-known member states while ignoring the voices of others. Juncker has made clear his intentions to build a ‘more political Commission’. Yet restoring the Community method should not only be done just for the sake of giving prominence to the Commission. Instead, the Commission must use this opportunity to integrate and mediate between all the interests involved – the ones of the winners of the crisis, and those of the losers.

Assessing redistribution 

It is a sound idea to extend social impact assessment to all structural reforms imposed on a member state within bailout programmes. Yet the stated intentions to be sensitive vis-à-vis the redistributive consequences of the anti-crisis measures are not likely to be an easy ride.  First, there must be consistency across all the actions of the Commission: one should also assess the social impact of anti-crisis legislation itself (surprisingly exempted from impact assessments). Plus, the recommendations addressed to the states experiencing macroeconomic imbalances should be also include social concerns. Secondly, the production of social impact assessments does not do the job in itself; their provisions need to be considered and acted upon. It is in the end crucial how the Commission plans to determine the weight of social interests in the drawing of the reform programmes.

Consistency across policy areas 

If economic growth and re-industrialisation are a priority for Juncker, he must be aware of the high demands this imposes. Firstly, austerity requests will need to be adjusted accordingly and not merely relaxed a little. This is particularly true in the case of southern European states, such as Spain, which need to shift their productive system in order to catch up with their northern counterparts. Secondly, the Commission might have to take back previous recommendations made in the light of the euro-crisis. The recommendation had some detrimental effects such as the steep increase in energy prices, caused partially by increased levies and taxes under EU pressures.

Juncker’s priorities as the new president of the Commission demonstrate that what matters is not only having more or less Europe, but having it to the benefit of everyone and particularly those who are most in need. A ‘social Europe’ imposes high demands across all the fields and levels of action. In our time, if Juncker is to be a good president, he needs to succeed in taking the measures needed for the survival of the Union, as well as manage to restore (at least a bit of) social justice in an era of uncontrolled market economy.

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