The EU’s social dimension: True progress or just empty promises?

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

The European Commission is slowly turning its attention to social aspects of the economic and monetary policies, a recent conference has shown. But EU rhetoric about boosting jobs and growth has made little reference to real social considerations, argues Heather Roy.

Heather Roy is the president of Social Platform, the alliance of representative European federations and networks of non-governmental organisations active in the social sector.

At the European Commission conference “Social entrepreneurs: have your say!” it was clear that the European elections will soon be upon us. There was a marked shift in rhetoric – with a focus on the importance of a real social market economy and on the need to rebalance EU internal market and economic policies with a stronger social dimension – with social entrepreneurship being recognised as key to this.

This is in marked difference to what we have been hearing for the last number of years: the primary objective of fiscal consolidation and the importance of growth and jobs to recover from the crisis with a distinct lack of any real social consideration.

Certainly this increased attention to a genuine EU social dimension, including social entrepreneurship and social innovation, is very welcome. But before we all rush to get on-board the social business train we need to keep a few things in mind. First it is important to make a clear distinction between a social enterprise and a business which engages in corporate social responsibility. For an organisation to be considered a social enterprise the three key broad criteria laid down by the Commission in its Social Business Initiative have to be met: having a social objective, primarily reinvesting profits in the activities of the enterprise, and having a democratic or participatory governance.

Second, it is also important not to fall into the trap of thinking that social enterprises are always innovative and bring about social innovation; or to believe that social innovation has to come from new actors. Both ideas in fact are not true: no one doubts the intrinsic capacity of social enterprises to adapt to and anticipate social and societal needs, but this does not mean that they automatically produce social innovation. And while social enterprises can be innovative, do they always need to be so? Being a "new" actor does not necessarily mean that you create social innovation.

If the EU is really serious about implementing a social market economy, then our leaders need to start implementing the following:

  1. Ensure transparency and stronger democratic control by citizens over the actions of the European Union. Policies that go against the general interest should be able to be blocked in the European Parliament and Europe’s citizens should be able to hold European institutions and politicians directly to account.
  2. Reduce poverty and guarantee universal social protection
  3. Invest in a European Plan that focuses on sustainable jobs that creates social value, rather than financial profits.
  4. End austerity and implement tax justice
  5. Support social economy, social enterprises and social innovation through a renewed EU action plan.

With this new discourse at EU level before the European elections perhaps now we finally have an opportunity to reset the EU agenda to be at the service of its people. However, the question remains (as it always does around election time) – will the newly elected MEPs and the new Commission remember this once the elections are over? 

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