An EU leaders’ social summit will take place in Porto on 7 and 8 May. Leaders of the European Council adopted the European Pillar of Social Rights at a similar summit in Gothenburg, Sweden in November 2017. Until now, the pillar has been little more than a declaration of good intentions with little traction. But the upcoming Porto event has been presented as a follow-up effort to ensure the objectives of 2017 are implemented.
Earlier this year, the European Commission launched a proposal for an action plan on the Pillar. The European Commission and the Portuguese government, which holds the rotating 6-month presidency of the EU, hope that the event will produce an agenda that guarantees that the post-pandemic economic recovery integrates an important social dimension together with the environmental and digital objectives already set.
Ahead of the social summit, EU countries have been issuing their statements (‘non-papers’ in EU jargon) with input for the summit declaration. On the one hand, Spain and Belgium issued a joint statement proposing the EU set up a monitoring framework of employment and social policy indicators. On the other, 11 member countries issued another joint statement warning the EU to respect national authority over policymaking in areas such as employment, pensions, education and childcare.
In their statement, Spain and Belgium assert that the Pillar should be the instrument that “balances economic policies and the single market with a more social and sustainable growth strategy”. To achieve this, the governments of Spain and Belgium propose the introduction of "new social headline targets", linked to economic targets. Their proposal would see the development of indicators in employment quality, wage gap between men and women or safety at work, as well as social policy measures such as the number of homeless people, early school leavers or affordable high quality social and educational services. Within services, in addition to early childcare that has been an EU indicator for many years, they propose to include indicators in long-term care, an area that has been particularly affected by the pandemic.
The proposal also includes the establishment of an "alert mechanism", like the one that already exists for the EU to address macroeconomic imbalances in Member States. According to the Belgo-Spanish proposal, a similar process would then be applied when EU countries do not fulfil the agreed employment and social indicators. If this happened, the EU would analyse the situation in the country and may put it under surveillance. The proposal suggests that there is reinforced monitoring of the employment and social situation in EU countries in the framework of the European Semester (the annual Commission analysis of the economic situation in each country).
On the other hand, the statement endorsed by Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, and Sweden reiterates that social policy is the responsibility of national governments. “Targeted EU-level action can complement national action, but any action on EU-level should fully respect the division of competences of the Union, its Member States and the social partners”, the statement reads.
The countries involved includes a broad group - not only those that opposed increasing the EU budget last year - but those who hail from various welfare traditions and regions. This shows that resistance to giving more power to the EU on social policy is more than just about money. While they did not go so far as to tell Portugal to pull back its goals for the May 7 summit, the statement may serve as a warning to reduce the expectation that member states will endorse the Commission’s action plan for the Pillar and instead may just support its broad guidelines and principles.
Lack of national government support for stronger social cohesion and inclusion is striking considering that the Covid-19 health crisis has had a devastating impact on the economies of many European countries. The Covid-19 crisis is not only leading to further impoverishment and social exclusion, but its negative consequences for the employment and social situation of EU countries could also endanger the functioning of the internal market, which requires a certain degree of economic convergence between member states.
Read about: Where is social inclusion in the national recovery plans? - This editorial was first published on Euractive.