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The move to have a European Pillar of Social Rights as an instrument to reach a ‘Triple A’ social Europe, as it was presented last year by the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, is significant and there are high expectations for it among those working in public social policy across Europe. This week we launched our position paper on the Pillar, where we make suggestions so that the Pillar goes beyond a political exercise in Brussels and reaches out to local communities across Europe.

Challenges facing the EU today

When ESN held its annual meeting of the Reference Group on the European Semester, the members of the group stated that they had not heard about the initiative before, despite the Commission having held a consultation and meetings with national government representatives and civil society organisations in EU countries. This shows that additional efforts are necessary to ensure that those with responsibility for social services in regional and local authorities are also involved since they play a key role in terms of implementation.

The consultation process has taken place at a moment of increasing divergence between Member States across the EU, the backdrop of the Brexit vote, a reluctance on the part of member states to have the Commission involved in social protection issues, and an increasing emphasis on the principle of national subsidiarity. These issues play a role in terms of ensuring that the principles proposed in the Pillar are properly trickled down.

A key challenge for the Pillar therefore is how to make it relevant for public social services in regional and local authorities. In this vein, the question is how the proposal for the Pillar is linked with the key statutory duties of local authorities? These may include the work that public social services do with vulnerable families, housing the homeless, caring for children who need to be protected from harm, protecting and safeguarding vulnerable adults with disabilities or providing care and support for frail elderly people.

Getting the Pillar right at local level

The Pillar’s proposal includes three main areas: equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions, and adequate and sustainable social protection. These areas are very much related to employment and from the way the current proposal has been formulated, there is a risk that social rights are understood as collective rights conferred by employment status. However, social rights are individual rights that apply to people of all ages and to everyone, not just those in employment.

Our position paper focuses on the social protection area and in some instances, makes suggestions for a revised set of principles. For example, we would like to see the Pillar recognise that public authorities have a duty of care towards the individual throughout their life-course. This would ensure that the social protection principles of the Pillar are made relevant for local authorities, who in most European countries, have the statutory duty of protecting the most vulnerable at critical moments in their lives.

The Pillar could be useful for establishing long-term strategic objectives, promoting greater consistency between policy measures across Member States and could lead to setting consensual social standards across European welfare states. In terms of improving convergence between Member States, it is essential that the policy principles within the proposal include a combination of social investment and social protection measures.

It is important that the proposal addresses how the issues highlighted under each principle should be implemented and by whom, given the fact that they are often dealt with by different government departments at different levels in Member States. Therefore, reaching out to the local level and securing their views, taking account of the responsibilities of those working in local communities across Europe and the challenges they face, is key to ensuring that the Pillar is more than a declaration of principles and has a real impact at local level.