In 2016 the European Commission presented the first outline of the European Pillar of Social Rights and started a public consultation in order to assess the existing rights, reflect the new work patterns and indicate the particulars needs of the EU. The Social Pillar was officially launched on the 26th of April 2017. It sets out 20 principles to support a fair and functioning labour market and welfare system for the European Union and is in line with Juncker’ engagement to work for the EU to be "triple-A on social issues".
It is important to point out that most of the initiatives contained in the Pillar are to be implemented and put in place by Member States. So far, the only legislative initiative that has been presented is the directive on work-life balance for parents and carers repealing Council Directive 2010/18/EU.
The Social Pillar is divided into three chapters:
- Equal opportunities and access to the labour market;
- Fair working conditions;
- Adequate and sustainable social protection.
Each chapter covers a wide range of issues, which reflect the Commission's engagement to work to secure a broad social protection for EU citizens. The policy domains covered by the first chapter are education, training, life-long learning, gender equality, equal opportunities and active support to employment. The second chapter focuses on fair working conditions, securing employment, fair wages, employment protection, social dialogue and involvement of workers, work-life balance, health and safety at work, and data protection. Finally, the third chapter includes issues such as social protection, childcare, unemployment benefits, minimum income, pensions, the inclusion of people with disabilities, long-term care, housing and access to essential services.
On November 20, 2017, the Commission has launched a second round of discussions with employers' organisations and trade unions on supporting access to social security. The focus is in particular on the employees who are self-employed or in non-standard employment (40% of the workforce in 2016). Half of them is at risk of not having access to adequate social protection and of encountering, as a consequence, increased economic uncertainty.
For the EU, the discussions on the Social Pillar represents a precious chance to restore citizen's trust in the European project. The Commission, the Parliament and the European governments have now to demonstrate to the citizens, who are growing increasingly euro-sceptical as many of them became worse off due to the response in the aftermath of the economic crisis, that the EU is not merely a fiscal watchdog. The implementation of the policies must demonstrate that it is not yet one more "Euro-jargon masking very little substance" as Luca Visentini, General Secretary of ETUC, pointed out but a genuine step forward towards social progress.
The approach and the initiatives included in the Social Pillar have triggered some controversy as equal opportunities, and work-life balance are viewed and dealt with very differently from member state to member state. For example, Gunnar Hökmark, Swedish Member of the European Parliament from the EPP group, highlighted his opposition to the Commission initiative. He underlined that the Member States already have adequate social policies in place, adjusted to their unique conditions, whereas harmonisation could undermine the current national programs and their effectiveness.
European citizens are in need of higher social protection, in particular after the recent economic crisis, the 20 principles of the Social Pillar represent excellent guidelines. However, it is much more challenging to implement them into effective policies and achieve the expected goals. The correct way of securing better social protection in Europe is to take concrete steps (i.e. legislative measures) to synchronise and to strengthen the different systems of protection, at local, national and European level. Apart from the only legislative action undertaken so far by the Commission (Work-Life Balance Directive), European citizens are still waiting for the proposal and the approval of the other much needed legislative actions: Access to Social Protection, Written Statement Directive, Working Time Directive. The European Parliament elections will be held in May 2019, and the mandate of the European Commission will end shortly after. To make sure there is enough time to approve and start implementing the initiatives laid out in the Pillar, all legislative and non-legislative measures have to be proposed no later than spring 2018. The European Union has very little time left to deliver on its promises.
European Commission (2017). Moving forward on the European Pillar of Social Rights: Commission seeks to promote social protection for all
European Commission (2017). Delivering on the European Pillar of Social Rights
Visentini, L. (2017). We Need a Strong ‘Social Pillar’ To Support Working People. Social Europe
European Commission, Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on work-life balance for parents and carers and Repealing Council Directive 2010/18/Eu
Hökmark, G. (2017). Ten reasons to stop the European social pillar. Euobserver