It was Jean-Claude Juncker, then Prime Minister of Luxembourg, who invited heads of state and government from throughout the European Union to the Jobs Summit in the autumn of 1997. Now President of the European Commission, Juncker remains committed to the strengthening of social rights within the Union. It is for this reason that he has established the European Pillar of Social Rights.
November 17th 2017 was the big day: After a long period of consultation and negotiation, the heads of member states and governments, the European Parliament and the European Commission gathered in Gothenburg to sign the proclamation of the European Pillar of Social Rights. The aim of the proclamation is to underline the political significance of the project and reaffirm the signatories’ commitment to the initiative.
What is the motivation behind the project?
EU member states already have the most advanced social systems in the world. The Union is nevertheless facing – and must adapt to – an entirely new set of societal challenges. Despite economic and social circumstances in Europe having improved and employment being at an all-time high, the effects of the crisis of the last decade continue to be felt. They range from long-term and youth unemployment to the risk of poverty in many European regions.
First presented in 2016, the European Pillar of Social Rights is to be understood as an initial step on the path towards “doing things better in the future”. The European Commission hopes that it will pave the way for a new balance in favour of a more social Europe. After all, only a Europe that prioritises social rights and has a positive impact on the daily lives of workers and their families can win back European citizens’ trust in the Union.
An extensive consultation process which included the submission of a joint statement by the umbrella associations of the German social insurance system was followed by the publication of the wording of the European Pillar of Social Rights by the European Commission on April 26th 2017.
Twenty guiding principles and rights
The purpose of the European Pillar of Social Rights is to improve responses to current and future challenges by acting as a compass for efficient employment and social outcomes aimed directly at the fulfilment of people’s essential needs. It is also to act as a beacon for the enhanced legislative formulation and application of social rights.
To this end, the EU Commission uses the twenty guiding principles and rights included in the Pillar to not only confirm existing legal acquis at EU and international level, but also expand it to reflect new realities. They are addressed to member states as a type of “recommendation”.
Some of the principles and rights are also of interest to the German Social Insurance, for example the entitlement of more workers – including those in atypical employer-employee relationships – to secure, adaptable employment (principle no. 5), fair wages (principle no. 6) and access to social protection (principle no. 12). All workers are to have the right to a high level of occupational safety and health (principle no. 10). People with disabilities are to be entitled to income support and services which enable them to participate in both the labour market and society as a whole (principle no. 17). Access to affordable, high-quality long-term care services is to be ensured (principle no. 18), and senior citizens are to be entitled to resources that enable them to live in dignity (principle no. 15).
It is nevertheless to be noted that these are all nothing more than general principles, and not – as might be suggested by their wording – legally recoverable rights. This has been pointed out and underlined by the European Commission’s Legal Service, which stresses that the proclamation is an atypical act and neither legally binding nor a directly transferrable basis for enforceable laws. Clarification of this non-binding nature was therefore adopted into the preamble to the Pillar in accordance with requests voiced by numerous member states during discussions at Council level. The extent to which the proclamation may have indirect legal consequences at some point in the future remains to be seen. In the past at least, the European Court of Justice has referred to similar documents when defining general principles of Union law in accordance with Article 6, Item 3 TEU.
It nevertheless at least a minor success for the Juncker Commission that the member states stand united behind the twenty principles and rights formulated by the Commission, and that their only requests for amendment related to the preamble.
A number of the principles and rights included in the European Pillar of Social Rights can only take effect in combination with further legislative and non-legislative initiatives. The authorities in Brussels have already tabled a range of initiatives aimed at filling the Pillar with life, including a proposed directive on the work-life balance of parents and family caregivers. In the case of the Working Time Directive, they have presented a document detailing their interpretation of existing regulations and adjudications made by the European Court of Justice in connection with the Working Time Directive. Social partners have already been consulted on the recommendation that all workers should have access to social protection, which is naturally also of interest to the German Social Insurance. The second phase of consultation with social partners was published on November 20th 2017 alongside a wide-ranging survey of civil society. A European initiative which builds on the conclusions reached therein has been announced for next year.
Despite the necessity of a clear strategy at Union level, the achievement of a more affluent, sustainable Europe is not the responsibility of the EU and its member states alone. On the contrary, it is a joint responsibility shared by the social partners and society as a whole. At most, the EU can be seen as a source of inspiration for tangible improvements in the living and working conditions enjoyed by its citizens.