On 26 May 2016, the Representation of North Rhine-Westphalia in Brussels held an event for the proposed creation of a “European Pillar of Social Rights”.


The background for this is a consultation process being conducted by the EU Commission which allows comments to be made until the end of the year. The event was jointly organised with a number of other representative bodies in Brussels including the Freiderich-Ebert Foundation, the Diakonie, the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB), the Brussels Office of the Austrian Federal Chamber of Labour, the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) and Solidar, the European network of NGOs. 


During the event, it became clear once again that it is in no way about introducing new individually enforceable claims. The implementation of the Pillar will be more in the way of screening social fairness. Both critical and supportive voices could be heard at the meeting. One concern that is constantly being raised is that the initiative could turn out to be just a “placebo” or a type of non-binding “social etiquette”. There are already enough so-called “rights”, the problem stated by many people is with their implementation and individual access to them.  

It is for these reasons, that people from all sides have expressed their wish that the elements of the Pillar be as binding as possible. This wish could be supported by the EU Commission’s promise to create upward convergence using benchmarks and minimum standards. Heard less often were cautionary voices who rightly pointed out the flipside of social rights, objectives, etc – the conditions upon which access is dependent. Tightening these conditions could take the original intention to harmonise standards and act as a “lift towards upward convergence”. 


Representatives from the Confederation of European Business “BUSINESSEUROPE” also made some sobering comments. Upward convergence assumes that it is covered by growth and productivity. The goal of the Pillar is to improve the effectiveness of social expenditure and to align this to the objectives of growth, employment and labour market integration. There were no issues with minimum standards because the Member States still have the right to specify higher standards.  


The representative of the German Federal Government was also moderate in her remarks. The Pillar offers the chance to advance the social acquis. Minimum standards could be implemented via European recommendations or via directives. She was particularly critical of the Commission’s principles on pension policy. Linking retirement age to rising life expectancy should be defined at national level and not as part of a default European automatism. The same applies to the question of whether and how the contribution base can be widened.  

Criticisms were constantly made of the Commission’s approach of focusing the introduction of the Pillar to the euro area until further notice. In matters of social importance, there must not be a “two-speed Europe”, stated the representative from the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS). The rejection of the limited addressee selection may also explain why establishing a euro area budget was not mentioned once with regards to financing higher social standards. Instead, it was repeatedly pointed out that it is possible to use EU money from various existing funds.  


In summary, it can be stated: Although the EU Commission would like to see the Pillar as a contribution to upward social convergence in Europe, there were doubts as to whether this goal can be achieved. Generally, in the discussion, the difference between “rights”, “minimum standards” and “benchmarks” was an ambiguous issue. The question of which “role models” should be used was also disputed – the worst level (minimum standards), the best level (benchmarks) or a “reasonable” level defined by European policy? 


Starting in summer 2016, the EU Commission plans to conduct targeted consultations with social partners and civil society in the Member States. As part of its internal coordination role, the BMAS will also organise consultation processes with social partners and welfare organisations.