This is not the first time that the European Commission has spoken about introducing the European Social Security Number (ESSN). In the spring of this year, it looked at this option in its reflection paper on strengthening the social dimension. The Commission’s incumbent president, Jean-Claude Juncker, wants to use the ESSN to facilitate the mobility of workers and to combat social fraud.
What’s behind the initiative?
At first glance, the proposal to introduce the ESSN seems to be a logical consequence and solution to many problems in government daily life, especially given the inevitable pace of digitalisation. Different ways of spelling names as well as not updated personal data make it difficult to identify people in administrations’ databases at both national and European level. The ESSN, as a common cross-system regulatory feature in all Member States, could alleviate these difficulties. It would also make it more difficult to commit social benefits fraud.
Which options are on the table?
The European Commission has put forward for discussion three policy options for introducing the ESSN:
- The soft law option looks at non-legislative measures at EU level. For example, individual Member States might consider introducing a social security number, on a purely voluntary basis, in a fixed format for cross-border purposes.
- Another option would be for the ESSN to be complementary to existing national social security numbers, for example, by adding a prefix to existing numbers. Again, this would only be used for cross-border purposes. Introducing this option would require legislative action at EU level with limited modification of existing EU rules on the coordination of social security systems.
- The third option is also the most far-reaching. Under this option, the ESSN would be a comprehensive identification number for the lifetime of mobile EU citizens. But again, the ESSN would be issued in addition to the numbers which already exist at national level. Legislative action would also be needed here, either by amending existing EU rules on the coordination of social security systems or by establishing a separate legal instrument at EU level.
Regardless of which option is pursued, the Commission has emphasised that the introduction of an ESSN would also necessitate the possibility of verifying a request for insurance status across borders. This would require a verification system in the form of a database, either located at national level and linked to an EU level interface, or in the form of a stand-alone central database at EU level. In both cases, the Commission considers it the responsibility of the Member States to update the database on a regular basis, to link all their relevant national institutions and to update information as soon as the person's insurance status changes.
What happens next?
The Member States, stakeholders and citizens have been invited to comment on the options proposed by the European Commission in a public consultation that is open until January 2018. The unique characteristics and framework conditions of the Member States can be compared with one another. From a German point of view, data protection and constitutional hurdles which might prevent the merging of various social data must be addressed. The added value of introducing the ESSN, depending on which option is put in place, must be defined by the European Commission.
Following an evaluation of the responses, the European Commission will make a decision on which option to pursue. It is expected that it will present a proposal as early as March 2018.
What are others saying?
Initial canvassing of opinions shows that the initiative is welcomed by various social security organisations in the Member States. The ESSN would greatly simplify digitalisation between citizens and public authorities. It also has the potential to simplify and increase security of digitalisation between participating Member State authorities.