A European Pillar of Social Rights: Propping up the EU construction  
 In Focus

Could somebody please tell us in plain architectural terms what style the European construction is? Does it look like an ancient Greek agora? A Roman arena? A medieval castle? Or perhaps the Turning Torso, Calatrava's neo-futuristic skyscraper in Malmö, Sweden?

European policy making jargon, and not only, is seething with architectural metaphors, so it invites all sorts of attempts to visualise our European home - after its successive extensions, just over a month before its 60th anniversary and ahead of major adjustments to its internal structure following the imminent departure of a member of the family.

The Maastricht Treaty (1993) introduced architectural imagery to the European construction through the establishment of three pillars: the European Communities, dealing with economic, social and environmental issues, the Common Foreign and Security Policy, and the Police and Judicial Cooperation in Criminal Matters. This structure was eventually abandoned in 2009 when the Lisbon Treaty entered into force, perhaps because of the odd number of pillars...

Still, the nature of the European project – with its key objectives being peace, democracy, people's well-being, an area of freedom, security and justice and an internal market with free and undistorted competition – lends itself to some extent and mutatis mutandis to the analogy of the Greek agora, the marketplace and civic centre where people gathered to buy and sell commodities but also to discuss just about everything, from politics and current events, to culture and the divine. 

Indeed, balance and proportion, the key features of the ancient Greek concept of architectural beauty, form the basis that the European construction is built upon, or at least they should do so. This concept was characterised by a proliferation of pillars (or columns), used not only to support the larger structures (such as roofs or horizontal beams) above them, but also for decoration. The question is what use the future European Pillar of Social Rights will have in the current European construction, provided that it is a structural rather than simply a decorative element.

A European Stoa of Social Rights? 

The EU is still profoundly shaken after years of crisis and austerity that have plunged millions into poverty, social exclusion, inequality and high unemployment. As a result, Europeans perceive less and less Europe as a project that protects and empowers its people. So, perhaps it is not yet another pillar they need but a covered walkway for public use, lining the sides of the European construction and allowing people to move freely, creating a safe, enveloping and protective atmosphere. The exact definition of a stoa in ancient Greek architecture, "designed to afford a sheltered promenade".

This option has been getting less obvious in a post-crisis EU, ravaged by a race to the bottom when it comes to wages and social protection, all too often forced labour mobility and striking social inequalities between and within Member States.

According to the 2016 Review of Employment and Social Developments in Europe (ESDE), employment rates vary significantly across Member States (with Greece at the bottom with 56.6% and Sweden at the top with 81.5%) and in the Euro area, it is still below the 2008 levels. At the same time, about 20.1 million people in the EU were unemployed in the third quarter of 2016, including nearly 4.2 million young people. It is worth noting that almost 50% of all unemployed people have been out of work for over a year. Once again, differences in long-term unemployment are striking across the EU with the two Member States mentioned above holding the top (18% in Greece) and bottom positions (less than 2% in Sweden).

What is more, over 119 million people in the EU (23.7%) were at risk of poverty or social exclusion in 2015 and both poverty and income inequality has been increasing across the EU since the start of the crisis in 2009. Against a backdrop of low wages and part-time or intermittent employment, the risks of in-work poverty increase dramatically. People in the EU with incomes below 60% of the national median income accounted for 17.3% in 2014 (16.5% in 2009), with the richest 20% of the population having  5.2 times higher disposable income compared to that of the poorest 20% (4.9 in 2009).

Take also the widespread recourse to posted workers, an employment scheme that all too often exploits wage differences between Member States, thus putting downward pressure on remuneration in the country to which the workers are posted. The race to the bottom with regard to terms and conditions of employment, reducing competition to the sole criterion of labour costs, leads to social dumping in the host country. Not to mention the thousands of posting situations arising with cascade subcontracting practices, where the dilution of the employer's responsibility results in posted workers being abandoned, with no access to assistance or support.

Add to this the impact on jobs of growing digitalisation and the development of atypical forms of employment with limited or no access to social protection, and it becomes quite clear that the EU has great difficulties in protecting its workers. Hardly a sheltered promenade in the EU agora…

Our demands

Progressive local and regional politicians urge for a real European portico of social rights, which will foster upwards convergence through the coordination of social policies and rights in the Member States. This scheme should contain concrete legislative proposals and be redefined in close cooperation between the different levels of government, sectors and stakeholders. Giving a stronger role to local and regional authorities is essential given the key importance of the territorial dimension for EU socio-economic policies. Their crucial role has been confirmed also with regard to the implementation of the Urban Agenda, an essential tool in the delivery of social services through partnerships addressing poverty, migration, affordable housing, skills and jobs. But this is not enough.

After years of austerity, it has become clear that coordination of economic and fiscal policies in the EU, and notably the Eurozone, must go hand in hand with full consideration of the social dimension of the Union, particularly the European Monetary Union. Without putting on a par the economic and the social dimension, rebalancing economic freedoms with social rights, outcomes will remain fragmented and social standards will risk being further downgraded.

The PES Group in the European Committee of the Regions is also calling for greater emphasis on the financing of social policy. This has been a particular challenge for local and regional authorities, which have seen their investing capacity seriously curtailed as a result of blind fiscal consolidation in the wake of the crisis. The new European scheme for social rights should prioritise universal access to quality welfare systems and public services.

A key concern of our Group is the European Commission's silence on the challenges accompanying the changing world of work, including increased digitalisation and the proliferation of zero-hour contracts, whereby the employer is not obliged to provide any minimum working hours and the worker is expected to be available for work as and when required. Indeed, the emergence of non-standard forms of work leads to new risks of "grey zones" in terms of labour rights and access to welfare, this is why the PES Group calls  on the Commission to properly define flexibility in working conditions, so as to strike a balance between flexibility and security.

Indeed the PES Group warns that, if this initiative is not translated into strong social safeguards including for access to health, educational and social security services, it will fall short of people's expectations for an effective tool to combat social dumping and to consolidate the EU's aims of inclusive and sustainable growth.

To contain damages caused by centrifugal forces and alarmingly rising populism throughout the political spectrum, the European agora must urgently give back to its dwellers the confidence that it is capable of empowering them to move and work freely within its boundaries. This calls for both rebuilding and building anew.

The preliminary outline of the European Pillar of Social Rights, as announced in the European Commission Communication that accompanied the launch of the consultation last year, covers several aspects of equal opportunities and access to the labour market, of fair working conditions and of adequate and sustainable social protection. As such, it is a good starting point, although perhaps not enough for building a real stoa of social rights in the EU.  The rapid deterioration in working conditions, job insecurity and high unemployment would certainly make Europeans ready to settle for less, that is, for even just a pillar. But will the end result be fit for purpose?

A European Prop of Social Rights?

Adding a pillar to an existing building – to strengthen its foundations and better hold up its roof - requires quite a lot of digging and demolishing. This is the only way to introduce a new structural element that can evenly relieve pressure from the weight of the structure above. The alternative to this, admittedly messy, process is using just a prop to prevent the building from collapsing, which is a temporary and certainly unsafe solution. This is exactly what the European construction does not need in its current state, which rather calls for earthquake engineering.

The European Commission does not seem to be fully aware of the gravity of the situation. On the contrary, it appears to have ignored in its communication that, by limiting the proposal to Eurozone Member States only, pressure alleviation when it comes to securing fair social rights cannot possibly be even. Moreover, one would not really call a pillar "a reference framework to screen the employment and social performance of participating Member States, to drive reforms at national level and, more specifically, to serve as a compass for renewed convergence within the euro area". The stated objective describes the instrument itself: just a compass, which is of course the perfect tool in a variable geometry EU.

Recent statements by European Commission Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis that the Pillar does not involve “reinventing the wheel”, given the EU's limited competences in the field of social and employment policies, and that social rights will be “modernised” in the light of labour market developments, point towards a prop rather than a pillar. All the more so because for the time being, this pillar has no stylobate (that is, foundation) since the legal basis has not been decided yet,  nor do we know about its segments, in other words, the nature or breadth of any concrete initiatives.

Employment Commissioner Marianne Thyssen has not been more reassuring by admitting that the proposal will be a set of principles rather than primary law. If this is the case, the Commission proposal will fall short of the European Parliament's call for a framework directive on decent working conditions in all areas of employment. This was a key element of the report drafted by Maria-João Rodrigues MEP (S&D, Portugal), which underlines the need to bring under European labour law all new forms of employment relations, including work through digital platforms.

The request for horizontal legislation is unlikely to be taken on board by the Commission, at least at this stage. Such a tentative approach is explained by the fact that the Commission does not see itself in the driving seat of the initiative, considering that it is national governments and social partners that are primarily responsible for agreeing upon and taking forward the Pillar. The subsidiarity stumbling block is a reality and the Commission is still recovering from last year's slap on the face by 14 chambers of national parliaments from 11 Member States: the activation of the yellow card procedure around the revision of the posting of workers directive. But doing less at European level is not an option if we want to bring the Union closer to its citizens.

Leaving the responsibility of propping up the crumbling social rights wing of the European construction to national governments, therefore moving away from the community method, is likely to prove a lengthy and conflictual exercise, especially since there are fundamentally divergent views as to what is needed in terms of social policy measures in a Europe gasping for global competitiveness. So does this mean that we will have to settle for even less than a prop?    

A trompe-l'oeil Pillar?

Architects have used extensively throughout the centuries the trompe-l'oeil technique to create the illusion of reality by having wall surfaces, ceilings and other parts of buildings covered with decorative paintings that produce the effect of architectural features such as windows, pillars, stonework or ornaments. The success of trompe-l'oeil lies in the skilful use of perspective, which is essential to the realistic appearance of the depicted element. Although an integral part of the building design, by virtue of its two-dimensional nature, a trompe-l'oeil element can never have a structural role and it therefore remains purely decorative.

Nothing leads to believe that the European Commission's intentions, when launching the public consultation on a European Pillar of Social Rights, were not genuine, and this is reflected in the 16,500 online contributions and 200 position papers received. However, in order to meaningfully contribute towards social convergence and to convince Europeans that economic and social policies are treated as two sides of the same coin, with decent social rights being a linchpin of the European project, the European Commission has no other option but to elaborate a strong proposal. To stay true to the expectations created by the terms "European Pillar", the proposal has to be legislative. Anything less would be as useless as adding another pretty (?) mural in a structurally unsafe building. ​​​​​

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