Concerns about interpersonal inequalities, opportunities for all and social mobility are not new in the political agenda of the EU :
- The EU has supported human capital development and access to employment during the past 60 years through the European Social Fund – the first of the Structural Funds, established with the Treaty of Rome. In the current, 2014-20, programme period, the ESF and the required accompanying national co-financing, will invest c. €120 billion in the EU28
- The European Regional Development Fund, established in the 1970s, has historically endeavoured to support job creation in less developed regions and areas facing industrial reconversion. In the current period, it finances investments in the region of €276.8 billion
- The Europe 2020 Strategy (2010) foresees ambitious targets on unemployment and poverty, to be achieved not only through the support of the policies funded by the EU budget but also with the synergic action of Member States’ own policies, as well as institutional and regulatory reforms. The Strategy embodies a shift from the traditional focus on employment and HR development to inclusive growth, placing more emphasis on social policies, and foresees three out of seven ‘Flagship initiatives on: (i) skills and jobs; (ii) youth on the move; and (iii) poverty (European Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion), with targets monitored as part of the European Semester.
It is against this background that the European Commission proposed in April 2017 a new European Pillar on Social Rights
which should work alongside measures implemented under the European Social Fund, the European Youth Initiative and Guarantee, the EU Anti-poverty platform and other similar existing EU instruments.
What does the Pillar entail?
The new Pillar sets out a number of key principles and rights to support fair and well-functioning labour markets and welfare systems … [and] an ambitious agenda for better-performing economies and more equitable and resilient societies
. It is organised in three chapters
. Chapter 1 – Equal opportunities and access to the labour market
– focuses on education, training and lifelong learning, gender equality, equal opportunities, active support to employment. Chapter 2 – Fair working conditions
– deals with secure and adaptable employment, wages, information about employment conditions and protection in case of dismissals, social dialogue and workers’ involvement, work-life balance and healthy, safe and well-adapted work environment and data protection. Chapter 3 – Social protection and inclusion
– focuses on children and support to children, social protection, unemployment benefits, minimum income, old-age income and pensions, healthcare, inclusion of people with disabilities, long-term care, housing and assistance to the homeless, and access to essential services.
What can EU citizens expect? How effective is the Pillar likely to be?
The Pillar is intended as a compass for a process leading to renewed socio-economic convergence and to drive reforms at national level
. Its implementation lies largely with the Member States, since they are primarily responsible for the competences involved, although there are areas where the EU has direct remit (the proposed Directive on Work-life balance
, launched at the same time as the Pillar, is a case in point). The main EU-wide lever for the Pillar is the monitoring, benchmarking and peer review that will be realised under the European Semester.
There are many positive aspects of the Pillar. First, the acknowledgement of the existence of new groups of individuals whose employment and social rights are not adequately protected under the current labour market conditions. The Pillar acknowledges this and upgrades principles and standards. Second, the Pillar is accompanied by a "social scoreboard"
- ‘a reference framework to monitor ‘societal progress’ in the Member States. This will make it easier to assess progress in the relevant Council formations and to benchmark countries. Third, the Pillar will act as a reference point for the use of the ESF and other ESI Funds, and other EU initiatives dedicated to employment and social rights. Lastly, the Pillar was designed through a wide-ranging consultation. Consultations are undertaken also for the legislative and non-legislative associated initiatives. This should contribute to raising awareness on the social dimension of Europe, on the persisting disparities that exist across MSs, and on options regarding the way forward.