‘Social Europe’ can’t just be an empty slogan as the elections approach. It must be given real substance.
There’s a very one-sided – ‘politically correct’ – debate about Europe at the moment. Criticism of Europe seems to be taboo, or at least attracts a lot of negative feedback. Criticism is labelled with the adjectives ‘nationalistic’ or even ‘social nationalist’ to exclude it from the realm of politically correct and acceptable discourse. Particularly now, four months ahead of the elections to the European Parliament, ‘Social Europe’ has become a ritual incantation, like whistling in the dark, to protect against something unpleasant – an ‘unsocial Europe’ or a ‘neoliberal Europe’.
Is Social Europe simply an illusion, an unattainable dream, a much-loved myth? This question cannot be answered until something else is clear. What can we expect from Social Europe? Everyone means something different when using the term. Can a nation or a supranational institution be ‘social’? And if it can, what are the criteria for a Social Europe? And what if we say no to the question? In this case, we have to concede that the concept can be filled fairly arbitrarily with all sorts of possible meanings.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, trade unions have been stuck with the following dilemma: the demands for a Social Europe do not match the neoliberal reality of the EU. Admittedly, there’s the vaguer concept of the ‘social dimension’. But this is only supplementary to the construction of the EU’s single market, never an end in itself. As a goal, Social Europe is so ambiguous that many political actors can cosy up to it.
Before European elections, socialist and social democratic parties often conjure up ‘Social Europe’ as an aim or simply as a glitzy election campaign slogan. The slogan allows them to appear pro-European and social without defining specific demands or political content. The promise of ‘Social Europe’ has been regularly repeated but, up until now, barely achieved.
Standing up for workers
‘Social Europe’ is not a myth: it’s a means to an end. The choice of political leaders plays a role here too. It’s unclear, for example, how Frans Timmermans, one of the EU Spitzenkandidaten (to be European Commission President), who has often been more right-wing than Jean-Claude Juncker in terms of social policy and has proactively blocked social legislation, could help with a creating a Social Europe. He could, for instance, propose a minimum EU standard for boardroom representation. Can a Spitzenkandidat who generates precious little enthusiasm among trade unions expect any support? Can he win votes with such a profile?
Or, at the national level: the German social democrats’ Kanzlerkandidatin, Katarina Barley, who would like to take Social Europe forwards, keeps a low profile on the EU company law package under negotiation. She thereby condones the fact that workers’ participation is put in jeopardy.
In the EU Commission’s draft proposals on company law, regulations on workers’ participation are at serious risk in various countries. Her predecessor too should have emphatically sent back the Commission’s proposal instead of remaining inactive – the proposed single-member company would have certainly been a final nail in the coffin for German workers’ participation.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that some trade unions are inclined to defend national institutions and regulations first and foremost, for example preferring to protect German company workers’ participation rather than engaging with questionable neoliberal projects on completing the EU’s internal market. They do not want any new liberalised company law which will formally serve the flexibility of the ‘Business Community’ but endangers workers’ participation.
Advocates of Social Europe have to ask themselves a central question – can they achieve real progress or have they long been part of a system which allows the social dimension merely as the icing on the cake? Are they still part of a solution or already part of a problem?
The shadowy slogan ‘Social Europe’ tends to gloss over things rather than taking them forward, a decade after the financial crisis. The German federal government bears a large part of the responsibility for that. It’s not delivering a response to Macron’s EU/eurozone policy ideas.
Even the social democratic coalition partners in the German government don’t seem to feel any need to rush. The French government introduced a digital tax from January 1 this year so why is German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz not taking up the idea? He continues to argue instead that we first need to take it forward at the international level and perhaps progress can be made in 2020. The taxation issue is crucial because paying taxes is a matter of fairness. In other words, further democratisation of Europe goes hand in hand with the question of taxation.
The European election – Not just for or against Europe
So, what happens next? Does ‘Social Europe’ only give rise to moaning and groaning, is it misused by thoughtless opportunists or is it ready for a new start? Many people are disillusioned. Social promises have not been kept and this is not only a matter of perception. Austerity policy, social dumping and deregulation block an alternative narrative. Macron wanted to mobilise people for the European elections by presenting a simple narrative: taking the pro-European fight to the Eurosceptics. In the meantime, however, Macron is back-pedalling.
At a time when populists are clearly picking up momentum, the European election campaign isn’t the appropriate platform for a confrontation between pro-Europeans and anti-Europeans. Our current Europe doesn’t really show enough social progress/acquis for the populists or Eurosceptics to be easily convinced. Of course, Europe does ensure peace but it also maintains an underdeveloped social dimension, a protracted crisis with high unemployment in the periphery regions, a U-turn from convergence to divergence (in economic and social north-south differences) and much, much more.
We must be grateful to Martin Höpner for a stimulating contribution to the debate on Social Europe! As an empty shell, Social Europe must be filled with content! Which specific proposals are worth being considered? There are a few things: the trade unions have delivered enough proposals to the parties. A big step forward would be the introduction of company workers’ participation or a legally guaranteed access to social security systems, i.e. to income, health and unemployment support. Then, ‘Social Europe’ would take on a very concrete form.
Now, and in particular after the European Parliament elections, it’s up to the political parties to create this Social Europe! The issue of democracy is equally crucial. Can one democratise Europe and at the same time strengthen democracy in the workplace? Dare to have more democracy! Everywhere in Europe! Or will the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas be right when he says that the EU is turning into a ‘post-democratic executive system’ based on the principle of competition? Both these questions – in terms of the specific shape of a social and democratic Europe – couldn’t be more central in the European elections. They are not just about being for or against ‘Europe’.
This article is an abridged/edited version of one that originally appeared in the IPS
Peter Scherrer is Deputy General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation since 2015. He was previously General Secretary of the European Metalworkers’ Federation (EMF). Wolfgang Kowalsky is a policy adviser working in the trade union movement in Brussels.