The Action Plan shows ambition on poverty, employment and training. But the concrete measures are not (yet) up to the task.
In November 2017, the main European Union institutions and the member states proclaimed the European Pillar of Social Rights in Göteborg, Sweden. Three and a half years on, the European Commission last week published an Action Plan to implement the 20 principles of the pillar.
Although planned long before the Covid-19 outbreak, the action plan couldn’t be more timely: one year into the pandemic, millions of Europeans live in deprivation and despair. People have lost their jobs or become ‘inactive’, women have seen their burden of unpaid care heavily increase and young people are at risk of becoming a ‘lockdown generation’.
The Action Plan is meant to be the core of the current commission’s social and labour-market agenda. From the beginning of her mandate, the commission president, Ursula von der Leyen—a former minister of labour and social affairs in Germany—highlighted her strong ambition on upward social convergence and an ‘economy that works for people’.
First, the commission seeks to reduce the number of people at risk of poverty by 15 million, of which at least five million should be children. Secondly, the employment rate of those aged 20 to 64 should increase to 78 per cent, from 72.5 per cent in the third quarter of 2020—including a reduction of young people not in employment, education or training to 9 per cent, from 12.6 per cent in 2019. And 60 per cent of the workforce should participate in training each year (up from 37 per cent in 2016), bringing the share of adults with basic digital skills up to 80 per cent.
While the targets for employment and training are bold and clear, that for reduction of poverty lacks ambition. Between 2010 and 2020, the EU aimed to reduce the number at risk of poverty by 20 million, but fell well short—and the pace at which it is envisaged social exclusion will fall in the coming decade has been accordingly attenuated. Given that in 2019—before the Covid-19 pandemic—in absolute terms 91 million Europeans were at risk of poverty, the union should be raising its horizons rather than trimming its targets.
One of the key tools to monitor achievement will be a revamped Social Scoreboard. From a trade union perspective, adding new indicators to the scoreboard is indeed essential: coverage of collective agreements and union density in the member states are both absent from it. The Action Plan however contains no details on how the scoreboard will be revised or who will be involved.
Expectations not met
Clear targets and their monitoring through the Social Scoreboard provide a framework for the implementation of the social pillar, yet an Action Plan should first and foremost convince by concrete actions. In this regard, the commission has not met those high expectations.
Among the most promising proposals are a recommendation on Effective Active Support for Employment (published along with the Action Plan) and a reform of EU competition law to protect collective agreements for some groups of self-employed, notably formally self-employed platform workers. Also proposed are reform of European public-procurement guidelines, to foster innovation and socially-responsible procurement, and exploration of a ‘European Social Security Pass’. The latter could allow for digital interactions between mobile citizens and national authorities, to improve the portability of social-security entitlements.
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Apart from these initiatives, many important ‘proposals’ of the Action Plan are however projects already up and running. The framework directive on minimum wages—presented as key—was announced in autumn 2020, and the legislative proposals on working conditions in the platform economy and banning hazardous chemicals are already subject to consultation with the social partners. Other proposals, such as the evaluation of the European Labour Authority and the update of the New Industrial Strategy, are merely follow-up measures.
The major absence in the Action Plan is the announced initiative on an unemployment reinsurance scheme for the eurozone—widely recognised as essential to cope with the endemic challenge of asymmetric shocks to single-currency member states. While the commission intended to come up with a proposal in the first half of 2021, this topic is not considered a priority any more. Although the commissioner for jobs and social rights, Nicolas Schmit, insists that unemployment reinsurance is still on the agenda, it is telling that the commission decided to omit it from the Action Plan.
It is equally disappointing that the commission should remain unclear on the future of the SURE employment-support mechanism, set up in spring 2020 to finance short-time work schemes in the member states during the pandemic. While an evaluation of SURE is mentioned, there is no commitment to a further iteration. Given that 90 per cent of the loans covered by SURE have already been allocated to member states, yet the recession is far from over, European firms and workers need to know whether they can count on the EU to support employment effectively in the future.
It is now up to member states and national stakeholders to build on these proposals and elevate their ambition. Although the social pillar does not provide for directly justiciable rights, its declaration in 2017 initiated an obligation under international law. Its principles must be thoroughly incorporated in European secondary legislation and, eventually, turned into actual social rights for European citizens.
The commission’s Action Plan marks an important step in the process but must not be the last word. The European Social Summit in Porto on May 7th and 8th will be an opportunity to put new and bold proposals (back) on the table to make the internal market fairer. The fight for a more social Europe is far from being won.