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Strong social rights are a prerequisite for a functioning common market

A solid and sustainable social dimension of the European Union is crucial for securing its future,  speakers said at the public hearing on the "Impact of the social dimension and the European Pillar of Social Rights on the Future of the European Union", held by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) on 11 September.

The hearing was organised as part of the EESC work on an opinion on the Reflection Paper on the social dimension of Europe, published by the European Commission in April, as well as on the Commission proposal for an Interinstitutional Proclamation endorsing the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR).

At the hearing academics, researchers, policy analysts and representatives of all kinds of civil society organisations expressed their views on various issues covered by the social pillar, such as wage adequacy, the situation of atypical and precarious workers, collective bargaining, worker mobility or social protection and security. The hearing also heard contributions from representatives from the Estonian Presidency of the EU, as well as the forthcoming Bulgarian Presidency.

"We must ensure that we have a social dimension that really delivers for citizens," rapporteur of the EESC opinion Gabriele Bischoff told the participants, adding that it was vital for the EU to find a new consensus on how to approach the need to strengthen the social dimension. "It is about how Europe can deliver better for the well-being of people (...) which should be put at the core of our principles," Ms Bischoff explained. 

Visually presenting the social dimension as the "house of social Europe", with its roof representing "a good balance between economic and social policies - which is currently missing", Ms Bischoff said the interinstitutional proclamation on the EPSR was not a means in itself, but an opportunity to do more for a more social Europe.

"We see the proclamation on the EPSR as a door handle to that house – we will either open this door and go in to renovate it or not," she maintained.

Frank Vandenbroucke, professor at the University of Amsterdam and the keynote speaker at the hearing, said the EPSR was an important initiative which "should be translated into an agenda linked with financial instruments".

"Both the monetary union and the single market need a social dimension as a kind of a functional necessity," added Professor Vandenbroucke. In his view, a social dimension of the EMU is represented by the stabilisation capacity of Eurozone countries in times of crisis, which requires an appropriate unemployment insurance in every Member State.

"It is true that reflection on the monetary union has shifted the focus of attention to problems of insurance rather than investment. This is understandable, but we want resilient welfare states, with resilient insurance structures that protect people but also invest into people's capacities." He also argued against total decentralisation of collective bargaining and in favour of transparent, universal and predictable national minimum wage regimes.

The speakers voiced their concerns over the lack of clarity and synchronization of the several recent Commission's "reflection papers", which could jeopardise the whole process. They also stressed the importance on agreeing on strong mechanisms to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) so that this initiative does not remain limited to political proclamation.

"How do we convey that we mean business in the EPSR?“ asked Esther Lynch of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). "For the EPSR to be credible to the people who need it, it needs to be attached to an action plan and action is needed now," she warned.

But representatives of employers' associations said the pillar could interfere with some national labour rules, with Member States facing different challenges at labour markets. As a constructive way ahead, Co-rapporteur of the EESC opinion, Jukka Ahtela, proposed to look for an added value, instead of trying to change rules in Member States.

"It would be useful to have a common understanding of important issues and priorities; about social security issues but also about skills and the future of work," he concluded.

Mr Maxime Cerutti of Business Europe said the subsidiarity principle should remain at the centre of policy orientation.

"The cooperation should mainly be around facilitating, not really about harmonising," he said, adding that the Commission's role is to provide information, incentives and know-how to Member States and social partners so as to equip them to properly address labour market challenges "in a way that is understandable and acceptable to their societies".

The draft Proclamation is expected to be adopted by the end of the year. The EESC had already welcomed the EPSR in an opinion published in January 2017, following the debates it had held with organised civil society in all Member States. The EESC opinion on the "Impact of the social dimension and the European Pillar of Social Rights on the Future of the European Union" will be presented for adoption at the EESC plenary of 18-19 October.