EESC backs calls to give precedence to fundamental social rights over economic freedoms under EU law

The EESC has asked the forthcoming Spanish Presidency of the Council of the EU to push forward with the proposal to make the Social Progress Protocol a binding legal instrument, which would help strengthen and preserve social rights in Europe

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has voiced its agreement with recent proposals to amend the EU Treaties to include the Social Progress Protocol (SPP), an instrument which would give priority to fundamental social rights over economic freedoms in the event of conflict and in EU policies, thereby ensuring legal certainty and equal treatment of workers in all Member States.

In an exploratory opinion requested by the upcoming Spanish Presidency of the Council of the EU, which asked for the EESC's position on the matter, the EESC said the SPP would secure social progress by promoting and safeguarding the highest standards of social rights in all EU policies and preventing any decline in them.

The opinion was adopted at the EESC plenary session on 15 June with 132 votes in favour, 102 against and 7 abstentions. However, it did not receive the backing of a large number of members, notably the EESC's Employers' Group, which tabled a counter-opinion voicing its opposition to the inclusion of the SPP in primary EU law. The counter-opinion was rejected but received more than a quarter of the votes cast and is therefore appended to the main opinion.

The rapporteur of the opinion, Maria del Carmen Barrera Chamorro, said that the EESC could not fail to be in favour of social progress and was therefore providing the Spanish Presidency with a positive response on the issue of the SPP.

The Social Progress Protocol would uphold the principle of non-backsliding in respect of social standards. It would make sure that it would not be possible to adopt any policies which would run counter to the interests of people, which is what happened with the austerity policies, Ms Barrera Chamorro said.

We cannot take it for granted that there will be no backtracking on social and civic rights, as this is already happening. Now, more than ever, we have to be on our guard to make sure that we defend those rights and that they are uniformly applied across the entire EU. They have to be more important than the free market, especially in cases of dispute. We have to make sure that there are measures in place which consolidate social progress, said co-rapporteur Diego Dutto.

The EESC said it saw the upcoming Spanish Presidency as a great opportunity to push forward the proposal. It encouraged the presidency to convene a meeting of the Council of Social Affairs Ministers that would agree on a joint proposal and enable a specific EU summit to be held to adopt it. This would require maximum institutional involvement across the various levels of EU competence.

The SPP was first proposed by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) in 2008 in response to European Court of Justice rulings in favour of economic freedoms in the Viking and Laval cases. The call was made again last year, when the proposal to make the SPP primary law was included in the conclusions of the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE). In June 2022, the European Parliament also adopted a resolution calling for the SPP to be incorporated into the EU Treaties.

According to the EESC, the SPP is essential for strengthening the autonomy of social partners – trade unions and employers' organisations – as it aims to ensure their autonomy to regulate employment relationships. It links the proper functioning of the single market and economic freedoms, including fair competition between the Member States, with respect and promotion of fundamental collective social rights.

Moreover, an SPP will enable the EU to be a leader when it comes to economic growth, the well-being of its citizens, and robust and sustainable businesses. It will strengthen European social policies and encourage the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) in the Member States. 

The SPP would also mitigate the current risk of inconsistencies between the EU legal order and international human rights instruments. Member States have commitments under international human rights and labour conventions that they sometimes cannot respect if they want to abide by EU law which is not yet in full compliance with them.

However, the EESC's Employers' Group argued that the Social Progress Protocol would seriously risk undermining the very basis for social progress.

They were opposed to creating a hierarchy between fundamental social rights and economic freedoms, as it was essential for the EU to continue developing in a way that addressed economic and social challenges in an integrated way.

We believe that social rights and economic rights should enjoy the same level of protection. There can be limitations in the exercise of both under certain conditions, but should there be any restriction on economic freedoms, it can be accepted only if it pursues a legitimate aim compatible with the Treaties and justified by overriding reasons of public interest, EESC member Mariya Mincheva said, as she presented the counter-opinion.

According to the Employers' Group, employment and social policy objectives should continue to be addressed within the current Treaties and the existing legislative and policy framework at EU and national level, while fully respecting the autonomy of the social partners.

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Social Progress Protocol