EU Social Pillar: a chocolate fireguard?

24 November 2017

EU Social Pillar: a chocolate fireguard?

It seems that the EU would rather decide for itself on what rights its inhabitants are granted.

By SP Member of Parliament Renske Leijten, SP Senate leader Tiny Kox and chair of the SP European Parliament group Dennis de Jong

On 17 November heads of government from the EU member states gathered in Gothenburg for a 'Social Summit'. Its principal achievement was the proclamation of the European Pillar of Social Rights. The point was to make the EU more attractive to the public, who are as things stand disappointed by the chilly economic direction of European cooperation. Of course these government leaders know very well that these social rights already exist, for example under the Council of Europe's European Social Charter (ESC). The biggest difference is that the Social Pillar contains only principles that you may not, as a citizen, invoke directly. The ESC is, in contrast, legally enforceable, or would be if it were not for the fact that the European Union has never signed up to it. That's why what we say to the government leaders is 'if you want, in the future, to take a big step forward in the framework of social rights, make sure that the EU signs up to the European Social Charter.' Just a little effort required, right?

The Council of Europe's European Social Charter guarantees fundamental social and economic rights to all of Europe's inhabitants. It is as important as the European Convention on Human Rights. Each contains guarantees of fundamental civil and political rights. Both European treaties have a binding character. In practice, however, too often in too many countries they are poorly enforced. Governments too easily disregard binding rulings from the European Court of Human Rights and the European Committee for Social Rights, the Council of Europe's two supervisory organs, or they are tardy in carrying them out, or they water them down.

A decision by the European Union, which would become a powerful new partner, to accede to both European treaties, would greatly increase their force. The Lisbon Treaty already includes the obligation for the EU to ratify the European Convention on Human Rights, while in earlier EU documents the European Social Charter is regularly cited as the frame of reference for social policy in the EU.

Yet ten years on from the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty there has been no movement in the process of accession to the ECHR. It seems that the EU would rather rule itself on what rights its inhabitants are granted. This understandably angers the Council of Europe, which doesn't want to see its two core treaties weakened by the European Union's attitude, which should instead be strengthening them. This watering down can also be seen in the content of the new pillar. Where the signatories to the Social Charter, which include every EU member state, commit themselves to working towards a higher level of social security and social provision, the EU's social pillar looks somewhat less ambitious. No right to free primary and secondary education, as exists in the Charter, but merely 'affordable and good care and education for young children'. And where the Charter prioritises the social and economic rights of employees, there seems in the new pillar far more understanding for employers' desires, such as flexibilisation, and less for the position of workers, whose unemployment benefits, according to the social pillar “shall not constitute a disincentive for a quick return to employment.”

During the Social Summit in Gothenburg the Council of Europe insisted in its statement to government leaders that they include a reference to the Charter as the unambiguous benchmark for EU social policy. Such a reference would at the very least have made it more difficult for the EU to set the bar lower than the norms established by the Social Charter, as well as making it easier for trade unions, for example, to continue to call for enforcement of the fundamental social and economic rights of workers granted in the Charter.

Both the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Carter date from a time before neoliberalism. They put the economy and democracy before power. Both treaties were signed by all of the EU's member states and apply across the Union in its entirety. The Netherlands was involved from the start. It's on that basis that we issue our urgent call on the Dutch government to ensure that there's a place for the Charter in the framework of EU social policy. If this doesn't happen, the Social Pillar will be no more effective than a chocolate fireguard. Trading the Social Charter for the Social Pillar would be very bad business indeed.

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