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Towards a European Pillar of Social Rights: from a preliminary outline to a Commission Recommendation

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Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017 73
Chapter 4
Towards a European Pillar of Social Rights: from a
preliminary outline to a Commission Recommendation
Sebastiano Sabato and Bart Vanhercke1
Introduction
There is widespread agreement that the European Union (EU) and its Member
States are failing to deliver on one of the fundamental goals of the European project:
the simultaneous pursuit of economic and social progress (Vandenbroucke with
Vanhercke 2014). The legacy of the economic crisis in social and budgetary terms, the
risk of persistently low economic growth and structural unemployment for several
years, rising inequality and the challenges of an ageing population make the pursuit
of economic progress and social cohesion even more challenging. While one should
not overlook the fact that a European social dimension has been actively pursued for
the past fty years – resulting in an extensive social acquisit seems fair to say that,
for several years now, the EU policymaking agenda has been dominated by economic,
budgetary and monetary concerns and austeritarian policies (2008-2014).
As a result, the EU’s social agenda of the past ve years was limited to largely symbolic
initiatives such as the Youth Guarantee and the Social Investment Package (both proposed
in 2013). The proposal for a ‘rst, preliminary outline’ of a European Pillar of Social
Rights (EPSR)
2
tabled by the European Commission in March 2016 may however present
the embryonic start to the development of more ambitious European employment and
social policies, building on the existing acquis (European Commission 2016b).
The chapter is organised as follows. Section 1 briey describes the key traits of the
Commission’s March 2016 ‘First preliminary outline of a European Pillar of Social
Rights’. Section 2 portrays the positions and concerns – both on substantive and
governance issues – of key European stakeholders with regard to this initial Pillar
proposal: EU institutions and bodies, peak European social partner organizations,
European non-governmental organizations (including anti-poverty NGOs) and the
academic community. The section ags the strengths and weaknesses of what was
probably the most signicant EU initiative in the social eld in 2016.
1. The authors would like to thank Denis Bouget, Dalila Ghailani (OSE) and Zane Rasnača (ETUI) for the useful
comments they provided. Marcel Muraille (OSE/ULB research intern) provided valuable research assistance.
We are also grateful to Pieter-Jan De Graeve (Universiteit Gent) as well as two anonymous reviewers for
commenting on an earlier version of this chapter, which was published (in Dutch and French) as Vanhercke and
Sebastiano (2017). The responsibility for the content of the chapter lies entirely with the authors.
2. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced the EPSR during his rst State of the Union
speech to the European Parliament (EP) in September 2015.
Sebastiano Sabato and Bart Vanhercke
74 Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017
Section 3 discusses the contents of the Recommendation on the Pillar tabled by the
Commission at the beginning of 2017 (European Commission 2017a), comparing its
content with the March 2016 preliminary outline. Furthermore, we provide some
reections on the extent to which the public consultation aected the substantive
orientations of the Recommendation. We conclude that, in spite of its possible pitfalls
and obvious shortcomings, the future EPSR has the potential to represent a ‘new start’
for social Europe in the aftermath of Brexit: if nothing else, it paves the way towards
a new and long overdue ‘Social Agenda’ for the European institutions while centre-
staging the question of social rights. However, a solemn proclamation of the EPSR by
the Heads of State and Government will only bring about concrete results when backed
by eective implementation arrangements. In other words: the EPSR represents a real
window of opportunity, but it is only one (albeit major) step towards creating a true
social dimension for the European Union.
1. A ‘preliminary outline’ of a European Pillar of Social Rights:
rebalancing the EU’s economic and social dimensions?
At least at the discursive level, the need to reinforce the EU’s social dimension and to
rebalance EU social and economic policies – especially in the Eurozone has been a
key concern of the Juncker Commission since it came into oce in November 2014.
This priority was indeed agged in the Commission President’s inaugural speech to
the European Parliament in July 2014 (European Commission 2014) and was restated
in the 2015 Commission Communication on Completing the Economic and Monetary
Union (EMU) (European Commission 2015). It was also reected in the ‘Five Presidents’
report’ of June 2015 (Juncker et al. 2015), which conrmed the ambition that President-
elect Juncker had set out for the EU: the need to achieve a ‘Social Triple A’ rating, in
parallel to achieving a ‘triple A’ in the nancial sector.
As a rst step, the Commission President stated that the EU’s broad framework for
the coordination of economic and social policies, the European Semester, should
not just be an economic and nancial process, but should necessarily consider the
social dimension of Economic and Monetary Union, notably through the Country-
specic Recommendations (Juncker et al. 2015). Recent research indeed points out
that, between 2011 and 2016, a partial but progressive ‘socialization’ of the European
Semester has taken place, at the level both of substantive policy orientations and of its
governance procedures (Zeitlin and Vanhercke 2015) while others are more critical,
pointing to the prevalence of austerity-oriented structural reforms and a limited focus
on (social) investment (Crespy and Schmidt this volume).
The second concrete step towards rebalancing the EU’s economic and social dimensions
was the launch of a public consultation on a preliminary outline of a EPSR in March
2016, which ran until December of the same year3. In the Commission’s view (European
Commission 2016a), the future Pillar would contribute to creating a highly competitive
3. To be more precise: the Commission Communication launching the consultation was accompanied by an Annex 1
containing the ‘First preliminary Outline of a European Pillar of Social Rights’ (European Commission 2016b).
Towards a European Pillar of Social Rights: from a preliminary outline to a Commission Recommendation
Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017 75
social market economy and to overcoming the crisis. The Commission indeed had
high hopes for the future Pillar, intending it to become: ‘[…] a reference framework
to screen the employment and social performance of participating Member States, to
drive reforms at national level and, more specically, to serve as a compass for renewed
convergence within the euro area’ (European Commission 2016a:7).
The Pillar would build on the EU ‘social acquis’4 but it was not intended to simply
restate its content. Indeed, the Commission’s stated goal was to revisit (modernise)
the acquis in the light of new social, demographic and economic challenges (European
Commission 2016b: 8). More specically, according to the preliminary outline of the
EPSR, the Pillar would consist of twenty principles covering twenty policy domains
organized around three chapters (see Table 1): (a) equal opportunities and access to
the labour market; (b) fair working conditions; and (c) adequate and sustainable social
protection. As we have argued elsewhere (Vanhercke and Sabato 2017), the ght against
poverty and social exclusion is made more or less explicit in fteen of the twenty policy
domains of the preliminary outline of the Pillar (European Commission 2016b) and can
thus be said to have been mainstreamed across the proposal.
The rationale behind the Pillar does not signicantly dier from previous Commission
initiatives in the social domain ‘[…] social policy should be conceived as a productive
factor […] Europe’s capacity to achieve well-functioning and fair labour markets and
welfare systems is key to its ability to boost productivity, compete globally, strengthen
social cohesion and keep increasing the living standards of citizens’ (European
Commission 2016a: 3-4).
From the onset, the Commission (2016a) stressed that the EPSR will not be legally
binding. Yet, besides serving as a blueprint for future action, some observers at the
time of publication of the preliminary outline claimed that the EPSR should at least
be ‘politically binding’ (Larsson 2016)5. Given that the EU has varying degrees of
competence in the various policy domains included in the EPSR, the Commission made
it clear that implementation will require a varied set of instruments, ranging from
‘soft governance’ (including Recommendations) to legislation (the preliminary outline
is quite vague on this point). Importantly, the proposed Pillar primarily concerns the
Member States of the euro-area, even if it is open to the other Member States on a
voluntary basis.
4. The body of common rights and obligations that is binding on all EU Member States. The social acquis was
detailed in a dedicated Commission Sta Working Document (European Commission 2016c) accompanying the
preliminary outline for a EPSR.
5. The proposal for an inter-institutional proclamation of the Pillar by the European Parliament, the Council and
the Commission goes in this direction (European Commission 2017e). There is an interesting parallel with
the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU: initially solemnly proclaimed at the Nice European Council on
7 December 2000 (without any binding legal eect), the Charter became legally binding on the EU with the
entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, in December 2009. We would like to thank Zane Rasnača for pointing
this out to us.
Sebastiano Sabato and Bart Vanhercke
76 Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017
Table 1 Structure of the 2016 preliminary outline of the EPSR
Chapter Principles
Chapter I
Equal opportunities and access to the labour market
1. Skills, education and long-life learning
2. Flexible and secure labour contracts
3. Secure professional transitions
4. Active support for employment
5. Gender equality and work-life balance
6. Equal opportunities
Chapter II
Fair working conditions 7. Conditions of employment
8. Wages
9. Health and safety at work
10. Social dialogue and involvement of workers
Chapter III
Adequate and sustainable social protection 11. Integrated social benefits and services
12. Healthcare and sickness benefits
13. Pensions
14. Unemployment benefits
15. Minimum income
16. Disability benefits
17. Long-term care
18. Childcare
19. Housing
20. Access to essential services
Source: European Commission (2016b).
Strikingly in view of the name of the initiative and the nearly 20 references to the Charter
of Fundamental Rights not a single one of the principles in the 2016 preliminary outline
was formulated as a concrete ‘right’. All were formulated very prudently, using terms like
‘encourage’ (e.g. low skilled young people and working age adults shall be encouraged to
up-grade their skills), ‘ensure’ (e.g. equal treatment), ‘prevent’ (e.g. misuse or abuse of
precarious and non-permanent employment relationships) and ‘include’ (e.g. action to
support the unemployed shall include the requirement for active job search)
6
.
2. Key stakeholder and institutional views on the preliminary
outline of the Social Pillar
The next step in the process leading to an EPSR was the European Commission’s launch
of a public consultation in March 2016. This section describes how the preliminary
outline of the Social Pillar was assessed in terms of strengths and weaknesses in
6. Other examples are ‘have access’ (e.g. to adequate leave arrangements for children), ‘foster’ (e.g. gender equality
in the labour market and education) and ‘shall be’ (e.g. Social partners shall be consulted in the design and
implementation of employment and social policies).
Towards a European Pillar of Social Rights: from a preliminary outline to a Commission Recommendation
Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017 77
the months following its publication. We draw on the responses of some of the most
inuential social stakeholders and institutional players to the nine-month public
consultation. The content analysis is based on a careful qualitative analysis and coding of
both pros and cons developed in some ten authoritative submissions from institutional
players and NGOs engaged in the eld of social policies (stakeholders provided a total
of ca. 200 position papers7).
2.1 Potential strengths: agenda-setting, creating synergies and stakeholder
involvement
The EPSR as an opportunity to rebalance the political agenda and improve monitoring
During the 2016 public consultation on the EPSR, certain stakeholders stressed the
Pillar’s potential to foster convergence among the performances of European welfare
states and to improve the EU’s monitoring capacities. For instance, the International
Labour Organization (ILO8) (2016) stated that the Pillar sought ‘incremental consensus’
by gradually implementing measures that should be eventually addressed to all EU
Member States. For the ILO, convergence should be sought in the scope of coverage and
adequacy of social benets as well as in relation to their duration. The Confederation of
Family Organisations in the European Union (COFACE9) (2016a) saw an opportunity
to rebalance the political agenda and improve monitoring capacity at European level,
while Eurodiaconia (2016a and 2016b) stressed the potential to create a fair and truly
pan-European labour market, facilitating the convergence of social standards in Europe.
For their part, the EU’s Employment Committee (EMCO) and the Social Protection
Committee10 (SPC) claimed that the Pillar represented an opportunity to strengthen
operationalisation of the EU social acquis, embedding it in the new socio-economic
governance framework of the European Semester (EMCO and SPC 2016). Furthermore,
the two Committees called for social standards to be updated, inter alia by improving
existing instruments11. This said, according to the two advisory bodies to the EPSCO
Council, principles such as the respect of Member State competences, subsidiarity and
the autonomy of social partners should be ensured and the variety of national situations
taken into account. In other words, the appetite for ‘upward social convergence’ among
Member States seemed, at the most, lukewarm.
The EPSR could promote synergies among interrelated policy areas
Stakeholder organisations and institutions alike (cf. COFACE 2016a; Eurochild12 2016;
EAPN 2016; ILO 2016) saw the Pillar as a possibility to redirect attention towards social
7. The position papers on the preliminary outline of the EPSR are available at http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.
jsp?catId=1235&langId=e
8. The International Labour Organization (ILO) is a United Nations agency dealing with labour problems,
particularly international labour standards, social protection, and work opportunities for all.
9. COFACE Families Europe is a pluralistic network of civil society associations representing the interests of
families.
10. Both the EMCO and SPC are advisory bodies to Employment and Social Aairs Ministers in the Employment,
Social Policy, Health and Consumer Aairs Council (EPSCO).
11. Including by increasing the use of policy learning based on best practices, setting common objectives and
benchmarking, and promoting thematic discussion.
12. EUROCHILD is a network of organisations working with and for children throughout Europe.
Sebastiano Sabato and Bart Vanhercke
78 Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017
policy by focussing on key social issues. COFACE (2016b) maintained that the Pillar
should strengthen the links between employment and social policy. Yet, according to
the European Social Policy Network (ESPN13) (2016), one key challenge was the issue
of EU competences in the social policy domain and the need to reconcile enforceability
with subsidiarity. In this respect, a ‘pragmatic approach’ would be needed.
On the institutional side, the European Parliament (2017) stressed that, in most elds,
the EU had no scope for action besides providing guidelines, while in other domains
there was room for harmonisation through the setting of minimum standards.
Consequently, while the Pillar should be binding in some domains, in other domains
it appeared necessary to continue benchmarking and monitoring through the Open
Method of Coordination (OMC). Discrepancies between the competences of the EU in
the various social policy elds were also highlighted by the EMCO and the SPC (2016),
both of which recommended the elaboration of sucient Member State guidance
without being too prescriptive. As we will see in the next section, this clear stance by
the Member States had an important inuence on the substantive features of the 2017
Pillar Recommendation.
The EPSR as an opportunity for including social stakeholders, civil society, experts and
institutions
Several stakeholders and institutions (among others, COFACE 2016a and 2016b;
Eurochild 2016; EMCO and SPC 2016) appreciated the Pillar’s potential as an opportunity
to involve a broad array of players in policy-making. The decision to launch a public
consultation on the preliminary outline of the Pillar was welcomed by all stakeholders.
According to Caniard (2016), the involvement and ownership of the Pillar by European
citizens were key preconditions for its successful implementation. However, beyond the
initial consultation process, it is not clear through which procedures stakeholders will
be practically involved in implementing the EPSR. Consequently, the European Social
Policy Network (ESPN 2016) recommended that the EPSR should include a strong
statement on the importance of both civic and social dialogue (see also Committee
of Regions 2016a and 2016b), while the European Parliament (2017) invited the
Commission to propose mechanisms for the adequate involvement of all relevant
stakeholders at all levels in the implementation of the Pillar. As we will see below, the
Commission was unable to deliver on this strong demand.
2.2 Potential weaknesses: between excessive expectations and the risk of a
‘two-speed’ Europe
Several stakeholders stressed possible risks and shortcomings related to the EPSR and
its implementation. Among these are excessive expectations, the legal status of the
EPSR, the risk of non-implementation, missing dimensions and the risk of a ‘two-speed’
Europe.
13. The European Social Policy Network (ESPN) was established in 2014 to provide the Commission with
independent information, analysis and expertise on social policies.
Towards a European Pillar of Social Rights: from a preliminary outline to a Commission Recommendation
Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017 79
Excessive expectations and a narrow understanding of ‘social rights’
The European Commission’s reference to the notion of ‘rights’ – inter alia in the title
of the initiative and its multiple references to the Charter, see Section 1 – risks raising
excessive expectations. Indeed, if the Pillar is not strong enough, it could become a
‘boomerang’ for the EU. As Caniard (2016) pointed out, the EPSR must ensure the
eective enforcement of rights if it is to be meaningful14. Otherwise, the Pillar could
have counterproductive eects on the EU’s credibility (ESPN 2016). Recurring to the
notion of ‘rights’ may be a slippery slope for the European Commission, in particular
for the European Commission’s Directorate General for Employment, Social Aairs &
Inclusion (DG EMPL). Indeed, at Member State level solemn declarations of rights are
embedded in constitutions and not in secondary legislation, something the EU cannot
do for institutional reasons. At the same time, given the EU-level emphasis on ‘social
policy as a productive factor’, there is a risk that an EU declaration of social rights may
be limited to this narrow understanding of ‘social rights’. Indeed, some social rights do
not promote growth per se (e.g. the right to strike) but are nevertheless fundamental to
building fairer and more cohesive societies and, eventually, to reinforcing the notion of
social citizenship on which our democracies are built.
The elephant in the room: legal status and (lack of) competences
Many commentators pointed out that the EU lacks competences in most of the policy
areas included in the EPSR. Consequently, one of the challenges related to the Pillar
is the lack of clarity as to its legal status (European Association for the Defence of
Human Rights n.d.; Seikel 2016). Clearly not all the principles of the Pillar will be
implemented through binding legislation. In many cases, the most likely instrument will
be Recommendations (Eurodiaconia 2016). Arguably the lack of a legal base explains
why, in spite of President Juncker’s earlier declarations15, the preliminary outline only
contains ‘principles’, for example with regard to a minimum income16 and minimum
wages, but does not propose legal instruments (nor in fact concrete soft governance
initiatives) in these areas.
Lörcher and Schömann (2016) pointed out a further potential problem: the EU has no
legal basis for implementing an instrument limited to Eurozone countries, i.e. as the
Pillar is currently designed. Yet, as highlighted above, some observers (Larsson 2016)
point to the fact that the EPSR could be politically binding, thus acting as a ‘normative
compass’ for EU and Member State initiatives. Furthermore, given that the EU has
competences in the eld of economic policy, the Pillar could make it possible to consider
the social side-eects of such policies (Eurodiaconia 2016). This said, the ESPN (2016)
stressed that, as far as possible, the Pillar should follow a binding approach. A dierent
opinion, however, was expressed by Seikel (2016) who claimed that, given the EPSR’s
prioritisation of scal consolidation and competitiveness goals, it would be better for the
14. Note that this is a recurring problem with almost every statement of ‘social rights’, for example their inclusion
in the Belgian Constitution: this had, rather, a symbolic value. The authors would like to thank Jan Vranken for
pointing this out.
15. For example, a contribution in a panel discussion on the priorities of the incoming Malta Presidency of the EU
for the next six months at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, 18 January 2017. http://uk.reuters.
com/article/uk-eu-labor-juncker-idUKKBN15729W
16. It indeed came as a surprise to some that the Commission did not propose a Directive on a minimum income in
the preliminary outline.
Sebastiano Sabato and Bart Vanhercke
80 Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017
EPSR to remain non-binding. Importantly, the European Parliament (2017) suggested
exploring the possibility of using the enhanced cooperation mechanism under Article
20 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) to build a strong Social Pillar.
A declaration of principles: the risk of non-implementation
The key issue for the EPSR relates to its enforceability. The ESPN (2016) noted that, while
open coordination processes such as the Social OMC and the European Employment
Strategy had played a valuable role in coordinating Member States’ policies and should
be continued, experience had shown that, unless they were backed up by legislation,
their impact was limited. Consequently, to facilitate implementation, an additional
section on ‘Ensuring impact’ should be added to the Pillar (ESPN 2016: 31). In the long
term, Treaty changes could be foreseen to set up sanction mechanisms for Member
States failing to meet social objectives as is the case for economic objectives.
In other words, for virtually all contributors to the consultation (except most employer
organisations), the Pillar could not be a mere declaration of principles or good intentions
but had to consist of legislation, policy-making mechanisms and nancial instruments
(European Parliament 2017). Clear accountability mechanisms and sanctions for non-
compliance should be foreseen (Eurochild 2016) as well as formalised mechanisms
for ensuring the participation of civil society in its implementation (EAPN 2016).
Furthermore, adequate mechanisms for linking the implementation of the Pillar to
existing instruments and processes such as Europe 2020, the European Semester and
the Social Investment Package should be set up (ESPN 2016), as well as instruments
for connecting the Pillar to existing international frameworks (ibid.). As the European
Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (CESI) (2016) suggested, ‘meaningful
indicators and enforceable benchmarks’ (sic) should be established in those areas
where the EU had no legislative competences. According to the ESPN (2016), areas
where it was particularly important to build on the activities already carried out in the
framework of the SIP were homelessness and policies relating to children.
The European Parliament (2017) similarly recommended that the EPSR should be
‘solid’ and should eectively reinforce European citizens’ social rights through concrete
and specic tools. For instance, the Parliament recommended the establishment of
wage oors in the form of a national minimum wage (with due respect for Member
State practices and involving the social partners). As for the area of adequate and
sustainable social protection, the European Parliament (2017) suggested relying on the
exchange of good practices, for instance for calculating minimum pensions. According
to the Parliament, adequate nancing for the implementation of the Pillar should
be ensured at both European and national levels: inter alia, the allocation of 20% of
national ESF funds for ghting poverty and social exclusion had to be upheld. Without
adequate funding the Pillar would not be able to deliver on the 20 principles. Finally,
the Parliament maintained that clear targets, building on the Europe 2020 Strategy
and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), should be agreed upon.
A Social Pillar subordinated to economic and fiscal goals?
In the view of many, the principles in the preliminary outline of the Pillar were
formulated as if they were subordinated to scal sustainability, competitiveness and
Towards a European Pillar of Social Rights: from a preliminary outline to a Commission Recommendation
Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017 81
macro-economic priorities (cf., for instance, EAPN 2016; COFACE 2016a and 2016b;
ESPN 2016; Eurochild 2016; Lörcher and Schömann 2016; Seikel 2016). ESPN
maintained that the arguments in the preliminary outline were often ‘unduly economic’
and not suciently ‘social’. Attention was focused on (nancial) sustainability and not
on adequacy and, even in the section on social protection, the impression given was
that of a Pillar primarily supporting economic and employment objectives, rather than
acting as a way to introduce a rights-based language and logic into EU discourses and
initiatives (Sabato 2016).
COFACE (2016a) emphasised that the future Pillar should be set rmly ‘in a social
policy framework’ and not be understood as an Economic and Monetary Union (EMU)
stability instrument. Lörcher and Schömann (2016) even claimed that the Commission
saw the Pillar as an economic necessity and not as a political and social imperative.
The risk of unclear formulations and a simple rephrasing of existing rights
Another strand of EPSR criticism concerned the sometimes vague formulation of rights
and principles (COFACE 2016a; ESPN 2016; Eurochild 2016; see also Section 1 above).
The EPSR frequently simply rephrased existing principles, despite claiming to add to
them. The ESPN (2016) went one step further, concluding that the overall vision behind
the Pillar was unclear: the initial outline of the EPSR focused on coverage rather than
vision, and there was no overarching social policy project. Eurochild (2016) pointed
out that there was no reference to specic targets such as the Barcelona targets and
Sustainable Development Goals. Perhaps even more importantly, the Europe 2020
targets were not referred to in the initial outline.
The European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless
(FEANTSA17 2016) underlined the risk of the EPSR fostering downward pressure by
arbitrarily setting minimum standards in the social area, notably in relation to housing
priorities. To avoid such a scenario, the future Pillar should include a statement that the
EU would aspire to gradual convergence towards the highest social standards already
existing in some countries (ESPN 2016: 8).
The coverage of the initial outline of the Social Pillar: missing dimensions
As for more substantive issues, the ESPN (2016) noted that some areas were
underspecied in the Commission’s preliminary outline, while others were simply
missing. There was, for example, no reference to the social rights and needs of young
people, migrants and asylum seekers. With regard to child policies, the ESPN (2016)
proposed that they should be mainstreamed across the various principles of the Pillar,
given their importance when it comes to the inter-generational transmission of poverty
and social exclusion. Overall, the ESPN (ibid.: 10) considered that, in most cases, the
main emphasis of the Pillar was on employment rights and the function of social policies
in increasing labour market integration18.
17. The Fédération Européenne d’Associations Nationales Travaillant avec les Sans-Abri (FEANTSA) is the only
major European network that focuses exclusively on homelessness at European level.
18. As noted by ESPN (2016: 30), ‘At present the Pillar has two essentially ‘employment’ sections and one ‘social
protection’ section and even the latter focuses primarily on employment’.
Sebastiano Sabato and Bart Vanhercke
82 Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017
This is particularly evident in the principles concerning unemployment benets: in the
preliminary outline, the primary focus is on ‘the requirement for active job search’ for
the unemployed while ‘the duration of benets shall allow sucient time for job search
whilst preserving incentives for a quick return to employment’ (principle 14). This
formulation raised particular concerns in Belgium19, where the duration of the payment
of unemployment benets is, in principle, unlimited in time20.
Criticism has also been voiced over the fact that the proposed EPSR focuses on individual
rights, while collective rights have been left aside to some extent (CESI 2016; Lörcher
and Schömann 2016; Seikel 2016). According to the CESI (2016), a truly inclusive
approach should be taken to full social partner involvement in the implementation,
enforcement, and eventual review of the Pillar. On this point, the European Parliament
(2017) recalled that the right to collective bargaining and action was a fundamental right
enshrined in EU primary law and invited the Commission to support social dialogue at
all levels and in all sectors (while respecting national traditions).
Furthermore, the proposed Pillar is inadequate when it comes to linking environmental
and social rights. Indeed, it should be considered that ecosystem resources and human
well-being are closely linked and that there is a relationship between poverty and
environmental degradation (ESPN 2016). Finally, the Committee of the Regions (2016a
and 2016b) called for more attention to be paid to the issue of nancing social policies.
The risk of a ‘two-speed’ Europe
Some stakeholders and institutions feared that a focus on the Eurozone would create a
‘two-speed Europe’, potentially leading to a race to the bottom rather than to upward
convergence. Lörcher and Schömann (2016) also claimed that such a limited territorial
scope could lead to increasing social inequalities and social dumping. The European
Parliament (2017) stated that EPSR standards should apply to all countries participating
in the Single Market. But it also recognised that Eurozone Member States needed
additional specic social standards and targets as well as relevant nancial support,
open to non-Eurozone Member States on a voluntary basis.
The social partners: conflicting views on the Pillar
The preliminary outline of the Pillar points to the social partners and social dialogue
as key (f)actors for the successful implementation of the EPSR and, more generally,
of EU socio-economic policies in the European Semester (cf. Sabato et al. 2017). Yet
looking at the opinions produced by both trade unions and business organisations
during the public consultation (BusinessEurope21 2016; ETUC22 2016; UEAPME23
2016), the positions on the proposed Pillar seem very far apart, a circumstance that
19. Belga News (2015) Limiter la durée des allocations de chômage ? Pas à l’ordre du jour, dit Peeters, 5 février
2015 ; La Libre (2011) Limiter dans le temps des allocations de chômage ? 9 juin 2011.
20. The largest party in the federal government, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) is in favour of limiting benets to
a two-year period. N-VA is a Flemish nationalist and conservative political party in Belgium.
21. The Confederation of European Business (BusinessEurope) is a lobby group representing enterprises of all sizes
in the European Union (EU) and six non-EU European countries
22. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) is the major trade union organisation representing workers
at European level.
23. Based in Brussels, the UEAPME is an umbrella group for associations of SMEs.
Towards a European Pillar of Social Rights: from a preliminary outline to a Commission Recommendation
Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017 83
could constrain implementation. There are indeed dierent, even opposing views over
the Pillar’s scope, its level of ambition, the contents of benchmarking exercises, the
tools for implementation, and the links to the Better Regulation agenda.
As for the scope and ambition of the Pillar (and of EU-level social policy more broadly),
the ETUC (2016) maintained that the Pillar should be ambitious, putting social
rights rst (these should take precedence over economic freedoms), ensuring quality
employment (not just minimum standards) and upward convergence. However, both
BusinessEurope (2016) and the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-
sized Enterprises (UEAPME 2016) claimed that the lack of convergence in Europe was
not due to a lack of social policies but to the lack of a business-friendly environment.
Consequently, instead of adding new rights, the focus should be on implementing
structural reforms aimed at enhancing competitiveness and promoting growth-friendly
policies24. Furthermore, with respect to the Pillar’s level of ambition, BusinessEurope
(ibid.) was ‘strongly concerned’ that the Pillar paved the way to changes addressing the
gap in EU social legislation by promoting ‘common high-level standards’. A point on
which the social partners seemed to agree concerns their perplexity over the fact that
the Pillar solely targets the Eurozone.
When it comes to benchmarking, both ETUC (2016) and BusinessEurope (2016) also
agreed that the Pillar was an opportunity to relaunch and revitalise benchmarking in
social policy. Yet, as for the specic topics on which benchmarking should be exercised,
positions again diverged. In a report commissioned by the European Trade Union
Institute (Peña-Casas 2016), three domains are identied: (a) a minimum wage; (b)
industrial relations; and (c) minimum income. For its part, BusinessEurope stressed
the importance of monitoring the implementation of the exicurity principle, proposing
ve areas for benchmarking25.
As for the tools for implementing the Pillar (and EU social policy in general), ETUC
(2016) recommended legislative procedures to upgrade existing legal frameworks and
introduce new legislation. When circumstances allowed, non-binding instruments26
should be used. Starting from the premise that the European Semester’s Country-
specic Recommendations have had a negative eect insofar as they have often led
to a deregulation of work and the dismantling of collective bargaining, ETUC (2016)
also called for institutional changes to the European Semester to better promote Social
Europe and to make the process more collaborative. BusinessEurope (2016) claimed
that the EU social acquis was already adequate (with no further legislation needed)
and that social benchmarking should support structural reforms promoted through the
European Semester.
24. As BusinessEurope (2016: Key messages) put it: ‘The focus must be on building on our strengths to increase the
contribution of Social Europe to Europe’s global competitiveness’.
25. These benchmarking areas are (1) reducing labour costs; (2) ensuring the attractiveness of dierent forms of
employment contract; (3) reinforcing the eectiveness of tax and benets systems; (4) improving learning
outcomes; and (5) promoting ecient and eective social expenditure.
26. Such as decisions, opinions, communications, council recommendations and guidelines.
Sebastiano Sabato and Bart Vanhercke
84 Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017
Summing up stakeholders’ opinions reported above, the main criticisms regarding the
EPSR initial outline can be recapitulated as follows:
It has a narrow understanding of the notion of social rights, subordinated to economic
growth and jobs (criticism addressed especially by some academic contributors and
the NGO community).
It is primarily conceived for the Eurozone and creates the risk of a ‘two-speed’
Europe. This point was raised by NGOs, the social partners and institutional players
such as the European Parliament.
There is a risk (underlined by all contributors except for employer organisations)
that the Pillar will remain a simple declaration of principles.
There is a lack of adequate governance arrangements and a roadmap for the
implementation of the Pillar, stressed by virtually all contributors.
Some issues are simply missing from the preliminary outline, as pointed out mostly
by academic contributors and NGOs.
3. From the public consultation to a Commission Recommendation
After nine months of public consultation, the announced Commission Recommendation
on the EPSR was published in April 2017 (European Commission 2017d). Importantly,
the Pillar Recommendation is part of a broader debate initiated on the future of the
EU27, following the UK’s decision to leave the EU (see Clegg, this volume). A rst
building block of the unfolding debate is the Commission’s White Paper on the Future
of Europe, published in March 2017, which puts forward ve scenarios27 for Europe
by 2025 (European Commission 2017b). Second, there is the Reection paper on the
social dimension of Europe (European Commission 2017c) – symbolically launched on
the same day as the EPSR Recommendation. Following the logic of the White Paper,
the Reection paper suggests three options for the future of social Europe: (a) limiting
the social dimension to free movement; (b) those who want to do more can do more in
the social eld; and (c) the EU27 can deepen the social dimension together (European
Commission 2017c: 25).
Obviously, the path taken by the Member States regarding the ‘Future of Europe’ debate
will have important implications for the EU’s social ambitions in general, and the EPSR
more particularly. While the proposed Pillar clearly departs from the ‘free movement
only’ option (a), it is not that easy to attribute the proposed Pillar to either of the two
other options of the Reection paper. As explained above, the Pillar primarily targets
Eurozone countries, i.e. coming under the ‘those who want to do more’ option (b).
However, the rst Commission initiatives regarding the implementation of the EPSR
(notably the ‘Pillar package’, see below) clearly address the EU 27, i.e. suggesting the
‘deepening together’ scenario (c).
27. The scenarios in the White Paper are labelled ‘Carrying on’, ‘Nothing but the single market’, ‘Those who want to
do more’, ‘Doing less more eciently’ and ‘Doing much more together’ (European Commission 2017b).
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Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017 85
The April 2017 EPSR Recommendation is accompanied by a proposal for a Social
Scoreboard (European Commission 2017f) made up of 14 headline indicators and a
number of secondary indicators. It is intended as a reference framework to monitor
societal progress in a tangible, holistic and objective way, easily accessible and
understandable to citizens. It aims to detect the most signicant employment and social
challenges facing the Member States, the EU and the euro area, as well as progress
achieved over time. While the proposed indicators by and large cover the EPSR policy
domains, a number of important domains are not covered: wage developments, social
dialogue and workers’ involvement, unemployment and minimum income benets,
pensions and access to some basic services.
To better understand the full signicance of the April 2017 Commission Recommendation
on the EPSR, one should acknowledge that it is part of a broader ‘Pillar package’
presented by the Commission that same day (see Box 1)28.
Box 1 The April 2017 Pillar ‘package’
The EPSR Recommendation was accompanied, amongst others, by:
a Commission Communication explaining the rationale and nature of the Pillar
(European Commission 2017d);
a Proposal for a joint proclamation of the Pillar (European Commission, 2017e);
a Proposal for a Directive on work-life balance for parents and carers and an accompanying Communication;
a proposal for a Social Scoreboard underpinning the Pillar;
several (highly relevant) Sta Working Documents28;
a first-stage consultation of the European social partners on access to social protection for all employment
types;
a first-stage consultation of the European social partners on the Written Statement Directive; and
an interpretative Communication and Sta Working Document on the Working Time Directive.
29
Comparing the outline with the EPSR Recommendation, many changes regarding the
substance and wording of some of the chapters and principles are noticeable. While
in the initial outline the third Chapter was entitled ‘Adequate and sustainable social
protection’, this became ‘Social protection and inclusion’ in the nal Recommendation,
thus re-introducing the concept of ‘social inclusion’ – a key aspect of EU social
policymaking since the 1990s – and dropping the problematic notion of ‘sustainability’.
As regards the wording of the 20 general principles, some signicant changes have been
made, as listed in Table 2.
28. All documents related to the EPSR can be accessed from https://ec.europa.eu/commission/priorities/deeper-
and-fairer-economic-and-monetary-union/european-pillar-social-rights_en
29. These Sta Working Documents explain each of the principles and the changes introduced by the Pillar;
summarise the public consultation; take stock of the ‘Investing in Children Recommendation’; describe recent
economic, employment and social trends etc.
Sebastiano Sabato and Bart Vanhercke
86 Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017
Table 2 The 20 principles of the EPSR: comparing the 2017 Recommendation and the
2016 preliminary outline
EPSR Recommendation (2017) EPSR preliminary outline (2016)
1. Education, training* and life-long learning Skills, education and lifelong learning (1**)
2. Gender equality Gender equality and work life balance (5)
3. Equal opportunities Equal opportunities (6)
4. Active support to employment Active support to employment (4)
5. Secure and adaptable employment Flexible and secure labour contracts (2)
Conditions of employment (7)
6. Wages Wages (8)
7. Information about employment conditions
and protection in case of dismissals
Conditions of employment (7)
8. Social dialogue and involvement of workers Social dialogue and involvement of workers (10)
9. Work-life balance Gender equality and work life balance (5)
10. Healthy, safe and well-adapted work
environment and data protection
Health and safety at work (9)
11. Childcare and support to children Childcare (18)
12. Social protection Integrated social benefits and services (11)
13. Unemployment benefits Unemployment benefits (14)
14. Minimum income Minimum income (15)
15. Old age income and pensions Pensions (13)
16. Health care Healthcare and sickness benefits (12)
17. Inclusion of people with disabilities Disability (16)
18. Long-term care Long-term care (17)
19. Housing and assistance for the homeless Housing (19)
20. Access to essential services Access to essential services (20)
Source: adapted from European Commission 2016b and European Commission 2017a.
* Changes between the two versions of the EPSR are indicated in bold.
** Corresponding number of the principle in the EPSR preliminary outline.
While eight of the twenty principles remained unchanged, other amendments were
basically cosmetic: one principle was split30, several were simply renamed31, while
others were merged32. There were however also some signicant changes: as we will
30. Gender equality and work-life balance became separate principles.
31. Thus, ‘conditions of employment’ became ‘information about employment conditions and protection in case of
dismissals’; ‘disability’ became ‘Inclusion of people with disabilities’.
32. ‘Flexible and secure labour contracts’ and ‘conditions of employment’ became ‘secure and adaptable
employment’.
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Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017 87
discuss below, the scope of several principles was enlarged33, while one principle was
reduced in scope34. Finally, one principle was added and one dropped from the list. The
section below discusses the changes between the two versions of the Pillar in detail.
3.1 Equal opportunities and access to the labour market
As regards the rst chapter of the EPSR, the following changes stand out. Important
additions in the 2017 Recommendation, when compared to the 2016 initial outline, are
marked in bold.
3.1.1 Education, training and life-long learning
According to the 2017 Recommendation, everyone has the right to quality and
inclusive education, training and life-long learning in order to maintain and acquire
skills (the initial outline merely referred to ‘basic’ skills) that enable them to participate
fully (‘actively’ in the initial outline) in society and successfully manage transitions in
the labour market. The reference in the EPSR initial outline to ‘low skilled young people
and working age adults shall be encouraged to up-grade their skills’ has been dropped
in the Recommendation.
3.1.2 Gender equality
Gender equality became a standalone principle in the 2017 Recommendation, separate
from work-life balance35. In comparison to the EPSR initial outline, there is a stronger
armation that women and men have the right to equal pay for work of equal
value. By contrast, the reference to ‘addressing barriers to women’s participation and
preventing occupational segregation’ in the initial outline has been dropped.
3.1.3 Equal opportunities
The principle of equal opportunities has been considerably strengthened in the
Recommendation. First of all, everyone (and not only ‘under-represented groups’)
has the right to equal treatment and opportunities regarding employment, social
protection, education, and access to goods and services (and not only with
regard to the labour market) available to the public. This right now applies regardless
of gender, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual
orientation (which were mentioned in the introduction to this principle in the EPSR
initial outline, but not in the principle itself). The reference to enhancing equal treatment
by ‘raising awareness and addressing discrimination’ has been dropped.
3.1.4 Active support to employment
Entitlements to active support to employment for dierent categories of people have
been relabelled as ‘rights’ in the Recommendation. Everyone (and not only ‘working
age persons’) has the right to timely and tailor-made assistance to improve employment
33. Thus, ‘training’ was added to the rst principle on education and life-long learning; ‘well-adapted work
environment and data protection’ was added to the Principle on health and safety’; ‘support to children’ was
added to ‘childcare’; ‘old age income was added to pensions’; ‘assistance for the homeless was added to housing’.
34. Indeed, ‘sickness benets’ was dropped from the Principle on healthcare.
35. Work-life balance has been moved to Chapter 2 in the EPSR Recommendation.
Sebastiano Sabato and Bart Vanhercke
88 Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017
or self-employment prospects. The reference in the initial outline to the identication of
a ‘single point of contact’ has been dropped.
3.2 Fair working conditions
As regards the second chapter of the Pillar, the following changes (in bold) stand out
when comparing the two text versions.
3.2.1 Secure and adaptable employment
The wording of this principle has been considerably enhanced in the 2017
Recommendation: in the new formulation, workers have the right to fair and equal
treatment, regardless of the type and duration of the employment relationship, while
secure employment now also includes access to social protection and training.
Abuse of atypical contracts shall be prohibited (and not simply ‘prevented’). A
new section stipulates that innovative forms of work shall be fostered and that
entrepreneurship, self-employment and occupational mobility will be
encouraged. The ambiguous notion of fostering ‘transition towards open-ended forms
of employment’ – during the consultation the Polish government, amongst others,
underlined that it was unclear what contracts it referred to – has been maintained.
3.2.2 Wages
Importantly, the need to set wages in a transparent and predictable way has been
enlarged to all wages (not only the ‘minimum wage’). There is also a stronger reference
to preventing in-work poverty, while adequate minimum wages should provide for
the satisfaction of the needs of the worker and his/her family in the light
of national economic and social conditions. The notion of safeguarding ‘the
motivation’ to seek work was replaced by incentives to do so. It should be pointed out
that the highly contested reference in the EPSR preliminary outline to the evolution
of wages ‘in line with productivity developments’ has been dropped in the 2017
Recommendation.
3.2.3 Information about employment conditions and protection in case of dismissals
The contents of this principle remained largely unchanged but, again, the entitlements
have been reworded (when compared to the initial outline) as the right of workers to
be informed in writing at the start of employment about their rights and obligations.
3.2.4 Social dialogue and involvement of workers
The Recommendation extends the right of social partners to be consulted on economic
policies, (in addition to employment and social policies), but now nuances that this
should happen according to national practices. The principle adds a reference
to the implementation at the level of the Union and its Member States of the
agreements concluded between the social partners. An important addition in the 2017
Recommendation is that ‘support for increased capacity of social partners
to promote social dialogue shall be encouraged’. The explicit reference to
information and consultation of workers working digitally and/or operating across
borders in the EPSR preliminary outline has been dropped.
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Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017 89
3.2.5 Work-life balance
As mentioned above, work-life balance became a principle per se in the Recommendation,
separate from gender equality. Access to suitable leave, exible working arrangements
and access to care services is now framed as a right for parents and people with caring
responsibilities. In the Recommendation, women and men shall have equal access
to special leave of absence (the EPSR preliminary outline merely refers to ‘encouraging
equal use’). The specic reference to ‘measures such as the provision of remunerated
leave for parents’ (to encourage the equal use of leave arrangements between sexes)
found in the EPSR preliminary outline has been dropped.
3.2.6 Healthy, safe and well-adapted work environment and data protection
This principle has been signicantly broadened to include: (a) the right of a working
environment adapted to workers’ professional needs and which enables them to
prolong their participation in the labour market; and (b) the right for workers to
have their data protected in the employment context. While the preliminary outline
referred to an ‘adequate’ level of protection, the Recommendation now refers to a high
level of protection of their health and safety at work. By contrast, the reference in the
EPSR preliminary outline to ‘support for implementation, notable in micro and small
enterprises’ has been dropped.
3.3 Social protection and inclusion
The following changes (in bold) stand out in Chapter III, when comparing the 2016
EPSR proposal and the 2017 Recommendation.
3.3.1 Childcare and support to children
Childcare has been moved to the top of the list of principles of Chapter III, its scope
has been broadened to include ‘support to children’, and childcare services have
been expanded to early childhood education and care, while entitlements have
been reframed as ‘rights’. By contrast, the reference in the EPSR preliminary outline
to provision by ‘adequately qualied professionals’ has been dropped. While the
initial outline proposed specic measures ‘to encourage attendance’ of children with
disadvantaged backgrounds, these measures are now supposed to ‘enhance equal
opportunities’ among such children.
3.3.2 Social protection
Perhaps the most signicant change in the 2017 Recommendation is that a new principle
on the right to adequate social protection for workers (regardless of the type
and duration of their employment relationship) has been added. The principle
explicitly refers to the right of adequate social protection for the self-employed.
3.3.3 Unemployment benefits
While the initial outline of the Pillar emphasised the requirement for the unemployed
to actively search for a job, the 2017 Recommendation begins by clearly arming the
right to adequate activation support from public employment services.
Sebastiano Sabato and Bart Vanhercke
90 Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017
Unemployment benets should still be ‘of reasonable duration’, while not constituting
a disincentive for a quick return to employment.
3.3.4 Minimum income
The entitlement to a minimum income has been reframed as a right in the 2017
Recommendation: the purpose is no longer to ensure a decent standard of living, but
rather to enjoy a life in dignity at all stages of life and eective access to enabling
goods and services, i.e. a more ambitious wording than existing EU commitments.
What gives rise to concern among some stakeholders is that the accompanying Sta
Working Document explains that minimum income beneciaries should ‘be available
for work or participate in community activities’ (European Commission 2017f: 56). One
can indeed wonder whether this would also encompass (unpaid) ‘community services’.
As regards the requirements for the labour market integration of minimum income
beneciaries, this is now directed (more restrictively) at those who can work, and no
longer (more generally) at ‘those of working age’ (in the preliminary outline).
3.3.5 Old age income and pensions
The principle on pensions has been enlarged to take into account the broader issue of
old age income. Entitlements to pensions have been reframed as a right applying
equally to both workers and the self-employed, and to women and men. An
adequate pension is now aimed at ensuring a life in dignity (rather than a decent
standard of living). By contrast, the explicit reference in the EPSR preliminary outline
to addressing the gender pension gap, including ‘by adequately crediting care periods’,
has been dropped. Interestingly, in the 2017 Pillar Recommendation, the highly
contested reference to the ‘sustainability and future adequacy’ of the pension system
(e.g. by ensuring a broad contribution base and linking statutory retirement age to
life expectancy and avoiding early exit from the labour market) has disappeared. This
arguably happened as a result of culminated Member State (incl. Ireland and Poland),
trade union (ETUC, the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade
Unions, EFFAT) and NGOs’ (e.g. the Social Platform and the European Social Insurance
Platform) erce opposition to the recurrent ‘EU ideology’ of linking the statutory
retirement age to life expectancy.
3.3.6 Healthcare
The principle on healthcare has been shortened and simplied when compared to the
Initial outline: everyone has the right to timely access to aordable, preventive
and curative healthcare of good quality. Interestingly, references to ‘cost-eectiveness’
and the nancial sustainability of healthcare have been dropped, as has the reference
to the fact that ‘the need for healthcare shall not lead to poverty or nancial strain’.
Importantly, the principle from the EPSR preliminary outline that all workers (including
the self-employed), regardless of contract type, are ensured adequately paid sick leave
during periods of illness, was completely dropped from the 2017 Recommendation.
During the public consultation, employer associations36 as well as the Dutch, Irish and
Polish Governments and the Committee of the Regions had emphasised the need to
36. BusinessEurope ‘argued that sickness benets coverage across all contract types can create undue burdens on
employers to nance sick leave’, European Commission (2017g).
Towards a European Pillar of Social Rights: from a preliminary outline to a Commission Recommendation
Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017 91
take account of various national systems and not impose an EU-wide one-size-ts-all
solution for the principle on healthcare and sickness benets (European Commission,
2017g). Also, the reference to ‘aordable’ access to services and healthcare met with
Member State resistance and was dropped.
3.3.7 Inclusion of people with disabilities
The entitlements for people with disabilities have been reformulated as a right to
income support (and not merely ‘basic income security’) which allows living in
dignity (and not merely a decent standard of living, as was formulated in the initial
outline). The reference to ‘a work environment adapted to their needs’ has been
added while the reference to ‘conditions of benet receipt shall not create barriers to
employment’ has been dropped.
3.3.8 Long-term care
In the principle on long-term care – everyone has the right to aordable long-term care
services of good quality – a reference to community-based services has been added.
By contrast, the reference to the nancial sustainability of care was omitted, as was the
provision that care should be provided by ‘adequately qualied professionals’.
3.3.9 Housing
The principle that access to social housing or housing assistance of good quality should
be provided for those in need remained largely unchanged. However, protection against
forced eviction is now formulated as a right. References in the preliminary outline to
support for low and medium income households to access home ownership have been
dropped.
3.3.10 Access to essential services
Access to essential services of good quality has been reformulated as a right.
Importantly, water and sanitation have been added to the list of essential services to
be guaranteed. Note however that the reference to ‘aordable’ access has been dropped
from the Recommendation.
3.4 Chasing two rabbits: strengthening rights and reducing prescriptions
Against this backdrop, the question is: how signicant are the changes between the two
versions of the Pillar? And to what extent have the remarks made by key stakeholders
been taken into account in the Commission Recommendation?
To start with, the scope of the Pillar Recommendation is limited to Eurozone countries,
with the possibility for other Member States to adhere on a voluntary basis. However,
as highlighted above, the rst initiatives adopted by the European Commission in the
framework of the Pillar in fact concern the EU 27. The governance arrangements
for implementing the EPSR have not been addressed in the Recommendation in a
satisfactory way: a clear implementation roadmap is missing, as are arrangements to
involve the social partners and, for some matters, social NGOs.
Sebastiano Sabato and Bart Vanhercke
92 Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017
And yet the paragraphs above make it clear to the reader that there are indeed signicant
dierences between the 2016 and 2017 versions of the proposed EPSR. Perhaps the most
striking dierence is that most of the general principles in the preliminary EPSR have
been relabelled as ‘rights’ in the 2017 Recommendation37, thus introducing a rights-
based language. The coming months will show whether this has been a ‘discursive turn’
only or whether it marks a real change in the EU’s approach to social policy. While
several stakeholders raised their fears during the consultation that the Pillar would
remain a simple declaration of principles, it should be noted that a number of concrete
initiatives have already been taken by the European Commission (inter alia as part
of the Pillar Package). The success of these initiatives and their consistency with the
principles stated in the Pillar will need to be assessed carefully.
When comparing the 2016 initial outline and the 2017 Recommendation, it is also
evident that some principles have been considerably strengthened in terms of their scope
and ambition, including the new reference to ‘living in dignity’ (in the case of minimum
income, pensions and invalidity) and the need to support the capacity of social partners
to promote social dialogue38. It should be noted however that, for now, some of the key
players involved in the implementation of the Pillar (including the social partners) have
very diverging opinions as regards the next steps to be taken.
Signicantly, some more prescriptive principles have been dropped from the 2017
Recommendation: this is true for the principle that all workers be ensured adequately
paid sick leave during periods of illness; and for the stipulations in the initial outline
that both childcare and long-term care should be provided by ‘adequately qualied
professionals’. As explained above, references to ‘cost-eectiveness’ and the nancial
sustainability of healthcare and the sustainability and future adequacy of the pension
system have equally been dropped from the EPSR Recommendation. Some of the more
‘prescriptive’ stipulations of the initial outline have also been omitted: addressing
barriers to women’s participation and preventing occupational segregation; the
reference to single points of contact; the provision of remunerated leave for parents;
crediting care periods to reduce the gender pension gap39.
Also, principles addressing specic groups did not make it into the 2017 Recommen-
dation: low-skilled young people and working age adults40; and low and medium
income households in the principle on housing. At least in terms of discourse, the
April 2017 Pillar package is underpinned in a more balanced way with both social and
economic arguments. Maintaining the notion of ‘transition towards open-ended forms
37. This is amongst others the case for the right to minimum income, pensions and healthcare, to community-based
services (long-term care), to income support, to protection against forced eviction; eective access to enabling
goods and services; the right to adequate activation support and to adequate social protection; the right to child
care, equal pay, active support to employment, fair and equal treatment; the right to support to children, early
childhood education and care, to education, access to goods and services and data protection.
38. Other examples include quality ‘and inclusive’ education; participate ‘fully’ (versus actively) in society; water
and sanitation as new essential services; a work environment adapted to people’s needs (invalidity); and equal
opportunities now include social protection; a ‘high’ level of protection of health and safety at work.
39. EuroCommerce made it very clear that this issue remains ‘the sole responsibility of Member States, and we see
no role for EU action in this area’.
40. BusinessEurope considered that even if it is necessary to look at low-skilled young people and working age
adults, ‘the focus should not be so narrow’.
Towards a European Pillar of Social Rights: from a preliminary outline to a Commission Recommendation
Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017 93
of employment’ in the Recommendation seems to suit the trade union agenda, as does
dropping the stipulation that wages should evolve ‘in line with productivity developments’
(only present in the initial outline). And yet, the business world also has its share of
amendments: innovative forms of work shall be fostered and entrepreneurship, self-
employment and occupational mobility will be encouraged. More generally, the 2017
Recommendation puts a lot of emphasis on the rights of the self-employed.
In sum, it would seem that the 2016 consultation process has been taken seriously by the
European Commission and that a number of proposals advanced by stakeholders have
been taken on board in the 2017 Recommendation. The Commission seems to be chasing
two rabbits: on the one hand strengthening the emphasis on ‘rights’, while cutting the
‘red tape’ on more detailed prescriptions. The fact that some important policy areas were
missing in the initial outline – such as the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, a specic
principle on young people, a section on nancing social policy and the link between social
and environmental rights – has not been corrected in the Recommendation, despite
stakeholders’ eorts to raise them to the Commission’s attention.
Conclusion: the Social Pillar as a new start for (social) Europe?
The public debate in 2016 on the preliminary outline of the European Pillar of Social
Rights was very large and lively, with a series of (often critical) issues emerging. First,
there are the risks of raising excessive expectations and enshrining in the Pillar a
narrow understanding of the concept of social rights. Second, several observers have
stressed the limitations of a draft Pillar where social objectives seem to be subordinated
to economic and scal goals. Third, concerns have been raised that the formulation
of the rights at stake is rather vague and that, in some cases, existing rights have
simply been rephrased. Furthermore, some doubts are due to the absence of links with
other policy frameworks (e.g. the SIP). Fourth, there is the issue of the legal status
and of the (lack) of EU competences, which could limit the possibilities for eectively
implementing the EPSR. In other words, there is a risk that the Pillar may end up being
a ‘paper tiger’, little more than a simple declaration of principles. Fifth, not all players
agree on the need to limit the Pillar to the Eurozone countries, which entails the risk of
a ‘two-speed Europe’. Finally, there are divergent views on the Pillar from the social
partners, key players in any implementation.
The EPSR should not be a simple declaration of principles, but rather an enforceable
instrument implemented through legislative and non-legislative initiatives. Given the
current social and political situation, a clear sense of urgency exists: the EPSR is arguably
the last chance for the EU to show its ‘caring face’ (Vandenbroucke with Vanhercke
2014) to citizens. A weak Pillar, or a Pillar subordinated to economic and scal goals
and unable to address social shortcomings and rising inequality would indeed be
counterproductive, in that it would (a) further increase the sense of disaection and
disillusion felt towards the European project by many citizens, especially the most
vulnerable, and (b) provide an additional argument at national level to reduce social
rights and to justify the retrenchment of social protection schemes. This would foster
negative processes encouraged by Euro-sceptical political movements, possibly leading
Sebastiano Sabato and Bart Vanhercke
94 Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2017
to the disintegration of the EU and, eventually, to political instability and risks for the
very survival of the European project.
As shown above, the 2017 Recommendation on the Pillar has taken up some of
the substantive considerations and criticisms emerging from the consultation.
Nevertheless, issues related to the Pillar’s governance and implementation, such as
its links to the European Semester and the Social Investment Package, have not been
adequately addressed. However, looking at the initiatives tabled at the same time as
the Recommendation, the Pillar seems to have already promoted renewed Commission
dynamism in the social domain. Meeting at the Gothenburg Social Summit for Fair Jobs
and Growth on 17 November 2017, Heads of State and Government, social partners, and
national and EU policymakers should seize the opportunity to put social considerations
at the heart of EU and national policymaking by unanimously endorsing the European
Pillar of Social Rights.
In our opinion, the Pillar constitutes a milestone in EU social policy, a development
with implications going beyond social policy. While the objectives of EU social policies
– as well as the values on which they rely – have already been stated in the Treaties, the
preliminary outline of the Pillar transforms these objectives and values into ‘principles’.
The 2017 Recommendation of the Pillar goes a step further by explicitly labelling these
principles as ‘rights’ for European citizens. This is however not sucient. Indeed, in
order to make the Pillar eective, an essential further step is needed: turning the rights
stated on paper into eective and enforceable rights, guiding action at both EU and
Member State level and ensuring that every European citizen has access to them. At any
price, we need to avoid the proverb ‘Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus’ coming
true (Horace, 1st century AD)41.
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Shortly after his appointment, the new President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, promised to strengthen the social dimension of the European Union. The so-called ‘European Pillar of Social Rights’ (EPSR) is a central element of his project. Recently, the Commission published a first draft version of how the EPSR could look.
European Pillar of Social Rights -BusinessEurope contribution to the debate
  • Businesseurope
BusinessEurope (2016) European Pillar of Social Rights -BusinessEurope contribution to the debate, Brussels, 24 August 2016.
Socle européen des droits sociaux : une nouvelle chance pour l'Union Européenne ?
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Caniard E. (2016) Socle européen des droits sociaux : une nouvelle chance pour l'Union Européenne ?, 14 December 2016. http://www.alterecoplus.fr/etienne-caniard/socleeuropeen-droits-sociaux-une-nouvelle-chance-lunion-europee/00012790.
Consultation of the European Commission, towards a European Pillar of Social Rights launching, implementing and enforcing
CESI (2016) Consultation of the European Commission, towards a European Pillar of Social Rights launching, implementing and enforcing, Brussels, European Confederation of Independent Trade Unions.
Laying the Foundation for a European Pillar of Social Rights Discussion Paper, Brussels, Confederation of Family Organisation in the European Union
COFACE (2016a) Laying the Foundation for a European Pillar of Social Rights Discussion Paper, Brussels, Confederation of Family Organisation in the European Union, September. http:// www.coface-eu.org/europe/laying-the-foundations-for-a-european-pillar-of-social-rights/.