A more united, stronger and more democratic Europe for social partners

“A more united, stronger and more democratic Europe for social partners” was the title of a seminar organized by Beweging.academie from 25 to 26 September 2018 in Brussels / Belgium. The seminar was supported by EZA and the European Union. 24 representatives of workers’ organisations from Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Portugal, Spain, Malta, Luxemburg, Austria participated in the seminar.

The aim of the seminar was to analyse the efforts made by the current European Commission to deepen the social dimension of the European Union. Special emphasis was also given to recommendations for a future social Europe.

Discussed topic fields:

  • Perspectives and challenges for EU policies
  • An analysis of the proposal for a directive on transparent and predictable working conditions
  • Portugal and its awakening from the austerity crisis: which convergence and social policies are needed?
  • What convergence and social policies are needed in the Czech Republic?
  • State of affairs of social policies and democracy in Bulgaria

Key Speakers:

  • Sofie Put(BE, Study advisor of Beweging.net and member of the EZA Council)
  • Christian Bäumler (member of the European Economic and Social Committee on behalf the Christian Democratic Workers (CDA))
  • Gregorio González Roldan(ES)
  • Ana Isabel Valente (PT, International coordinator Trabalhadores Social Democratas (TSD)
  • Tomas Sitar(CZ, board member Krestanska Odborova Koalice (KOK))
  • Veselin Mitov(BG, EZA Vice-president, International Secretary Confederation of labour PODKREPA)
  • Hester Houwing(NL, EU policy advisor of Christelijk Nationaal Vakverbond (CNV))

Seminar results:

Social dialogue actors should seek to enforce their values better within EU legislation. Concretely this means integrating better social dialogue matters within the European Semester system. The Juncker Commission counterbalanced the macro-economic nature of the European Semester by introducing multiple social indicators, social objectives etc. With the European Pillar of Social rights, these social chapters within the Semester system, have still a lot of ‘growth-potential’. It’s a duty of Europe to further develop this social potential.

On the other side, we have work to do in our ‘inner circles’ as well. The European Semester ‘techniques’ are still too much ‘uncharted territory’ for trade unions. We need to think beyond the general claims for a more social Europe and take up stronger our negotiation potential we have within the European Semester framework and within the broader Tripartite European social dialogue.

Workers’ representatives also agreed that it is necessary to bringing back trust to people; trust in society, trust in democratic institutions, trust in the European project. That’s our core task as a worker ‘movement in this difficult period. Today we face rising populism, ‘Yellow Jackets’ (Gilets Jaunes) fighting against rising inequalities, mass protests fighting for strong climate policies for future generations, etc. We may say that society is changing more rapidly than traditional institutions and instruments can deal with. Traditional forms of democracy are lagging behind. We, as workers ‘movements, with structural contacts with institutions but at the same time with direct contacts at grassroots level with a broad network of volunteers can be the bridge to overcome the cleavage between institutions and citizens. We can bring trust back to people. But therefore, policies need to bring something in return: the guarantee that they take proper account of the voices of people, allowing them to have an effective say in the debate on the goals of social policies. That’s another way of investing in people: reaching beyond investment in individuals and including capacity building in civil society organizations and public services for the enhancement of collective agency.

Conclusion, resolutions and Demands

Participants at this working group therefore agreed that investing in people is therefore a key message which we would like to promote collectively.

The severe consequences of the economic crisis show us that a more social Europe is more than ever needed in order to gain European citizens’ trust for Europe as a project. We argue that growing inequality affects people’s psychological health, trust, the overall social climate, and indirectly also boosts violence, racism, mental illness, infant mortality, suicide etc.

First of all, the crisis has affected not only the most vulnerable, but everyone who lives on the edge of poverty, everyone who finds it very difficult to pay the rent at the end of the month. Our social security system, because of the austerity policies, failed to give them a serious answer.

At the same time, the labour market policies have changed. People are now more than ever pointed as personably responsible for not finding a job. In almost every country there was a decline in service centres where people could find help, advise, … and a decline in the quality of the service. Instead there came a policy of blaming and shaming, a policy of stick measures. So, people became responsible for their own unemployment: former industrial workers have to take jobs like housekeeping, cleaning in restaurants, …

It is for them the same choice that once the mistress of the French king said: if they don’t have bread, why don’t they take cake (brioche); the industrial worker has thus the choice between no work or an unreachable IT-job. Our labour market policies shifted the responsibility from the employers to create good jobs and the government to support people to the individual who has only the choice to find precarious jobs.

And thirdly, there was a decline in the social and other services by marketization. In the health sector, the water sector, the housing sector, the financial sector, childcare sector, everywhere we see a decline in the quality of the service, higher prices for inferior services or no services at all. Another example of this trend is the decline in investing in public transport: a lot of regions in Europe has no or barely public transport, leaving people with high individual transport costs.

Since the nineties and especially since the economic crisis there is a terrible fall in social investment leaving people behind. Investing in people should be assessed not (primarily) in terms of their financial returns but in terms of their impact on people’s capabilities and human rights. Social policies should therefore take proper account of the inherent vulnerability of human beings, as well as their own role as social investors. This implies maintaining and even improving cash benefits without fearing that they will lead to high levels of inactivity. Next to that, social policies should focus not only on improving individuals’ skills but also on demand-side issues related both to job quantity and quality.

Social policies mean also a necessary investment in social services, accessible and affordable for all. Social services are a fundament of our welfare state and their decline undermines our society.