The European Pillar of Social Rights: how to foster implementation of social rights and make it more "biting" for social partners?

From 17 to 18 May 2018 took place in Torino, Italy, a seminar about “The European Pillar of Social Rights: how to foster implementation of social rights and make it more "biting" for social partners?”, organized by Beweging.academie, with the support of EZA and of the European Union.

The seminar was part of the EZA project coordination about the “European Pillar of Social Rights”.

23 representatives of workers’ organisations from Belgium, UK, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Greece, Portugal, France, Italy, Ireland, Poland participated in the seminar.

What was the most important aspect of the seminar? Why was the seminar important just now?

Pathways need to be developed for implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights, established in March 2017. Therefore, the Juncker Commission still has a lot of work to do in the last year of its mandate to achieve its Triple A+++ ambition for a social Europe. ‘Hard’ measures in the field of social Europe, such as the labour mobility package and the review of the posting of workers’ directive was already delivered. Commissioner Thyssen stated on International Workers’ day: “The European Pillar of Social Rights is a set of 20 principles and rights that give citizens a chance to have access to education, training and lifelong learning, good working conditions and effective welfare systems. The time has come to make sure such principles and rights come true”.

The seminar aimed at first to analyse the juridical implications and prerequisites of the Pillar from a human rights perspective in order to implement these rights. Secondly the seminar aimed to frame the implementations of the social rights; the notion of „social citizenship “was used as a central concept in different speeches. Thirdly a first exercise on which human rights are most vital in the different member states represented at the seminar, took place during the last morning.

The following topic fields were discussed:

  • Enhancing social rights and EU citizenship: scope and objectives
  • Deconstructing social citizenship
  • Co-designing social rights with citizens: The Participatory Action Human Rights Methodology
  • Refunding social fundamental rights: from needs to social rights
  • The European Pillar of social rights and the institutional constellation of Europe: opportunities and constraints
  • European social models and citizenship: a quantitative approach
  • The European Pillar of Social Rights: analysis of its latest state of play

Seminar results

It is vital for its implementation that the European Pillar of social rights is linked with the concept of citizenship. We define a citizen as a member of a political community and he/she thus enjoys rights and duties that come with this membership. The membership entails 3 main dimensions. At first, a legal status which embraces civil, political and social rights and allows a person free to act according to the law and in a position to claim the law ‘s protection. Secondly, a person has the right to be ‘a political agent’, which is “a person who actively participates in a society ‘s political institutions”. Finally, citizenship entails the membership of a community which is related to identity and belonging, which relates to social cohesion and the strengthening of the community. This understanding of citizenship can, when correctly applied, be a very good instrument against populism and extremism. However, this understanding of citizenship is also subject to criticism. Firstly: is a clear separation of the private and the public sphere a necessary precondition? Or does a separation of both, at the contrary, needs to be avoided? The republican model tells us that the private sphere is subordinated to the political, that in some republican models, women are excluded from the public/political sphere, and that inequalities do not matter in the private sphere. The liberal model answers that the private is protected, citizens pursue their conception of the good in the private sphere and that, as a consequence, power imbalances in the “private” sphere are thus ignored. Both models do not, traditionally, conceive persons in their economic/cultural/social circumstances. For that reason, we took a look at other models that promote „differentiated “citizenship. They put other elements of social rights ahead: such as ‘do equal rights really promote equality?’ (gender, race, poverty), is there a ‘recognition of differences in gender, race, class, culture, language etc.’, is there any room for ‘Minority Rights, when justified?’. These approaches entail the principle that equality implies differential treatment and seeks answers on how „differentiated citizens “can have a common political practice and shared goals.

A third range of models promote the importance of education and public reasonableness and accentuate questions of legal status, political agency or/and identity and asks whether sufficient protection, political agency or identity formation is the goal? Questions that the participants have put forward in reaction to this third range of models is if we aim at strict equality in (some of) these dimensions and what does strict equality then mean? And what factors actually foster or impede citizenship? Does equality matter? What is the role of disadvantages/distributional issues? What kinds of (in)equalities in institutions/cultures/the economic framework affect citizenship?

Implementation questions to be handled in the framework of the EPSR

At first: do we discover any gaps, i.e. lacking rights, benefits or services? Next, how do we handle the adequacy of benefits and services in a context of austerity: we need to evaluate benefits and services on their amount, duration, conditions (for eligibility and for maintaining benefit entitlements or budgets). These measures should be evaluated both be vulnerable people and by caregivers. After that, a distinction between principles/social rights which evoke passive or active expenses on behalf of the state can be made. This gives us the following division of social rights. Social rights that deal with access (from real availability to use), non-awareness or non-knowledge, non-proposition, non-demand (issue of entitlement). The participants accentuated that following elements need to be considered: who is responsible for providing benefits and services resulting from social rights? Therefore, a distinction was made between individual responsibility (self-entrepreneurs, asset-based welfare) vs. embedded employability (collective involvement: public policies, firms, etc.). Another question is the real access to a plurality of resources for well-being, agency and voice (vs. the Keynesian welfare state and its focus on decommodification and well-being; vs. the social investment state and its focus on activation and recommodification). Our approach towards the European Pillar of Social Rights, based upon citizenship, requires going beyond social protection in a narrow sense. Moreover, participants agreed that the production of Statistical/performance indicators on social and employment policies needs to be designed accordingly.

Conclusion, resolutions and demands

Social citizenship is the fulfilment of political, economic and social rights for all citizens and inhabitants. However, a chasm has opened up between the EU and its member state’s formal commitment to social rights and the reality for many people across Europe. From rising economic inequality, poverty, low wages, precarious employment, deprivation, social exclusion, the democratic deficit, the housing affordability and exclusion crisis, unequal access to health care and the rising wealth of the top – social citizenship is an exclusive right available to a minority of the elite and higher incomes and wealthy while the majority is increasingly excluded.

The transformation of capitalism into its neoliberal financialised variant has been the biggest undermining force of social citizenship with the financialization of all aspects of people’s lives –from work, to caring to housing converted into a financialised commodity exposing citizens to the social violence of the market. The marketisation and privatisation of the welfare state has played an important role in this. Alongside this has been the undermining and decline of civil society institutions (trade unions, social movements, community groups, NGOs and social democratic left parties) that empowered citizens, particularly workers and excluded groups.

This explains the conditions of post-democracy and the rise of right-wing populism. In contrast, there is some evidence that within emerging citizens movements (and even in some forms of Left-populism) there is a progressive demand for social citizenship in terms of the rights being organised at a national and EU wide level e.g. the right to water at EU and state level, the right to housing, the right to democratic participation, the rights of precarious workers, the right to health care, the right to live in a good community neighbourhood with good housing, community facilities and safety.

The major challenge facing the realisation of social citizenship and the European Pillar of social rights is therefore – who are the political and social actors who will implement them? At the moment (social) rights remain removed from the majority of the population - politically, legally, socially and geographically, A process is required therefore that can involve citizens in leading the implementation of rights. Given the enthusiastic involvement of citizens in new forms of social movements – engaging with social movements would appear to be a key political mechanism by which social rights can be realised. The question is how social movements and civil society can take on social rights and ensure they are implemented at local, national and EU level. Processes of empowerment, education, leadership development, participation, action – are all central to rights-based Participatory Action Research.

Finally, participants of the seminar Explored the idea of upward convergence: Upward convergence, in our understanding, is the moving together of European countries towards harmonisation and convergence around the highest/maximum standards of living of EU citizens as opposed to the race to the bottom. In the context of social citizenship, it is about maximising human rights standards across EU countries rather than minimising them.