When it comes to social rights, there is EU consensus on principles but little on policy.
Facing the challenge of rising income inequality and deteriorating social cohesion, the European Summit in Gothenburg on Friday focused on conditions of employment.
The discussion involved representatives of social partners, including trade unions, businesses, and civic society. “We are here to put people first for a social Europe,” the Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven told his peers at the opening of the Summit.
The conference took place in a former factory building.
The European Commission, the European Parliament, and the EU Council of Ministers reiterated the 20 social policy goals programme aiming at a “Pillar of Social Rights” guarantees, including access to education, childcare, fair working conditions and wages to the right to adequate housing.
The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) welcomed the 20 objectives but its General Secretary, Ether Lynch, called for “something real to be done” for those pushed aside during the economic crisis.
There was little clarity or consensus on what there is to be done.
In a common press conference with the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, and the Swedish Prime Minister, the common message was that social conditions must improve for the EU to remain (or become) attractive.
However, there was little political consensus on how to imbue the “social rights” pillar with political credibility. President Juncker said the question was not a “social union,” but a “union of standards.”
President Emmanuel Macron spoke for twice the allotted time. Having campaigned for an end to posted workers and labour market deregulation at home, the French President was keen to be seen as protecting social rights.
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel was nowhere to be seen in the conference, a fact that was picked up by the Prime Minister of Portugal. She was in Berlin negotiating the formation of a government.
Nearing elections, the Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni was also keen to condemn “social dumping” and to talk up the economic growth imperative.
The emphasis for most speakers during the conference was on new digital skills, investment in bridging education and the labour market, and lifelong learning. There was no consensus on a “European model” of negotiation between social partners.
In fact, rejecting the notion of a “European model,” the Prime Minister of Hungary Victor Orban said that Europe could coordinate but insisted that national models were far more effective.