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When the economic recession came to Europe, the European Commission promoted fiscal discipline and austerity as essential to improve and sustain economic performance. A decade later, the economy is improving, but after years of unemployment, underemployment, stagnating and falling living standards the crisis is not only financial, but is political.

Just a few weeks after the first round of the French elections in which the far-right progressed into the second round, and with the complexities of Brexit still being worked through, Brussels placed the sidelined social agenda back into the spotlight with a communication on the European Pillar of Social Rights, a package on work-life balance and various staff working documents assess progress on implementation of the European Commission Recommendations on active inclusion and investing in children.

When the consultation for a European Pillar of Social Rights was launched in March last year, the Commission emphasised the need to move towards upward convergence. In the old good days, the internal market and European funds worked towards the reduction of the income gap per capita. However, those days are over. A reflection paper on the social dimension of Europe also released by the European Commission at the end of April admits that, despite the recovery, divergences between countries and regions persist and that “in recent years, convergence has slowed down considerably, if not come to a halt”. The situation is particularly worrying for young people: "For the first time since the Second World War, there is a real risk that today’s young adults – the most educated generation we have ever had – may end up less well-off than their parents" Brussels concedes.

The communication for a European Pillar of Social Rights brings together a mix of generic and more specific principles in the field of social protection. These principles include “the right of children to access affordable early childhood education and care” and “to be protected from poverty”, which is welcome taking into account that children are at a higher risk of poverty and social exclusion than adults. However, the Commission has stopped short of an EU wide childcare guarantee which could uphold the rights of children.

The Commission has also introduced new provisions such as the right to social protection for all workers, including the self-employed and “regardless of the type and duration of employment”. It has also incorporated a recommendation that “contracts in all countries include fundamental information on employee’s rights” recognising that this is not the case in several Member States.

Other rights are more specific; for example, the document recognises the right of young people to “continued education, apprenticeship, traineeship or a job offer of good standing within 4 months of becoming unemployed or leaving education”. However, the Commission has fallen short of promoting a care guarantee for children, which includes not only access to early childhood education and childcare (recognised by the Commission’s pillar) but also to healthcare, housing and effective social services support. The same can be said of vulnerable young people who, in addition to an employment guarantee, would benefit from additional support.

A key question is the extent to which these provisions relate to a legislative or a benchmarking agenda. For instance, will young people be able to sue their governments if they do not receive a job four months after being unemployed? Will there be indicators on the types of jobs young people are getting? If they are non-secure or low paid, employment indicators may go up but income convergence will not be achieved. As things stand now, the pillar remains a set of principles rather an actual obligation to deliver or guarantee specific rights.

The pillar communication was accompanied by an extended ‘social scoreboard’ with indicators in areas such as education, gender equality and living conditions. Having a scorecard is key for monitoring, but how these aspirations will translate to legislation, and legislation to impact, is also crucial. The social scoreboard could be more ambitious by, for example, breaking down data not only by gender but also by age, disability and household composition, to account for a range of vulnerabilities when measuring living conditions. It remains to be seen what weight the indicators in the social scoreboard will carry compared with those in the macroeconomic scoreboard in the framework of EU policy coordination between the European Commission and Member States.

Going forward, it is not clear which types of legislative initiatives will be developed so that the principles and rights included in the Pillar are implemented. In particular, how the pillar will serve to re-start the process of convergence within Europe beyond the Eurozone, since the pillar is initially intended to cover just the countries that have the Euro. It would also be constructive if future work addressed how the issues highlighted under each principle should be addressed and by whom, given the different levels of government responsibility. How European Funds might provide support to implement key aspects of the Pillar also requires clarification.

Finally, it should be stressed that for the principles within the pillar to be translated into concrete actions that benefit people across Europe, including the most vulnerable, tools to measure and track progress are essential.

For further information and ESN’s position on the Pillar of Social Rights, please click here.